Third Sunday in Lent

March 3, 2013
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 55:1-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 63:1-8
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Reading 4: 
Luke 13:1-9
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Isaiah 55:1-9

This passage from Isaiah sounds the prophetic clarion call to repentance. What makes this passage distinctive is the reason given for repentance. Rather than warn about the wrath of God and the inevitable destruction that comes from sin, the prophet here invites the hearers to enjoy the mercy of God and to delight in pardon and reconciliation. The keynote of the passage is "let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts," as befits any call to repentance; but the preamble to that call to repentance is invitation: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!" There is an unmistakable note of joy in this invitation, an exultation in the goodness of God who offers sinners a way to turn back (the root meaning of "repent") to a better way.

The way of sin and rebellion is not so much being condemned as it is revealed as ultimately unsatisfying, as something much sadder than a person should be limited to: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" Instead of threatening punishment for such sadness, the prophet offers a better vision: "Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." Goodness and delight are made possible by returning "to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."

Repentance and return to God reveals a "higher" way of life and thought, a way that transcends human systems of retribution and violence and fear of punishment, a way of reconciliation and commitment to mutual well-being that embodies in actual experience the divine ideal of Peace and shalom. In the midst of the Lenten season of repentance, it opens valuable interpretive and homiletical perspectives to consider repentance for the sake of joy.

Psalm 63:1-8

The Psalm echoes the Isaian imagery of food and drink as symbols of restored relationship with God: "My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips," because "you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy." The psalmist's trust in God to accept repentance with loving mercy, and not simply by withholding punishment, is what transforms sin and suffering's "dry and weary land where there is no water" into feasting and protected joy and nightly meditation on God's goodness.

This trust rests on the Psalm's central assertion that "your loving-kindness is better than life itself." There is a sense of tenderness here, especially in naming "kindness" as the main attribute of God's love. There is also, in English at least, an inviting pun: to be "kind" is not only to be compassionate and gentle, but also to be similar and alike. The "loving-kindness" of God invites a similar love from us. Life itself, the psalmist suggests, derives from the "kindness" of love, God's generous gift to the creature, and the creature's generous co-creative response to God. Turning to God gives life, because the love of God makes us like God; and that is the ultimate joy.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

The epistle passage seems to turn back to the theme of repenting in order to avoid punishment. Paul here gives a laundry-list of scenes from the Exodus and the Wilderness Wandering, scenes in which the people grumbled or rebelled against God and Moses, and were punished for their disobedience. Paul asserts that "these things occurred as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did," and their example is set forth as being daunting enough to frighten readers back into "standing" and "watching out that you do not fall."

The final verse of the selection, however, adds a different and more interesting element. Rather than repeating the simple threat of punishment, Paul says "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." This verse is often quoted in part, and in rough paraphrase, as "God never gives you more than you can handle," and I have heard people repeat this quote in pastoral conversations, especially when they are going through particularly difficult and troubling experiences, as a means of bolstering their confidence.

But, with all respect for the genuine devotion of those who say it, I think Paul is here saying something rather different from the popular partial quote. Paul refers to the faithful being "tested," but he does not directly imply here that it is God who sends the testing. Rather, given the examples Paul cites, the problem seems to be people putting God to the test, slipping into idolatry and immorality that draws them away from fulfilling the aims and ideals God gives to them, and trying God's intentions and loving-kindness. There results a kind of mutual "testing," God's patience being tried by the people, and the people's faithfulness being tried by occasions of falling away.

What prevents this cycle from spiralling into complete breakdown of relationship, Paul asserts, is God's faithfulness, and especially God's loving-kindness in providing for every situation of trial and test some "way out," some occasion for repentance and return, some invitation to turn away from that which does not satisfy and turn toward God, some possibility for creative transformation of testing into deeper joy. Although the passage begins by apparently counseling repentance as an alternative to punishment, it ends by celebrating God's steadfastness to provide a way of rising above temptation.

Luke 13:1-9

The gospel passage falls neatly into two halves, which seem only circumstantially connected with each other. In the first half, Jesus comments on a pair of otherwise unknown contemporary incidents, using them to speak to the connection, or lack thereof, between sinfulness and unexpected suffering. "There were some present" in the crowd who ask Jesus -- or perhaps challenge him -- to make some comment about a group of Galileans whom Pilate apparently had killed for some civil infraction, while they were making sacrifice. This would have been both execution and desecration, and so taken as doubly disastrous for the victims. We may presume that the questioners are asking Jesus if the victims' extraordinary sins had earned them this disaster.

Jesus answers "No, I tell you," and then counters with his own example of eighteen people killed when a tower collapsed on them -- something that was not arranged by a despot, as in the case of the Galileans, but as an agentless action would be what insurance companies today would call "an act of God" -- and asks if anyone in the crowd would claim that these eighteen "were worse offenders that all the others living in Jerusalem." Again, Jesus asserts that no, these deaths are not to be attributed to greater-than-average sinfulness. In connection with both stories, Jesus tells his hearers "unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."

Sinfulness, Jesus says, leads to death, plain and simple, without adjustment for greater or lesser sins, without some "less sinful" people experiencing better outcomes than some "more sinful" people -- sinfulness, being apart from God's aims and ideals, is destructive, period, and it ends in death. Here Jesus, like Paul in the 1 Corinthians passage, appears to call people to repentance chiefly as away of avoiding punishment and death.

But the second half of the reading, the parable of the unfruitful tree, while seeming at first only tangentially connected, provides a different perspective. It is tempting to read this parable allegorically, assigning each element in the parable a specific meaning; indeed, it is often interpreted as if to say that the tree is humanity (or an individual human person), the owner is God, and the gardener is Jesus. In that reading, the meaning of the parable is that God will judge us as deserving death, but Jesus pleads for us and wins for us a limited time to produce the fruit of repentance.

I think it is far more interesting to resist the allegorizing of parables, and instead let parables do their proper work of surprising us into insight. And in this parable the surprise is not the threat of "bear fruit or die," but the unexpected tenderness with which the gardener asks to tend the tree in hopes that it will bear fruit. It is sometimes pointed out that fig trees such as Jesus would have known generally do not bear fruit until their fourth year, and so the owner's threat to cut the tree down after three years is premature at best and ignorant at worst (another good reason not to allegorize the owner as God!): this throws the emphasis even more strongly onto the gardener's tender care to give the tree what it needs to become fruit-bearing. The upshot of the parable is a surprising insight into God's tender loving-kindness to provide us everything we need to be co-creatively fruitful in ongoing life.

Taken together, the warning that all sinfulness leads to death and the parabolic picture of God-the-gardener tending us for life set us up for a deeper insight into the nature of repentance. Repentance is not only for the purpose of avoiding disastrous death, but is more truly for the purpose of embracing fuller life. God is not to be understood as a judge who must be placated before delivering a sentence of painful death, but is more truly known as the one who longs for us to be co-creatively fruitful in abundant life. And we ourselves, while we must acknowledge the truth of our sinfulness, are more truly known as ones beloved by God and called by God to good and delight and joy in the enacting of divine ideals. A Lenten sermon on repentance as the gateway to joy could do much with these themes.