Jesus and the Natural World

by Fr. John Jillions

Concern for the environment has become such a standard topic of daily life that many have become bored with the subject. Despite the best efforts of Patriarch Bartholomeos, now known among environmentalists as “the green patriarch,” it is difficult to find much sustained grass-roots enthusiasm among the Orthodox for environmental issues. After all, is anyone against protecting the environment? Add to this the scientific and political complexities that beset environmental policy-making, and the tendency of most Orthodox to focus on personal spirituality rather than social and ethical issues, it is not surprising that the environment is not high on the agenda of most Orthodox. But the question of our relation to the natural world goes much deeper than the used of plastic coffee cups, recycling and international summits.

Our attitudes to nature and what is “natural” affect our decisions on a host of issues. For example, when should we allow nature to “take its course” and when should we intervene to prevent it from doing so? Is the world of nature the ideal from which all other life has fallen? Should we be striving for a return to nature and natural living? And what exactly is “natural living”? Is an agrarian life far from the hustle and bustle of the city the one most suited to living the Gospel?

Looking at the issue of how we relate to the natural environment raises the question of how I view what is mine or not mine and my responsibilities toward each. How do I relate to the world beyond my own front door? Many people spend great efforts and money in beautifying their own home, but have little or no sense of personal responsibility for the surrounding neighborhood because it’s “not mine.” On a wider scale, this may mean communities of people, indeed entire countries, with little sense of civic responsibility for maintaining or beautifying the larger community beyond the borders of “mine” or “ours.”

More deeply still, what we think is “natural” affects what we think should be left alone or changed, and our willingness or unwillingness to take steps to make changes. If we view all events as “natural,” we might adopt a fatalistic attitude that is sometimes characteristic of the East. Whatever happens is “natural,” in God’s hands alone, so there is little point in taking action. Each and every tragedy can be met with a shrug of the shoulders and a “that’s life” attitude. The human being is minimally responsible. At the other extreme, if we take a high view of human intervention, we may be convinced that there is almost always something we can do — or should be able to do as science advances — to control nature. According to this latter view, the human being is maximally responsible, except for those rare cataclysmic events which are entirely beyond his control and thus labeled by the insurance industry as “acts of God.”

For Christians the first place to go to begin to look for answers to these questions is to the person of Jesus. His approach to the natural world gives important guideposts for a Christian response.

In the Gospels we most often encounter people who are thoroughly familiar with country ways. The images Jesus uses in his parables and are for the most part from the natural world, although he never once uses the word “nature.” And mostly he refers to agriculture rather than nature in the wild.

Yet in one of his few sayings about nature as such Jesus says there is no human glory that can begin to match the wonder of the created world: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Mt 6:28-29)

Jesus spent much time out of doors. Gospel texts reveal that he noticed what was going on around him in the natural world, reflected upon it, and had great affection for it. If we take for example just the first chapter of Mark, we have references to the various natural settings that were so familiar to Jesus.

Nazareth, where he grew up, in the hills of Galilee. The most famous of Jesus’ teaching takes place in the mountains, “the Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5-7). Jesus often withdrew to a hill or mountain to pray alone or with his disciples, and it was in the mountains that Jesus would have seen shepherds guiding their sheep on narrow mountain paths, carrying the lambs in their arms, chasing away wolves. It was in the mountains that Jesus appointed the twelve (Mk 3:13), a mountain was the site of the Transfiguration, and his favorite place in Jerusalem was outdoors on the Mount of Olives, where he often sat, taught or prayed, outside the walls of the city opposite the Temple. Here too was the garden of Gethsemani. It was also on a mountain in Galilee that the risen Jesus commissioned his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19)

The wilderness around the Jordan river where John was living and baptizing and where Jesus spent forty days being tempted by Satan (Mk 1:9-12). But there was also consolation in the midst of temptation, for “he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” (Mk 1:13)

The Sea of Galilee (Mk 1:16) where time and again we find him teaching on the shore (or out of a boat) or getting into a boat and crossing again to the other side (e.g. Mk 5:21). Here is the setting for his call of the first disciples, the fishermen. Here also — in the Gospel of John — is where the risen Jesus meets for the last time with his disciples as they are fishing, where he makes a fire, cooks them a breakfast of fresh fish, talks with them on the shore and tells Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17). And it was a storm on the Sea of Galilee that so frightened the disciples, which Jesus calmed with a word, so that they wondered “who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him.” (Mk 4:41)

The countryside (Mk 1:45): so many people flocked to Jesus for healing that the Gospel of Mark says he “could no longer enter a town, but was out in the country, though even there, “people came to him from every quarter.” (Mk 1:45) Out in the countryside, walking past the fields and farms of Palestine Jesus picked up many of the images that would re-appear in his teaching: the sower going out to sow his seed (Mk 4:3ff), the fields ripe for harvest (Mk 4:29), the vineyard, (Mk 12:1 ff) and fig trees (Mk 13:28ff).

