The 3rd Sunday in Lent (Year C)

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
I Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

People who are thirsty and hungry seek the nourishment of God’s word – for many a word about repentance.

Isaiah 55:1-9

The prophetic reading for this Sunday refers to the “everlasting covenant” with David (verse 3). The lectionary readings often bring up the topic of covenant in the early weeks of Lent (last week it was Abraham’s covenant), suggesting that seeking roots and re-commitments is grounded in an understanding of covenants, human and divine. Today’s reading is a rich and complex passage in the Isaiah of the exile, the climax of the prophecies that began in chapter 40 (“in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”).

The opening passage (verses 1-3a) is an excited play on the theme of Deuteronomy 8:3 — “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (NRSV). First there is the summons:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
     come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
     come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
     without money and without price.

A great blessing is offered; food and drink for the needy. Cost is not a consideration; this is the food from God. When life comes down to bare essentials for hungry and thirsty people, values are transformed. Water and food have very high prices. But now God’s word is, “Come, buy and eat,” even without money! The things that are most needed are, in God’s abundance, free.

But the prophetic word gradually shifts. People can be mistaken about what is valuable, about what is really food. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread …?” What is really worth having? “Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, …Incline your ear, and come to me; / listen, so that you may live” (verses 2-3, NRSV). There is a nourishment of the soul and heart that money can’t buy, though it is worth more than all riches.

If one heeds the prophetic summons, if one accepts the divine food by listening to the word, what does one hear? Here it is a word about God’s covenant with David. “I will make with you [plural] an everlasting covenant, / my steadfast, sure love for David” (verse 3). This last phrase, more literally, is “the firm loving-kindnesses [ plural of hesed ] of David.”

Thus, what one hears when one listens in this passage is a reminder of messianic promises — echoes of the Covenant with David. God made David a leader and a symbol (“witness”) for the nations. We hear God repeating the original promise to David ( every “you” here is masculine singular ):

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
     and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
     for he has glorified you” (verse 5).

What is worth having in a needy world is the assurance that God will fulfill the promises to David, and that therefore there will be an international outpouring of support and abundance for those now in humility and need. That is the gospel of verses 1-5.

And what is the appropriate response to this gospel? Our passage concludes with one of the more profound calls to confession and repentance in all of scripture.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
     call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
     and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
     and to their God, for he will abundantly pardon (verses 6-7).

This is God’s word for the covenant people in the early days of Lent.

Psalm 63:1-8

The Psalm reading is an intense and poignant response to the soul’s need for God’s nourishment. Comments can scarcely enhance this marvelous piece. Let’s just listen to it again in the New Jerusalem Bible version:

God, you are my God, I pine for you;
my heart thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
as a land parched, dreary and waterless.
Thus I have gazed on you in the sanctuary,
seeing your power and your glory.

Better your faithful love than life itself;
my lips will praise you.
Thus I will bless you all my life,
in your name lift up my hands.
All my longings fulfilled as with fat and rich foods,
a song of joy on my lips and praise in my mouth.

On my bed when I think of you,
I muse on you in the watches of the night,
for you have always been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice;
my heart clings to you,
your right hand supports me.

I Corinthians 10:1-13

The Epistle reading continues the theme of God’s nourishment and care in the wilderness, applying the experience of the Israelite ancestors even to the new believers in the Greek city of Corinth. “Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses … and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (verses 1-4, NRSV). These are applied in Corinth to the Christian baptism and sacramental food and drink.

Lent is traditionally a time of preparation for baptism by new Christians, and this passage leads into instruction for such candidates. Paul says that Christians should learn from the experiences of the ancestors, in particular they should learn about certain gross sins to avoid, which he discusses in order.

(1) The most serious sin is idolatry (verse 7), seen in the Israelites making the golden calf while Moses was up on Mount Sinai — quoted here by Paul from Exodus 32:6. Here again, food and drink are involved, because when the Israelites sinned most seriously, they “sat down to eat and drink [before the golden calf], and they rose up to play” (NRSV).

