Jesus did not get involved in environmental issues
It is fair to say that Jesus was not ‘your average environmental protester’. His cursing of a fig-tree and treatment of the Gadarene swine would hardly win him honourary membership of Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth!
Yet, to argue that ‘Jesus was never involved in environmental action, therefore neither should we be’ is as illogical as saying that Jesus never wore trousers, he never drove a car, he never lived in a council flat, so neither should we.
What then of the two incidents mentioned above, the cursing of the fig tree (e.g. Mk 11:12-14) and the apparently wanton destruction of the Gadarene swine (e.g. Mk 5:1-17)? Neither gives the impression of Jesus exercising environmental care. A closer examination reveals that they are not the stumbling blocks that they first appear to be.
The cursing of the fig tree. However we are to understand this passage, one thing is self-evident: it is not to provide us with a normative example of how to treat plant-life! Elsewhere Jesus shows his (and his Father’s) care and concern of both animals and plants (cf the parables in Matthew 13, and the sermon on the mount). So how are we to understand this passage? It is best understood as an enacted parable.
(i) It provides a lesson on praying in faith (Mk 11 :22-25) and the creative (or destructive) power of words.
(ii) The Jews understood the fig tree to be a symbol of Israel (Hos 2:12; Is 34:4; Lk 13:6-9), and the withering of the tree would then be understood as a prophetic action of what was about to happen to Israel if they did not repent.
Its effectiveness as an object lesson and as a prophetic statement could well explain why Jesus acted ‘out of character’ in his treatment of the tree, thus shaking his disciples’ preconceptions and making them take special note.
The Gadarene swine (Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:26-39; Matt 8:28-34). The purpose of this miracle is likewise not to provide a normative example for the treatment of animals, rather it is to demonstrate Jesus’ lordship over the demonic realm. In all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) it occurs after the stilling of the storm where Jesus has demonstrated his lordship over the elements: ‘even the winds and the waves obey him!’ Jesus truly is lord of all.
There is not the time for a full exegesis of this passage, so I shall limit myself to making a few points.
(i) Mark and Luke are very clear that Jesus did not immediately send the demons into the swine. It was only after the demons begged him (Lk 8:32; Mk 5:11), and consequently Jesus gave them permission to do so.
(ii) It was the demons and not Jesus who sent the swine over the bank into the lake and drowned them (Lk 8:33; Mk 5:13).
(iii) One suggestion that has been made is that the demons tried to deceive Jesus and deliberately destroyed the swine to bring Jesus into disrepute with the herdsmen.
(iv) One thing, however, is certain. The passage shows that Jesus places more value on human life than on other animal life. All animals have value, but some have more value than others.
To use these two incidents to reject any Christian involvement in environmental action or to prove Jesus’ lack of concern is grasping at proverbial straws. To an extent Jesus was a man of his time; the environmental problems that we face today were not major problems 2000 years ago in rural Palestine, so we would hardly expect Jesus to get involved. Were he born in our time he would certainly have a few things to say. He was not afraid to get involved in political issues.
Very often we have a distorted image of Jesus, an image that is reinforced by ‘Sunday school’ stories and prayers. It was not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ who engaged in conflict with the Jewish religious and political leaders. He was not afraid to speak in parables against them (Lk 20:19), or to attack their ‘idols’ of the sabbath and the Temple. Jesus deliberately healed on the sabbath (Lk 13:10-17); he demonstrated in the Temple (Lk 19:45-8), the religious, economic and political centre of Judaism; he prophesied the Temple’s destruction (Lk 21:5-6); and he ate with ‘sinners’ and ‘outcasts’ (Lk 15:1-2; 19:7). Small wonder that the ‘leaders among the people were trying to kill him’ (Lk 19:47).
Two ‘political’ problems in his time were sexism and nationalism; time and again Jesus confronted these two issues. Speaking to a Samaritan woman was unthinkable for a Jew -- she was the wrong sex and race--yet Jesus deliberately went out of his way to do it Jn 4:7). The parable of the good Samaritan and the Samaritan leper, whose faith had made him well (Lk 17:11-19), would have raised more than one or two Jewish eyebrows (Lk 11 :25). He also defied all the religious and political traditions of his day, not only by having women disciples, but by being supported by women (Lk 8:3). Jesus was not one to shrink away from political involvement; even his death on the cross had political significance, since he died a victim of a political system.
Jesus did get involved in his father’s world -- his incarnation and resurrection are testimonies to that. As his followers, then so should we, even if it does bring us suffering and misunderstanding.