Life and Death: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 3
Lent 3 (Year C): Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-13
1) This is the third week of Lent, the 40-day season traditionally conceived as a time for reflection and repentance. This week’s passages give us a chance to explore what “repentance” is really all about.
2) Isaiah 55 is part of the book’s second major section (often called, “Second Isaiah”), likely written on the verge of Israel’s return from Babylonian exile. Accordingly, it’s an exultant invitation to everyone – not just Israelites! – to change our ways and join the banquet of redemption. Though the lectionary’s excerpt ends with verse 9, the passage itself continues until verse 13, and those last few verses include the key idea that God’s redemptive work will overwhelm all obstacles: the divine word, God says, “shall not return to me empty” (Isa 55:10-11).
3) Luke’s Gospel begins with John the Baptizer’s warning that “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). In this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus picks up the same theme: The time has come to change your life! Bear fruit!
4) Jesus is in the midst of an extended teaching session with the disciples, exhorting them to waste no time in getting ready for God’s dawning new era. The urgency of repentance is a tricky topic, and Jesus tackles it by using one of his signature rhetorical moves. In a kind of “illustration cascade” or “poetic waterfall,” he lays out a series of images in quick succession, figuring his subject from different vantage points: Think of it like this… Or like this… Or like this… The overall effect is a multilayered, composite portrait, at once illuminating the topic and testifying to its mysterious character. Like a poet expressing her inexpressible love with a cascade of similes and metaphors, Jesus uses figurative language to help us apprehend the urgency of repentance - even if we can’t comprehend exactly how this urgency and God’s mercy will interact in the end.
5) The cascade begins early in Chapter 12. It’s as if Jesus says: To what shall I compare the urgency of repentance? Think of it this way: do you respect and listen to human authorities? Then how much more should you respect the One with the authority to send you to Gehenna (Jerusalem’s smouldering trash dump, a common figure for condemnation). Or think of it this way: once there was a rich, self-centered man blithely hoarding his possessions, but God said, “You fool! This very night your life will end! What good will all your stuff be then?” Or again: think of yourselves as servants ready for action, with your lamps lit and keeping busy - for God could come at any time! Or again: imagine you and your accuser walking to see a magistrate. Don’t wait! Settle the dispute on your own, even before you arrive at the court - lest you find yourself in prison until you’ve paid the last penny (Luke 12:5; Luke 12:16-21,29-31; Luke 12:35,43; Luke 12:57-59). As the waterfall gains momentum, the common current flowing through it is clear: The time has come to change your ways!
1) This week’s passage stands at the foot - and the culmination - of this waterfall, as if Jesus continues: To what shall I compare the urgency of repentance? Remember those Galileans whom Pilate killed at the temple without warning? Or remember those eighteen people killed by that falling tower? Listen, they weren’t being punished for their sins - they were no more sinful than anyone else in Jerusalem - but unless you repent, your fate will be comparable to theirs. So get moving! Or again, think of it this way: a landowner plants a fig tree, but it bears no fruit. He was about to order it to be cut down - but then he and the gardner decide to give it one more year, with plenty of fertilizer. One more year! Remember what John said? “The ax is lying at the root of the trees…” So for God’s sake, bear fruit! Repent!
2) The Greek word translated as “repentance” here is metanoia, from meta, “change,” and noia, “mind” - so, meta + noia = “change of mind.” In the ancient Near East, many considered the “mind” to be the essence or center of the human person; today, we might say, “change of heart.” Or as Isaiah puts it: “let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, who may have mercy on them, and to our God, who will abundantly pardon” (Isa 55:7).
3) Recognizing that this passage is at the end of a rhetorical waterfall can help us avoid getting bogged down in the details of any particular image in the series. These are illustrations, provocations, pictures, glimpses meant to poke and push us forward, to wake us up, and to challenge us to live out the fruitful, generous lives God created us to live.
4) Jesus is urging his listeners to take an active, practical part in this redemptive transformation. Why? Because the paths we’re on - the barren, bloody paths of Pilate, the rich fool, the sluggish servant, the defensive litigant - lead in the direction of death and destruction, and Jesus calls us to reorient ourselves (with the help of God!) toward life and restoration. For Jesus, that’s what “repentance” is all about. Get off the paths of death - and come to life!
1) As we’ve seen, Luke frequently emphasizes God’s mercy and the universalizing reach of redemption - and this emphasis opens up an implicit question: Does God’s abundant mercy amount to a license to do whatever we please? Does it even matter what we do, if God will forgive us in any case? Guarding against this line of thought, Jesus offers a cascade of illustrations about the urgency of repentance, of changing our minds and hearts toward the ancient Way of Life, “so that you may live” (Isa 55:3).
2) This cascade focuses on the stakes involved in whether or not we take an active role in our redemption here and now: listening to God; focusing not on possessions but on generosity; staying alert and ready for action; reconciling swiftly with opponents; and otherwise bearing fruit worthy of repentance - this is the theme of Luke’s chapter 12 and early chapter 13. To the extent that we follow in these active paths, we live. To the extent that we do the contrary, we are following the barren ways of death, the paths of Pilate, the rich fool, the sluggish servant, the defensive litigant - and the desolate, fruitless tree. The warnings woven throughout these images, then, are less about divine judgment from on high, and more about the down-to-earth, practical dynamics of daily life and death. In this sense, like a parent exhorting a child, Jesus’ warnings are part and parcel of divine mercy, urging us to live toward life!
3) Finally, while this waterfall of images includes icons of potential destruction or perdition (Gehenna, prison, cutting down a tree), these shouldn’t be confused with a systematic theological treatise. Indeed, the figurative forms themselves caution against overly literal interpretations - and what’s more, on close inspection, the images are circumspect: the God of justice and mercy has the authority to send people to Gehenna, but may or may not ever do so; the litigant’s potential prison stay is apparently temporary in any case; and as for whether any tree will be cut down - well, that depends on the fruitfulness and forgiveness to come. All of which brings us back to Luke’s overarching emphasis on divine mercy and the universal, God’s-love-will-not-be-denied vision of redemption we find not only in Luke, but also in Isaiah. Like the rain and snow that comes down and gives rise to the harvest, God says, “my word” - which is to say, my promises, my forgiveness, my ways of life and grace and love - “shall not return to me empty” (Isa 55:10-11).