WHEN Jesus is told that Pilate has ordered several men to be killed in the Temple, his response is sobering. He draws his hearers’ attention to another disaster, in which a tower collapsed, killing 18 people. He challenges the complacent assumption that those who have been spared such deaths are any more righteous than the victims. They were, he declares, no worse sinners than those who died in the Temple or the tower. “Pilate’s sword hangs over everyone, the tower can fall on any of us at any time” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the Word).
Even if they do not perish suddenly, each of Jesus’s hearers will ultimately die. What is truly to be feared is not death — which must come to us all — but dying without repenting and availing ourselves of God’s mercy.
Because no one knows the time of his or her death, Jesus urges all people to make use of the time that remains to them to turn back to God. It is a message echoed in the funeral service, when we ask God to “give us the wisdom and grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth”, and in the invitation, each Ash Wednesday, to “remember that you are dust”.
To underline this message, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that fails to bear fruit. At the request of the gardener, it is given one last chance. Balthasar explains that this is “a grace offered to the tree”. But, as Jesus is warning his hearers, that demands a response: they — and we — must not treat the offer of grace as if it were a cheap or trivial matter.
In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah is addressing God’s people at a crucial moment of decision. They are being summoned from a life of submission in Babylon, to undertake the demanding journey back to a devastated Jerusalem, and rebuild the holy city. As Walter Breuggemann puts it, accepting the “free, alternative nourishment” that God offers involves ceasing to seek after “the bread of empire”. He continues: “Israel has a wondrous choice to make: either the new future now offered by Yahweh or more submissiveness to Babylon that yields nothing of well-being“ (Westminster Bible Commentary: Isaiah 40-66).
In the second half of this reading, there is a shift of tone, as Isaiah summons the “wicked” and “unrighteous” to repentance. Breuggemann suggests that, in this context, “the wicked” does not refer to disobedient people in general, but to “those who are so settled in Babylon and so accommodated to imperial ways that they have no intention of making a positive response to Yahweh’s invitation to homecoming”. Those who have accommodated themselves to empire are indeed offered a free pardon if they repent — but repentance involves “serious resolve for a reordered life”.
This point applies to us as much as to Isaiah’s initial readers. As St Jerome observes, “It is not enough to seek the Lord and while there is a time of penitence to find him and to call on him while he is near — unless the ungodly also leave their former ways and leave the old ways of thinking for those of the Lord.”
The earliest Christian commentators draw a connection between the food and drink in this passage and the eucharist — the food that sustains us on our spiritual pilgrimage from the bondage of sin to the freedom of the new Jerusalem. As St Cyril of Alexandria puts it, we are “enriched with grace through the Holy Spirit through participation in him and purchasing this through faith”, since we are “sharers of the wine and rich food, that is, of the holy body and blood of Christ”.
Like our Gospel reading, this Sunday’s epistle contains a summons to repentance. St Paul makes the point by appealing to Israel’s painful sojourn in the wilderness. As Maria Pascuzzi explains, “Though seemingly complicated in its presentation, the point is simple. . . If you think you stand secure in your knowledge, watch out! Others who believed themselves just as secure fell” (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Corinthians).
Like Jesus’s hearers, the Corinthians need to be shocked out of their complacency. Paul reminds them that God’s gracious offer of forgiveness requires them to leave their former ways. As he will make clear in the next chapter, those who share in the eucharist must be committed to this journey.