Palm / Passion Sunday A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for April 2, 2023 (Palm / Passion Sunday A)

Liturgy of the Palms A

Gospel: Matthew 21:1-11

We celebrate Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday together as Holy Week begins. In this lectionary year we hear the evangelist Matthew’s account of Jesus’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem.

Christ's entry into Jerusalem

Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (1320), fresco by Pietro Lorenzetti (1280-1348). Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, Assisi, Italy. (Click image to enlarge)

In a variation that we only hear from Matthew, Jesus enters the city apparently riding two animals at once, reflecting the evangelist’s understanding of Zechariah’s prophecy that Israel’s shepherd-king would arrive “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt.” Jesus’s arrival in the city is exciting but tense: A large, noisy crowd surrounds Jesus in a city that Matthew describes as “in a turmoil.” Jesus has warned the disciples that he will be mocked, flogged and crucified. Soon he will anger the authorities again when he drives the money changers out of the temple, as the narrative hurtles toward his passion and death on the cross.

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

As we enter church on Palm Sunday waving palm fronds – recalling Jesus’ traditional entry into Jerusalem before a cheering crowd – we chant verses from Psalm 118 that portray another festive procession in honor of our Lord and God. In familiar words we celebrate “the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Liturgy of the Passion A

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

When Christians hear Isaiah’s verses about the “suffering servant,” our thoughts naturally turn to Jesus Christ, our messiah and king. After all, our Creeds declare that Jesus suffered for us. Our Gospels reveal a Jesus who taught us to turn our cheeks to those who strike us, knowing that a peaceful response to enemies is no cause for disgrace. During Holy Week, though, it’s important for us to understand that Isaiah was not writing to Christians in a distant future but to a Jewish audience in his own time, a people living in exile in Babylon. They were a suffering body of faithful servants, awaiting a Messiah to guide them home.

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Speaking in tones of lamentation, the Psalmist recites a litany of sorrow, distress, grief, sighing, misery, scorn, horror, dread and more. He suffers, his neighbors scheme; they plot his death. In the poet’s words, “I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot.” Yet amid all this misery, hope glows like the sun breaking through clouds: Trust in God, place our faith in God’s love, and wait to be saved.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Paul sets out these poetic verses from an early Christian hymn, an ancient confession in song that preceded the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed by centuries. In these worshipful words we understand that Christ was fully divine, yet embodied in Jesus he was fully human too. The Son of God willingly set aside his divinity – “emptying himself” – to bear the horrific pain of crucifixion as a vulnerable, frightened human. Jesus took on the full weight of all that suffering to show us the true exaltation of God’s love, calling us only to respond with love for God and our neighbor.

Gospel: Matthew 26:14- 27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Sunday’s readings reach their conclusion in Matthew’s long narrative of Jesus’s passion and death. We listen through the long journey from the Last Supper to the crucifixion. There is much packed into these two chapters, from Judas’ betrayal through the institution of the Eucharist; Jesus suffering in the garden, his arrest and trial, his journey to the cross and his death and burial. That’s a lot to grapple with all at once, so let’s reflect on one passage: When Jesus told the apostles during the Last Supper that one of them would betray him, every one of them was afraid. Every one, no matter how much he loved Jesus, wondered if he might be the traitor. Each in turn asked, ‘Surely not I, Lord?” As are we, they are human, frail and weak. And Jesus, loving us still, takes up the cross.

(As an abbreviated alternative, this Gospel may be read in shorter form, including only verses 27:11-54. This portion tells the narrative from the arrest of Jesus to his death on the cross. It ends with a foreshadowing of the resurrection with the opening of the tombs, while a Roman centurion and his soldiers recognize that Jesus was truly God’s Son.)

Lent 5A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for March 26, 2023 (Lent 5A)

First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Our readings change in tone this Sunday as we turn toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The metaphorical reflections on temptation, faith and sight that we have heard so far in Lent now move toward explicit ideas of victory over death through resurrection.

The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus, oil painting on canvas, transferred from wood (1517) by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). National Gallery, London. (Click image to enlarge)

In our first reading, the prophet Ezekiel imagines a valley filled with dry bones: an eerie and alarming sight. In these poetic verses, God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy, and as he does so, the dry bones become connected, covered with skin, and then breathed to life as a vast multitude. Ezekiel’s prophetic vision reveals God’s promise to restore exiled Israel to its own land, the land that God had promised Moses and the people at Mount Sinai.

Psalm: Psalm 130

Psalm 130 may be most familiar for its use, under the Latin title “De Profundis” (“out of the depths”), as one of the Psalms that the Book of Common Prayer suggests for the burial of the dead. Its hopeful cadences remind us that even in times of grief, pain and despair, we wait in hope for God’s love and grace. Even in death we await the resurrection, as in night’s darkest hours we wait for morning light.

Second Reading: Romans 8:6-11

This passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans offers a brief glimpse of his continuing examination of the distinctions between flesh and spirit. All of us – even Jesus, as fully human – live embodied lives. But, Paul goes on, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have given us a new reality: When we accept God’s spirit within us through Jesus, we gain the hope of life, peace and resurrection.

