Numbers 33-35, Psalm 51, Luke 9
Has Christianity lead to the environmental crisis that we face today?
Numbers 33 – 35
In 2001 the Taliban attracted the world’s attention when they destroyed two enormous sixth century statues known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These statues were carved into sandstone cliffs Central Afghanistan. They were dynamited on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who appreciates neither art nor history nor Buddhism. Japan and Switzerland have pledged to rebuild the Buddhas.
As Israel crossed the Jordan, swept across Canaan and moved into Jericho, the invaders did something similar. Moses told the Israelites that they “shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land before [them], destroy all of their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish their high places. Most religions have zealots among them who believe there is no religion but their own religion. They often desire to destroy all traces of previous religions.
In Spain, only three medieval synagogues remain. One is in Cordoba, and the other two are in Toledo. All of the other synagogues were destroyed by Christians or transformed into churches. Likewise, after capturing Constantinople, Muslims transformed Sancta Sophia, the Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, into a mosque. In 1931, it was secularized and opened as a museum. Today, it remains one of the great treasures of the world.
It is obvious from Numbers that some priests such as Eleazar functioned in roles far different from priests today. When Moses prepared troops from Israel’s ancestral houses, he issued orders to both Joshua, his field commander, and Eleazar. (Numbers 32:28) Eleazar was at Moses’s side when the latter met with leaders to discuss the results of the battle against the Midianite kings. Eleazar was present when Moses ordered the military leaders to kill all of the women who were not virgins. (Numbers 31:13-24) In chapter 34, Eleazar is present with Joshua when Moses apportions the land.
In chapter 35, Moses insures that the Levites, the priestly tribe, are provided with towns and pasture lands, which will become the first glebe lands. In Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, a glebe land belonged to the incumbent priest of a parish. It was often adjacent to the parsonage or rectory, where the priest lived. Tithes and glebe lands were the main means of support for parish clergy. Lands were also set aside for refugees, who had accidentally killed someone. They were allowed to escape to these towns until they could be tried before the congregation.
Throughout Leviticus and Numbers, there is a steady focus on “purity” and keeping individuals and the land from becoming polluted or unclean. In chapter 35 we read, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live…” and “You shall note defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell…” (Numbers 35:33, 34) The author explains “for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it.” (Numbers 35:33)
Times have changed. What makes the land unclean today is largely pollution in the water, air or ground. We have desecrated what God have entrusted to us. For centuries, Christians have often misinterpreted the Bible when we read, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Gen. 1:28) This verse has led to a theology called dominionism, whereby humans believe that they can use the earth in any way that they please.
In a brief but groundbreaking essay in the journal Science in 1967, historian Lynn White, Jr., claimed that the relationship between humankind and the world, which has resulted in the continuing rape of the earth, has its roots in “the orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature, following the imperative of the Genesis command.” White, who taught at Princeton, Stanford and UCLA, blamed the environmental crisis on the Judeo-Christian tradition that conceives humans as superior to all of the rest of creation.
In his article entitled “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” White argued that in order to address the environmental crisis, humans first had to examine and critique their own attitudes towards nature. White concluded that our attitudes towards nature are rooted in our religious beliefs. He asserted that Western Christianity is “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” This gives humans permission to exploit nature. Despite citing St. Francis of Assisi and Eastern Orthodox Christianity as environmentally-friendly expressions of the Christian faith, White’s article created great controversy.
Many have pushed back against his thesis, including former Vice President Al Gore, in his book Earth in the Balance. Gore noted that White missed the theological point contained in the creation stories of Genesis, where nature is depicted positively. After each act of creation, we read, “And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:4, 12, 18, 21, 25) Finally, after he finished creating, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31)
Today, Christians are at the forefront of discussions about the environment. Eco-theology, creation care and environmental stewardship are key areas of theological discussion. Christians are reexamining God’s relationship to the world, earth’s complex and fragile structure, what “salvation” means not just for humans but for the earth and what it means to say that humans were created in the imago dei or image of God. Instead of focusing on dominion over creation, theologians now speak of humans as wise stewards and caretakers of the earth.
It’s Lent, and if you are looking for a spiritual practice, you could not do better than to spend Lent reading Psalm 51 each day and memorizing it. Ponder and let these words penetrate you. They embody the spirit of Lent as well if not better than any other words in the Bible.
