When it comes to discovering eco-theology in the person of Jesus, scholars tell us to be careful. It is easy to cast him in our own image; and he may have used agricultural and rural imagery in order to speak to an agricultural and rural age. If he lived in Manhattan, he may have talked about subways, stock markets and skyscrapers. Verses like these alone cannot prove Jesuss view toward stewardship and the earth. We have to deal also with the fig trees that he withered, storms that he subdued and swine that he sent running to their destruction. If Jesus was a preservationist or a conservationistand if we want to discover that in himwe have to get a bigger framework.
Scholars have pointed to the larger theme of Gods in-breaking Kingdom as a better starting point in understanding Jesuss eco-theology. Their big word for it is, inaugurated eschatology. All that means is that, in Jesus, God is not destroying the earth; he is renewing it and restoring it. It started with Jesuss ministry, death, and resurrection. That meant for Paul and means for us, that Gods new creation can start now. Inaugurated eschatology means that Gods perfect kingdom will fully come to us in the future, but we can start experiencing it and living into Gods kingdom today. See NT Wrights creative article: Jesus Is Coming Plant a Tree. A particularly good line of his reads, I dont know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that will be in Gods recreated world but I know that Gods new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning.
Since I was curious about Jesuss view of the earth, Ive picked a verse that scholars tend to go to for answers: Matthew 6.25-34. Ive retranslated it from the original Greek. (I figured since Im a PhD student, I can start doing things like, making new translations). Heres what Ive come up with:
Because of what I am teaching you just noweven about how you cannot serve God and moneyheres what I have to say: dont worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or what you will wear. Is your life filled by food or your body made special by what you wear? Youre more than that. Look up to the birds of the sky: they do not scatter seeds, or harvest or build up their supplies in a silo. Your father in heaven feeds them. Are you that different from them? Okay, measure that length between your elbow and the tip of your finger. Who among you has the power to add that many inches to your height by worrying? Also why are you getting attached to your clothes? Take a lesson from the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not work hard until they are weary. Nor do they sew. But I say to you that not even Solomonin all his gloryarrayed himself like one of these. But if God adorns the grass of the field, which is growing today and used for the flames of cooking tomorrow, then how much more will he look after you. Therefore dont worry or dwell on the day in your head over and over saying, What will I eat, or what will I drink, or how I will adorn myself? For the people all around you try to feed these anxieties. Its simple: your father in heaven knows that you need to be filled. Seek first the Kingdom of God and his ways of living. Then what you need will be there at the right time. This is important, so Ill say it again: dont worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself. There is enough evil in one day. Matthew 6.25-34.
In this particular verse, Jesus is proclaiming a great restoration of creation. It is part of his larger, Inaugurated Eschatology plan. He is saying, Your neighbors worry about what they will eat and wear. And once, you went without clothes or food. But if you trust in God, you will be clothed and full, just like the animals and flowers in the new creation, which is starting now. This is a gutsy statement, because it depends on addicted people healing, and it depends on Gods people playing their part in inaugurated eschatology. Jesus is putting a lot of trust in the Holy Spirit and the church here. There are a couple more points to take from this verse: (1) the burning of grass you find at the end of Matthew 6 is not about the destruction of the world, like some people think. It is a metaphor about Gods trustworthiness, which uses stove imagery. And (2) the Greek of this verse does not necessarily say, Look at the birds of the field, are you not worth more than them, as many translations say. It just as easily reads, Are you that different from these? This is not to diminish human worth; it is to elevate the worth of sparrows. The worth of every creature in Gods eyes is something that can be shown throughout the Bible. But (3) ultimately, this verse is about Gods provision and how crazy it is that we tend to worry so much about life.
Worrying about life has deeper consequences, more than we usually realize. The type of worry that Jesus is talking about is not the, dont worry about the problems of the world. In fact, Inaugurated Eschatology insists that we play a role in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Thats a different kind of worry. This is the: were like kids who wake up in the dark of midnight and worry if we are alone. We cry out and question God. And he comesmore often than we realizeand scoops us from our covers. He holds us and sings us back to sleep for the night. When we live for weeks, months, or years thinking that God never came to get us, we start thinking that life is up to us, our success is up to us, and our happiness is up to us. And worry starts to drive us. Worry starts to numb us. And, though we cant often see it, worry leads us to consuming more than we need. And consuming more than we need leads to care-lessness for the earth and for our neighbors.
When we read Jesuss words here we find a promise. Life gets buried under worry; so stop worrying and find life. Find in your heart that child-like self and the awe you forgot you had. Find your will to serve, the one that supports your 70-hour workweek. Take it back for Jesus. There are far bigger things to get on with, like becoming a living parable for Gods already-started kingdom. You can join in the redemption and not the destruction of creation, now. For Jesus, his view of creation came from the OT, particularly Psalm 24. And Psalm 24 defines creation like this: the earth, all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it, for he has founded the seas, and established it on the rivers. When we join Jesuss already-but-not-yet-kingdom, part of the deal is that we care for creatures great and small, humans and animals alike. Maybe Jesus wasnt thinking about creation care in Matthew 6. But when we look at his teaching here, in the framework of inaugurated eschatology, Im convinced that we catch a glimmer of something deep in Jesus. In this instance, we might just call it: Jesuss deep love for the fields.
Horrell, David G. Jesus and the Earth: The Gospels and Ecology. Chapter 6 in The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology. Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World. London: Equinox, 2010
Leske, Adrian. Matthew6.25-34: Human Anxiety and the Natural World. Chapter 2 in ed. Norman Habel and Vikcy Balabanski, The Earth Story in the New Testament. Vol. 5. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
Wallace, Mark I. God is Green Chapter 1 in Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
Keith Jagger first met the Sleeths when they were neighbors in Wilmore, Kentucky, and were brought together by their shared passion for creation care. After completing his studies at Asbury Seminary, Keith moved to Scotland to study with N.T. Wright. As Blessed Earth’s “Anglo Correspondent.” Keith writes both from the perspective a PhD student studying creation care and a husband/father/follower of Jesus struggling to incorporate creation care principles in his daily life. You can read more of his writing at keithjagger.com or urban-abbey.com.