Lectionary Commentary

March 7, 2010
3rd Sunday in Lent

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year C Archive]

Lenten Candle Liturgy
Lent Benedictions

Preaching Lent/Easter I
Preaching Lent/Easter II
Preaching Lent/Easter III

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus

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

The passage from Luke begins with people telling Jesus about Pilate’s murder of a group of Galileans who were offering sacrifices. One might expect Jesus to have condemned Pilate’s action, but instead he uses the incident as a teaching opportunity to make his own point. The rhetorical question in v. 2—“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this away they were worse sinner than all other Galileans?—rests upon the widespread belief, enshrined in many parts of the Hebrew Bible but roundly criticized in Job, that God punishes sin and rewards righteousness in a material way in this life. Jesus answers his own question in v. 5, but not before he has sharpened the point by asking a similar question regarding the fate of persons who died when a tower fell on them. The second question focuses the issue more squarely on God, since no human agent could be held responsible for what happened. Jesus answers unequivocally, with an emphatic negative (ouchi, which we might translate as “no, indeed” or “by no means”), and this provides a hermeneutical opening for process interpreters.

Alan Culpepper gives this summation and critique of the reasoning behind the view that attributes human suffering to the divine will:

If God is responsible for everything that happens, and God is a just God, then calamities must be the result of human sinfulness. The fallacy in such logic is the notion that God is the immediate cause of all events, which leaves no room for human freedom or freedom in the created order. (R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, 270.

One could hardly find a statement more congenial to process thought than this. God exercises absolute control neither over human actions nor the forces of nature. What process thinkers would add to this is the contention that God is nevertheless active in the world, both in the lives of human beings and in the workings of nature, but persuasively rather than coercively.

The negative observation, that God is not directly responsible for calamitous events, is not Jesus’ main point. He goes on immediately, with a transitional “but” or “to the contrary” (alla), to make use of the tragic incidents to illustrate what divine punishment is like: “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” The point is not that God will punish you as God did the victims of Pilate and the tower accident, but rather that even though these incidents were not by God’s hand, human beings nevertheless are subject to divine judgment.

Joseph Fitzmyer also finds in these verses a suggestion of the fragile, contingent nature of human existence. By raising the question of the relative guilt of those who were victims and those who were not, Jesus confronts his hearers with the haphazard character of calamity. Those who perished may not have any more sinful that anyone else, “yet they too met a sudden death. Death may face anyone as rapidly as it faced the Galileans and the eighteen Jerusalemites, for at any moment, even that very night, ‘life’ may be ‘demanded’ of one for scrutiny and assessment (see 12:20).” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV. The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28A, 1005) When read in this light, v. 5 serves as a warning not only of the fact of judgment but of the unpredictability of when it will come to the individual. Thus, as Luke Johnson comments, the “point is that death itself, with the judgment of God, is always so close. It can happen when engaged in ritual. It can happen standing under a wall. And when it happens so suddenly, there is no time to repent.” (Luke T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 3, 213)
The parable of the barren fig tree in vv. 6-9 expands upon the conditional element in v. 5 (“unless you repent”) by having the vineyard owner accede to the gardener’s request for a year’s grace before destroying the tree. Nevertheless, the final word is a reiteration of the threat of judgment. Taken together, the two segments of the reading constitute a sharp call to repentance in light of the unpredictability of death and the inevitability of God’s judgment. And Johnson’s comment on the specific quality of Jesus’ call to repentance is helpful: it “is not simply a turning from sin but an acceptance of the visitation of God in the proclamation of God’s kingdom.” (Johnson, 213)

The emphasis upon punishment is not particularly congenial to progressive interpreters, but we should not view the gospel lesson as nothing more than divine threat. If we can accept Johnson’s point quoted in the preceding paragraph, we can say that in the context of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s coming Rule, the call to repentance is actually a message of grace. It is an opportunity to turn one’s life around, because Jesus’ presence and message are mediators of empowerment. And of course grace is also signified by God’s agreeing to give the tree an extra year—although this stands in some tension with the hints about life’s unpredictability.

Fitzmyer picks up on the metaphor of the tree’s barrenness to make a point that is interesting from a process perspective. The tree, he says, “is a symbol of the human being whose life is marked by unproductivity.” Then he goes on to summarize the metaphorical point of the parable, asking why “such a person, having been given life and existence,” should “continue to use up natural resources so unproductively. If one bears no fruit and continues one’s unproductivity and procrastination, then that person should be ready to face the fate of the barren fig tree.” (Fitzmeyer, 1005) The notion of sin as unproductivity is suggestive of the process emphasis upon creativity. Sin need not take the stereotypical forms that we find in the biblical vice lists. One can waste one’s life in many ways that do not appear on the surface to be destructive. To deplete our God-given creative energies on the merely trivial is a sin in its own right and is perhaps to be understood as a form of sloth, traditionally listed among the “seven deadlies.”

The epistle reading stands in some degree of tension with the gospel lesson by virtue of the fact that Paul’s warning to the Corinthians involves citations of examples of God’s punishing sin by striking people dead—precisely the kind of thing Jesus seems to deny in Luke 13:1-5. Thus, one strategy for a sermon embracing both texts would be to play to them off against one another, giving the congregation permission to exercise a critical hermeneutic that trumps some strains of biblical teaching with others. On the other hand, the reading from 1 Corinthians can be related positively to the notes of grace in the Lukan text. Paul begins by citing the Israelites’ experiences of God’s gracious actions associated with the exodus from Egypt. To be sure, the recitation of these experiences is a prelude to the warnings, so that Paul’s point is that those who experience grace do not get a free ride. But the note of grace returns when he promises in v. 5 that God “will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” This idea is problematic for process interpreters, since it suggests that God is in control of events that test us. But if we emphasize the latter part of the verse, the problem is mitigated: God “will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We can legitimately claim, from a process perspective, that God is indeed present and active in our lives, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Also, the rejection of the “free ride” approach to grace is a valid and important point in and of itself, standing as it does in direct opposition to any notion of the “perseverance of the saints,” which is totally uncongenial to process thought. And this aspect of the text can also provide an important complement to the gospel lesson. Just as the Israelites were recipients of God’s gracious actions, so are all human beings blessed with life and the bounties of nature. It is our responsibility to respond to that grace by living productive lives, aimed toward enhancing the common good. And this is a point on which the lesson from Isaiah 55 can be helpful. Beginning on a resounding note of grace in the images of free food and drink, it ultimately issues an invitation to return to God. Grace and demand are both essential to the gospel message.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).

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