Lectionary Commentaries for March 20, 2022
Third Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 13:1-9

Jeremy L. Williams

As Jesus speaks to a crowd, some of those gathered seek Jesus’ opinion on current affairs. Jesus as a prophet places the local issue within a cosmic frame that yields a divine imperative for the audience. Rather than focus on a past event and what cannot be controlled, Jesus encourages them to change what they can—their minds. 

The event that sparks Jesus’ response is Governor Pilate’s execution of Galileans during some ritual practice. Such an event could have personally affected Jesus on multiple levels. First, he was a Galilean, which means that this violence impacted people from his neighborhood, people whom he could have known and grown up with. Second, Pilate was a direct appointee of the Roman empire who had a track record for being a blood-thirsty, violent ruler. Pilate epitomizes the fear-inducing brutality that Roman provincial subjects, like Jesus, daily experienced directly or indirectly. His presence in this passage, Luke’s earlier mention of him in chapter 3, and his eventual role in Jesus’ execution capture how Luke understands Pilate as Rome’s representative in Judea. Third, the notion that Pilate mingled the Galileans blood with sacrifices insinuates that Pilate violated the Galileans ritual practice. 

It is not clear what this incident refers to, because there are no sources outside of Luke that report this event. Nonetheless, we can see here that the agents of empire had no problem transgressing the boundaries of sacred practices for their own purposes. A careful reader knows that Luke’s mention of Pilate, Galileans, and sacrifices are no coincidence. At the end of the gospel, Pilate will mix the blood of Jesus, a Galilean, with Passover sacrifices.

Jesus does not discuss Pilate in his response; he instead talks about his fellow Galileans. He asks if those who were slaughtered were worse sinners than other Galileans because of how they suffered. The logic of his question is funded by the Torah (Deuteronomy 28-20). Also, other popular understandings of divine retribution presumed that punishments, especially catastrophes, were proportionate to the crime or sin. To that logic Jesus emphatically says, “No!” (ouchi).

He refutes that logic for at least two reasons. First, the decisions of Pilate and Rome’s agents are not synonymous with God’s justice. Luke uses Jesus’ discourse here to prepare the audience to properly frame Jesus’ execution at the hands of Romans. Second, bad events occur that are not the result of human iniquity or divine penalty. Jesus demonstrates this by reminding the audience of the eighteen people who were crushed under a tower in Jerusalem. Like those Galileans murdered by Pilate, their unfortunate circumstance does not indicate the degree of their moral depravity. They were victims of a surprising, unforeseen disaster. Jesus uses these unpredictable, unchangeable incidents to prompt his audience to change what they can—their minds. 

Jesus tells them to repent (metanoeō)—to change their mind about their current commitments to injustice and unrighteousness. Changing one’s mind in this way leads to a change in conduct. This term is the Greek translation of the Hebrew (shuv); the core meaning of which is “to return” or “to go back” or even “to go home.” Jesus invites the audience to adjust their current course and return to God. If they opt to not return or choose to not change their minds, they risk being ruined (apollumi) in the same way (ōsautōs) as the Galileans and Jerusalemites. Here, “same way” means “suddenly and unprepared.”1 Jesus is not suggesting that repentance will prevent them from a physical, catastrophic death. Rather, he is stating that changing their minds will prepare them for whatever they will experience, including producing fruit.

To illustrate his point, Jesus turns to a parable about a fig tree that has not produced fruit in three years. The significance of fruit bearing is a theme throughout Luke. John the Baptist’s preaching in Luke 3:7-14 describes just, interpersonal dealings as the fruit of repentance. In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:43-45, Jesus states that a good tree produces good fruit and similarly a good person produces good from the goodness of their heart. In the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-15, Jesus explains that those with good hearts hear the word of God, hold fast to it, and patiently produce fruit. With this evidence, the fig tree represents the human heart.

In line with Luke’s understanding of how trees’ fruit reflect their nature, the barrenness of the fig tree in Luke 13 is evidence that it is already ruined. The owner (kurios, verse 8) tells the gardener to cut the tree down. The gardener advocates for tending the tree for one more year to determine whether it should be cut down. He proposes more advanced agriculture techniques but concedes to the owner that if the tree does not produce within a year, he will cut it down. Should the tree not produce within the year, its removal will not be a surprise. It will not catch the gardener unprepared. At that point, it would not have produced anything for four years, and it is literally wasting the earth (). 

Jesus’ message is clear: do not be like the fruitless tree. Rather than focus on the gravity of others’ transgressions, make sure you are producing good. Instead of assigning causality to others misfortune, ensure that you are not ignoring your own missing fruit. Jesus’ words suggest that tending to one’s own life and positively changing one’s own mind is the best strategy to prevent or even persevere through unexpected calamity. If one refuses to do that type of work, they are already ruined.

Further Reading: 

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “Luke,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary ed. Brian Blount et. al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007).

Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997).

Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991).  


  1.  Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 211.