Gospel: John 11:1-45

Why didn’t Jesus hurry back home when he got word that his friend Lazarus was ill? When he finally arrives, his friends Mary and Martha – devastated by the death of Lazarus their brother – confront Jesus separately with the same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus assures Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. … everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then, when Mary weeps, Jesus weeps with her. And then he goes to the tomb and raises Lazarus from the dead. The crowd looking on is amazed. But the verses that follow immediately after this passage reveal that the priests and temple authorities, fearful that Jesus’ bold acts will bring Roman retribution, decide that Jesus must die.

Lent 4A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for March 19, 2023 (Lent 4A)

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Through Sunday’s Lectionary readings we reflect on light and sight: What do we see, and how do we see it?

Healing the Man Born Blind

Healing the Man Born Blind (1605-1606), fresco for the Church of San Giacomo degli Spagnuoli, Rome, by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), later transferred to canvas. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. (Click image to enlarge)

In our first reading, we learn that God has rejected Saul as king of Israel. Now God sends a rather unwilling Samuel to take on the risky chore of finding a successor to Saul. God sends Samuel to Jesse the Bethlehemite, among whose eight sons God has chosen the next king. Samuel examines seven of the young men, one at a time, but doesn’t find God’s chosen one. Asking if there is any other, Samuel discovers David, Jesse’s youngest son, who had seemed such an unlikely choice that he had been sent to watch the sheep. But God saw the spirit in David that the others could not detect. David is to become king and will be next in the Messiah’s line.

Psalm: Psalm 23

Who doesn’t know and love the 23rd Psalm? It brings comfort in time of trouble and trial, reminding us that in our darkest hours and most threatening times, God walks with us, protects us and comforts us. Ancient tradition held that David himself wrote these verses. Most modern scholars doubt that. But kings and commoners alike can take joy from knowing that God’s rod and staff comfort us, and God’s goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

This short letter, probably written in Paul’s name a generation or more after his death, contains some problems for modern Christians who take it out of its historical and cultural context. It appears to sanction slavery, for example, and it firmly puts women in their place as “subject” to their husbands. Sunday’s short passage, however, offers a poetic view of light against darkness. Perhaps echoing John’s vision of Jesus as the light shining in the darkness, it points us toward the Gospel about the man born blind.

Gospel: John 9:1-41

For millennia many humans have held on to the troubling idea that blindness and other disabilities are God’s way of punishing a person’s sins or even the sins of their ancestors. In this Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that God does no such thing. In a long narrative we hear the intriguing details about how Jesus healed the man with a mixture of mud and saliva spread on his eyes and washed in a pool. Then Jesus disappears from the narrative, leaving us to listen in on a long and fruitless discussion among the Pharisees, the no-longer-blind man, and his family. Finally Jesus returns, and his words make clear that God works in the world through grace, not punishment, and that the miracle of healing cannot come from sin or evil.

Lent 3A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for March 12, 2023 (Lent 3A)

First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

This week’s readings focus our thoughts on water and thirst … and a bit of gratitude. We may thirst for righteousness, mercy and justice, but when we are thirsty and need water, this simple human need takes precedence.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (1796), oil painting on canvas by Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807). Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. (Click image to enlarge)

Sunday’s readings take us from the thirsty Israelites in the desert to Jesus stopping for water and rest in a Samaritan town. In our first reading from Exodus, the Israelites are no longer hungry – in previous verses, they have just received miraculous manna – but they still have no water. Their constant thirst makes them so angry that they wish they were back in slavery in Egypt, where at least their basic needs of life were met. Moses is angry and outdone with them, but God provides a miracle to quench their thirst.

Psalm: Psalm 95

Psalm 95, which we also know as the Venite in Morning Prayer, begins with a surprisingly joyous tone for the penitential time of Lent. But its sounds of praise for God change key abruptly in Verse 8, when the Psalmist reminds us of the story we heard in the Exodus reading: The thirsty, angry people turned their hearts away from God and put God to the test. The Psalmist imagines that these actions drove God to “loathe” these ungrateful people and leave them lost 40 years in the desert.

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

The infant church in Rome has known suffering. Some of its members were forced into exile, and the entire congregation was at risk for its faith. But their suffering gives them the opportunity to learn endurance and build their character, Paul reminds them, by means of their hope in the love that God pours into their hearts through the Spirit. Even though the people are sinners, we hear, they are justified through faith and saved through Jesus’s death on the cross.

Gospel: John 4:5-42

Jesus, like the people in the desert, was tired and thirsty after a long journey. Returning from Jerusalem to Galilee (a journey that we hear about only in John’s Gospel), he decided to pass through the country of the Samaritans even though they were not on good terms with their Jewish neighbors. Jesus struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman, asking her for a drink. These actions surprised her, as Jewish men of the era weren’t likely to engage with Samaritans, much less Samaritan women. Then his conversation surprised her even more, as he promised her the unending “living water” of God’s spirit, foretold an end to the differences between their people, and declared himself the Messiah.

Lent 2A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for March 5, 2023 (Lent 2A)

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a

We began Lent last week by pondering readings about temptation, sin, and repentance. This week our thoughts turn to faith: our deep conviction that God waits with us when we make decisions that shape our lives.

