Readings: 3rd Sunday of Lent

22 February 2013

Isaiah 55.1-9; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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THANKS to an enthusiastic member of the matins congregation, some of us at Durham Cathedral have vines growing in our gardens. Benefiting from his oversight, which included preventing our cropping it in its first three years, mine produced a cluster of grapes last summer, but the dreadful weather ensured that they did not ripen. That was my vine's fourth year; so the parable rings a bell.

Leviticus 19.23-25 gave a theological rationale for the prohibition on eating fruit during the first three years of a tree's life. In the fourth year, all the produce was to be dedicated to rejoicing in the Lord, and not until the fifth year could the landowner claim his crop.

In the parable, the gardener was right to tell the landowner to wait another year before looking for any fruit for himself, because he was demanding what was not his, and missing the God-given opportunity to offer the fruit for rejoicing in the Lord. The harvest should lead him closer to joy in God, but he wanted the food without the relationship that, in terms of horticultural collaboration, was expressed in Genesis 1.29, 2.5,8.

This, however, was no human landowner. In biblical thinking, when vineyards are mentioned, God is the landowner and the vineyard is his people (Isaiah 5); so this story is about God's relationship with his unyielding people. By looking forward to the fourth year, when fruit was for joyful celebration of their relationship with God, God the vineyard-owner was looking forward to rejoicing with his people.

When this proved unlikely, frustration and anger led him to plan to destroy his planting, but - as at other times in the Old Testament (for example, Exodus 32.7-14) - he was persuaded towards restraint, and, by digging and adding manure, to permit one last effort to produce a crop. Thus this becomes a parable of God's mercy towards wayward people who neither bear fruit nor offer the due sacrifice.

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This parable follows a discussion about whether people who die violently deserve that fate more than survivors. Jesus, not the crowd, had launched out on that subject, after hearing about violence at a time of sacrifice. At least that sacrifice was being offered, but, still, Jesus's message was harsh: rather than debate who figures where on the scale of sinfulness, everyone should take stock of their need to repent, and thus avoid perishing. He wanted the fruit of faith to be shown in everyone's lives, so that God could celebrate with them.

Isaiah resounds with the shouts of market traders drawing attention to their produce - among them, God, who calls out like a hawker, and yearns for the people to share his good food and drink. It is freely available to all, without money and without price. Still some people refuse the free gift, preferring to waste time, money, and effort on what does not satisfy.

Isaiah's challenge is to know and avoid what does not satisfy us. This might be a significant subject to examine during Lent, taking stock of how we live in an over-consumerised society, asking whether we devote resources to non-essentials that leave a disappointed taste in the mouth, and whether we need to learn afresh the concept of "enough".

George Herbert began his poem "Lent" with the thoughtful words "Welcome, dear feast of Lent", and concluded it:

Yet, Lord, instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

Isaiah's assertion that God had not forgotten his covenant was the basis of his call to his hearers to seek the Lord, to return to him, and to keep their side of the covenant, so that it could be fulfilled. It is God's generous faithfulness that should prompt our repentance. Lent may be a time to examine whether and why we have found ourselves doubting God's goodness over the past year.

Perhaps we should be banqueting our soul alongside the poor. In the middle of Lent, being confronted with God's mercy invites a two-fold response: to receive and rejoice in God's good gifts; and to examine our lives and repent of our sin. One without the other is incomplete.

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