Lectionary Commentaries for March 24, 2019
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:1-9

Ronald J. Allen

Over the years, I have heard a number of sermons on this passage that have missed the exegetical boat because they focused entirely on the question of the relationship between sin and suffering (Luke 13:2-5).

Preachers love to point out that Jesus denies that sin immediately caused the deaths of the Galileans and those at the tower of Siloam. To be sure, the relationship between sin and suffering is important, but it is secondary to the driving concern of Luke 13:1-9: to call people to repentance. By placing this passage in Lent, the lectionary views repentance as part of the church’s preparation for the Day of Resurrection.

Luke wrote the Gospel and Acts from a largely apocalyptic perspective. For apocalyptic theologians, the present (old) age is so broken that God must replace it with a new age (the Realm of God) in order to be faithful to God’s promises. Apocalyptic thinkers expect God to end the old and begin the new with a dramatic apocalypse. Writers in the Jesus tradition modify this scheme by seeing Jesus announcing the coming of the Realm and realizing it in a partial way until God will finally and fully manifest it at the second coming. The apocalypse will be accompanied by God’s final judgment when some are welcomed into the Realm and others are consigned to punishment.

Scholars rightly observe that Luke believes that God has delayed the second coming. One of Luke’s purposes in writing is to help the congregation maintain faith, life and witness during the delay. The delay gives people the opportunity to repent.

John the Baptist announces a key way in which people can prepare for the coming of the Realm: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8; see also 3:3). Some Christians think of repentance as feeling sorry for one’s personal sin.

While such perception can be a part of repentance, in the Bible repentance is much larger and often contains a corporate element. Indeed, repentance refers to individuals and communities turning away from things that violate God’s purposes (such as idolatry, injustice, and exploitation) and turning towards faithful living centered in worship of the most-high God and in the practice of justice, mutual commitment, and other values of living in covenant.

By using John the Baptist to introduce the ministry of Jesus, Luke signals that repentance is an essential step in the journey of the community towards the Realm of God. Jesus himself emphasizes this notion and gives it a full expression in Luke 13:1-9.

Luke 12:1-59 sets the stage for today’s text. The long interaction between Jesus and the disciples in 12:1-59 revolves around the theme of being ready for the apocalypse. Jesus admonishes the disciples to acknowledge Jesus (12:8-12), to be responsible stewards (12:13-21), to live in confidence in the provision of God (12:22-34), to be ready (12:35-40), to be faithful (12:41-48), to endure the social disruption of the last days (12:49-53), and to recognize the signs that the apocalypse is ahead (12:54-56). Jesus uses the example of settling a legal case before the case gets to court to encourage the disciples to take actions necessary to be part of the Realm. If they do not, they will pay the apocalyptic price (12:57-59).

At that moment, some people call Jesus’ attention to the Galileans whom Pilate had murdered (Luke 13:1). Their implied question is: Were those Galileans so much worse sinners than other Galileans that they were beyond the possibility of preparing for the Realm in the way Jesus had described in Luke 12:1-56? Jesus gives a straight forward answer: “No.” They were not killed because of their sin. They were brutally murdered by the Romans.

But Jesus uses the deaths of the Galileans to make a point. To expand slightly: Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did when the apocalypse occurs. In Luke-Acts, to repent is to turn away from the assumptions, attitudes and actions of the old age and to live towards the values and practices of the Realm of God as taught by Jesus and as embodied in the life of the church (the eschatological community) in Acts.

Luke follows the incident with the Galileans with a similar incident about the tower of Siloam killing eighteen people when it collapsed on them. They were no worse offenders than others in Jerusalem. But those who do not repent will perish as they did.

The purpose of the stories of the Galileans and those who died at Siloam is to stress the importance of repentance as a decisive step on the journey to the Realm. That action is necessary prelude to the life described in Luke 12:1-59. Without repentance and faithful witness, punishment awaits.

The parable of Luke 13:6-9 presses upon the listeners the importance of repenting soon. An owner planted a fig tree and, after three years, came looking for the fruit. Finding none, the owner commanded the gardener to cut it down because it was wasting the soil. The gardener, however, asks for another year to give the gardener time to prepare the soil. At the end of the year, if the tree does not bear fruit, it will be cut down.

