THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Young lives tragically and undeservedly cut short. A life mercifully and undeservedly spared. This Sunday’s gospel places these very different outcomes in stark contrast. The story about the eighteen killed by the collapse of a tower has a contemporary ring to it. Only last week a crane in New York City fell from the top of a building killing instantly a man sitting in his car below. Also last week a dislodged manhole cover somehow became airborne and crashed through the windshield of an SUV killing the driver, an art teacher. It is not clear why Pilate killed the Galileans in our reading. It is possible they were involved in an insurrection of some sort, but they were most likely innocent victims selected for slaughter at random “to send a message” to any would be insurrectionists. Maybe, like so many killed in Syria and Iraq these days, they were simply caught in the crossfire of someone else’s fight. Acts of terror against innocent civilians are hardly novel these days.
Events like these send chills down the spine. They bring home to us how frail and vulnerable we all are. It takes only one defective screw, a second’s inattention, an unanticipated change in weather patterns to cut off a bright and promising future for an unsuspecting victim. It takes years of dedication, patience, sacrifice and anguish to raise a child. It takes only the pull of a trigger erase all of that. When we read about these horrific events, we can’t help thinking, “That could have been me or someone I love!”
Blaming the victims comes naturally. We take a perverse comfort in believing that the victims were somehow at fault for what befell them. After all, if I can identify some error, moral infraction or misjudgment on their part, it is easier for me to convince myself that I can avoid their fate. I just have to exercise more care than they did, stay off the route they were driving, or refrain from the sinful conduct I believe brought down upon them the wrath of God. I can fool myself into thinking that I am in control of my life and safe from the randomness with which death and destruction so often strike.
Jesus dispels that notion altogether. Are the victims of accident and violence any more deserving of death than those who lived to tell about it? “I tell you, No,” says Jesus, but he goes on to say that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” What does Jesus mean by that? I doubt he meant that repentance shields one from a violent death. Jesus has already made it clear that repentance and faith take us on the path of the cross. Discipleship makes a violent end more rather than less likely. I believe the explanation lies hidden in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree that follows.
Unlike the seemingly hapless victims in the daily news-both in Jesus’ day and our own-the fig tree has earned the judgment of destruction passed by the owner of the vineyard. In a semi-arid climate where cultivatable land is limited, it is difficult to justify allowing an unproductive tree to go on using up valuable soil. Yet as unexpected and cruel as was the fate of the victims we read about earlier, equally unexpected and undeserved is the owner’s act of mercy sparing the fig tree. At the request of the vinedresser, the tree is given a year’s reprieve. That is where the parable ends and we are left with a huge question. Will the tree use wisely and well the year of grace it has been given? Will it respond to the care and attention of the vinedresser? We might find it strange that Jesus imposes such heavy moral and spiritual responsibility on a plant. But bear in mind that Israel is frequently compared to a vine, a branch or a tree throughout the scriptures. Anyone listening to this parable would have known that Jesus is addressing his people Israel and, by extension, us.
Almost two weeks ago many of us received ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. These ashes are a graphic reminder that we are indeed dust and will, sooner or later, return to dust. Death is God’s judgment upon us and there is no getting around it. The question is not how soon or late that judgment overtakes us, but whether we meet it confident that the life we must now surrender has borne fruit for the kingdom of heaven. Or as Paul would put it, have we built on the foundation which is Christ with gold, silver and precious stones, or have we contributed only hay, stubble and chaff that will not withstand the fire of judgment? I Corinthians 3:10-15.
How, then, shall we live? It is tempting to begin filling up our remaining days with good intentions. I will buy only Free Trade coffee; I will increase my giving to the church and to the poor; I will be more “intentional” (whatever that means) in working for justice and equality. All of those objectives are noble. But true discipleship begins with being rather than doing. Only a good tree is capable of bearing good fruit. Thus, before we can begin to do anything fruitful, we must be the kind of tree Jesus is looking for. We must become creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our human mortality.
Our death denying culture hides its dying members away in institutions, sells all manner of cosmetics to hide the effects of aging, celebrates youth and encourages retirees to revert in their “golden years” to a self-absorbed, adolescent lifestyle. But disciples of Jesus are called to embrace with thanksgiving life in all its manifold stages. Disciples are challenged to receive each day as one that the Lord has made and offers as a gift. They are mindful that the number of such days is finite, that tomorrow is not a foregone conclusion and that health, strength and length of days is guaranteed to no one. But that only makes today all the more precious. It is out of such faithful gratitude that generosity flows. Generosity gives birth to compassion and compassion fuels zeal for justice, righteousness and reconciliation.
Here is a poem by New Hampshire poet laurite, Jane Kenyon, a woman whose struggle with depression and chronic illness taught her the art of living thankfully, generously and compassionately.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Source: Constance, Graywolf Press, 1993 (c. Jane Kenyon). Jane Kenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.
