3rd Sunday in Lent

March 14, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 55:1-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 63:1-8I
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Reading 4: 
Luke 13:1-9
By George Pixley

If we look for a common thread in the readings for the third Sunday in Lent, that thread seems to be the judgment and the mercy of the Lord. This was a major point of contention when the Christian way, the following of Jesus, was taking shape in the Second Century of the Common Era. In the middle of this century the “Christian” congregations were divided down the middle over whether God was merciful or whether God was both merciful and judgmental.

Marcion preached that God was sheer and pure mercy with no shadow of judgment to be found. Many believers in the movement were convinced that this was so. Marcion came to Rome from Pontus with this gospel about 140 c.e. and there was confronted by the Christian philosopher Justin, known to later Christians as Justin Martyr. Justin taught that God was merciful but also a just judge. He wrote a book against Marcion, a book which has been lost. Some fifty years later Tertullian of Africa wrote a major work in five books Against Marcion which is, fortunately, preserved to this day. In these books he showed by using Marcion’s Scriptures –Luke and ten epistles of Paul—that God was not a mild and characterless source of mercy but also a just God who did not leave sin unpunished. This became the orthodox position as the Catholic Church took shape in the Third Century.

It would be anachronistic to state that our texts deal with this controversy. But the issue that led to the controversy is a universal spiritual problem. And, taken together, the four texts assigned to the third Sunday in Lent pose the dual character of God and of reality, both just and good, judgmental and merciful. It is interesting to note that the texts that emphasize the mercy are chosen from the Old Testament, those that insist on the judgment from the New, contrary to the belief of Marcion and many Christians down through the centuries that the Old Testament preaches God as a stern judge.

Isaiah 55:1-9
This text comes as the collection we know today as the Second Isaiah is wrapping up. This collection runs from Is 40 to 55 and is directed to the Judahite exile in Babylon. The wrap-up must be understood in the light of the whole message. The unnamed prophet is a herald of a specific political vision, preaching a return to Jerusalem under the sponsorship of Cyrus the Persian king who is about to take the city of Babylon. The two parts of this summary are important: The return is not a matter of course. Many exiles have made a place for themselves in the great city and have no inclination to undergo the rigors of a journey into the unknown toward a destroyed city the glories of which they know only through their grandparents who suffered the exile in the times of Nebuchadnezzar. The prophet devotes most of his energy to persuading these doubters. The second part isalso important: One must no longer dream of an independent Judah but accept the fact of imperialdomination, not by Babylon the city that destroyed the temple of Solomon,but by Cyrus, the chosen instrument of YHWH the god of Israel.

Vv 1-2 picture the return as a free gift from YHWH of food and drink, of those items essential to sustain life. So, why waste their resources on what is not bread or their energies on what does not satisfy? This must be understood in the context as a reference to the luxurious life of Babylon that will no longer be available to them in the process of rebuilding a destroyed city in a land whose present condition is unknown to them. The call is certainly relevant to a church that is immersed in a society that believes it is patriotic to consume, to look for “bargains” even if it means buying things one does not need with money one does not yet haves, on credit which commits one to a future of debt. Is it possible in this society to live within one’s present resources, without committing one’s future, having only what is needful to live? Obvious, yes. But it requires resisting the drift of society that looks on those who do not have all the latest gadgets as deprived persons.

The next section, vv 3-5, put the return under the category of the “eternal covenant” (berit `olam), the trustworthy mercies of David. Since the prophet does not foresee a restoration of the monarchy this means that the Gola, the returning Babylonian exiles, are collectively the heirs of the promise that David will always have an heir on the throne (II Sam 7:16). The “nation you do not know” in v 5 is a problem. The “you” of the first hemistich of the verse is singular, referring to David, in which case it means the Amorites, Arameans, and other conquered peoples who were submitted to David. In the second hemistich, Is 55:5b, the “you” is (mostly) plural, referring to the Gola. But who does it mean? In the context of Is 40-55 it seems probable that it means the other Judean exilic communities, in Egypt, Syria, Moab, etc. Luke and Paul reread Isaiah in terms of the preaching to the Gentiles by the apostles, which is a legitimate finding of greater meaning in the Isaiah text for new times. But it should not be understood as prediction of First-Century C.E. events.

