Third Week of Lent
On a quick read, the epistle and gospel readings for Lent 3 may seem to be saying opposite things: Paul wants the Corinthians to learn from God’s judgment of the Israelites when they were in the desert. Jesus seems to warn against inferring that anyone experiencing misfortune is also being judged by God. When the lectionary places together texts that seem difficult to put together, we can see that as an invitation to put those texts into conversation with each other. When such texts are paired together for one of the Sundays in Lent, as these are, we should hope that such a conversation between them might better prepare us to engage in a holy Lent.
In 1Cor 10, Paul asks the Christians in Corinth to reflect on the example of the Israelites in the wilderness. They were well supplied with all they needed (something the Corinthians already thought about themselves). Nevertheless, we read that God was not pleased with most of them. As Paul relates things, they “desired evil.” From this Paul goes on to narrate that they engaged in idolatry and sexual immorality, and even that they “put Christ to the test.” It is not exactly clear what Paul means when he says that that Israelites “put Christ to the test.” It seems to be a reference to an event from Numbers 21, when the Israelites complained about God’s treatment of them. Subsequently they were overrun by poisonous snakes. Their relief came from gazing on a bronze snake that Moses affixed to a pole (an image John uses in his gospel to speak about Jesus lifted up on the cross). Paul’s point about putting Christ to the test seems designed to emphasize the connections and continuities between the Israelites in the desert and the Corinthians.
Regardless, in each of these instances the Israelites came under God’s judgment. Paul urges the Corinthians to reflect on these events so that they will direct their desires toward God and avoid God’s judgment. In 10:12 Paul gets to the heart of his admonition to the Corinthians when he writes, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Paul makes it clear that the Corinthians should reflect on Israel’s life with God in the wilderness and the various lessons that one might learn. The real focus of their reflection, however, is not to be on others, but on themselves and their standing before God. Paul does not want them to have an artificially low view of their standing before God. That would be as harmful as an artificially high view. The key is to understand our stance before God as honestly and clearly as we can. Too high a view (which may have been much more common for the Corinthians), and we are set for a fall. Too low a view and we may fail rightly to recognize the work of the Spirit in our lives; we may truncate our ability to see God at work in us and those around us; we may stifle the love of God that is already at work in us.
As the gospel reading from Luke 13 makes clear, it is easy to misperceive others’ and our own relationship to God. When the crowd tells Jesus about the Galileans who were attacked by Pilate as they were offering sacrifices, it seems they are inviting Jesus to offer judgment on the victims of Pilate’s violence. Instead, Jesus rehearses several other well-known disasters and warns his hearers against making any easy inferences from others’ misfortune and their standing before God. Instead, he calls his hearers to take notice of their own standing before God and to repent.
For me, one way of bringing this point home is through a prayer we Episcopalians use at the beginning of our eucharistic service: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This prayer recognizes that God knows us fully. No matter how much we may hide things from ourselves and others, they are not hidden from God. Knowing us as we truly are, God loves us with an unrelenting love.
As this prayer goes on, it becomes clear that the point of acknowledging that we hide nothing from God is so that we open ourselves, through the “inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” to being cleansed in the places that truly need cleansing. Although the thoughts of our hearts will need regular cleansing, we do not all need cleansing in the same way and in the same places. This is what lies behind Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about the importance of knowing where one stands with God. It is, of course, also the key to a holy Lent.
Perhaps this is also a way we can approach the parable of the fig tree that concludes the gospel passage. The gardener is eager to do whatever the fig tree needs in order to bear fruit. The gardener is even willing to ask for more time to accomplish the work that the tree needs in order to thrive. If we are versions of the fig tree, we are to yield ourselves to the work of the gardener so that we will thrive. When paired with the reading from 1 Corinthians 10, the key for us is to recognize clearly our stance before God so that we can receive the proper ministrations of the gardener so that we may bear fruit.
Particularly in Lent, we are invited to examine ourselves and our stance before God, to see if we really are standing. Although it would be ideal if we all always stood upright before God, it is most important that we come to see ourselves as we are. Fully known and fully loved by God, we can bear fruit to the extent we open ourselves to the work of the gardener who will do for us precisely what we need.