For a brief but thorough overview of the book of Isaiah, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN published at enterthebible.org. Here it is enough to say that these words were spoken by the prophet to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet sees in this development the hand of God at work creating a new future for Judah. The exiles are naturally skeptical. Most have built new lives for themselves in the foreign land. Those born in Babylon know of Israel only through the legends and stories told by their elders. The prophet’s task is to make his fellow exiles see the glorious new future God is offering them. To that end, the prophet employs some of the most beautiful poetic language in the scriptures. He compares the opportunity for return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt. He promises that, just as God provided miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, so God will shelter and protect the exiles as they travel once again to that promised land from captivity in Babylon.
In our lesson for today, God speaks as though he were a street vendor or a carnival barker inviting all those passing by to “come.” The remarkable thing here is that the voice of the Lord goes on to announce that the goods are free. “He who has no money, come, buy and eat.” Verse 1. The banquet is a frequent metaphor for the new life God offers Israel. The point is clear. God is giving a banquet for which there is no admission charge. Only a fool would turn away from such an opportunity! Yet that is precisely the choice Israel will have made should she ignore the opportunity for return to the land promised to her ancestors. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful guests invited to the wedding feast. (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). The reference to milk and wine, foods associated with richness, seems to echo the image of Palestine as the land of “milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:9.
This is the only passage in the writings of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) in which King David is mentioned. The prophet is far more interested in the messianic role of Israel as a whole than in any of her leaders. Yet he or she can hardly ignore so prominent a theme in Israel’s faith and history as God’s covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” II Samuel 7:16. Yet what hope can this promise offer now that the line of David has been extinguished? As the prophet sees it, the covenant with David is now extended to all the people. God’s “steadfast love” for David is now embodied in an “everlasting covenant” with all Israel. Vs. 3. It should be noted also that Israel has been given as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…” Isaiah 42:6. Thus, God opens up the Davidic covenant to the whole of Israel so that Israel might become a channel of God’s salvation to all the nations of the world.
“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord.” This verse summarizes well a recurring theme throughout Second Isaiah: That God is God and we are not. One of the more subtle forms of idolatry is the assumption that God’s ways are our ways. Though the so called “Christian Right” has been justly criticized for linking godliness and morality to a narrowly defined set of white, middle class cultural biases, I think that we mainline protestant types are often far too certain about what “social justice” ought to look like and far too eager to identify the will of God with our own partisan projects and agendas. Conservatives should be weary of assuming they know what God desires to conserve. Progressives should be equally weary of assuming they know which way God is progressing. What a hoot it would be to find out at the close of the age that nothing we thought was historic, significant and earth shaking, nothing we have given our lives to achieve ever really mattered. How rich it would be to learn that the real history was taking place in some corner of the earth we never even thought to look-like a stable in Bethlehem.
The reference in verse 11 to “the king” rejoicing in God (not included in our reading) and the psalmist’s having “looked upon [God] in the sanctuary” suggest that this psalm was probably composed before the Babylonian Exile and during the reign of the Davidic kings over the Judean monarchy. The longing for God’s presence expressed in verse 1 through the metaphors of hunger and thirst of a person lost in the wilderness are artfully contrasted with the images of feasting on “marrow” and “fat” in verse 5. The psalmist’s need for God is as critical as reliance on food and water. This need is satisfied through praise and thanksgiving in God’s sanctuary. The psalmist has experienced God’s help and protection throughout his/her life and so “clings” to God. Vs. 8. God’s steadfast love (“chesed” in Hebrew) is better than life itself. Vs. 3.
From a strictly liturgical perspective, it is hard to sanction this wanton show of gluttony during Lent, even though we know it is expressed only in a metaphorical sense. Yet on further reflection, is it not appropriate to ask during this season of repentance whether in fact we actually experience this sort of hunger for God’s presence? If we do not, then perhaps, like the audience of the prophet in our first lesson, we are spending “our money for that which is not bread and our labor for that which does not satisfy.” Isaiah 55:2. Our appetites need instruction. We need to learn to yearn for and crave the things that will sustain us. We need to learn to pray well. For that purpose, I can find no better teachers than the psalmists. I have said it before. I will say it again. Two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. There is no surer way to a rich and satisfying life of prayer.
Few sections of the Hebrew Scriptures have been as instructive for the church as the forty years of Israel’s wilderness wandering recounted from the middle of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy. This period between Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and her entry into the Promised Land was a fertile source of instruction, admonition and encouragement for the early church living between the inauguration of God’s kingdom through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus and the promise of his coming again in glory. Disciples of Jesus, who remember with thanksgiving the “exodus” accomplished by Jesus in Jerusalem and look forward in anticipation to his return in glory, naturally identify with the Israelites at this period in their history. During these “in between” years Israel was totally dependent upon her God for food, water and protection from enemies. She was tested, tried and prepped for her entry into and occupation of Canaan.