The listeners in Luke’s community are in the position of the tree. The time has come for them to bear the fruit of repentance. God could already have ended the present age. However, God is giving them a little more time. While the second coming is delayed, the apocalypse and the moment of judgment are still ahead.

We can clearly see the importance of repentance in Acts 2:37-38. After Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the crowd asks, “What should we do?” Peter replies, “Repent, and be baptized … and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This theme recurs repeatedly in the Gospel and the Acts: Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 15:7, 10; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 5:31; 11:18; 13:24: 17:30; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20. As noted, repentance is the first step towards the Realm of God

Repentance is always in season. Yet, when people are in the somber, introspective days of Lent, the preacher has a particularly natural opportunity to invite listeners to conduct critical inventories of specific things for which to repent in their individual lives, households, congregation, and wider world. Once identified, the congregation can take the next steps: repent, and then bear the fruits of repentance.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-9

Christopher B. Hays

Isaiah 55 appears at the end of the so-called “Book of Comfort” (Isaiah 40-55), which is believed to be addressed to the exiles who were returning from Babylon.1

It appears that Isaiah 40-48 is addressed to them in Babylon, whereas chapters 49-55 may have been composed back in Jerusalem, against the background of the early Restoration period.

The opening verses, with their appeal to those who do not have money to buy bread and the basic needs of life, would probably have been quite relevant to those who returned to the land of Judah after 536 BCE. Despite the allowance of Cyrus and the Persian Empire for them to return, it was not a prosperous time. The city had not been rebuilt since its destruction by the Babylonians fifty years earlier, social and economic structures were weak, and there were struggles for the most desirable land between the returnees and those who had been in the land in the meantime. Later, in the fifth century, Nehemiah would report that common farming families were having to borrow money and grain to pay their taxes, and even selling their children into debt slavery (Nehemiah 5:1-12). If this in some way reflects sixth-century conditions earlier as well, then the invitation to eat and drink without paying would have been both gracious and exceedingly welcome.

It is still the case today that help given without expectation of reward is viewed as more virtuous, and even Cyrus answers to this standard in Isaiah 45:13, in which the Lord says that the Persian emperor will “build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward.”

The exhortations to listen (Isaiah 55:3), to seek the Lord (verse 6), and to choose between wickedness and the way of the Lord (verse 7) all show the passage’s connections with wisdom traditions. The invitation issued by Isaiah 55 is similar to that of Woman Wisdom to her table: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5-6). These passages emphasize the choices a person faces in the course of a life, and they portray the divine summons as working through appeal and persuasion rather than command.

The allusion to the “eternal covenant” opens out onto a rich intertextual panorama. The same phrase is used for the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:16, and it is common found in priestly texts (for example: Genesis 17:7, 13, 19; Leviticus 24:8; Exodus 31:16; Ezekiel 16:60; 37:26). However, the phrase also occurs in Psalm 105:8-11 (and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 16:17) where it refers to the Abrahamic covenant. In addition, the “eternal covenant” appears in 2 Samuel 23:5 referring to the Davidic covenant, and in Jeremiah 32:40; 50:5 referring to Jeremiah’s new covenant (compare to Jeremiah 31:31-33). The “eternal covenant” was thus a longstanding and adaptable tradition, but the idea that the people were people bound to the Lord forever would have been more remarkable than ever in light of the trauma that the people had been through. That such a faith survived the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is one of the wonders of religious history.

The Davidic figure envisioned in Isaiah 55:3-4 is supposed to be not only a leader and commander, but also “a witness to the peoples.” That phrase evokes the “Servant songs” of Second Isaiah — especially Isaiah 42:1-7 and Isaiah 49:1-6, where the servant is called “a light to the nations.” (The songs describe a figure who is meant to restore the people, though their complexities have meant that the historical identification of the Servant has been essentially impossible.) In Isaiah 55:5, the leader is said to “call nations that you do not know,” so that “nations that do not know you shall run to you.”

