Unless you repent

24 March 2019
Third Sunday in Lent
Lent 3C (RCL)

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

We have an odd collection of readings this Sunday. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the Old Testament lessons are not chosen specifically to complement the Gospel: instead, we read “in course” through some of the great moments in salvation history. The revelation of the divine name is one of those moments.

Moses has had to flee Egypt because he killed an Egyptian, and was found out. He went to Midian, and married Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter. After that Pharaoh died, God heard the cries of God’s people and appeared to Moses at the bush. Moses, with some justice, claimed he was not the one to go free God’s people. He is, after all, an outlaw. God replies that God will be with him. This requires Moses to see himself in a new light. No longer just a defender of one persecuted Hebrew, and a murderer of an Egyptian, he will now have to go to Pharaoh, and bring God’s people out of Egypt. But not alone: I AM WHO I AM will be with him. The bush burns but is not burnt up. Moses will be more than Moses.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, writes that the Gentile converts have been baptized into Moses, as well as being baptized into Christ. They now share the vocation and promises of God’s people. But they should not think too much of themselves. All the things that happened to Israel in the wilderness could just as easily happen to them.

In the Gospel reading, we have two episodes, a pronouncement story (two actually), and a parable side by side. I think they interpret one another. Some tell Jesus about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifice, presumably expecting some comment from Jesus. Jesus asks if the reporters think those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans. We often think that people who are in trouble with the powers that be deserve their trouble. Surely, these Galileans must have done something wrong for Pilate to have killed them. Jesus doesn’t take the bait: unless you repent, you also will perish.

Jesus then adds another incident. Those dwellers in Jerusalem on whom the tower of Siloam fell, were they worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? Again, we often try to affix blame for natural disaster. Or perhaps in this instance, we want to blame whoever built the tower. But unless you repent, you also will perish.

And then the parable of the fig tree. All four Gospels have a saying about a fig tree. In Mark, Jesus curses a fig tree, then cleanses the Temple, and discovers the withered fig tree. The parable of the vineyard owner and the tenants provides a clue to Mark’s purpose in the story of the fig tree. The fig tree is Israel, and it is fruitless. With a little bit of faith, the disciples of Jesus will be able to hurl the Temple mount into the sea.

Matthew undoes the Markan ‘sandwich’ and has the fig tree wither immediately. The moral of the story is that if you have faith, you can get whatever you ask — not Mark’s harsh judgment upon Israel. In Luke, we have this parable. If Luke is aware of Mark’s meaning, then this a further softening of that word. The gardener asks for time to dig in some manure. Israel may yet be fruitful. I think this gives us a hint of what Luke means by repentance. We are to live our lives expecting fruitfulness. Then, whenever and however we die, it won’t be like those Galileans and Jerusalem dwellers, overtaken without fruit.

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