March 3 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Third Sunday in Lent
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Theme: No obvious candidates this week, although there is a subtle theme running through these texts. I've gone for "Judging Ourselves, Not others", but it's not a happy choice, and certainly no better than many other possibilities. Perhaps something like "Divine Wisdom", or "The Source of All Wisdom". Or for regular readers of The Lectionary what about "Self-Examination and Special Devotion"?
Introduction. Just as I was about to start this section, some words from St Paul's wonderful hymn to Christ's humility (Philippians 2:5-11) came into my mind: "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped". Perhaps those words get us nearer than most to the "subtle theme running through these texts". The sort of horror events referred to in our gospel reading this morning can stir challenging questions in the hearts and minds of people of faith, and that certainly happened to the disciples in Luke's story. Where is God in all this? Isaiah has much for us to ponder in respect of such human questions and questioning. If that's about our human propensity to make God accountable to us, St Paul reminds us of another human propensity – to turn to God when all else fails, and to turn away from God when the danger has passed. Someone has said that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them: St Paul's point exactly.
Background. The Lectionary designates the days of Lent as "Days of Self-Examination and Special Devotion". "Self-Examination" has a sugar-coated, euphemistic tone to it: perhaps our Liturgy is more helpful when it says "we call to mind our sins". But are those two expressions saying the same thing? I'm not at all sure they are. Let's start with the simpler one first: what does it mean to "call to mind our sins"?
[A theoretical complication arises immediately: in the Liturgy, we are in corporate (rather than private or individual) prayer, so that the emphasis should be on the sins we have committed collectively, as the Body of Christ in this place, rather than those each of us may have committed as individuals. To get this distinction clear it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on the words used in the same context by our third Liturgy (page 478): "We come seeking forgiveness for all we have failed to be and do as members of Christ's body."]
In practice, whichever liturgical formula is used, I suspect that most of us respond by recalling our personal misdeeds, and bemoan the fact that we are never given enough time for the task! (Perhaps liturgists have far less sins to call to mind than the rest of us?) This idea of sins as discrete(!) acts or omissions is well-illustrated by a story I came across a few years ago of a church in Italy which had installed a "slot-machine" in the foyer to facilitate confession for passing tourists. Apparently it displayed a list of sins (the figure I have in mind is 76, but I may have conflated this memory with a song about trombones that I've always loved), and the penitent tourist could punch in the numbers of the sins he/she was confessing. That done the machine would then display the Absolution. However crass, that idea is really only a parody of a particular understanding of "sin" as specific act or omission.
While that approach can lead to over-scrupulous "mind-scraping" that probably does the penitent more spiritual harm than good, carried out regularly and briefly, concentrating on anything that is genuinely troubling our conscience, it is a very important and beneficial practice. But there is another, deeper approach to all this, and one which I believe is more in tune with the general biblical understanding of "Sin" with a capital S.
And here's another little quirky story to illustrate this. One evening a party was held for up-and-coming Hollywood starlets on board a very splendid yacht moored in a private cove somewhere. The rich and pretty were there in abundance and so was the alcohol. One of the male guests finally succumbed to the soporific effect of the booze, the sun, and everything else that he had enjoyed to excess that evening, and flaked out. He was last seen sleeping on the deck where he had landed. Eventually everyone else went off to sleep somewhere. During the night the wind got up, the yacht pitched suddenly, and the young man rolled off the deck, into the water and drowned. The reason why I remember this story so well is the picture of his distraught girlfriend demanding to know, "How could a loving God allow such a terrible thing to happen to such a lovely guy as my Gerry?"
Yes, another parody; but a very good illustration of a common approach to personal tragedy or natural disaster. Maybe we are not all quite so direct as that young heart-broken starlet; but most of us at some time or another have been troubled with that sort of question, I think. Philosophers and theologians have feasted on the so-called problem of evil in a God-created world, but it's far more than a philosophical teaser when it happens to you or someone you love.
Today's gospel story illustrates an alternative approach that many adopt in such cases. We try to "explain" what has happened to someone else in terms that can come very close to blaming the victim, and, indirectly, slandering God. Clearly the people in discussion with Jesus here have been toying with the idea that the unfortunate Galileans who were killed in a building collapse, and those even more unfortunate Galileans who had been slaughtered by Pilate's lot, must have "deserved" their fate in some way. And what that means is that God has carried out judgment on them as punishment for their sins. (Pause for a moment and think about the image of God such an argument necessarily gives rise to.) Crazy stuff; and yet we have had modern examples of this sort of approach. Pat Robertson (or was it Jerry Falwell) in the United States asserted that Hurricane Katrina that did so much damage to New Orleans was God's judgment on that city for the sins committed there. And closer to home, an Anglican priest wrote an article in the ODT after the September earthquake in Christchurch "explaining" why there had been no loss of life there compared to over 200,000 deaths in a similar earthquake in Haiti.