The question of the nations’ significance and role was a major one for the authors of the later parts of the book of Isaiah — understandable for people who had found themselves and their kinsmen scattered more widely than ever before and swept along with the currents of international history. Images of the nations streaming to the Lord in Zion are common (Isaiah 49:22-23; 60:1-16) are common, though this was not to be taken as an entirely gracious invitation. Rather, the nations are called to submit; they stand under the judgment, and possibly the wrath, of the Lord (Isaiah 45:22-24; 52:10-12).

Another important theme introduced by Isaiah 55:5 is the question of who has knowledge. In point of fact, one could preach an entire sermon series on the use of the verb “to know” in the book of Isaiah. Its significance is signaled from the outset, in Isaiah 1:3 — “Israel does not know!” — and it recurs 76 times in the book as a whole. Those who oppose and ignore the Lord — from foreign nations to the people of Israel and Judah — are repeatedly inveighed against. The question is repeatedly posed to every reader and hearer: “Have you not known?” (Isaiah 40:21, 28). The Lord, however, needs no teacher of knowledge (Isaiah 40:13-14); God alone knows all things from beginning to end (Isaiah 41:20-26; 48:6-8). As in Isaiah 55:5, the Lord may be gracious to those who do not know, as he is to Cyrus (Isaiah 45:3-5), but even here the goal of God’s grace and mission is so that the world may know (Isaiah 45:6; 49:23; 52:6; 60:16; 61:9; 64:2[ET]; 66:14). This is only a partial sketch of a pervasive theme.

Related to the theme of knowledge is the divine plan, manifested in Isaiah 55:11 in the creative power of the word of God: “it shall accomplish that which I purpose.” The Hebrew verb translated as “purpose” can also mean “to will,” “to want,” and “to take pleasure in.” When the church prays, “Thy will be done,” we are simply joining their own will to the divine will that Isaiah repeatedly says must be done. Perhaps the most striking example is Isaiah 46:9-10:

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfill my intention.’

Concepts of monotheism, divine knowledge, and predestination are intertwined in that statement, and theologians ever since have wrestled with the same complex of ideas: If God is the only god, how could anything subvert God’s will? How could God know everything unless God also foreordained it?

It is not necessary to abstract doctrines of divine omniscience and omnipotence from passages like these, but they are understandable conclusions. It is important, then, to note that they are invoked by the Isaianic author in the interest of comforting the people: “let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). Since these same theological perspectives were emphasized especially by John Calvin as the doctrine of “double predestination” (for example, predestination of some to salvation and others to damnation), their negative ramifications have been so frequently remarked upon as to be a cliché: “What sort of cruel God would condemn people to eternal damnation before they were ever born?”

That does not seem to have been the intended meaning either for Calvin or for the author(s) of Isaiah. Both of them emphasized the gap in knowledge and perception between God and humankind. In Isaiah 55:8-9, the thoughts and ways of the Lord are placed on an entirely different level from those of humans; they differ not in degree but in kind. One might compare Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12: “we know only in part… For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Thus, if some are damned, then God foreknew their fate — but humans do not and cannot know, and so are called to hope for everyone. Calvin wrote: “Ignorance of things which we are not able, or which it is not lawful to know, is learning, while the desire to know them is a species of madness. … [B]ecause we know not who belongs to the number of the predestinated, or does not belong, our desire ought to be that all may be saved” (Institutes 3.23.8, 14).


1 Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 17, 2017.


Commentary on Psalm 63:1-8

Amanda Benckhuysen

Following the superscription, it is not hard to imagine David giving voice to this prayer in the Judean wilderness, on the run from his enemies.

The Judean wilderness is a hot, dry, and barren land that has little capacity to sustain life. Basic resources like food and water are scarce. In this context, we can imagine David’s physical thirst. We can feel his physical hunger. And yet, in the psalm, the psalmist’s physical needs only serve to draw attention to his spiritual longing. “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

Far away from the temple, the psalmist feels spiritually distant from God. He longs to experience the immediacy and intimacy with God that he had known previously when he worshipped God among his people and in the sanctuary of his house. This, for the psalmist, being close to God, knowing God’s presence and his steadfast love is better than life itself. It is as satisfying to the soul as food is to the hungry. In the words of Isaiah 55, “Why spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? (verse 2).” Instead, “seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (verse 6). In his testimony, the psalmist lives and breathes these words.