The appeal in vv 6-9 is based on the mercies of YHWH who forgives the sinner for his evil ways and thoughts. Because God does forgive, those who are living in ways unpleasing to God must repent of their ways and turn to God in the confidence that they will be received. During Lent of 2004 we could and should look at our life-style and, if we do not like what we see, turn away from it, not for a period of penitence, but for a new beginning in which we would make our consumption remain within our income.This has implications for the nation, likewise. Should not our global pretensions be kept within our resources? Ought we not to join with the international community, represented by the United Nations, to do those matters which are beyond our resources. Of course, this would mean looking at those things that we really need, what truly satisfies (v 2), and not dreaming of having everything for ourselves right now. Such a turn-around would be a really significant Lent 2004.

Psalm 63:1-8
Judging by its last verses, this is a royal psalm, one of ten in the book of Psalms that center upon the king and that were part of the royal liturgy in Jerusalem. Some of these psalms are prayers of the king and some are prayers for the king. This seems to be the former, and is appropriately designated a “psalm of David” by the later redactors. The psalm fits the image of David as a king with a great personal devotion, the image presented by the books of Samuel. For it is a great devotional psalm.

Vv 1-3 are truly magnificent! The search for God is that of dry and parched land waiting for rain. he psalmist, presumably the king, desires to see God in all his glory in the temple. But the culmination is verse 3a, “Your mercies are better than life.” Can this be? For mortal beings such as humans, can anything be better than life? At first glance, no, life must trump all else. But if this is so, why have there been in all ages saintly believers who long for martyrdom, beginning with the dramatic letters of Ignatius of Antioch around 110 c.e., leading up to bishop Romero in the Twentieth-Century, who declared in one of his last sermons, “if I am killed I will rise in the struggles of my people.” So, yes, the mercies (chesed, love, kindness) may indeed be worth more than life itself.

Vv 4-8 express the joy of the psalmist in praising God in the temple, both with various liturgical symbols—raised hands, song—and also with the private reflections of the night as he lies in his bed.

I Corinthians 10:1-13
Paul faced in “the church of God at Corinth” (I Cor 1:2; II Cor 1:1) some serious internal conflicts. He had lived in Corinth in the home and workshop of Priscilla and Aquila, a couple of Jewish leatherworkers who had been evicted from Rome by the decree of Claudius. According to Luke he stayed there for 18 months on his first visit, a longer stay than usual with a beginning group of followers of the way (Acts 18:11). Corinth was the largest metropolis Paul had evangelized and, being a port, was a city of very diverse peoples. No doubt there was an important number of Jews as a consequence of Claudius’ edict, but also a significant number of Roman veterans of the army (it was a Roman colony), and slaves from the Germanic and Slavic northern parts of empire, along with Greeks from nearby regions, and others. The house churches in this great city were no doubt made up of various of these ethnic groups. And they, though called by Paul “the church of God at Corinth” had many points of conflict that are reflected in Paul’s extensive correspondence with them.

I Cor 10 is the last of a three-chapter response to the question posed to him about eating meat offered to pagan Gods (I Cor 8:1). Paul equivocates. On the one hand, no other God is anything since there is only one God (I Cor 8:4). This response will satisfy the wealthy who can afford to eat meat (all of which is sacrificed to some pagan God). The arguments against meat-eating must be those of the poor who cannot afford meat anyway. Chapter 9, on the contrary, gives arguments against the use of meat in that it offends the weak (poor?) so that one must constrain one’s freedom in Christ and abstain from a right one has (to eat). Now in chapter 10 Paul speaks, or tries to speak, above the fray from the perspective of one who has become one with Christ by partaking of his body and blood with his brothers and sisters. This is the context for our pericope.

And Paul begins this section with a list of examples from the books of Moses intended to remind us that God is a God who will punish wrongdoing. But first he reminds his addressees that the people of Israel partook of types of the body and blood of Christ when they ate the spiritual bread—the manna, that is—and drank the spiritual drink that came from the rock to followed them. This is preparation for the discussion of the Eucharist that makes us one with Christ’s body, a discussion that comes in vv 14-22. We partake of the real thing, the anti-type, but can learn from their problems when they partook of the type, the manna and the water from the rock.

In vv 6-13 we are given a list of types that show how God judged these people who lived by spiritual food and drink. First comes the festivities for idols, a reference to the golden calf at Sinai (Ex 32:1-6), a result of unbridled desire (suggesting the desire of some Corinthians for meat). Next comes porneia, illicit sex, which led in the incident of Baal Peor (Nu 25:1-9) to the death of 23,000, curiously one thousand short of what the text says in Nu 25:9. Paul was evidently quoting from his memory which was not perfect. The Corinthians are now urged not to tempt Christ, as the Israelites did on an occasion that led to destruction by serpents (Nu 21:4-9). Nor should we murmur as the Israelites did, and were destroyed by the Destroyer, which refers to various “murmurings” in Exodus and Numbers.

