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3rd Sunday of Lent

26 February 2016


Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-9; 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.


ALL three of Sunday’s readings offer the same urgent invitation: choose life. The grounds for making this decision are not immediately obvious in any of the three passages. Writing in Babylon in the sixth century BC, Second Isaiah’s task was to persuade exiles who had become settled in another country that there was something better awaiting them in the place they had left.

It was not easy to convince those who had land and crops, and had arrived at an “accommodation to empire”, that this was second best (Walter Brueggemann, Out of Babylon, Abingdon Press, 2010). Yet it was far away from a life lived faithfully under God.

The prophet was proclaiming God’s summons to his people to come home, reinhabit their own land, and embrace once more the values that went with it: trust in divine generosity (Isaiah 55.1-2), and confidence in divine faithfulness stretching back to God’s covenant with David (Isaiah 55.3).

Instead of being subjects, they would be in the position of welcoming other nations (Isaiah 55.5). It is this promise that is taken up later by Christian interpreters, tracing the history of expectation that God’s Messiah would come as the light of the nations, drawing them all home to Jerusalem.

We are taken to a new arena of choice in 1 Corinthians 10.1-13. The Corinthians needed to be brought to a proper commitment to the faith that they had embraced thanks to Paul’s teaching and work among them (Acts 18.1-11). Paul reminds the recipients of his letter how God kept faith with the Israelites during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.

It must, nevertheless, have been as confusing for them as it is for later readers to grapple with the idea that somehow Christ was accompanying them on their journey. Paul’s point is that Christ is not confined by historical chronology: he is always the living expression of God’s provision and purpose. The Gentiles who have received the faith of Christ, and the nourishment and life of his word, are thus invited to imagine themselves sharing the heritage of the chosen people who drank the sweet, living water that gushed from the rock that Moses struck (Exodus 17.6, Numbers 20.7-13).

In the next part of the letter (1 Corinthians 10.14-11.34), Paul will discuss the proper attitude to and practice of meeting to share the Lord’s Supper. For the present, he deals with the subject of living in Christ. This is an absolute dependence, and there can be no hedging of bets, no lapsing back into idolatry.

Paul alludes to the golden calf (Exodus 32.1-28), but the more recent history of the Corinthians themselves is part of the consideration. Paul has already confronted them about food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8.1-13).

C. K. Barrett put it bluntly: the Corinthians were “riding for a fall”. Confident in their spiritual security, they failed to see that in the Christian life, “security is . . . in Christ only” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, second edition, A. & C. Black, 1971). The terrible example of the Israelites who, despite God’s presence, managed to fall short of the Promised Land (1 Corinthians 10.1-5, 7-10) should be kept in full view.

What do we make of examples that seem at face value senseless and unjust? The situations presented by Luke (Luke 13.1-4) involve a disproportionate reaction to a local practice on Pilate’s part, and the undeserved destruction of innocent people when the Tower of Siloam fell.

What matters to Jesus is not so much the possible causes, but the results. Those questioning him know what the choices are: to follow him and save their lives by losing them (Matthew 10.39, 16.24-26; Luke 17.33), or to live under the status quo, leaving him to continue to Jerusalem alone.

The somewhat surprising introducing of the fig tree does not bear a logical relationship to either scenario. Instead, it turns the discussion from the punishment of others to critical self-examination. God will do all he can to nurture our potential for good and fruitful life, but not without our co-operation. The invitation is to respond to love.

The reality is that this might be severe. Luke allows the gardener to make this explicit, describing the beneficial activity of manuring the fig tree, using a word that might more robustly be translated “dung” (kopria, Luke 13.8). This is the paradox of the Christian life: sometimes, immersion in spiritual and metaphorical dunghills is part of the journey to the life won through the resurrection.

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