Lectionary Commentaries for March 7, 2010
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.

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.

Addendum: In the Aftermath of the Haitian and Chilean Earthquakes

Everything you’ve read so far was written before January 12, 2010, the day an earthquake devastated Haiti and its people. Now, weeks later, the terror and catastrophe has seemingly been replicated in Chile.  The scale and proximity of those tragedies will make them easily recalled in a congregation’s minds, when people hear Luke 13:1-9 read in worship.

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 and Chilean 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.

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).

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.


Commentary on Psalm 63:1-8

Jane Strohl

In a recent gathering, one of my students led a guided meditation.

She asked us all to close our eyes and remember a situation in which we felt truly loved and secure. We were to focus there for a while and then envelop that place in a circle of radiant pink light. (The pink didn’t work so well for me; I felt off and on like I was bouncing around in a bubble of Bazooka gum. But I imagine you could use a different color without making a hash of the exercise.) Resting comfortably in this place, we awaited whoever passed through the light to enter in. And we greeted them, enemy and friend, family and stranger. It was amazing who showed up, the memories stirred, and the unfinished business that no longer stayed buried. Here from this point of safety we explored the possibility of receiving each visitor with love and compassion.

In these verses from Psalm 63, the psalmist takes refuge in the place where he feels truly loved and secure — in the shadow of the wings of God. There is intense 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” (verse 1). There is also ecstatic fulfillment: “Because your steadfast love is better than life/my lips will praise you” (verse 3). The psalmist encircles this place of desire and delight not with light but with song, a song of trust and thanksgiving powerful enough to sustain him through threatening danger.

The lectionary does us a disservice by editing what we sing as the psalmody in worship. Psalm 63 is actually eleven verses long, not eight, and the last three show the psalmist exulting over his enemies, who shall die by the sword and become food for jackals. He is sure that the God who upholds him will certainly do this. This is hardly welcoming them into a beneficent place, to share with them the peace of your holy realm.

It is important not to impose a kind of political correctness on these honest and fierce declarations. Many people recoil from them as decidedly un-Christlike: hold the jackals and turn the other cheek, lest living by the sword you die by the sword. Indeed, some Christian communities sought to embody Christ’s “new law” strictly, even to the point of estranging themselves from the world around them. In their view it was all too easy to justify compromises with the world that would accumulate to the point that the salt lost its savor. But the contrasting view of discipleship held that Christians lived in the world to uphold justice and keep the ever threatening flood of evil at bay. They gave their lives for it, and they took lives as well, and when the mouths of liars were stopped (verse 11), they rejoiced in the Lord.

Some years ago, I was a delegate to an assembly of the Lutheran World Federation. The folks responsible for ecumenical and inter-religious studies made an encouraging presentation about the number of dialogues either progressing or initiated. During the question and answer period, a delegate from an African nation with an overwhelming Muslim majority stood up and asked the assembly to consider a different point of view. In his land, Christians were being forced out of government positions and feared their children would soon be barred from the schools. He heard talk of nothing but dialogue, but in his homeland the religious majority had no interest in talking or sharing power. The Christian community was afraid and anticipated increasing persecution. He asked the delegates, “If it comes to bloodshed, will you stand by us?” It is a reminder that the last three verses of this psalm could echo meaningfully from the lips of some of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.

It is not always easy to see the hand of God at work in our lives or to claim God’s steadfast love for oneself. Saint Augustine in his Confessions looked back over the early years of his life and in hindsight could see God at work, accomplishing God’s purposes for him in unlikely circumstances. This remembrance of things past, of God’s care for us in often unexpected ways, becomes the safe place at the center of our lives and the assurance that God will continue to be with us in the years ahead.

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips,
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me” (verses 5-8).

Here we must come when hostility threatens, when loss and grief leave us feeling abandoned. For here God’s love claims us. In the shadow of God’s wings, we will sing for joy.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Susan Hedahl

This passage is taken from a letter addressed to a faith community rocked by the arrogance and choices of spiritual smart alecks!

It is clear from this particular passage of the letter that the lessons of history and the consequences of those considering themselves spiritual know-it-alls were designed by Paul as a means of pastoral warning. His instruction is focused on attempting to point out the dangers of improper spiritual behavior and the ways a true faith life can correct such directions.