The psalmist’s desire for God is so fundamental that in lieu of eating the choicest of foods, the psalmist directs his mouth to bless the Lord as long as he lives (verse 5). In place of using his hands to feed himself, he lifts them up in praise to the Lord (verse 4). Instead of dreaming about wealth or reputation or power when he goes to bed or when he stands guard in the night, the psalmist focuses his thoughts on God (verse 6). All of the psalmist’s faculties are put in the service of drawing near to and glorifying the Lord.

While the lectionary leaves out the last verses of this psalm, they suggest that the psalmist is being hunted down and under attack from those who would seek to harm him. Given this context, the psalmist’s longing for and pursuit of God reflects a deep expression of trust. For what is strikingly absent from this psalm is any attention to the psalmist’s earthly needs or distress. Perhaps the psalmist knows instinctively that in clinging to God, God will uphold him. Words of petition and lament are not required. The Lord knows the troubles of the psalmist and the psalmist is confident that he will act to ensure that those who oppress and persecute him shall meet their just reward.

Read in the context of Lent, this psalm models a spiritual devotion that Lenten disciplines seek to cultivate — a thirsting after God. It does this by contrasting various outlets for human desire and nurturing in us a desire for God. To love and desire is inherent to what it means to be human. We don’t choose “whether we love, but what we love.”1 And what we choose to love, how we direct our desires, is often shaped by the values, expectations, and practices of the cultures in which we participate.  

In North America, one dominant feature of our culture which has significant influence over what we love is consumer capitalism and the values, expectations, and practices associated with it. In such a system, human beings receive their value from their participation in a system of production and consumption. People are assessed for what they contribute to the economy, either by making money or spending it. It is a script, a liturgy even, that many of us participate in without a second thought. And it is this liturgy that directs our desires and shapes our loves to constantly want more.

Individually, we spend our lives protecting what we have and working to acquire what we don’t yet have. Collectively, this liturgy affects how we engage contemporary issues related to the environment, immigration, healthcare, and international relations. The point is that this liturgy prioritizes our relationship to stuff so that the way we think about the world, the decisions we make, the very shape our lives revolves around the impulse toward protectionism and greater and greater acquisition.

Psalm 63 functions a counter-liturgy to the liturgy of consumer capitalism, schooling our hearts in the things of God so that what we long for, what we seek, what we desire is not more of the world, but more of God. While the whole book of Psalms is meant to disciple us in an alternative set of values, expectations, and practices that reflect God’s heart for the world, this psalm is the most explicit about directing our desire away from the things of the world and toward the things of God.

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips” (verse 5). This, for the psalmist, is the vision of the good life. And it is a vision that is painted in such a way as to nurture in us our desire for that which the psalmist himself longs, to be in the presence of God, beholding his power and glory.

In this season of Lent, Psalm 63 invites us to re-center our values, expectations, and practices on the only one who is truly worthy of our desire and our love. For as the psalmist notes, in him our restless wandering hearts will be stayed and we will find rest for our souls.


  1. James Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 52.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Bryan J. Whitfield

“I can handle it. I’ve got this covered. No need to worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

That is the gist of the position of some Corinthian believers. They boast about their own knowledge, ability, and resources. But underneath these claims, Paul perceives their self-deception and arrogance (I Corinthians 3:18). He writes as their “father through the gospel” (3:15) to warn them of danger.

In crafting his letter, Paul responds to reports from Chloe’s people (1:11) and to a list of issues the Corinthians raised: marriage and singleness (7:1-40), eating food offered to idols (8:1-10:33), worship (11:1-34), spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40), the resurrection (15:1-58), and the collection for the saints (16:1-4).

Food offered to idols

The second issue — eating food offered to idols — has divided the congregation. Some eat from these sacrifices, but others consider eating that food to be wrong. Paul acknowledges the position of those who insist “no idol in the world exists” (8:4). But he cautions them not to use their liberty at the expense of others whose conscience is weak (8:7). He himself sets aside his own rights for the sake of the gospel (9:1-27).

