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Earth, People Are More Than Commodities

If I were to preach a sermon on the environment, here are several texts I would use and the sermonic moves I would make.
I would begin with Psalm 24:1 that acknowledges, “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it; the world and all who live in it.”

From the very beginning of the biblical witness, Genesis 2:15 says: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.”

In this creation account, God intended for human beings to work the land (“tend”) and to guard, protect and preserve it (the meaning of the Hebrew word “keep”). Hence, we get the classic understanding of human beings as stewards of the earth.

Some may argue, however, that in the other creation account, God said to the first human beings, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).

That word, “subdue,” in the Hebrew has the meaning of “bringing into bondage” and has been interpreted to mean that human beings can use and exploit the earth for our own purposes.

However, I would contend that this directive to “subdue” the earth is not unlimited. In the Ten Commandments, the command to keep the Sabbath not only applied to human beings, but also to the land:

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove (Exodus 23:10-11).

The notion of a Sabbath for the land also included the remission of debt and the freeing of fellow Hebrews from the bondage of servitude, both during the Sabbath Year (Deuteronomy 15:1-6, 12-15) and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8).

Therefore, there is a limit to our “subduing” the earth, and this limit is a direct consequence of a full biblical understanding of God’s command to keep the Sabbath. 

To put it in another way, there is an intimate connection between our understanding of the productivity of the land and the productivity of human beings.

If we see the earth as purely a resource under the bondage of human beings, then I believe we are also more likely to see human beings as purely a resource under the bondage of others (for example, enslaving others) or of ourselves (for example, living as workaholics).

Our stance toward the environment may be a reflection of whether we see ourselves more as human beings connected to God’s creation, or merely as human doings conscripted to be productive under the commands of our economic idols.

The Good News is that in Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4, he uses the passage in Isaiah 61 that pronounced the Jubilee Year:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

May the earth and our lives experience the Sabbath and freedom that God originally intended when God created both.

Michael Cheuk is pastor of University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Va.