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

Bobby Morris

The entry into this psalm provided by the superscription locates not only David, but ultimately also the reader, in the Judean Wilderness. There is hardly a better location than the wilderness—certainly in the Holy Land—to get a sense of where the psalm takes us next: to the experience of thirst.

If you have never experienced the Judean Wilderness first-hand, a quick internet image search on the term would prove very enlightening. Aside from the few late winter and early spring months when the wilderness receives its annual 3-6 inches of rainfall, the rocky, mountainous landscape is quite dry and barren. While there are widely scattered springs, such as at Ein Gedi, they are of no help if the sojourner is unaware of their location. And the salt-laden waters of the Dead Sea at the wilderness’ edge can do no more than amplify one’s sense of desperation for hydration.

In addition to the experience of literal thirst for water, the profound stillness and isolation of the wilderness are ideal to inspire reflection on that which can satisfy the deep, profound thirsts of humanity. Over the centuries, the wilderness has been the home of many monasteries—some still to this day (such as the St. George’s on the Wadi Kelt and road to Jericho). Likewise, it is no coincidence that we find John the Baptizer in the wilderness as he discerns and articulates the message God has called him to proclaim. Even Jesus has a profound experience in the wilderness—being driven there for 40 days and nights of fasting, followed by the temptations of Satan.

Among the gifts of the spiritual disciplines of Lent may be a consideration of our thirsts. What do we thirst for? Which of our thirsts are profound and in need of nourishing? Which ones are fickle, or perhaps damaging, and in need of starvation? Where do we find refreshing water for our most profound thirsts? With the backdrop of the wilderness, Psalm 63 provides powerful guidance to navigate these questions.

Utilizing the imagery of the wilderness, verse one places the seeking and thirst for God “in a dry and weary land, where there is no water.”1 Note carefully that the text is not saying that seeking God is like searching for water in a dry and weary land, as if God is difficult, or nearly impossible, to find. Rather, the wilderness landscape is the setting from which our seeking takes place.

The root cause of our thirsts is sometimes not the absence of those things that would quench them, or the impossibility of finding them. Rather, deep thirst frequently stems from a displacement of the water we truly need by other things that falsely claim to be as good or even better than the “true water” itself. We need not peer very deeply into the marketing of our materialistic, profit-driven culture to realize that we face a daily barrage of suggestions of things we may readily purchase to satisfy our various thirsts. Unfortunately these thirsts tend to be ephemeral and the resulting quench equally short-lived, only to be replaced by another thirst with a similarly disappointing outcome.

Sometimes, however, we cling to a misguided thirst which takes on a life of its own as a full-blown addiction. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we all suffer from one, or likely more, addictions. All addictions draw attention away from our deepest thirsts and divert energy toward satisfying thirsts that can never be satisfied or offer any lasting satisfaction. Unfortunately, the diversion often becomes so profound that other, necessary thirsts are left weary and dry. For example, the perceived need to satisfy the thirst for alcohol or drugs can completely overshadow and dehydrate the thirst for relationships with family and friends, for food, for meaningful employment, for even simple things like personal hygiene.

Psalm 63 emphatically declares that our thirsts go far beyond water or anything else that this world can tangibly provide. To be sure, God has given us a land that flows of milk and honey. The creation is good, indeed, very good. God brings forth bread from the earth and creates the fruit of the vine. Our physical hunger and thirst can be well-satisfied. However, we dare not confuse creation with creator. The sum total of all creation and its bounty will never be enough to satisfy our deepest thirst. And so, harkening back to verse one, if we look only to creation and what it can offer for God, it will quickly become “a dry and weary land, where there is no water.”

In verse two, the psalmist directs our attention elsewhere—to the sanctuary2—where one might see not just creation, but creator. But what one discovers in looking beyond creation and what it can offer goes even further than the power and glory of God experienced through the sanctuary. God’s glory and power ultimately manifest in steadfast love.3 The psalmist goes so far as to say in verse three that God’s steadfast love is “better than life”—in other words, better, by far, than anything that can be found or experienced in this world. Notice that it is with this realization in verse three that thirst and dryness dramatically shift to blessing, lifting up of hands, praising, and satisfaction. Upon discovering the spring of God’s steadfast love, we are no longer in the wilderness, but in verse six, comfortably and safely in bed meditating on the faithfulness of God and protective shadow of God’s wings.

In contrast to the shallowness of many of our thirsts, the psalm emphasizes the depth of our most essential thirst by three times referencing the soul.4 It is the soul that “thirsts” for God (verse 1), is “satisfied” by God (verse 5), and that thus “clings” to God (verse 8). We cannot ignore the thirsts of our bodies. “I will bless you as long as I live” (verse 5) implies that sustaining life is important! But with Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday having reminded us that there is more to life than pancakes and sausage, Lent calls us to focus our attention on our greatest thirst, that which emanates from the very core of our being, and to remember that the only thing that can ever satisfy that most profound of thirsts is the steadfast love of God.


