Oct. 23, 2011 What a Piece of Work Is Man
Dt. 34:1-12 Psalm 8 l Thess. 2:1-8 Mat. 22:34-6
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty, in form and moving! How express and admirable in action! How like an angel in apprehension! How like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Hamlet, Act. II, Scene II
What a piece of work is man, indeed. Shakespeare, not only a great writer, also to my mind, well versed in Scripture, especially the psalms as I hear echoes of Old Testament poetry in Shakespeare’s poetry. Never researched this or seen other research on it, just strikes me as true.
Sense of wonder at man, humankind’s place in God’s creation found in Psalm 8, also present in this passage from Shakespeare as Hamlet struggles with depression, his place in this world – we are both a little lower than the angels, crowned with honor and glory, given dominion over the creatures of the earth and yet – dust. Out of dust we were formed and to dust we will return. The greatest of us are all destined to die. Moses, one of the greatest of the prophets, died, as we see in reading from Deuteronomy today. He dies, never having entered the promised land, having only been given a glimpse of that promise. The work of leading the people into this land, conquering the land for God’s people belonged to another, Joshua, and so Moses was able to die in peace, knowing he had done what he was meant to do, ready to pass the baton of leadership to his successor.
What a piece of work is man! We are caught between heaven and earth, of this earth and yet not of this earth, destined for something greater, beyond this life. One of the paradoxes/puzzles of life – how can we be of this earth and yet not of this earth? How can we live, one foot planted firmly on the ground, the other pointed to heaven. Yet, as humans, we are able to live in paradox, recognizing that two seemingly contradictory points of view can both be true, recognizing that much of life remains a mystery even as we learn more and more about this life and this world, even as we seek to master this world.
Psalm 8 is a pretty straight forward hymn of praise, praise of God in nature, the author is stirred to praise of God through contemplating the glory of God manifested in the wonders of heaven, which in turn leads to reflection on the place of man in creation. He says, “O Lord, how majestic/excellent/awesome is your name in all the earth!” recognizing that our God truly is an awesome God. Even babies proclaim God’s greatness. God’s praise is engrained into the human psyche from birth – might say we are hard-wired for God, to recognize God’s wonder as infants. As we grow older, sometimes we lose this sense of wonder, as Hamlet had. Sometimes we need to rediscover this as adults through experiencing God in nature as the psalmist does. There are no words to express God’s glory – the noblest hymns that we can invent in praise of God are like the babblings of babies and infants.
Looking at the moon and stars at night, the work of God’s hand, God’s finger, excites awe and wonder at God’s majesty in the author, as well as a sense of insignificance. This image of God’s finger brings to mind the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s masterpiece reflecting God’s creation of the world, with good reason. This psalm is closely tied to the creation story from Genesis, where God made the heavens and the earth, all of creation, plants and animals and then created mankind and gave us dominion over the earth – all of this is found in our psalm for today in poetic form, a reworking of the creation story just as Michelangelo told the story in painting.
Chances are that many of us at one time or another did precisely what the author of this psalm did, gazing up at a starry night, or a beautiful harvest moon, or some other wonder of nature, the Grand Canyon, magnificent snow covered mountains or the autumn trees, we can feel very small, insignificant against the grandeur which is God and God’s creation. It has a way of helping us reprioritize, recognize what is truly important in this life, how so many of the worries and concerns that plague our days and nights are as nothing in the wider scheme of life, in the face of God’s majesty. And yet we, too, are a part of that creation, not only that, God made this great world and entrusted it to us, fallible humans that we are – imagine that!
Yet we too are part of that creation, the focal point of God’s creation – little less than the angels, hard to believe, a concept hard to grasp, yet true. Sometimes seems like we have messed it up incredibly, hard to believe that God would trust us which such a great gift.
What does it mean to have dominion over God’s creation? Does it mean we have authority to run roughshod over the animals of the earth, slaughtering them without thought, forcing them to live in crowded breeding grounds and pumping them with antibiotics and human growth hormones? Does it mean it’s okay to use the resources of this earth with no thought to future generations? Polluting the air and water, depleting the world of natural resources, strip mining coal? Or does it mean that we respect the earth and the goodness that is part of this world, treasure it in order to be able to pass it on to the next generation? With great authority comes great responsibility. Native Americans, before they make any decision, ask, how will this affect seven generations from now. In this they treat earth as Mother, they respect the life force of the animals that give up their life that we may have meat to eat. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is celebrated this month, referred to the moon as brother, the sun as sister, all of creation, including the animals were brother and sister to him, radically extending Christ-like love and respect not only to people, but to all of creation.
Norman Wirzba, in his book, Living the Sabath, gives us a different perspective on what it means to have dominion over the earth, p. 32. “Far from being an excuse to do with creation as we want, the exercise of dominion is the practical training ground in which we learn to live patiently and attentively with others so that the mutual flourishing of all becomes possible. In a very important and practical sense, the vocation of humanity to have dominion will have to be worked out in the twin contexts of careful gardening, of tilling and keeping (even serving) the garden of paradise (Gen. 2:15), and the spiritual and moral work of conforming our lives to the life of God and thereby becoming the concrete manifestation or image of God (Gen. 1:26). As Terence Fretheim has proposed, humanity’s most fundamental task is to share (however imperfectly) in God’s continuing creative work of fashioning a livable and lovable world: ‘having dominion and subduing are understood originally as completely positive for the life of other creatures.’ Indeed, as bound up in a common membership of creation, we are responsible in certain respects for the continuing becoming of creation.”
Looking at the creation story, Wirzba sees that God’s work wasn’t completely done on the sixth day. There was yet one more thing to create before creation was complete p. 33: “Another detail, frequently unnoticed, is that God was not quite finished with the creation on the sixth day. Near the end of the story we are told that God finished once on the sixth day, but then again on the seventh. Why would there be a need to finish something twice? What would be the significance of a second finishing? Quoting from a midrash, the medieval rabbi Rashi claimed that after the six days of divine work creation was not yet complete. What it lacked, and thus what remained to be created, was menuha, the rest, tranquility, serenity, and peace of God. In the biblically informed mind, menuha suggests the sort of happiness and harmony that come from things being as they ought to be; we hear in menuha resonances with the deep word shalom. It is this capacity for happiness and delight, rather than humanity, which sits as the crowning achievement of God’s creative work. It is as though by creating menuha on the seventh day God gathered up all previous delight and gave it to creation as its indelible stamp. Menuha, not humanity, completes creation. God’s rest or Shabbat, especially when understood within a menuha context, is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything. Here we see God in a most personal (and exuberant) imaged, like a parent frolicking with a child and in this joy and play demonstrating an abiding commitment to protect, sustain, encourage, and love into health and maturity the potential latent within the child.”
And so, what are we to do, we humans caught between heaven and earth and given charge over God’s work? We are to care for each other and this world, love of God, love of neighbor, as Jesus tells us in our gospel today. We are to be as Paul tells us he was, as gentle and nurturing as a mother, caring for her children. So we are to treat each other, and this world God has given us with love and respect, treasuring all creation into the next generation and sharing in God’s own experience of delight.
Robertson, copyright November 2011