Paul believes that all was written for us who live at the end of times (I Cor 10:11). We must not fall under judgment as did our forefathers and mothers. Let no one who believes he or she stands actually fall! In these examples from the Scriptures and in Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians the idea is that the God who gives us the food of salvation does not therefore cease to examine and judge us. God is not a spineless God of love and peace, but rather God will not leave evil unpunished. Therefore, we who are made one with the body of Christ in partaking of the bread must watch our p’s and q’s.

Even now in the Twenty-first Century c.e. God does not tolerate idolatry, unbridled desire or lust. If we are to partake of the body of Christ we must be merciful as God is merciful, (Lk 6:36), holy as God is holy (Lv 19:2), even perfect as God is perfect (Mt 5:48). Marcion’s God of pure love is not the Biblical God, certainly not the God of Paul as Marcion believed. God judges those people who, while claiming to be God’s people, do not follow the path of Jesus.

Luke 13:1-9
And we come to the Gospel reading, set in the midst of the long Lukan version of the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:27). Our text is Lukan with no parallels in either Matthew of Mark. The opening is a reference to an incident we do not know except from this passage: Herod (Antipas) mixed the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices. It is hard to imagine a real historical incident like this. Sacrifices were only allowed in Jerusalem, and Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, did not have authority in Jerusalem. His tetrarchy included no more that Galilee, though he assuredly had aspirations to the grand kingdom of his father. Of all of Herod’s sons, Antipas was the most ambitious.

But the interpretation of the text does not depend on the factual historicity of the incident to which it refers. There were most certainly innocent victims of Herod Antipas, of whom we know John the Baptist from our Scriptures. Are such victims suffering for sins greater than others who do not suffer so? Of course not, responds Jesus.

This is a very timely reminder in our days. Are the homeless peoples on the streets of our cities morally worse than those of us who live in strong structures with internal heating? In our hearts we know this is not so. Are single mothers to be blamed for the difficult circumstances of their lives? Should they be punished by the authorities responsible for social service because they never married or their husbands abandoned them? Obviously, not. And yet, many treat homeless people as a police problem to be solved be removing them from the streets and single mothers as a matter to be punished when it comes to providing schooling for the children and assistance for their housing. The situation of U.S. jails is similar. Most of those confined are held in prison for non-violent “felonies” like possession of drugs or prostitution. The prison system, with prisons filled with these innocent victims, is treated as a means of punishment and no longer a means of restoration. These are some of the implications of Jesus’ comments on Herod’s victims.

There follows a parable where an anonymous someone, tis, had a fig tree. For three years he came and found no fruit on it. So he instructed his gardener (ampelourgón) to dig it out and plant something else. The gardener asks his master or lord (kúrios) to allow him to try to fertilize the fig and see if it would not bear fruit the next year.

This is a curious little parable. The owner of the fig tree is a man who has a gardener do his spade work. We are reminded of Moses exchange with YHWH on top of mount Sinai in which he pled with God to give Israel another chance (Ex 32:7-14). Moses is a model to be followed, a true saint of a prophet. The gardener of this parable, a humble man with no riches or learning, is the hero of the story. With his entreaty he persuades his master to give the tree another chance, and promises to help it along.

If the gardener is the model to be followed in this parable, another (shocking?) conclusion is that the master is pitiless in his demand for the destruction of the fruitless tree. Again we learn that our God is not a spineless God of love and mercy unwilling to punish the sinner for his sin. God is indeed merciful and many texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament show this. But God is also just and God’s justice demands punishment for evil. We as humans are called upon by Jesus in this parable to be merciful. Why do many of our fellow humans howl and rant about the need for more police and more jails to “punish” evildoers, and the need for stricter laws of marriage to assure that same-sex unions are not tolerated anywhere?

The lesson for Lent 2004 is that, in the ace of a just God who will not leave the sinner unpunished—we add, “unless he of she repents of the sin committed—we must show mercy and love to the sinner and urge her or him to repent and seek forgiveness. Is this too much to expect?

Jorge Pixley received his doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Chicago and has taught in seminaries in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, and Nicaragua. His books include Biblical Israel and Jeremiah (Chalice Commentaries for Today)