In our Lenten Studies session this week we spent some of our time looking at the classic "sin stories" of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. How do we react to those stories? What are they really about? Surely their underlying theme is our human tendency to grasp at equality with God. Why shouldn't we eat fruit that is pleasing to the eye, good for food and for growing in wisdom? Why did God plant the tree there if he didn't want them to eat from it? Why did God show favouritism to Abel over Cain? As St Paul's says, learn from the past. We could say, learn from Job! Who are we to call God to account? His ways are not our ways: and the postmodern view that all ways are equally valid amounts, in this context, to blasphemy!
So perhaps this Lent we are called in our times of self-examination not to get too hung up on the word said, the thought entertained, or the act done that we now regret. Instead, we may be led to go a little deeper and examine our own general attitude towards God. When we seek wisdom, do we turn first to prayer, to wait upon the Lord, and seek his guidance, or do we assume we can nut it out for ourselves? And in our times of Special Devotion, are we clear that we worship God whose ways are higher than our ways, his thoughts than our thoughts?
Isaiah. Who cannot love Isaiah when he is in this mood? To read this passage slowly and reflectively is to be nourished, refreshed, uplifted, energised, enthused, calmed, and a whole lot of other things that haven't yet occurred to me, but they're all here, too! In a sense, it's a wonderful summary of the gospel message, delivered 700 years or so before the Advent. Where do we find the good things in life, the food that truly nourishes and the water that truly refreshes? For those things we are graciously invited to come to God. To whom should we listen for true wisdom, advice and guidance for our well-being? We should listen to God. Where may we find acceptance, forgiveness and pardon? God freely offers them to all who seek him. Where should we seek him? He is near at hand. And then come those wonderful poetic, musical but so profound verses 8 and 9. When they become part of our inner song we will surely know what it means for "our soul to delight in the richest fare".
Taking It Personally.
- A wonderful passage for the practice of lectio divina. Read through the passage very slowly and prayerfully, word by word, phrase by phrase. Stop and hover over any bit that resonates in a special way. Take your time. You don't have to finish the whole thing in one sitting. Spread it out over the whole week – or even longer. And notice how much better you feel!
- Reflect on your own attitude towards God in the sort of situations discussed above (and in today's gospel passage). Do you have a tendency to call God to account?
- Remember that each day in Lent is for self-examination AND special devotion. Using this passage as a guide, try to give equal time to both self-examination and devotion this week.
Corinthians. Our faith history has proved over and over again that times of spiritual awakening are usually followed by times of spiritual backsliding: on the spiritual path one step forward is often followed by two steps back. This is the concern that St Paul is addressing here. Recall that the addressees are recent converts to the faith, and many have had highly exciting conversion experiences and manifested, or observed others manifesting, extraordinary spiritual gifts. And yet, the old human nature is still there for all to see; the power games, the strained relationships, the gossip and back-biting. All of which points to a fundamental problem in their attitude towards God. Just as all the people were brought out of Egypt together (notice how St Paul uses the image of baptism here) but many turned away from God in the wilderness, so many of the believers at Corinth, despite their baptism in water and in the spirit, are turning back to their own egotistical ways.
Taking It Personally.
- A much more obvious Lenten passage calling for serious self-examination! A good place to start is with the promises made at your baptism and the commitments entered into at your Confirmation in response to God's gracious call to come to the waters.
- Reflect on verses 7-10. There are four possible "indictments" there – idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the Lord, and grumbling. How do you plead to each of these charges?
- Ponder verse 12. Pride comes before a fall. Do you need to pay particular attention to this warning at this time?
- Does verse 13 accord with your own experience to date?
Luke. The first part of this reading is covered by the comments above; but to drive home his point Jesus then widens the focus to include the whole of Israel. To counter the national tendency to assume that our nation is better than those other nations, Jesus reverts to the well-known image of the fig-tree (or, sometimes, the vine) to represent Israel. If Israel does not produce good fruit it will face the same judgment as others. So far God has shown great patience and granted a little more time, and lavished a lot of care on Israel, but sooner or later the time will come when the fruit will be tasted. Will it meet the divine taste test?
Taking It Personally.
- Substitute a native tree or other plant of some kind and apply the parable to this country? What is there about this country that may be characterised as good fruit, and what as bad fruit (or a failed crop)?
- What might you do to "dig round it and fertilise it? What might the Church do?