In our reading Paul calls upon the church at Corinth to understand her own day to day existence as a time of testing and sanctification. She needs to understand that her sins of divisiveness, rebellion and lack of love (See post for Sunday, January 31, 2016 ) will produce dire consequences for her. Nevertheless, the Corinthians must also keep in mind that God’s judgment is to be understood as another side of God’s mercy. God wounds in order to heal; God judges in order to induce repentance; God’s wrath is born of God’s zealous passion for the salvation of God’s people. For this reason, Paul asserts that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man…” vs. 13. Temptation here is not to be understood as a personal affliction. Paul is speaking here to the church. The temptations afflicting the Corinthian church are those that threaten her oneness in Christ and lure her into the quagmire of destructive conflict, class distinctions and partisan divisions. Just as God forged a group of escaped slaves into a mighty nation in the furnace of wilderness wandering, so the Spirit of God is shaping the Corinthian church, a fractured and divided community, into the Body of Christ where all work as one. The take away: sanctification is a slow, painful and difficult process. Left to ourselves, we are tempted to abandon it. Thankfully, God can be trusted to complete the job of transforming the church into the image of Jesus.
The two incidents referenced here, Pilate’s killing of an unspecified number of Galileans and the death of eighteen people in the collapse of a tower, are not referenced in any other historical source. That is not surprising. Violent and repressive measures were the modus operendi of the occupying Roman forces. The death of a few Galileans would hardly have been front page news. These Galileans were most likely put to death in Jerusalem during Passover. This is the only occasion on which lay people would be sacrificing their own animals. Longing for independence and resentment at Rome ran high during Passover. For this reason, Pilate made a point of being present in Jerusalem during the feast with additional troops to maintain order. That, of course, only added to the resentment of the people. It is easy to see how violent conflicts between Pilate’s troops and the Passover pilgrims might erupt.
The incident Jesus brought up involving the fall of the tower also appears to have been a relatively minor occurrence. “Silome” was a name given to the reservoir associated with the water supply in Jerusalem fed by the spring of Gihon. The spring was the main source of water for the city. It is referenced in Psalm 46. An aqueduct built during the Bronze Age brought the waters of the spring into the city. According to the Biblical account, it was through this aqueduct or one like it that David and his army were able to invade and conquer Jerusalem without breaching its walls. II Samuel 5:6-10. Interestingly, Pilate oversaw the construction of an aqueduct designed to improve the water supply system for the city. While it is possible that the fall of the tower to which Jesus referred had something to do with this project, there is no positive evidence on that score.
The implication here is that the people bringing to Jesus news of the unfortunate victims of Pilate’s wrath believed those victims were responsible for their plight by reason of their sins. Jesus does not specifically refute them on this point, but states that the Galileans were no more sinful than anyone else. Consequently, these people should not be focusing on what the Galileans may or may not have done, but rather upon turning from their own sin lest they meet the same fate. The same point is made with respect to the victims of the tower collapse. People should not be asking why these eighteen people died, but recognize instead God’s mercy in the very fact that they are still alive and still able to repent.
The parable of the unfruitful fig tree follows. Like this tree that has taken up good soil for three years without producing fruit, Jesus points out that the folks he is addressing are living similarly unfruitful lives. Like the butchered Galileans and the victims of the tower collapse, they deserve God’s punishment. But the ax has not fallen-yet. God has graciously given them time. The question is, how will they use it?
This parable of the fig tree is intriguing. It is tempting to interpret it allegorically with God being the owner of the vineyard and the vinedresser Jesus interceding on our behalf for mercy. But that does not work for a number of reasons. God clearly does not wish for the destruction of anyone. Even when God threatens judgment, it is with the hope that those who are so threatened will turn and repent. The owner of the vineyard is making no such threat and seems to have no hope for the tree. This is simply a business decision. The tree is an investment that has failed for three years to yield a return. It is time to pull the plug and invest elsewhere. The vinedresser’s motives are unclear. Perhaps he sees more potential in the tree than does the owner. In any event, the vinedresser is convinced he can get fruit out of the tree and tries to convince the owner to give him one more year.
As I see it, the parable has but one purpose: to illustrate the point Jesus has made with respect to the two tragedies discussed in the previous section. Fruitless as we are, we have lived to see another day. That is sheer grace. We have done nothing to earn this new day and have no guarantee that we will see another. Note well that we never hear the owner’s response to the vinedresser’s plea for more time. We would like to think that the owner said, “Fine. You think you can make this tree produce some figs? You have one year and one year only. Knock yourself out.” But it is just as likely that he said, “You have to be kidding! Three years this tree has produced nothing. What do you think will be different about year four? Cut it down!” Given that, undeservedly and inexplicably, we have been freely given this day, this hour, this minute-what are we going to do about it?