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3rd Sunday of Lent 

10 March 2022

20 March, Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63.1-9; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

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TODAY’s Gospel and epistle mention events in salvation history which can be difficult to interpret. We happily sing “Types and shadows have their ending” in a hymn, but it helps to know what the term “types” means when we find it in the Bible. It is a Greek word (for a change. . .) which means a mark made when you “strike” something — as when minting a coin, for example, you strike your original image on to a blank disc of metal, and the image produced on the disc is called a “type”.

Paul uses episodes from the Exodus — cloud, sea, manna, miraculous water — as types: this means that they are imperfect images of a perfect original. First, we meet the image produced: the type (Moses here, with Adam in Romans 5.14), later the original (Christ). Through these types, Paul encourages his readers to see stories of the past as illuminating their own faith in Christ. He even brings in a Jewish legend from outside the Bible: that a rock miraculously followed the Israelites in the wilderness. The rock that stands for God in the Old Testament morphs into Christ the rock (petra) in the New Testament. It is also the name that Jesus gives to Peter (Petros).

When we come to the Galileans killed by Pilate while they were offering sacrifice, it is not clear who they were, nor why he killed them. Sometimes, not knowing the historical background can be a drawback: Barabbas, for example, is mentioned in all four Gospels, but with varying details and no corroboration from other sources. We know nothing else about these Galileans, but no matter. Luke shows them being used purely as a moral example to get at Jesus’s real thoughts. The point of mentioning their killing, in other words, was to discover Jesus’s view of the relationship between crime (or sin) and punishment.

The common view to which they seem to be alluding — and which Jesus challenges — is one that works back from event (those Galilean sacrificers were killed) to cause (they must have done something wrong). This is confused thinking, but it is common enough, then and now. In the examples of those murdered while sacrificing, and those killed when a tower fell on them, the questioners appear to make no allowances for what is chance or random. Their approach mixes up “what happens” with “what God wills to happen”. This is admittedly sensitive theological territory for those who have a high doctrine of divine providence at the individual level.

Jesus does not affirm or deny the possibility that a divine judgement is being enacted. What he does is to remind the questioners that they are not safe from such judgement, because they are no less sinners than those who died. All stand in need of metanoia, or “change of mind”, which we know as repentance (Luke 13.5; with Isaiah 55.7).

Ever the wise teacher, Jesus next tries a more oblique tack. Those unmoved by a direct challenge may be stirred instead by a parable. A fig tree in my garden grows vigorously, year after year, but — like the one in the Gospel — its fruits never ripen. The owner in the parable could have ordered the gardener to cut down his fig tree and give a different plant its chance. But he does not. First, he asks the gardener’s opinion. I think he does this because he is looking for reasons to put off the moment of giving up on the tree. On the gardener’s advice, he lets it have another year to show itself as fruitful.

Perhaps this is not the first “one more chance” that he has given it. It may not even be the last. The gardener commits himself to putting in the literal spadework, digging and manuring to give it the best chance. But the message is clear: the owner’s patience, however great, is not infinite.

The ultimate fate of the fig tree is not recorded. But that does not matter. What we take away from the story is a truth, which we also remember from Genesis (18.16-33): that God and his servant both do all that they can to avoid consigning any living thing to destruction.

If this scriptural interpretation is too fiddly and abstract, there is a much shorter, but equally powerful, lesson for Lent in this week’s readings, from 1 Corinthians 10.10: “Do not grumble.”

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