Jesus and the Earth is four lectures given by James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool. Where most Biblical scholars turn to the Old Testament to find Christian teaching on the environment, Jones has chosen to focus on Jesus. After all, if Jesus is the embodiment of God on earth, nothing will demonstrate God’s view of the earth better than Jesus’ attitude to the world around him.
Jones is not an expert in this field, which he admits, so these lectures chart a course of study and investigation. Because of this, it is written with a sense of discovery, and Jones is really quite excited by what he’s found, although he does occasionally warn the reader that theologian friends disagree with him here and there. This, and the shortness of the book, make it a thought-provoking series of reflections rather than a theological treatise, but there are some great observations and useful insights.
There are, apparently, 165 references to ‘earth’ in the New Testament. Some of them are quite revealing, like Luke 5:24: ‘The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’, or the inclusion in the Lord’s Prayer of the clause ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. Jones analyses these, along with both familiar passages (Jesus calming the storm), the more obscure sections (the four earthquakes mentioned in the book of Matthew). His conclusion is that Jesus is a very rooted character, concerned with this world. This is, after all, someone who calls himself the ‘Son of Man’. ‘Son of man’ in Hebrew is ‘Son of Adam’, and ‘Adam’ is short for ‘soil’.
Jones explores this idea of an earthly Jesus through observations about Jesus as a consumer. He eats and he drinks, turns water into wine and miraculously multiplies food. He is even accused of being too much of a party animal by the religious authorities. Jesus is not afraid to enjoy good things, and we shouldn’t either, provided we remember these things are “gifts for and not goals of existence”. We shouldn’t overstate the evils of consuming. “Sustainability without the recognition that we are natural consumers and born traders denies our very humanity. Consumption without sustainability is, however, short-sighted and immoral.”
While much of Christian teaching is now geared towards the afterlife, Jesus demonstrates a deep concern for life here and now, particularly those who are suffering. He cares for the poor, feeds the hungry, and heals the sick. As Jones says, Jesus’ teachings cannot be “dematerialized and spriritualized”. In fact, “his startling prophecy that that those who had fed the hungry and clothed the destitute will find that they have done it to him personally should leave us in no doubt of the moral imperative to act materially and to rescue the poor.”
Jesus also shows an awareness of nature, something I wrote about here last year. He mentions animals or birds 27 different times, and regularly draws comparisons or lessons from wildlife. “Respect for God’s creatures, the earth and the whole of the creation is, or ought to be, a hallmark of Biblical faith.”
Jones also deals with the end of the world, briefly. As you may have noticed from Republican resistance to climate science, one’s view of the end really impacts the way you live. If you “believe that the world is as expendable as a discarded paper cup which will finally be consumed in some cosmic combustion, then you will probably be inclined to milk the earth for all it is worth while there is still time.” On the other hand, some Christians believe the earth will be renewed, rather than destroyed: “If you believe that the earth has a destiny in a renewed form and that the material has a place alongside the spiritual in God’s eternal purposes, this will induce a more cautious attitude.”
In conclusion, Jesus is interested in this world as well as the future. Not only that, this world is the future. Jones has this to say about Jesus’ mission: “What is that mission? To do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. It is his prayer and ours. His mission and ours. The earthing of heaven. This is the mission of God.”