Lectionary Commentaries for February 28, 2016
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:1-9

Matt Skinner

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling? Not here. This time it’s loudly and pointedly.1

This passage divides into two parts, verses 1-5 and verses 6-9. I treat them in sequence, but we will see that they relate closely to one another.

Tragedies du Jour (13:1-5)

The passage refers to two events that were probably familiar to ancient audiences. The details, however, have been lost to time, for Luke is our only source of information about these tragedies.

The grisly mention of Pilate’s mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. The narrative does not reveal why Pilate slaughtered these people, but the deed nevertheless corresponds with what other historical writings tell about Pilate’s penchant for brutality. The verse offers an ominous characterization of the Roman governor in advance of his appearance in Jesus’ trial (see the Gospel text for Passion/Palm Sunday, Luke 22:14-23:56).

Perhaps Jesus refers to a tower in the wall around Jerusalem when he speaks of “the tower of Siloam.” Apparently a structure collapsed without warning and crushed eighteen hapless Jerusalemites.

When Bad Things Happen to Unsuspecting People (13:1-5, continued)

Jesus seizes on two calamities that may have been subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole–one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, one a random accident. Both saw people snuffed out with little warning and for no clearly apparent reason. Both kinds of events lead the rest of us to realize how precarious our existence is. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise. He characterizes life as just as capricious as it is (to paraphrase Hobbes) nasty, brutish, and short.

Although these events might allow Jesus an opportunity to defend God against charges of mismanaging the universe, he does not go that route. Jesus only implies that we must not equate tragedy with divine punishment. Sin does not make atrocities come. They just come.

Life’s fragility gives it urgency. Jesus turns attention away from disasters, victims, and “why?” questions to address those of us who thus far have survived the hazards of the universe and human society. We should not mistake our good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing.

Jesus wants to talk about repentance. The need for repentance is a universal condition, shared by random victims and finger-crossing survivors. When Jesus says, twice, “unless you repent you will all perish” like the others did, he does not promise that the godless will be struck by an asteroid. He refers to death in an eschatological sense, a destruction of one’s soul (compare Luke 9:24; Luke 17:33). He emphasizes the suddenness with which this death comes. Just as Pilate’s and the tower’s victims did not enjoy the luxury of choosing the time of their demise, likewise the unrepentant will suddenly find they have delayed too long and lost themselves.

Is Jesus exploiting tragedy to score theological points? It certainly looks as though he capitalizes on the memory of recent horrors to stress the suddenness of death and the unpredictability of life. We are justly made wary by the fear mongering that unashamed evangelists whip up after every natural and unnatural disaster. But notice that Jesus’ approach follows a slightly different path. He does not promise freedom from calamity, but urges his hearers against false self-assurances. If life’s fragility demands urgency, that urgency shows that life itself has carved out opportunity for us to seize God’s graciousness, as the following parable suggests.

When Good Things Happen to an Unsuspecting Fruit Tree (13:6-9)

Jesus’ short parable about a fig tree speaks of imminent judgment. (Recall John the Baptizer using similar images in Luke 3:9: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”)

The parable reinforces ideas from the first half of this passage. A cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit (an image of repentance, according to Luke 3:8), the result will be its just and swift destruction.

Like Jesus’ earlier words in response to the recent tragedies, the parable warns against false reassurance. Just because you have not been cut down, do not presume that you are bearing fruit.

The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial characterization of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave people to their own resources but encourages their repentance.

Allegorical interpretations of this parable are unnecessary. Identifying the vineyard owner as God, the gardener as Jesus, and the tree as whoever it is we wish would hurry up and repent–this strips the parable of its force and produces theological confusion. Nowhere else does Luke imply that Jesus pacifies a God who is too eager to clean house.

Instead, the parable’s power comes through the suspense it generates. Will fruit emerge in time to thwart the ax? How will this season of second chances play itself out? How do the gardener’s efforts make the tree’s existence a state of grace and opportunity?


Repentance becomes less interesting when people mistake it to mean moral uprightness, expressions of regret, or a “180-degree turnaround.” Rather, here and many other places in the Bible, it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective. It means similar things in other contexts from the wider Greek literary world.

