AS WALTER BRUEGGEMANN explains, the “central purpose” of the opening of Genesis is to challenge the theological narrative of the Babylonian empire. Addressed to Jewish exiles, it proclaims that it is the Lord — and not their captors’ tribal deities — who is in ultimate control. “The Babylonian gods seem to control the future. Against such claims, it is here asserted that the Lord is still God, one who watches over his creation and will bring it to well-being” (Interpretation Bible Commentary: Genesis).
This theological counter-narrative has a practical implication: it calls its readers to treat God’s creation with reverence, and not with the extractive, exploitative greed that is manifested by empires in every age. God beholds all of his creation, and sees that it is “very good”. It is not only humanity, made “in his image and likeness”, that deserves reverence: the entire created order has been fashioned by God, and is held in being by his love. As St Augustine explains, “even those things that merely exist and yet do not live or know are in God’s likeness, not completely but in a slight degree, because even they are good in their own order.”
In our epistle, Paul tells us that this good and wonderful creation is now “subjected to futility” by the sin of Adam. It “groans in labour pains” and is “in bondage to decay”. There is hope implicit in these words: “Paul begins in lament and continues in lament because he knows this is not how the story is meant to be” (Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resisting empire, demanding justice).
Today, the relationship between human sin and the “groaning” of the rest of creation is more evident than ever, as our greed and violence imperils the future of both humanity and the wider creation in which God set us. Yet, as Keesmat and Walsh explain, when Paul writes of our “bondage” and “captivity” to sin and decay he “is telling us that the problem is deeper than a lack of concern for creation. When the apostle laments our covetousness, insolence, and ruthlessness — and mark well, these are ecologically disastrous vices — he is talking to our hearts, about the way that we bind ourselves to betrayal, about our constant turn to our own desires, our own safety, our own security.”
A relentless focus on our own concerns and pleasures corrodes our souls at least as much as it harms our neighbour. The apparent joys of such self-preoccupation soon turn out to be illusory. There is, as Paul writes, a “futility” to sin. It prevents us from enjoying the true beauty and wonder of God’s gift to us in creation. Ronald Rolheiser writes that “when we stand before reality preoccupied with ourselves we will see precious little of what is actually there to be seen. Moreover, what little we do see will be distorted and shaped by self-interest” (The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a felt sense of the presence of God).
This relates to an important insight about fasting which is relevant as Lent approaches: abstaining from some of the good things of creation is necessary to wean us from idolatry. Paradoxically, when we make an idol of our own pleasure, wealth, and consumption, we fail to see our own place in creation, and are thereby unable to grasp its splendour and plenitude, viewing it only through the narrow prism of our desire to hoard and to consume.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus invites us to move beyond this anxious hoarding of God’s plenteous gifts, to recover a self-forgetful wonderment and delight in God’s creation. The lilies of the field neither toil nor spin, “yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these”. Jesus invites us to allow our joy-filled contemplation of these good gifts to lead on to an outpouring of gratitude to the Giver.
“Gratitude, like all virtues, is the result of discipline,” Rolheiser observes. “To become grateful, one must practice the asceticism of joy.” When, by God’s grace, we overcome our preoccupation with self and attend to the world around us, we see it as something of God-given value, not simply as an extension of our ego, or an answer to our needs. Seeking “the Kingdom of God”, we will find ourselves able to enjoy “all these other things” at a new depth.