The Preacher’s Study
Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
As mentioned before, on the Sundays in Lent the first readings guide the organization of the lectionary. On this particular day, two supernatural images (a burning bush and a fruitless fig tree) bracket the eucharistic readings. One might also be reminded of the trees of life and knowledge in Eden, and the cross of Calvary, as “bookends” of the narrative of salvation.
The first reading from Exodus 3 relates the story of Moses’ encounter with the Lord, in the bush which burns but is not consumed. God’s name (and thus access to the Divine identity) is revealed—the first of many such encounters and revelations. The encounter marks the beginning of the Exodus journey, as Moses now discovers his own vocation as the Lord’s prophet. The image of the burning bush itself is a symbol of God’s presence revealed in the created order.
Psalm 63 as a response to the first lesson invites us to imagine Moses speaking these words “…in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” Moses, or anyone who has cried out for a vision of the Almighty, could find themselves giving voice to these words.
1 Corinthians 10 reflects on the wilderness journey of the children of Israel, interpreted as an allegory through Christian symbolism. The rock, the sea, the cloud, the manna—all stand as symbols of the divine Presence, present with them on the way. One might go so far as to call these “sacraments”—outward and visible signs of the invisible and spiritual realities that accompany those who undertake the spiritual journey.
But this is no easy stroll in the park on a pleasant afternoon, Paul cautions his readers. “Do not put God to the test”—which is not about asking questions, or seeking to understand in good faith, but simply disregarding the mercy and grace of God as indifferent or “no-count”. Grace and mercy abound, and as recipients of such grace and mercy, Christ’s followers are called to exercise grace and mercy toward others.
The gospel passage for this Sunday actually “jumps back” to the beginning of chapter 13, describing an episode between Jesus and some unknown conversation partners. Here the gift of revelation, awareness of the divine presence, has been wasted or ignored. The episodes of Pilate ordering the killing of worshippers, and the falling of the tower of Siloam, are otherwise unknown in the Gospels or other contemporary documents. In the absence of further specifics, Jesus’ warning that “you will perish as they did” is perhaps a call to mindfulness. In daily life (walking past a tall building), or even in worship, in the act of offering sacrifice, remember God’s call and God’s ways. “Do not worry…(12:22); Do not be afraid…(12:32); Be dressed and ready for action…(12:35); Judge for yourself what is right…”(12:57).
The parable of the fig tree can be understood as a narrative version of this call to mindfulness—the tree has grown up but produced nothing. The owner of the vineyard is put out by this, and demands that the tree be cut down. The gardener asks for mercy, offers special attention for the tree, and finally says to the landowner “If you are not pleased after that, then you can cut it down (yourself!)” It is a curious story of patience and forbearance, told by one who was himself at least occasionally mistaken for “the gardener.” A certain urgency (“one more year”) suggests there is a limited amount of time in which a change of mind and behavior may be accomplished.
Jason Haddox is a presbyter of the Episcopal Church, currently serving in the Diocese of Georgia. He is a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas, and earned his Ph.D. from Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. He is Vice President of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.