In Luke-Acts, “repentance” also has moral applications (and connections to forgiveness–see Luke 24:47), but it cannot be reduced to a reengineered life and ethics. Sometimes it is presented as something given, or accomplished, by God (see Acts 5:31; 11:18). It can be more about being found than about finding oneself (see Luke 15:1-10). It refers to an entirely reoriented self, to a new consciousness of one’s shortcomings and one’s dire circumstances. Of course, this has moral consequences (on “fruit” and “deeds” consistent with repentance, see Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20). But morality is hardly the horse that pulls the cart.

In this passage the need for repentance is assumed and so it takes a backseat in emphasis to the urgency of Jesus’ call. Tragedy and hardship have their ways of nudging people toward God, but these verses suggest that tragedy and hardship come so suddenly that they often mark the end, not the beginning, of our opportunities to live lives inclined toward God. Don’t let the introspective and pensive nature of Lent divert attention from the exigency of our condition.

Jesus’ words about judgment and repentance are scary, yet they depict human life as a gift, albeit a fragile one. Vulnerable creatures that we are, we can presume little and do little to preserve ourselves. Too many Lenten observances assume that taking our humanity seriously requires morose expressions of piety. But the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy. And it finds grace experienced within the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence.

In the Aftermath of the Haitian Earthquake

In the aftermath of natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, it bears repeating that Jesus does not explain the causes of violence that nature and human beings regularly inflict upon unsuspecting people. He does not blame victims. He does not attempt to defend creation or the Creator when “why?” questions seem warranted. At least in this scene, he offers no theological speculation and inflicts no emotional abuse. He asks, with an urgency fueled by raw memories of blood and rubble on the ground: What about you? How will you live the life you get to live?

For people of faith, catastrophes like those recently raise all sorts of questions that deserve discussion and drive us to mourn and lament. A sermon that remains true to the movement of this biblical text, however, will focus primarily on the fact that tragedies arrest our attention. They shake us out of the complacencies or stupor that we use to get through ordinary life. They impress upon us, better than any preacher’s words, the perils of our existence. But tragedies also lead many of us who observe such events at a distance–through word of mouth or round-the-clock newsfeeds — to protect ourselves with rationalizations and false assurances.

Those preaching on this passage might do well to press these questions: Do we build our lives upon those rationalizations that allow us to get through the day feeling blessed, safe, and able to presume upon a better fortune than that of our Haitian sisters and brothers — both the victims and the still-impoverished and perpetually at-risk survivors? Or, do we build our lives on the knowledge that God’s judgment is certain? Do we build them on the efforts that God, like the parable’s gardener, undertakes to prepare us for that judgment? God transforms us through grace, a grace that calls us to be generous toward those still trapped under the weight of poverty, want, and devastation of all kinds.


1. A version of this commentary was first published on this site on March 7, 2010. 

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-9

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

Chapter 55 serves as the conclusion to the section of Isaiah frequently dubbed “Deutero-Isaiah” (chapters 40-55).1

This chapter must be read, understood, and considered in light of the beautiful, poetic language characteristic of this entire section. Within this collection, the nations are put to trial (chapter 41), idols are mocked (chapter 46), and the servant is called forth. But all of this must be heard in light of chapter 40 and the announcement of a new exodus back to Jerusalem where the “glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together” (40:5). Chapter 55 returns to the theme of a new exodus but with new themes articulated.

Within verses 1-3a, the author employs twelve imperatives — prompting, calling, and urging the faithful recognize the fullness of this moment and the fullness of God. In the ancient world, when a new king would assume the throne he would often issue a mišarum edict, declaring a release from all debts. As part of this edict, the king would also call for a great banquet to be enjoyed by the people of that kingdom. Both events, the edict and the banquet, signaled a new day under a new king. The opening lines of chapter 55 remind the hearer of such a banquet and more importantly, the signaling of a new day. 

Verse 1 calls the people to the waters. No doubt, the reference to “waters” is meant to allude to the waters of Jerusalem, the fructifying waters of Zion, mentioned in other biblical texts (cf. Ezekiel 47: 1-12; Joel 3:18; Zechariah 14:1-11). The significance of these verses is not in what is served at this great banquet (wine, milk, bread and rich food), but the fact that it is the provision of Yahweh for thirsty people (cf. Psalm 42).

Do these verses refer to material provision or spiritual provision? The answer seems to be “yes.”  Earlier in Isaiah (8:7; 12:15), the joy of Israel is said to be eating and drinking before the Lord — basking in the fullness of God. Obviously the first two verses have a metaphorical thrust, but in some ways, the metaphor functions as a double entendre, reminding them of the joy of eating and drinking in the presence of God.

The call for them to “listen” to Yahweh in verse 2b suggests that more than just material provision is in view. The people are to listen to what Yahweh is about to say, suggesting that the word of Yahweh is indeed the “stuff” of life.  Such a point is made even clearer in 3a: “Listen, so that you may live.” For a people who had drunk deeply from the waters of deportation, exile, and estrangement, this invitation to return to the waters of Zion signaled a new day.

The word of the LORD is announced to the people in verses 3b-5. In chapters 40-54, David or the Davidic line is not in view; the emphasis is on the future restoration of God’s people. In verse 3b, however, the author invokes the name of David, and even the everlasting covenant made with David, yet instead of announcing a coming king out of the line of David, the author makes a radical move. The everlasting covenant made with David (2 Samuel 7) is now transferred to the people. The covenant demands assumed by the Lord in 2 Samuel do not become a relic of antiquity, but they become newly activated within the lives of that generation. Just as David had been a witness, leader, and commander for the peoples, so too shall this new generation of servants (54:17) be. These servants will work with the Lord in creating a rightly ordered world — one expressly envisioned later in chapter 65.

Verses 6-7 call the people to repentance. Such a call may seem strangely placed in this chapter, but it signals again the openness of God for the future of his people. In verses 3b-5, the Lord has announced the plan for his people; verses 6-7 stand as an open invitation to those who desire to participate. Even for the wicked and the unrighteous, there is hope. If they return to him, he freely forgives. They too will be included in this work of God.

The statements of God given in verses 8-9 no doubt anticipate questions that may result from the word from the Lord. What happened to the Davidic line and the promises to them? How can the Davidic covenant be given to the servants? How can God allow the wicked and the unrighteous to be a part of this new work?

The response is found in the affirmation that God’s thoughts are not human thoughts, nor are human ways God’s ways. Such verses are often taken out of context and applied to a myriad of circumstances, but here the meaning is rather straightforward. What may appear altogether unlikely may in fact be the faithfulness of God to his own plans and purposes.

The themes in Isaiah reflect the overall thrust of Lent. In some sense, Lent is an invitation to thirst. Those who truly thirst and who truly hunger for God and the ways of God (Matthew 5) understand this invitation. The invitation, though, is to do more than simply drink from the waters (verse 1), but it is to participate in the work of God. It is a work directed at more than simply the interior life, but a work that begins in the interior and has implications for all of God’s world (verse 5).

Lent calls us to “seek the Lord” and to “call upon him” (verse 6). Lent is an invitation and a reminder that this surprising work of God is open to us all — wicked and unrighteous alike — if we will return to the God who abundantly pardons.


1 This commentary was first published on this site on March 7, 2010.


Commentary on Psalm 63:1-8

Beth L. Tanner

The psalm opens with longing.

By longing, I do not mean what this consumer-driven culture tells us that we want. I mean real longing. When is the last time you longed for something or someone? Maybe it was a partner far away by necessity or a child across the country in school or a long-deceased parent. This type of longing is born out of a relationship of love and support. A relationship full of memories and moments shared. This psalm invites us into that same longing for our God. Its first words are personal, “O God, you are my God.” Lent reminds us of the personal and intimate connection we share with Christ. We are called to remember our longing for communion with God.

This one “thirsts” and “faints” to be with God and equates this feeling to a cry parched land seeking life-giving water. The opening verse reminds us that we are to be an active participant in our relationship with God. This is not simply an intellectual pursuit; it is a deep abiding spiritual need. Our need for communion with God is compared here with our absolute need for life-sustaining water. Our bodies are 60 percent water and so our chances of survival without it diminishes significantly after three days. This prayer notes that our spiritual survival will not be long without being fed by our relationship with God. God’s presence is as life-sustaining as water and food.

Verse 2 is one of remembrance of God. Longing activates those memories and this prayer draws us to remember God’s power/strength/might and God’s honor, or in the Hebrew God’s “heaviness.” We are invited to imagine the greatness of God and the weightiness of God’s purposes. God’s decisions on our behalf to save us through great sacrifice may be the “heaviest” of all of God’s acts. It reminds us that this sacrifice was not entered into lightly and that God’s heart is heavy and laden with pain. God has the greatest power in the world, but instead of a world where we serve God, God chooses a life of service and salvation for the world. The memories are ones of power and importance given in service to us and there is nothing to do in the face of this but wonder and express grateful awe.

The prayer continues this theme praising God’s great love or hesed is said to be “better than life.” Hesed is the definition of this decision of God’s to serve and love. It is the “heaviest” of God’s attributes because God’s unconditional love of us costs God a great deal. The prayer reminds us that it is better than life because it transcends life. It was there at the beginning when God’s love proved stronger than God’s anger in the Garden, and it continued to the Cross and beyond. It is what will welcome us home into the arms of God at our earthy death.

God’s ways are a reason to praise and bless God’s name (vv. 2-3). We could spend our lives trying to contemplate such love, but the magnitude of it is beyond our understanding. We can do nothing but offer praise and wonder at the depth of God’s mercy. And this is what the next verses do. Praise is not an end unto itself; praise brings us back to the contemplation of what God has done. These final verses move from the contemplation of God’s great acts for all back to where the psalm began, with God’s personal involvement with the one. Meditation on God brings memories of God’s help in times past. God has been this one’s “help” (v. 6), “wings” (v. 7) that protect, and the one to whom this one “clings” (v. 8). The intimacy at the beginning is seen here in the last verses of the reading. This is a psalm that praises God’s faithfulness and love through the generations but the intimacy reminds us that God’s acts are not only communal, but also very personal.

The psalm integrates well with the Isaiah text. It could be seen as the response to the cry of the prophet that invites those in need to come to God for rest and refreshment. If Isaiah is the call to believe in the promises of God, then the psalm is the answer from the one who trusts God to provide. It also speaks of the relationship Jesus is referring to in the Luke text. Faith is not about avoiding the judgment of God; it is about a relationship where one repents of their selfish inclinations and enters into a lasting relationship with God. Indeed, the parable of the fig tree returns us to the beginning of the psalm. Without tending, the relationship withers and the result is alienation and spiritual death. God tends to one side; it remains our responsibility to tend actively to our part of that relationship. What better time than the season of Lent to remember again and again God’s power and heaviness that is given freely for us.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Shively Smith

“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful … ” (1 Corinthians 10:13a)

Language of “testing”: Paul and the modern reader

The usefulness of the language of “testing” in 1 Corinthians 10 can be contested in our modern world. For some, the idea that testing and suffering is common to the human condition and that God remains constant in spite of trouble is comforting. It eases feelings of isolation, marginality, conflict, loss, and unmerited attack. In turn, it inspires hope that life’s difficulties are temporary, giving way to new moments of revitalization, peace, and stability. Testing provides assurance that although the world is temporal and changeable, God remains immovable.

For others, the language of testing and suffering have divine merit and support is disturbing, even dangerous. For instance, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a woman is assaulted or beaten every 9 seconds in the USA. In one year, nearly 10 million women and men are physically abused by intimate partners. Can we make peace with this kind of “testing” that impacts 10 million people in the US? Is this the kind of “testing” common to everyone?

The idea that Paul puts forward a so-called “biblical principal” of testing is not as easy to grasp as perhaps we first thought. What is the nature of “testing” for Paul in this passage? In 1 Corinthians, Paul is working with a very specific meaning of “testing” (or “temptation” as some translations render it). Paul’s discussion is not referencing the occurrence of random and unexpected life events. Rather, Paul is referring to challenges that strain one’s loyalty to God and her or his community.

