This is just the first Sunday in Lent. However, to read Luke’s gospel sequentially (though not quite consecutively), this week we’ll read the Old Testament and Gospel recommended for the third Sunday in Lent. Fun fact: they’re called Sundays in Lent (contrast the four Sundays of Advent), because each Sunday is like its own little Easter.

Where are we?

Isaiah 55:1-9 comes at the end of the second batch of material in Isaiah (scholars agree that there were three distinct authors), which focused on the promise that God will deliver the people from exile in Babylon. The preceding chapters describe God’s promise to restore Jerusalem, interspersed with descriptions of the “suffering servant” whose selflessness exemplifies how God will bring this about. Jerusalem has been restored, the way has been cleared, and God summons the people home.

Luke 13:1-9 finds Jesus well along the road to Jerusalem. Since last week’s story of the Transfiguration, Jesus has set himself on the way to Jerusalem, where he will die, rise again, and ascend to heaven. He has passed through neighboring Samaria, taught in ways that irritate the religious elite, and started talking about the need to commit to God’s inbreaking reality. The teachings and parables will only get more challenging from here.

What’s going on?

We don’t have an Ash Wednesday service here, but one of the suggested readings for Ash Wednesday is Isaiah 58:1-12, which talks about true fasting. Isaiah and all the prophets have much to say about legitimate and proper worship of God. I hear echoes of these themes in Isaiah 55 and the questions about what we invest ourselves in. There are also echoes of the Exodus description of the promised land as “flowing with milk and honey.”

Foreign nations will come to worship God when the people return from exile. Isaiah reflects the developing understanding that the Lord, the tribal god of the Hebrews, is truly the God of all creation, able to act in a foreign land and through unexpected avenues. Jesus’ work in the gospels, and the growth of the church, depended on this understanding of God’s transnational greatness.

Jesus is pushing back on the common idea (in his day and ours) that bad things come as punishment upon bad people. He gives the same warning John the Baptist gave in his ministry in Luke 3: turn from your sins or die. None of us is exempt, and if we’re supposed to learn anything from the disasters he mentions, we should learn that we better shape up.

There seems to be no independent historical record of the incidents Jesus is talking about.

The image of the fig tree is commonly applied to the temple in Jerusalem. In the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 5), the people of Israel were described as a vineyard. Luke’s gospel was written after the destruction of the temple in 70AD, so that affects how the original audience would have heard a prophecy about the temple.

Jesus’ two teachings are similar but different. They both have the idea of a “last chance” and a need to shape up. However, whereas the first warning to “turn from your sins” suggests that we can make this change, the fig tree in the second story required the intervention of a gardener to become healthy again. And notice that sin seems to be characterized not as a behavior, but as a systemic illness.

So what?

I’m thinking about Isaiah’s question of what we spend our resources on, and Jesus’ suggestion that sin is a vitality-sapping illness. It drains us to spend our energy on things that don’t fill us, to focus ourselves on something other than God’s abundant goodness. I carry a smartphone, and pay for a data plan to keep it running, but it feels like I spend half my energy trying to avoid using the thing because it’s just too convenient a way to distract myself from what matters. At the same time, I know that it makes me more flexible, more available, and better equipped for work in the world. There’s no such thing as an easy answer, but the question captures me.

Thinking about sin as an illness changes the way we have to think about the intimations of divine wrath here. It’s not necessarily that God is going to punish people for screwing up, so much as that our sinfulness leads to death of its own accord. The landowner in the parable is willing to cut down the tree (remember, Jesus meant the temple) on account of the soil, not because he’s mad at the tree. Even in the great descriptions of divine wrath, there’s usually an overtone of divine lament that people are so hard-hearted. And if sin is an illness, then Jesus’ warning is just that: a warning that if things don’t change, the story will end badly. It’s like intervening with an alcoholic: “If you keep doing this, you’re going to die. Not that I’m going to kill you, but this is the road you’re on.”

Many cultures have ideas similar to the Chinese concept of the hungry ghost, a being that spends all its time trying to fill an insatiable hunger.

The movie is getting older, but the term “affluenza” does a great job of describing this sin/illness/consumption dynamic we all live in. How to find a way out of it that doesn’t come across as moralistic and preachy? (The worst thing that can happen to a preacher is when we get preachy.)

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