  1. Biblical references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.
  2. “holy place” in Hebrew.
  3. “Lovingkindness” in the KJV. The Hebrew term is hesed – God’s incredibly abundant unqualified love. See also the parallel Greek term of agape.
  4. The Hebrew term is nefesh and should not be confused with the Greek sense of “soul” as an entity separate from the physical body and in need of liberation from it. Nefesh, instead, refers to a person’s whole being, the life-force that is a person.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Frank L. Crouch

This week’s epistle reading depends significantly on people’s knowledge of the Exodus and wandering in the wilderness. If the text is read during worship, some listeners might wonder what Paul means by being “baptized into Moses” and how the Old Testament relates to Christ (10:2). Others might be surprised by the straight lines drawn between various sins and their resulting punishments: twenty-three thousand who commit sexual immorality are struck down in a single day (10:5, 8), those who put Christ to the test are destroyed by serpents (10:9), complainers are destroyed by an angel of destruction (10:10). Other listeners, based on very hard experiences, might hesitate to embrace the idea that God “will not let you be tested beyond your strength” (10:13).

These theological, expositional challenges might lead many preachers to move quickly to other texts for this day. But, if read, the passage will likely leave many listeners desiring to know more about those challenging elements. So, a very condensed explanation of complicated questions follows:

What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

The New Testament books themselves do not necessarily or consistently promote the idea that their message supersedes the Old Testament (for example, Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 10:25-8; Romans 11:13-36). This is particularly true for mid-first-century Christians like Paul—there were oral traditions about Jesus but not written texts newly considered as “scripture.”

Today’s text treats the core of the gospel as thoroughly aligned with the core of the existing scriptures of Judaism. Paul has no qualms about describing God’s saving act at the Exodus as “baptism into Moses” (10:1-4a) nor any qualms about equating the rock at Horeb—which brought saving water to the people—with Christ (10:4b). The same God worked through Moses and Jesus. And although most Christians do not feel bound to follow all the particularities of the Law, we are all bound to that “first and great commandment” and “the second [that] is like it” expressed in both Law and Gospel (Matthew 22:34-8; Luke 10:25-8; Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:18; also Romans 13:8-13).

The prophet Micah similarly expresses a core message of God that unites both Testaments: “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). These statements expose the error of all Christian attempts to disparage and condemn Judaism and to construct a replacement faith that depends on elaborate theological systems with endless doctrinal distinctions and complicated ecclesiastical hierarchies—as if any of those constitute a clear path to the still more excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13). We stand by our doctrines but are known by our fruits. 

Does sin have consequences?

The short answer to the question is: yes. Are consequences as immediate as this passage implies? Usually not. Thus the warning: “These things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did” (10:6). The examples given show disastrous consequences immediately following acts of idolatry (Exodus 32:1-25), sexual immorality (Numbers 25:1-9), putting God to the test (by placing their desires above what God offers as sufficient and good, Numbers 21:4-9), or complaining (accusations that God is not for us but against us, Numbers 16:41-50). 

These examples depend on our fears to motivate us to avoid or stop engaging in things that hurt us. They function like warning labels: “Smoking can cause heart disease and strokes.” “Choking Hazard.” “Bridge Ices Before Road.” They “were written down to instruct us” (10:11), and remind us how bad habits bring bad endings. 

At the same time, the weakness of a one-sided worst case scenario approach to immorality or sin lies in the experiential fact that bad endings don’t generally happen as immediate lightning bolts. Damages to body, soul, and spirit tend to accumulate over time, killing us by a thousand cuts that we stop noticing. A gradual dulling of our spiritual sense lulls us into believing we’re okay, rather than dying inside. 

A warning-only approach must be paired with examples of the promises, the benefits of what is good for us. Just five verses before this passage, Paul states, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:23). The gospel ultimately does not proclaim God as a punishing threat to be avoided but as a loving savior to be sought out as the source of true life.

How much suffering and hardship can we take?

It’s tricky to express the power of the end of this passage without unintentionally diminishing people’s circumstances (“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone,” 10:13a). One can also come across as someone whose best advice is “Suck it up. Tough it out” (God will not test you “beyond your strength,” but provides a way to “endure” 10:13b). 

We tend to underestimate the number of people in a congregation who will go home to abuse or violence or who experience discrimination or injustice through no fault of their own. It is important to note explicitly, for some, that the passage says that God can provide a “way out” as the path to strength and endurance. It is also important to note explicitly, for others, that God can provide a way to endure within hard circumstances.   

Both messages best serve individual, family, and congregational needs when accompanied by an ethos of education and information about people and organizations with track records of helping in times of trial—chronic or acute. This also calls for developing and promoting spiritual practices—inside and outside the congregation—that draw from scripture or Christian tradition: prayer, daily devotions, spiritual direction, support groups, service groups, etc. 

God provides us a way to endure, most often through wisdom, encouragement, and love from individuals and communities with their own well-developed capacities for endurance.