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Jesus in his environment

30 November, 1999

Jesus walked lightly, as a pilgrim, on the land he lived in. Celine Mangan OP draws some lesson from Jesus way of life to how we can care for the earth.

Reading through the Gospels, it is obvious that Jesus was totally inserted into the natural world of the Palestine of his time and learnt much from it. After his Baptism in the river Jordan, his preparation for ministry takes place in the desert where, the Gospels tell us, he was ‘with’ the wild animals.

St. Francis of Assisi surely learnt from this period of the life of Jesus in his appreciation of animal life. Jesus’ preaching and many of his miracles take place in the open, often by the Sea of Galilee or on a mountain. They also show his affinity with the natural world: the stilling of the storm, walking on the water, the feeding of the multitude. For his prayer, he seemed to prefer lonely places: ‘In the morning while it was still very dark, he got up and went to a deserted place and there he prayed’ (Mk. 1:35). Mark, by putting this statement in his first chapter, wants us to realize that this was the common practice of Jesus throughout his ministry, and the other Gospels bear this out. For example the story of the Transfiguration has Jesus up a mountain praying and at the very end before his arrest, Jesus is praying again in the open, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

His teaching shows his knowledge of, and delight in, the natural world. What is amazing is that the early Christians kept so many of the stories and sayings of Jesus which portray the rural world of Palestine, since they themselves lived largely in the crowded quarters of the cities of the Roman Empire. His parables show that he has a great understanding of the different types of land in Palestine, some good land but much that is stony and difficult to cultivate; things haven’t changed much, even today.

But Jesus gives credit to the role of the earth ‘which produces by itself’ so that ‘the birds of the air can make nests’ in the shade of the bushes that it produces (Mk.4:28-32). His imagery comes largely from nature: lilies of the fields, sheep, vineyards, fig trees, even moths! While this imagery is often used to drive home lessons to his hearers, the underlying assumption is that God’s care is for every living creature, even the sparrow that falls to the ground (Mt. 10:29).

What comes across from the Gospels therefore is the respectful attitude Jesus had to the land he lived in. He walked lightly on it; he was, like Abraham, a pilgrim in the land rather than having a possessive attitude towards it. Many of the princely and even the religious leaders of his time owned vast tracts of good land in Galilee. Like the prophets of old, Jesus spoke out against the exploitation of the poor he saw all around him.

After the Resurrection, the early Christians began to see Jesus not only in relation to his own land but to the world as a whole. How were they to speak of him in this light? They looked back at their Hebrew Scriptures and there they saw images such as the Word of God and the Wisdom of God.

The Word of God had been spoken of as active in the creation of the world (as we saw when we were doing the creation stories of the Bible). It was also seen as being given to the prophets to speak out on behalf of God when the people were going astray. John’s Gospel begins by speaking of Jesus as the Word, making a parallel between creation and the new creation that was taking place in the person of Jesus: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God… and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn. 1: 1, 14).

Wisdom, as we saw last month, was intimately involved with the whole of creation, there beside God as the world was created (Prov.8.-22-31) and as someone who came to live in our world. So the early Christians also saw the passages about the Wisdom of God as very useful for understanding what had happened in the coming of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel, for example, is very strong on the fact of Jesus being the presence of God ‘with us’. His Gospel begins and ends with that understanding (see Mt. 1:23; 28:20).

For John, when he speaks of Jesus as the Word of God, he clearly also has in mind that he is God’s Wisdom: ‘All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being’ (Jn. 1:3).

This way of speaking of Jesus today as the Cosmic Christ calls us to realize that the presence of Jesus is not only ‘God with-us’ but `God-with-all living things’ and that by destroying many of these living things we are diminishing God’s presence in our world. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (December 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.