Preachers who attempt this text will find themselves awash in somewhat obscure Old Testament interpretation on Paul’s part. The chapter offers a rough outline of the spiritual nature of the exodus narrative. Paul is hoping to make his points about the gravity of the Corinthians’ spiritual behavior by grounding it where he places all his theology — in the heart of Israel’s history. Care must be taken not to draw the analogies of baptism (washing) and Eucharist (eating and drinking) too tightly or analogically with this text of the exodus salvation narrative. By doing so, theological issues will become too complex for the ordinary sermon-listener. (Preachers seeking to untangle these will find literary assistance in Ulrich Luz’s excellent commentary on this passage).

What then is the governing issue or theme in this passage? Verse 7 holds the key: it is behavior, faux spiritual and otherwise, which is idolatry. The Gospel text for this Third Sunday in Lent also bids the listener to repent and change, as does Paul in this passage, and to worship the true God.

I. The Text

Paul informs the Corinthians they are alike — and no better than — “our ancestors.” (verse 1) What did the exodus narrative reveal about them? They journeyed, they ate and drank in a manner blest by God, and they also sinned. For this they were “struck down in the wilderness.” (verse 5). It is with this comment that Paul signals to the Corinthians that their religious behavior is not a guarantee of God’s blessing and presence.

Why is Paul discussing this narrative and the destruction of some of the Israelites? He is doing it as “example” and because he does not want them to become “idolaters.” How does Paul define idolatry? He lists, somewhat vaguely, the way Christians have made wrong spiritual choices.

In verse 8 he refers to “sexual immorality.” And in verse 9, he speaks of running counter to the nature and will of Christ so that “We must not put Christ to the test…” Others “complained” and like those in the other examples of idolatry were destroyed. Paul’s list of brimstone-and-fire examples of those who alienated themselves from Christ by their behaviors are called to take note of the past and present punishments of God “to serve as an example.” (verse 11a).

But Paul has another concern as well: the “end of the ages have come.” (verse 11b) His concern is that current life practices must reflect the advent of Christ’s coming. His stories or “examples” are not of the order of Aesop’s Fables but signs that point to the eschatological age. Idolatry has eternal consequences.

Paul concludes this section of the reading by addressing the nature of temptation, something which idolaters consider or to which they will succumb. In doing so, he chides the Corinthians for thinking they have their salvation all wrapped up, with nothing to fear: “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” (verse 12). Paul is calling here for a strict self-watchfulness, a program of spiritual living which does not mistake one thing for something else. He is calling for a lack of self-delusion about one’s spiritual life and the tendencies to idolatry. and for radical spiritual, self-discernment.

In one of the most quoted verses in the Bible, Paul goes on in verse 13 to note several things about the nature of temptation. First, it comes to everyone (most reassuringly!). Second, that God will remain faithful to the one tempted. Third, that temptation will not exceed one’s strength to resist it — a debatable point some would say – and finally, God will “provide the way out….”

Paul is calling for radical realism about the nature of one’s life with God. The temptations to idolatry are prevalent and perpetual. History records that this is so. No one is spiritually exempt from temptation! Paul is also making the interesting assertion that God is with the person in their states and sieges of being tempted. In fact, this entire passage of its examples of idolatry and consequent punishments continues to have God as both judge and helper at its center.

II. More Homiletical Possibilities

There are many possible preaching foci in this text. Probably the two that are most obvious are idolatry and temptation. One useful resource in preaching about idolatry and its nature and consequences comes from Luther’s two catechisms. He is clear in several of the explanations to the materials therein about the difference between worshipping what is false and what is God and of God.

The reality of temptation has already been pre-figured for the preaching season of Lent by Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness. Again, Paul’s words raise the issue of temptation and the vectors that can prompt it, such as misuse of the body and challenging God spiritually. The text speaks both to the spiritually misinformed and smug, as well as the spiritually apathetic who do not consider this attitude, too, will have consequences.

Paul’s history of the exodus narrative invokes baptismal and Eucharistic imagery and one may consider a sermon on these means of grace in relationship to the God who stands with us in the midst of and against all forms of temptation and idolatry. This would be homiletically justified as this appointed text leads into the conclusion of Chapter 10, which is explicitly focused on the Eucharist. That being the case, perhaps the preacher may consider extending the boundaries of the lectionary for a more rhetorically coherent sermon on the entire chapter.