Then Paul steps up his argument, contending that eating food offered to idols is dangerous for all. He draws on the example of the people of Israel during their journey from Sinai to the promised land, concluding that the Corinthians “must flee from the worship of idols” (10:14).

Israel in the desert

Paul sketches the foundation of the Israelites’ journey (10:1-5) and then provides specific examples (10:6-11). When the people began their escape from Egypt, “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day” (Exodus 13:21), and they passed through the waters of the sea (Exodus 14:22). As a result, all of them experienced God’s presence and deliverance, a baptism “into Moses” (10:2). The apostle coins this phrase to parallel the Corinthians’ baptism “into Christ Jesus” by water and the Holy Spirit (12:13).

On their journey, all of the Israelites received the same spiritual food in the heavenly gift of bread from heaven (Exodus 16:14-18). They all drank the same spiritual drink when water flowed from the rock (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:7-11; Psalm 78:15-16). Like the manna, that gift of water was not a solitary event. Paul, as later rabbis will do, argues the Israelites kept on drinking because the spiritual rock followed them (10:3-4). Because Paul knows Jewish traditions that Wisdom directed the exodus and because he identifies Christ as the Wisdom of God (1:24), he concludes that “the rock was Christ” (10:4).1

Despite these gifts of deliverance and sustenance, God was not pleased with most of the Israelites, as shown by the fact that they were “struck down in the wilderness” (10:5).

In the verses that follow (10:6-13), Paul explains why. The experience of these spiritual forebears provides patterns of behavior the Corinthians must avoid. Like the Israelites, they have received baptism and spiritual food and drink. But they also face similar temptations. Paul sketches five warnings to drive home his point.

Five warnings

First, Paul warns against desiring evil things (10:6). The word for “desire” is “crave,” recalling the craving of some Israelites for meat that resulted in their death and burial in the “graves of craving” (Numbers 11:4-35). Wrong desire brought death.

Second, Paul warns against idolatry (10:7). He quotes Exodus 32:6, a verse that summarizes the behavior of the Israelites who had made the golden calf. Although they had received spiritual food and drink on their journey, they doubted God’s faithfulness and began to eat and drink as they worshipped an idol.

Third, Paul warns against immorality (10:8), reminding the Corinthians of God’s judgment against the Israelite men who had sexual relations with the women of Moab. These men participated in the sacrifices to their idols and ate from the sacrifices (Numbers 25:1-9).

Fourth, Paul warns against testing God (10:9). When the people of Israel tested God’s patience by complaining — once again — that they had no bread and water, deadly snakes bit and killed many of them (Numbers 21:4-6).

Fifth, Paul warns against grumbling (10:10). Complaining and murmuring about food and drink (Exodus 15:24; 16:2-8; 17:3; Numbers 11:1-6) or leadership (Numbers 14:2-36; 16:11, 41; 17:5) characterized the Israelites throughout their journey, leading to the death of many.

All these episodes, Paul concludes, were written to warn the Corinthians, who like Paul now live in the time of the overlap between the old age — that has not yet ended — and the new age which has already begun with the death and resurrection of Christ (10:11). The final verses of the passage make Paul’s argument clear. When the Corinthians arrogantly presume that they are safe in the face of idolatry, thinking that they “stand” (10:12), they are in danger of death and destruction.

But Paul does not stop with the warning. Just as he began with a reminder that God delivered and sustained the people of Israel on their journey, the apostle concludes with a reassuring word about God’s initiative of grace. The temptations the Corinthians face are the common lot of human beings, and God will not permit that testing to surpass their ability to resist (10:13). In the face of temptation, God will provide a way out, strengthening and equipping them to bear it.

What about us?

Our outward expressions of idolatry may differ from those of the Corinthians, but our desires for acceptance, power, prestige, wealth, and power betray us still. We still need this word from Paul about the temptations that we, like our spiritual forebears, face. And we still need the word of grace that the God who has called us on our journey of faith still accompanies us and proves ever faithful to give us a way out of the temptation to idolatry that those desires place before us.


  1. Carl Holladay, The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1979), 125, who cites Wisdom of Solomon 11:1-4 and Sirach 15:3.