Bible Tuesdays for Lent III, 2016
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
In ancient Hebrew tradition, “water” is a euphemism for Torah/Law/first five books of the Bible/Pentateuch, which Jesus plays on when he says “I will give you living water.” The hunger and thirst which the writer is addressing is both physical and relational/spiritual. The Israelites have been either in Babylonia or at home but ruled and oppressed by Babylonian soldiers. Whether home or in Babylonia, they were hungry and spiritually defeated.
Whether God’s invitation for all thirsty and hungry to come for free food and drink is for all people, or just Israelites, is not clear. However, verse five is definitely about Israelites and a foreign nation.
During King David’s reign, God promised David that his kingship line would be everlasting. However, the Israelites were completely defeated and had no king nor Temple when Israel fell to Babylonia in 586 BC. Here in verse 3-4, that everlasting covenant is remade and is shifted from David’s family to the entire peoples of Israel. There will not be one Israelite king, but rather all Israelites will be royalty, God’s people. Through them, nations of the world will come to know the one true God.
Verses 6-9 are a call to repentance. This call is broad enough to be for both Israelites and all the nations of the world. However, here we encounter a troubling thread found throughout scriptures, (which is also opposed throughout scriptures,) that one should seek the Lord “while He can be found. Call upon Him while He is near.” This implies that there are times when God is hidden and far away, a blood curdling thought! While Luther and others write about the hidden God, this term refers to those aspects of God which are completely unknown to humanity.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
3Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Here the psalmist is exceedingly thankful to God for seemingly “being there.” The psalmist does not site a particular instance of God’s presence or a certain victory that God has wrought over enemies. Rather, the psalmist merely states that he craves God and has found God in the Temple, and that experience has filled with psalmist with satisfaction and joy.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
6Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
Paul is addressing a challenging congregation with this letter to the church in Corinth. They are Jewish, Roman, Greek, and other who are poor and rich. The wealthy congregation members have come to believe that, since God forgives them all their sin through baptism into Jesus, then “All things are lawful for me!” because I am forgiven no matter what I do. The entire book of I Corinthians addresses the grievous error of that thought.
This passage uses the story of the Exodus as a model for necessary Corinthian congregational reform.
The Corinthian congregants think they are free to indulge all appetites because they are baptized into Jesus/God and under God’s promise. Paul describes the Israelites as under the cloud, which refers to the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites by day in the wilderness. The water through which the Israelites passed through is the Red/Reed Sea, whereas the Corinthian congregants passed through baptismal water. The spiritual food and drink of the Israelites was the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness, and the manna which they gathered every day. The image that the Israelites were baptized into Moses is somewhat cryptic.
But note that Paul is teaching that Jesus was always with the Israelites, in the form of a rock. The rock image comes from many of the Exodus stories which mention “a rock” that provides for them, whether water, shelter, navigational purpose, etc. The image of Jesus as eternal, existing with God before Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, is not exhibited in the three earlier gospels, two of which were written at least 10 years after 1 Corinthians, but only in the gospel of John, written sometime after 90AD, a full 30 years after Paul’s writings. So here Paul gives testimony to a belief that was not shared and argued over throughout the first four centuries after Jesus’ death: Jesus is eternal and was present throughout history.
Paul then applies the Exodus story to the Corinthian congregants. This portion of the passage is rather clear. The statement that Paul makes in verse 13 I find very difficult to exegete. There certainly is a strand throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament which teaches that God tests the Israelites/baptized followers of Jesus. But to what end? I understand God/Jesus to know that all humanity is sinful so what test can we pass? And why test humanity?
It is from this passage that the axiom, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” was developed. As a Lutheran pastor, I completely reject this premise. It sounds as if God sends bad things our way to see how we react, whether or not we grow. But Luther’s arrival on the Theology of the Cross says that God does not put us in suffering, but rather we are most able to see God, experience God, when we suffer. We know God’s true nature when we experience God as we suffer. Jesus suffered and died for that very reason. I don’t believe God sends us calamities or even little trials and temptations. I think life puts us through enough of those as it is.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The previous two chapters in the gospel of Luke are filled with Jesus’ teachings on a whole variety of topics. The teaching immediately preceding this text is a critique on the lack of judgment the people of Jesus’ time show. “You know how to interpret the weather conditions and how to read the land and sky, but you do not know how to interpret the present time?!!” says Jesus.
Then someone runs up to Jesus with the horrible news that Pilate, Roman governor of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, executed some Jews from Galilee and mixed their blood in with the blood of whatever Pilate was sacrificing to one of the many Roman gods/goddesses. It was the common belief among both Jews and Romans that suffering, dying by freak accident, disease, were all curses from the gods, the Lord God. Jesus challenges that “folk theology” with his questions, “Do you think they were worse sinners than all the rest?! No, I tell you!” Jesus sites another example of deaths by freak accident and draws the same conclusion.
“Unless you repent, you will parish as they did.” When the gospel of Luke was first written, it was written after 70AD, the year the Roman Army destroyed Jerusalem and completely decimated the Jewish Temple, and slaughtered thousands of Jews, and crucified those who could be rounded up, as many as 5,000 in one day. This admonishment that Jesus gives, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” can be read as prophecy of the devastation in 70AD. However, that sounds as if Jesus is saying, “Unless you shape up, you are going to suffer just as these folks who died by no fault of their own.” The “shape up” is a true theological problem. However, “repent” does not mean “shape up”. The Greek word which is translated “repent” is a military term which means “to do an about face turn”. What necessitates an about face turn for a military unit? The soldiers have all been naughty and now need to do something else? Of course not! No, the direction in which the soldiers are moving is no longer feasible, advisable, appropriate. So the soldiers must change direction in order to complete their mission. The soldiers must “repent” and head in a new direction.
“See here, I find no fruit!” The image of the fig tree is often used to symbolize Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). The number 3 is always used to symbolize God or God’s activity. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God tells the Israelites that they are planted in the land of Canaan (modern day Israel about doubled in size) to tell others about God and show others how blessed Israel is by God so that others know God and become God’s people too.
The parable in verses 6-9 can be understood in this way: God looks at Israel and wonders why it is not fulfilling its mission to tell and show others about God. There are no people who have come to know God through the words and example of Israel, so God is ready to throw out Israel and put some other people in Canaan instead, people who will carry out the mission. However, Jesus, the gardener (remember, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus but “supposes him to be the gardener”) asks God to give the fig tree one more year, a year during which he will fertilize it. If the tree still does not bear fruit, then “you can cut it down.”
While that sounds ominous, keep in mind that this gardener is Jesus, and the fertilizer he spreads on the fig tree is his own blood. St. Paul writes that all those who have come to believe in Jesus but did not come to know Jesus by being a Jew first have been grafted onto the fig tree which is the Jewish people.