(2) The ancestors’ experience also warns against sexual immorality (verse 8), a sin that brought twenty-three thousand Israelites to a punishment of death, as Paul reads the story in Numbers 25:1-9.

(3) Putting the Lord — or Christ, as Paul reads it — to the test (verse 9) was a repeated offense against God committed by the ancestors. Paul refers to the incident when the people complained about the lack of food and water, and the punishment sent upon them was poisonous snakes. Moses gave protection from the snakes by use of a bronze serpent – Numbers 21:4-9.

(4) A separate sin warned against by the ancestors’ example is “to complain” (verse 10, traditionally “murmur [against]”). Paul seems to have in mind the incident when the people “rebelled against” Moses and Aaron and a plague broke out sweeping across the camp. The plague was stopped only by Aaron taking his smoking incense pan and standing between the plague and the people – thereby vindicating his special office on behalf of the people (Numbers 16:41-50 = Heb. text 17:6-15).

In general, Paul says, one must live cautiously, because falling into error happens when you least expect it. “If you think you are standing (firmly), watch out that you do not fall” (verse 12). But the final word of faith, supporting those who know they are living through times of testing and trial, is, “God is faithful, and … will not let you be tested beyond your strength” (verse 13).

In Lent, a repentant people know themselves to be placed in conditions of trial and testing, concerning such heavy-duty sins as Paul here enumerates.

Luke 13:1-9

The prophetic reading called upon those who accept the Lord’s food (meaning those who accept God’s promises) to seek the Lord and turn from wicked ways. The Gospel reading is about the repentance called for in that prophetic appeal. The emphasis here is strongly on “before it’s too late!” This entire passage (Luke 13:1-9) is found in Luke only, though the fig tree parable at the end has some similarities to other Gospel passages.

The first part of the passage (verses 1-5) has Jesus refer to two incidents of local history that we know nothing about apart from this passage. Jesus hears about a slaughter of some Galileans who were at worship in Jerusalem, and also about the death of eighteen people when the walls of a tower fell on them in Jerusalem.

The Roman governor Pilate was apparently held responsible for this massacre of Galilean Jews at the Jerusalem temple — graphically expressed here as mingling their blood with their sacrifices. A shocking and horrible incident, Jesus acknowledges, but — he says — the event should not be read as a punishment for sin. They did not die in this way because of their sins. The disaster just caught them — like a falling tower. The key question was not, Were they guilty, but Were they ready? Had they repented? The implication is, one must repent and change directions in the midst of daily life — because you do not know when the sudden massacre or the collapsing high-rise will occur.

The parable of the unproductive fig tree (verses 6-9) is related to the first part of the reading, but gives it a different slant. It too is about getting ready for the final judgment, but this time with some advance warning, with a time of preparation allowed. The fig tree, planted in the middle of a vineyard, has not produced fruit for three years. The lord of the vineyard is out of patience and intends to destroy the tree to make room for more vines, which, unlike the fig tree, will produce fruit. The tree has an advocate, however. The gardener, who takes care of the vineyard, intercedes and asks for one more year during which he will specially cultivate the fig tree. If it produces then, well and good, but if not it will be cut down.

This fig tree talk is similar to the fig tree near Jerusalem which Jesus curses because it has no fruit. That fig tree withered and died by the next day (Mark 12:12-14, 20-21. Luke omits this episode.). In neither of these cases are we really talking about fig trees; we are talking about Israel and its response to God, particularly as Jesus represents God’s word to Israel. In Mark the fig tree has failed and is condemned to destruction. In Luke there is a curious opening that remains. There is one more year during which repentance and turning from wicked ways is possible, so that when the Lord comes the tree will be found fruitful and alive in the vineyard of the Lord.

There is a time of preparation, of reassessment and changed direction, available to even the wicked, who with others are called upon in this season, to seek the Lord.

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