Some theological reflections on land and food Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSc

During the past few weeks I have been writing about food, agriculture and agribusiness.  People might raise a question: what has that got to do with the gospel of Jesus?   In this column I will argue that Christians ought to be concerned about the abuse of land which is at the heart of petrochemical agriculture.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, land is one of God’s most precious gifts to humankind.  The second account of creation in the Book of Genesis tells us that God’s involvement with humans does not end with creating us. He is continually accompanying us in all our endeavours.  The text tells us that “the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east and there he put the man he had fashioned” (Genesis 2: 8).  God instructed the man to “till and to keep the land (Genesis 2: 15).  Scripture scholars tell us that the Hebrew words used here have overtones of service – protection and defending the land from harm.

The biblical tradition of stewardship has emerged from this perspective.  Every seven years the land was to be allowed to remain fallow in order to regain its healthy fertility (Exodus 23: 10-11).  The Israelites knew that the current cultivator of the land were God’s tenants.  There were restrictions on what a farmer could do with the land.  For example, “the land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me and to me you are only strangers and guests” (Leviticus 25:23).

It is clear from reading the Gospels that there was a massively inequitable distribution of land at the time of Jesus.  This caused enormous suffering and hardship.  Powerful landlords, many of them associated with Herod Antipas, had taken over much of the land just as agribusiness has done in the past five decades.  In his own life-time Jesus would have seen the livelihood of many independent land-owners being undermined.  Some were reduced to tenancy, others worked as day-labourers, while some took to the roads and joined bandit groups.  Jesus’ critique of the greed and acquisitiveness of the group known as the Heroidians was a direct response to their rapacious behaviour.  He would also have known that the poor had borne must of the costs of Antipas’s building programme at Sepphoris,  which is located 6 kilometres from Nazareth,  and also at Tiberias on the shores of Lake Galilee.

At the same time, the Temple cult was controlled by the Sadducees and Pharisees.  These two groups, mainly centred in Jerusalem, grew rich through the tithes and other offerings which the poor gave when they came to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.  Jesus’ own mission was directed towards these poor people in Galilee.   He set out to inspire them with a vision of a new order grounded in his own experience of the Father’s love and care.  A new social order was to be based, not on greed or exploitation, but on God’s unconditional love for all.  The scripture scholar, Professor Seán Freyne in his book, Texts, Contexts and Cultures, makes the point that we should not interpret the ministry of Jesus as a religious leader who was able to succinctly present universal truths to a rural audience.  Rather the local situation was always at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, which makes what he had to say even more relevant to our own time.   Finally, by linking his mission to the Jubilee Year concept ( Luke 4: 18 -19), Jesus was making it very clear that he was on the side of the dispossessed:

The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,

for he has anointed me.

He sent me to bring good news to the poor,

to proclaim liberty to captives

and to the blind new sight,

to set the downtrodden free,

to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.

Even though the Jubilee idea was never fully implemented in practice, it did hold out the hope that land, which had been appropriated through a variety of means, would be restored to the rightful owner after 50 years.

Given that the Gospel was first preached in a very exploitative and unjust socio-economic context, it is amazing that  the Churches today have very little to say about how, during the past 50 years, a small elite group have taken over a sizeable portion of the lands of the world.  As a result they have more and more control over how our food is produced and processed.


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