Psalm 51 is the ultimate penitential psalm. It is attributed to King David. The Bible notes that David composed this psalm after the prophet Nathan told him a parable about a rich man who took his poor neighbor’s one ewe lamb and cooked and served it for his guests. Nathan was alluding to David’s snatching Bathsheba and dispatching her husband Uriah the Hittite was killed in battle.
Nathan used what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “indirect communication” to convict his king. Then David blurted out, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (II Sam. 12:5-6) Nathan responded, “You are the man!” Few words in the Bible are more powerful.
Nathan predicts that God will “raise up trouble against you from within your own house…” in a prophecy that comes true through David’s son Absalom. David realizes that he has sinned, and his sin is known in the court. Nathan told him, “Now the Lord has put away your sin.” (II Sam. 12:13) More than 2,500 years later, an Episcopal priest says these words at the end of the sacrament of Reconciliation of a Penitent (formerly Confession), “The Lord has put away all your sins.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 451)
Clearly, the author of Psalm 51 is extremely aware of his sinfulness. David says,
Have mercy on me, O God
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. (Ps. 51:1-3)
David notes that he needs to be cleansed. He is no longer pure, but has blemished himself before God.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence… (Ps. 51:10-11)
Psalm 51 is often read or sung on Ash Wednesday or while the altar is being stripped on Maundy Thursday. Nothing so captures human sin and the wrong that we humans did to Jesus. The author knows that there can be no sacrifice offered in the Temple can absolve his sin. The only thing that God make a difference is for God to transform his heart, to break it and give him a penitent heart in place of the arrogant and sinful heart that led him to do evil.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit:
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise. (Ps. 51:17)
Interestingly, David notes,
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5)
In the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine of Hippo quoted this verse in support of his theological claim that humans are conceived in sin. Sin, he said, is transmitted to a newborn through intercourse in much the same way that HIV/AIDS can be spread from a mother’s uterus to a child within her womb. Augustine believed that all humans were tainted by sin following the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Jesus was good at empowering others to lead. In Luke 9, we read that Jesus called his twelve disciples together and “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” (Luke 9:1-2) Teachers of business administration would love this. Jesus had a clear mission. His mission was rooted in Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6, where Jesus read from the scroll of the Book of Isaiah in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus lived this message. Now he empowered others to carry out this mission. Throughout his ministry, he trained them for this exercise. Luke tells us that Jesus “gave them power and authority.” It is likely that Jesus laid his hands upon their heads and invoked the Holy Spirit. This is how the Church has continued to convey power and authority for almost 2,000 years.
Jesus prepared his disciples to be true missionaries. He warned, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23) Jesus sent his disciples on a counter-intuitive mission. It is a mission that does not make sense to anyone living a worldly life.
Once again, an argument arose as to who was the greatest among them. This argument appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. (Matthew 18:1-5, Mark 9:33-41 and Luke 9:46-48) The true disciple will not be embroiled in arguments about power, rank and prestige. Christianity ministry is about serving others.
Luke then adapts a story found in Matthew’s, whereby two men approach Jesus asking to follow him. There were probably a many people like this, some whom Jesus turned away and others who left on their own accord. To the first Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:48) Jesus was an itinerant preacher. He was being honest with the man about what traveling with him entailed. Another man came forward, but noted that he first had to bury his father. Jesus offered harsh words. “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60)
Then Luke adds a short episode not found in Matthew. A third man approaches Jesus seeking to serve, but first he desires to bid farewell to his family. This request, as with the previous request, appears reasonable, but not to Jesus. Our Lord responds, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) What is clear is that Jesus is not looking for partially committed disciples. He is looking for people who are willing to be “all in.”
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Ps. 51:1-3)
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence… (Ps. 51:10-11)
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps. 51:17)
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23)
Do you think that Jews and Christians are largely to blame for the environmental crisis? Has the Judeo-Christian concept of creation encouraged us to destroy vast portions of the earth? How do you equip others to follow Jesus? What are the things that you put before your commitment to follow Jesus?
All Loving and Forgiving God, we are grateful for our religious heritage and our faith, which transforms the way that we see the world. Help us to be faithful to following Jesus and serving you, without denigrating other religions. Help us to learn about other traditions and to build relationships with people of different faiths. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania