Lectionary Commentaries for March 3, 2013
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:1-9

Arland J. Hultgren

Trying to interpret the times theologically can often be off the mark.

Prior to this incident and parable — just a few verses earlier — Jesus spoke to crowds following him, telling them that they are good about interpreting the weather, and then asked them, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56).

Some in the crowd quickly rose to the occasion, stating a case of unjust suffering with the implication that Jesus should interpret its meaning. They told him about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate had murdered in a ghastly event. No question is stated explicitly, but a question is surely implied. What is one to make of that? Did those Galileans deserve it? Was Pilate the instrument of divine judgment against them and consequent punishment?

Those who raise the implied question can hardly be faulted. They represent the usual, or at least a familiar, point of view that says: There is a reason for human suffering, and it usually has to do with something in the past of a person’s life, something that is evil.

The assumption is that we live in a universe of rewards and punishments. That way of thinking is reflected within the Bible itself. The book of Job is a particularly eloquent case. Job suffered severe losses (family, property, and health), and he carried on a long verbal interchange with three friends (Job 3-28). According to Job’s friends, he must have done something wrong to deserve his suffering. Against them, Job claims that he is innocent.

Within the New Testament, the disciples of Jesus ask him, when they encountered a blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus replied that neither the man nor his parents had sinned so as to cause the blindness.

The implied question is met head-on by Jesus. He declares that the Galileans who suffered were no worse sinners than anyone else. And he adds to their illustration one of his own. He refers to an accident in Jerusalem. Eighteen persons died when a tower fell on them. Those persons were no worse than anyone else. The accident was random. Anyone happening to be at the wrong place at the wrong time can be the victim of an accident.

The question of the justice of God (theodicy) persists into the present day. To think that human suffering is due to divine punishment for sin, or perhaps to some unknown flaw or secret misdeed, is too simple, but familiar. In fact, it is one of the most widely held “theological propositions” that exists in popular thinking by persons who would not regard themselves as theologians per se, but as believers in any case. It is the quick remedy to explain illness and death.

Of course we know that there are cases where cause and effect can be established between risky behaviors and their consequences. Within the Bible itself there are passages that speak of sin leading to divine punishment (Exodus 15:26; 20:5; Psalm 107:17; Jeremiah 31:30). That’s fair enough. But that is not the issue in all cases. The idea that suffering in general is due to personal sinful deeds is the issue that needs to be addressed. There, as in the case of Job and in the teachings of Jesus, the idea does not hold up.

The interchange between Jesus and his hearers concerning the Galileans and the victims of the tower’s falling (which, by the way, are incidents otherwise unknown in ancient sources) are occasions for Jesus to make a point. The sentences in 13:3 and 13:5 are virtually identical: “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Jesus does not make a well-worked out analogy. He does not say: “Just as innocent people suffer randomly, as in the two cases mentioned, so you, though innocent, can expect to suffer too.” Rather, he takes the occasion of two local stories about human tragedy to speak about another tragedy that could happen, unless things change. In other words, the interchange concerning two local tragedies, commonly thought to indicate divine judgment, however wrong, becomes a teaching moment. It triggers an opportunity to speak of actual judgment.

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree that follows carries forward the message of judgment, but ends upon a note of grace. This time the dialogue is between a landowner and the man whom he has hired to be its caretaker. The landowner had planted a fig tree in his vineyard, and he figured that it was about time to gather figs from it. But taking a look, he found that the tree was barren. As a good steward of his land and crops, the land owner concludes that there are two problems at hand: (1) the tree is worthless, because it is barren for a third year in a row, and (2) it is taking up space that could otherwise be productive in the vineyard. It is time to cut it down.

The caretaker pleads for patience. Give it another year, he says. In the meantime he will loosen the soil around it and add fertilizer. It might still produce fruit in another year, and that would be good. There would be no need to replace the tree with another. And think of it: if the tree is replaced by another, the new tree would need several years to produce fruit. There is good reason to give this tree another chance. On the other hand, if it does not produce fruit in another year, then it can be cut down.

The implication to be drawn from the parable is that God is patient, which gives Jesus’ hearers time for repentance, but there is a limit.

The parable helps place God’s judgment and grace into a larger perspective. In the larger scheme of things, God’s grace is greater than God’s judgment. How could it be otherwise? Divine patience is simply another expression of God’s love and grace. But God’s grace is not to be understood as casual indulgence or indifference.

The apostle Paul put it this way: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4-5). Those who do not take the opportunity offered to repent can lose out in the end. As the caretaker puts it to the landowner, if the fig tree does not bear fruit in another year, go ahead and cut it down.

Taking into consideration the larger biblical witness, the life of the disciple of Jesus is to consist of daily repentance and renewal. Each day is a day of grace, providing the opportunity to repent — and then to bear fruits of repentance (Luke 3:8). Within the context of our pericope, those “fruits” are good deeds. Here there are endless possibilities. One cannot prescribe what they will be for all time prior to any particular situation; that would close down the limitless range of acts that people do in their own times and places. Nevertheless, they will be shaped by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” which includes love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and more (Galatians 5:22-23).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-9

Patricia Tull

 Isaiah 55:1-9 comprises most of the final hymn of the exilic portion of Isaiah (chapters 40-55, commonly called Second Isaiah), which invites exiles living outside of Judah in the sixth century B.C.E., at the dawn of Persian rule, to uproot themselves, move to a land their generation never knew, and reclaim their ancestral home. 

For more on the Babylonian exile and on Second Isaiah’s response to it see the discussion of Isaiah 43:1-7 on January 13, the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord.

Though a real event in an earthly world, the Babylonian exile of the Jews was portrayed in Scripture with such moving imagination that later readers saw in it much more than history. Poetry eloquently describing a pragmatic return from exile in spiritual terms soon came to be read as describing the spiritual journey of every believer from our various alienations to our home in God.

Second Isaiah constructs several bold arguments for this journey: to reclaim the legacy of Abraham and Sarah (Isaiah 41:8; 51:1-2); to reenact the exodus from Egypt so many centuries before (43:16-17; 51:9-10); to live out Israel’s role as God’s own creation (42:5-6; 43:1, 7, 15; 51:16). Here in chapter 55 the poet imagines repatriation as welcome to a bountiful feast of satisfying foods, hosted by none other than God.

The image of Judah’s land as one “flowing with milk and honey” (see Deuteronomy 26:9) is implicit in this invitation. In the book of Proverbs, Woman Wisdom speaks very similarly, preparing her food, setting her table, and sending her servant girls to fetch the ignorant, saying, “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). Just as Wisdom employs food as a metaphor for wise teaching, here God’s banquet not only recalls the promise of the land’s fertility but also the spiritual richness of life before God.

The bold exhortation embedded in verse one’s thrice-repeated imperative verb “come … come … come” is to choose well. Come to the water; come to the banquet; come buy without money. In other words, don’t take what has value and waste it on nothing. Don’t settle for what doesn’t feed; take only what is good. This theme of choice permeates the whole passage. Soon the food imagery recedes, and returning to the land is merged with returning to God (verses 6-7). Clear distinction between seeking God’s ways and failing to seek them is made in verses 8-9. Because God’s ways are so radically different from human ways, because God’s thoughts are not human thoughts, they won’t be found by any other means than through this Godward journey.

The chapter’s final four verses, 10-13, return to the theme of nutrition, as God’s own words are compared to the rain and snow that bring food from the ground. Mountains, hills, and trees — powerful figures of the natural world — are imagined singing and clapping in celebration when the exiles return. Verdancy quickly follows as cypress and myrtle appear. Isaiah 55 beckons its audience to choose to position themselves as recipients of God’s bounty, both physical and spiritual.

In light of this passage, it’s worthwhile to consider the economics of food and water. In Lamentations 5:2-4, conquered people had complained of the high cost of what had once been available for free:

Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers,

our homes to aliens.

 We have become orphans, fatherless;

our mothers are like widows.

 We must pay for the water we drink;

the wood we get must be bought.

Those who lost their heritage to encroaching foreigners were forced to pay money even for natural resources freely found by those owning property. Not only fuel, but even water, had been commodified. This harsh reality faced by the generation of the conquered makes the offer of free water, milk, food, and wine all the more moving.

What of the choices in our world? On a spiritual, individual plane we can certainly speak of the invitation to make healthy choices for one’s own soul, to choose what gives life, rather than what does not nourish, and to meet our gracious and giving God in that place. On a more literal plane we can point to the growing health crisis in America born of poor choices both individual and social.

We can point to the consumption of what writer and food activist Michael Pollan has called “food-like substances,” processed, packaged items with unpronounceable ingredients, developed not for their nutritional value but for their usefulness in converting government-subsidized field corn into sweets that children will crave and parents will buy, food-like substances that substitute in the American stomach for the nutritious, varied diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that doctors recommend. Why spend money for what is not really food? Why labor to buy what does not satisfy?

On a broader social scale, we might also examine what we are offering the world, a world where, as among the ancient Judeans, basic necessities, even water, have been increasingly commodified. Hunger advocates repeatedly state that we are growing enough food today to feed all seven billion of us, if we only distribute it fairly. Yet many subsistence communities abroad have been forced to give up farming, displaced by cash crops that feed richer nations, and instead to depend on expensive, nutrient-low imports. As Sojourners editor Jim Rice recently put it, “Poor families who in the past may have eaten a diet high in fruits and vegetables from local farms now rely mainly on starchy staples and ingest higher proportions of fats and sugars.”[1]

They are not the only losers from society’s food choices. Even here at home, we find “food deserts,” neighborhoods lacking grocery stores to provide fresh, healthy foods. In food deserts, nutrition is disproportionately poor not simply because of individual choices, but because transportation beyond the fast food restaurant or convenience store is simply unavailable to those who cannot afford a car.

What would happen if we were to take seriously the graceful cornucopia of this passage, offering nutritional gifts not just for ourselves, but for all for whom God cares?


[1] Jim Rice, “Obesity in a World of Hunger,” Sojourners (May 2012). View the entire article at http://sojo.net/magazine/2012/05/obesity-world-hunger?quicktabs_top_magazine_articles=2


Commentary on Psalm 63:1-8

Paul O. Myhre

Psalm 63 offers minimal words for a minimal place where experience is anything but minimal. The Psalmist’s poetics here are like a minimalist painting that shows only one or two strokes of paint across a field of white.

For example, Franz Kline, an American abstract expressionist painter of the mid-twentieth century, was fond of bold strokes of black across white canvas.1 His was an appeal to universal ideas that transcended conventional or easily describable ideas. The copying of something in every detail with paint on canvas didn’t offer enough space for creative play in the fields of imagination for the abstract expressionists.

The words of the Psalm are sparse like vegetation in a desert. They are not numerous. The Psalmist doesn’t heap words on words or concepts on concepts like some theological tome. Instead, they offer dashes of tone, or show glimpses of a plant’s roots grasping to a bit of soil blown between two rocks at the end of a dry riverbed.  They invite reflection. They are enough.

Poets have a way of speaking truth in compact, yet expansive ways. Take for example an excerpt from a new translation by Mark S. Burrows of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. In the poem “Oh Say Poet” we read:

Oh say, poet, what you do?
I praise.
But what about the deadly and monstrous?
How do you keep going, how do you take it all in?
I praise.2

The difficult things in life are hard to endure. They can press on the chest like an asthma attack and you can’t find space to breathe. In the midst of them it can feel like you are running through a rain-soaked field of corn where each step gathers more mud on your legs.  You stop in the middle from exhaustion and are not sure about the decision to cross the field after so much rain.

The psalmist — identified here as David — invites reflection about the tough places of human experience and the depths of relationship with the living God. The poetry plays a resonant chord that I think strikes home within the hearer’s mind. It is honest and open in its appraisal of human experience, the contours of theological imagination, and capacity for reflection about life issues in relationship with God.  The words play like chords and melodic runs in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. They are familiar and have a capacity to touch listeners with musical truth that can speak to profound dimensions of human experience and thereby prompt reflection.

John of the Cross, a sixteenth century poet mystic, reflected often on the arid places of human living. He wrote about them as places where the dark night of the soul can occur. The dark night about which he wrote could be described in various ways. For me, it is a place where God may seem absent or non-existent. It can be a place where the experience of abandonment is palpable. Yet, it is also a place where the dimensions of one’s personal theological understanding can be expanded. It is a place of growth in places where no growth seems possible. It is found in the desert.

In the desert is where we come to know what it means to be really thirsty. So parched that even water won’t quench the thirst. Here is where the Psalmist writes poetry — in the place of thirst where the mouth is full of cotton and no moisture can be discerned. Here is the place where God might be sought. When all of the well manicured defenses and accouterments of existence have been stripped away then the human spirit might be open to sensing the breeze of God’s spirit.

Love and Remembering
God’s love is better than life. The psalmist’s affirmation is the kind that generally doesn’t come easily. It is the kind of recognition that is born to people who have endured some type of hardship. This isn’t sweet sentimentalism or infatuation, but a depth of recognition about what is most important to know for fullness in human living. This is a love that will not let us go. Even if there are threats to our existence from forces beyond our control, the love of God for us remains in life and death.

We are privileged to know the stories of David’s life from Scripture. His was one of great faith and apostasy. He spanned a spectrum of human capacities for greatness and lowliness.  His life included such sin as committing adultery with another man’s spouse, complicity in the murder of an innocent man, and exhibitions of unfaithfulness because of his power as king. He was a man like any other man in that he experienced the power of sin to corrupt life and rob joy.

What do you remember when you lay down on your bed before you drift to sleep? What thoughts are most prevalent? For the psalmist it seems that it was the memory of times when God seemed most present, most alive, and most real. The process of memory recall can bring to the present both the good and bad experiences of life. Here, the psalmist wants to focus on the good. The bad is everywhere around them and is the unspoken landscape from which the Psalm is composed. It doesn’t need to be stated.  It is a recognizable reality.

The psalmist provides a poetry that sweeps hearers and readers into a new pattern of reflection. The poetry catches people where they live. In his poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins provides readers and hearers with a way toward reflecting on poetry as a means toward personal discovery by allowing the poetic language to mingle with our own language. Excerpts from the poem invite reflection on poetry as art that is more than the sum of words or a careful exposition of what the author must have meant. He writes,

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive…

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem…

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.3

Like the psalmist, Collins calls for a finishing of the poem in the self. It is there that the big questions reside. It is there where poetry speaks its truth and invites others to run through its fields, fall exhausted from its sweltering heat, and feel the soft caress of rain on a tired face.

1Franz Kline’s work can be seen on the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) website at http://www.moca.org/pc/viewArtWork.php?id=33 <accessed October 11, 2012>

2Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet, trans. Mark S. Burrows (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2012).

3Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner, Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 214-215.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Carla Works

In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Paul includes a rather bizarre retelling of Israel’s exodus to illustrate for the Corinthians their own precarious position as a church living in a wilderness time — a limbo of sorts between their newfound freedom in Christ and the waited fruition of God’s kingdom.

In this period of waiting, Paul urges the floundering church to learn from the mistakes of their “ancestors” and to be faithful to the jealous God of Israel.

The wilderness illustration comes as the second supporting proof of Paul’s larger argument regarding eating food that has been sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1). In 8:1-13, Paul attempts to reframe the thinking of the knowledgeable ones who feel as though they have the freedom to eat idol food even in the precincts of the local temple (8:10). Paul is far less concerned about the food itself than he is about the possibility of some in the church going back to a life of idolatry. If the freedom of the knowledgeable ones leads to the destruction of the “weaker” brothers and sisters in Christ, then the knowledgeable are sinning against Christ (8:12) by asserting their liberty to eat whatever they want wherever they want.

The litmus test for sinning against Christ is not whether the “weak” are offended. Paul has no qualms about offending folks with an offensive message (1:18-25). Rather, Paul is concerned that some may turn away from the faith. The actions of the ones who know better could cause their brothers or sisters, who are less certain that there is only one God and one Lord, to resort to their former religious commitments and, thus, to abandon their life in Christ. Going back to honoring other gods and lords would lead to their destruction.

Paul urges the Corinthians to learn from two examples. In the first example (9:1-27), Paul puts himself forward as someone who, like the knowledgeable ones, holds a respected status, but unlike the “know-it-alls” at Corinth, Paul is willing to renounce his rights for the sake of everyone’s salvation, even the salvation of the weak.

The second example that Paul marshals is a negative one. Though the Corinthians are encouraged to emulate Paul, they are admonished to avoid the pitfalls of their “ancestors.” In 10:1-13, Paul likens the Corinthian church to the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt and their wilderness wanderings.

In 10:1, the apostle links the predominantly Gentile church to the people of Israel with the curious phrase “our ancestors” (literally “our fathers”). He proceeds to describe the ancient Hebrews through language strangely reminiscent of the church. Like the believers, the ancestors have undergone baptism “into Moses,” a Christ-like deliverer, and have partaken of spiritual food and drink. Furthermore, like the Corinthians, the ancestors have consumed Christ (10:4).

Why claim Christ as the spiritual Rock, the source of sustenance? The church is at no advantage over the Israelite ancestors. The same Spirit that sustained the people of God in the wilderness period is the Spirit that sustains the church. If some of the Israelite ancestors, who experienced God’s blessings, God’s deliverance, and God’s covenant, could be overcome in the wilderness by their unfaithfulness; it is also true that the Corinthian believers could rouse God’s jealousy with their participation in ceremonies at an idol’s temple (10:22). Furthermore, the “knowledgeable ones” could inadvertently lead their weaker brothers and sisters down the path of idolatry and destruction.

Paul urges the Corinthians to learn from the mistakes of the ancestors’ unfaithfulness during the wilderness wanderings. It is often noted that the behaviors explicitly described in verse 6-10 are behaviors with which the Corinthians struggle — particularly, sexual immorality (verse 8) and grumbling (verse 10). Since Paul portrays the Israelites’ religious experiences in sacramental character in verses 1-4, it is certainly likely that he continues to view the ancestors through the lens of the church’s experience in verses 6-10.

Though it is impossible to determine with certainty the biblical references to the wilderness allusions in verses 6-10, there are possible referents to each of these behaviors in Israel’s scriptures. While space does not allow a thorough examination of these possibilities, it is interesting to note that in each case — whether the Israelites are grumbling or inter-marrying — the charges against Israel are typically framed as a failure to be faithful to God (see for example Numbers 21:4-9; 25:1-9; Psalm 78 and 106). Perhaps, this is why Paul views the dilemma of eating idol food as not only sinning against the community but as sinning against Christ (1 Corinthians 8:12).

Paul hopes that the church will learn from scripture (verses 6 and 11). What does scripture teach? In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Paul’s retelling contrasts the unfaithfulness of the ancestors with the faithfulness of God. The Corinthians can learn from scripture that they have been called by a jealous God, who demands and enables faithfulness in return (10:14-22). They should avoid idolatry and should avoid causing others in the community to go back to their former idolatrous lives.

In 10:12, Paul’s address to “anyone who thinks he stands” calls to mind the knowledgeable ones who have all the “right theology” to support their sin against the church and their sin against Christ (8:1-6).

Paul realizes that the temptation to eat idol food at the local temple is more than a food matter. It is not that the knowledgeable ones are reluctant to give up steak. Rather, the knowledgeable folks risk their social standing every time they refuse an invitation to dine with their social peers or superiors. The temptation is to sacrifice a weaker member of the community — likely a community member who is beneath them in social standing — for the sake of their own social welfare.

Dining in local temples has a two-pronged effect on this community. The knowledgeable who “think that they can withstand the temptation” are only tempting others back to a life of idolatry and are, themselves, flirting with idolatry, if not by honoring the actual god or goddess of the temple, then by placing their social status before following the example of Christ.

At the end of this larger argument on whether or not it is acceptable to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols, Paul will give a guiding principal: “do all to the glory of God” (10:32). Like their ancestors in the faith, this predominantly Gentile Corinthian church is called to live in a manner that is faithful to the one who is the very source of their life and existence. Living faithfully to this God includes considering one’s witness to others for whom Christ also died.