Jesus was immersed in the natural world. But we should not romanticize this. He also spent much of his time confronting a natural world gone wrong. The first chapter of Mark also shows this darker side of nature. A madman shouting and convulsing in the synagogue (Mk 1:23ff); Peter’s mother-in-law lying sick with a fever (Mk 1:30-31); a leper who begs to be healed (Mk 1:40ff); crowds coming to Jesus with their diseased and demented (Mk 1:32-34).

The wonder of the natural world remains more glorious than Solomon, but in Jesus we find no idolizing of nature. For all the matchless glory of creation, the Father cares infinitely more for the human beings he created. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:26) This immediately puts the Christian view of creation and the natural world at odds with much of secular environmentalism for which human beings are just another species. For Christians, human beings are the summit of the creation and have a unique role of care and oversight. More than that, the destiny of creation is mysteriously linked to human beings, such that St Paul can say, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom 8:22-23) Jesus is less concerned about nature than about the redemption of the human race, through which the rest of creation will also end its “groaning.” Jesus does not see a natural world independent of the human world.

Perhaps this is why the most frequent analogies Jesus makes to the natural world are from farming, fishing, vineyards and shepherds: human beings working together with nature, transforming the raw materials of nature into food and drink and clothing. The images Jesus uses are dominated by a picture of the environment that shows human beings using, domesticating and cultivating nature for their own use: mustard seed, yeast, bread, sowing and seeds, vineyards and vines, new and old wine, sheep and goats, the good shepherd, the sheepfold, the flock, weeds among the wheat, fishermen, a net full of fish.

The natural world into which Jesus comes is not the world as it was in the beginning when all was “very good.” Although there is a theological debate as to whether the first creation was truly perfect or only potentially perfect (with Church Fathers of differing views), it is clear that much has gone wrong in the natural world. The desert, for example, is seen as a forbidding, hostile place, the dwelling place of Satan, the personification of all that is destructive and diseased and opposed to God’s purposes in creation. Yet it precisely to the desert that Jesus goes first before beginning his public ministry. All that now keeps the creation groaning is part of the “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21) which we see in the natural world as a kind of infection that St. Paul calls “the mystery of lawlessness.” (2 Th 2:7) In this sense the natural world is no longer pure and therefore is no longer natural. Here too the Christian view of the environment must differ from secular environmentalists. Jesus never accepts the world as it is as the “natural” world for he never accepts sickness and death as “natural.” At the tomb of Lazarus he does not tell Martha and Mary that the sickness, suffering and death of their brother Lazarus was “natural.” No, he weeps at the tomb because all of this is a terrible deformation of God’s creation. And most people, regardless of their view of Jesus, share his view of death. They weep, because something deep within them protests at the loss and says this ought not to be.

The natural world continues to be a place of ambivalence. On the one hand it refreshes body and soul. Indeed, an article on pastoral life published in the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1970s recommended long walks in parks and countryside as an essential ingredient for a priest’s spiritual health! At the same time the natural world is a source of suffering and disease and we look forward to the time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21) We look forward to a “new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev 21:1)

Yet it is significant that the New Testament’s final image of the Kingdom is no rural idyll but a bustling city. The kingdom of God is the “new Jerusalem.” (Rev 21:2) This is all the more striking because the city of Jerusalem was such a troubling place for Jesus: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:38) He was persecuted in the city and stayed away for long periods of time and his disciples were afraid of returning. And their fears were proved right. After a brief triumphal entry, the city becomes the setting for Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trials, torture and crucifixion.

But the city was also the place of Christ’s resurrection, where as Risen Lord he first appeared to his disciples, where he told the disciples to remain “until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:49)

None of us is unfamiliar with the temptations and irritations of cities with their congestion, traffic, crowds, stress, pollution, politics, corruption and crime. But throughout history cities have always been the centers of civilization and culture. The city, like the natural world, needs to be transfigured and redeemed, not abandoned. And the new Jerusalem is the image of the redeemed city, of redeemed human culture, the holy city where there is no mourning, nor crying nor pain (Rev 21:4). In this new Jerusalem, the city is not cut off from nature, for the river of the water of life runs through its main street, and the tree of life grows on either side, “with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:1-2)

Fr. John Jillions is Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. For information about the Institute, visit their web site: www.iocs.cam.ac.uk.