Literary Context of 1 Corinthians 10

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 falls within the question-answer section of the Corinthian letter. Paul is in the midst of responding to questions and issues the Corinthians have posed to him in a previous correspondence (1 Corinthians 7:1). This particular Lenten passage falls within the section where Paul is discussing how the church should handle meat sacrificed to idols in particular (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1). Interestingly, it falls right before Paul addresses particular issues disrupting the worship experience of the community (1 Corinthians 11:2-34).

More broadly, Paul is actually discussing communal fellowship and hospitality. Paul is discussing with the Church of Corinth what is most important when believers gather. What is the task of the believing community as one body? What are the do’s and don’ts of our fellowship with each other and God? The entire conversation highlights the difficulty of blending into one collective, people from diverse cultural backgrounds, varied social locations, and conflicting sentiments.

Paul’s interpretative approach

Our section serves as the second of two digressions in Paul’s response to the Corinthians. The first digression is when Paul defends his apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:1-27). In our passage, Paul turns to providing a midrashic reading of Jesus Christ as the spiritual rock (1 Corinthians 10:4). Midrash is interpretation (or reinterpretation actually) of fixed canonical texts. In Jewish rabbinic tradition, it takes on many forms, such as running commentary or allegorical interpretation.

In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul’s midrashic exercise takes on the form of typological interpretation. Here, Paul draws a correspondence between the earlier tradition of the Israelite’s Exodus story and Moses and the Corinthian’s present situation and their profession of faith (1 Corinthians 10:1-7).1

Throughout this passage, Paul describes the inherited tradition — the story of Exodus and Israel’s wandering in the wilderness — as examples of what not to do (1 Corinthians 10:6-7, 9, 10). Paul appeals to the Jewish ancestors’ experience as his pedagogical strategy (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:22). He rehearses past failures to instruct the Corinthians on what errors to avoid. The Corinthians should not repeat the blunders of the past.

The meaning of “Testing” in 1 Corinthians

Language of testing or temptation appears in verb and noun form (peirazo, peiramos) in several places in Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:9, 13). Paul is clear such challenges come from a source other than God. Testing is not what the believers seek out or chooses for themselves. It is also not something they rejoice in and celebrate. Rather, testing is a part of the everyday dealings of life. Testing requires preparation and clarity about its purpose in the life of the believing community.

For Paul, believers can collectively prepare to manage the challenges that will inevitably arise. In 1 Corinthians 7:5, while addressing marital relations, Paul says, “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Paul views testing as a collective challenge, put to a pair or in the case of 1 Corinthians 10, a community. As such, the community prepares, in advance, to respond faithfully when the gauntlet of temptation, testing, and challenge is thrown down. The assurance they have is that God provides as way out.

The image of exodus as an act of departing, frames the entire passage. Paul opens with images from Israel’s Exodus account, depicting their failure to remain faithful to God as a warning. He reminds his readers of the ways the Israelites tested God and were unfaithful to their Deliverer (cf. Exodus 16:4). One error they should not seek to repeat is to test Christ, as their forbearers tested God (1 Corinthians 10:9). Paul also ends with the image of exodus, depicting God as one who faithfully supplies a way out for the community as they face temptation and testing (1 Corinthians 10:13).

During the Lenten season let this passage be a reminder of our communal journey. Our season of penitence, fasting, and reflection will continue and Paul’s voice reminds us that we, as the gathered community, journey together in this faithful walk. We do not journey alone. Our faith is a communal faith.

We respond to life’s ups and downs, joys and sorrows, expected and unexpected happenings as a unified body that transcends time and location. Though we are diverse in settings, ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, and experiences, Paul reminds us that God is faithful to us as one body. In light of Paul’s words in 10:13a, we should be faithful to one another as God is faithful to us. We should be willing to walk with one another through these testing periods. It is how we embody that communal journeying in a way that produces health and wholeness for all and at the same time honors God and the ancestors of our corporate faith and respective communities. Let us journey through testing and journey to faithfulness.


James L. Bailey and Lyle D. Vander Broek. Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 42-48.