Christ and Nicodemus

Christ and Nicodemus (c.1850), watercolor by Aleksandr Andreevich Ivanov (1806-1858). The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Click image to enlarge)

In our first reading, we meet Abram, whom God will later rename Abraham. Even at the advanced age of 75, Abram’s faith gave him the strength to risk of following God’s call to uproot his family and begin the people’s long journey from his home in Ur (in present-day Iraq) toward the promised land. In response to Abram’s faith and trust, God will bless him and his family; and through him, God will bless all the families of the Earth.

Psalm: Psalm 121

When I served as a hospital chaplain, I kept a bookmark set on Psalm 121. Its verses, I found, brought comfort and peace to many as they faced whatever crisis had brought them for urgent care. We lift up our eyes to the hills seeking help, the Psalmist sings; and that help comes from God watching over us and protecting us. As Paul will observe in the second reading, God’s help is not meted out to reward us for our faith or for anything else we do. God watches over our going out and our coming in because that is who God is, and that is what God does.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul recalls the foundational story of Abraham in this passage from his pastoral letter to the church in Rome. His theological reflection seems consistent with Psalm 121: God’s promise of eternal life comes to us, as it came to Abraham, not in reward for anything that we have done to deserve it, but entirely through our faith by grace. Seeking in this letter to restore Rome’s Jewish Christians and pagan converts to unity, he reminds them that God’s promise depends on faith, not something due to us, but a gift. It was given to all the nations, not to Abraham’s descendants alone.

Gospel: John 3:1-17

Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to see Jesus in the dark of night, couldn’t figure how a grown person could creep back into the mother’s body to be “born again.” But Jesus saw no contradiction between being born of the flesh as an infant and being “born again,” or, as it can also be translated, “born from above,” not in the flesh but through faith and the Spirit. Then we hear the familiar words of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Does this mean that only Christians can be saved? Jesus’s teaching surely rules that out. The next verse makes clear that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world and all its nations.

Lent 1A

Illuminations on the Lectionary readings for Feb. 26, 2023 (Lent 1A)

First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Sunday’s Lectionary readings open the Lenten season with scriptural views of temptation and sin.

The Temptation on the Mount

The Temptation on the Mount, (1308-1311). Tempera painting on wood by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1260–1318), the Frick Collection, New York City. (Click image to enlarge)

Our first reading picks up the creation legend just as Eve and Adam submit to temptation and eat the fruit that God had told them not to touch. God had warned them that eating the fruit would make them vulnerable to death. But even that was not enough to turn them away from the crafty serpent’s temptation, the promise that eating the forbidden fruit would give them Godlike knowledge of good and evil. Temptation was powerful; but so was the shame that followed when they realized they had broken their relationship with God.

Psalm: Psalm 32

Psalm 32 exalts the joy, relief and “glad cries of deliverance” that erupt from our souls when we accept God’s sure forgiveness. Indeed, God’s steadfast love surrounds all who trust enough to acknowledge our wrongdoing, the Psalmist sings. Joy comes when we confess our transgressions and accept God’s loving deliverance from the pain and guilt of being separated from God through sin.

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we will visit during much of Lent, Paul offers pastoral guidance to Gentile converts to Christianity and Jewish Christians returning from exile. Paul sketches a direct connection between the sin of Adam (curiously, he doesn’t mention Eve) and the divinity of Jesus Christ, the son of God. If Adam’s yielding to the temptation of the fruit brought death into the world, as Genesis tells us, then the incarnation of Jesus as fully human – one of us – restores justification and life for all through God’s gift of grace.

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

At the beginning of Epiphany, we heard Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, when the voice of God declared him God’s beloved Son. Now we turn the page to discover that the Spirit led Jesus directly from the Jordan into the wilderness … to be tempted by the devil! This may seem a very strange thing for the Holy Spirit to do, but the Spirit works in mysterious ways. The devil – in a role something like the Satan, the adversary who tested Job’s faith – tries to test Jesus, too. The tempter tries three times to persuade Jesus to perform miracles to help himself. But Jesus stands strong, and at the end of 40 days of fasting, without giving in to temptation, Jesus orders the devil away.

Palm / Passion Sunday C

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 10, 2022 (Palm / Passion Sunday C)

The Liturgy of the Palms C

Gospel: Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday fall on the same day in modern times, prompting us to watch in shock and surprise as the crowds who cheered for Jesus upon his arrival in Jerusalem quickly turn to mocking him and calling for his crucifixion.

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (c.1530), oil painting on panel by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550). Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, Netherlands. (Click image to enlarge.)

First, in the Liturgy of the Palms, we celebrate and wave our palms as Jesus rides a colt into Jerusalem while the crowd chants the words of the prophet Zechariah celebrating the arrival of Israel’s king: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey!” Then Luke shows the crowd responding with a song of joy that we’ll hear again in Psalm 118: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

This resounding ancient hymn, a song in celebration of victory, rings out in harmony with the first reading’s verses of celebration of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Imagine a joyful crowd at the gates to the ancient Temple, clapping hands and loudly singing, praising the Lord, our God, whose mercy and steadfast love endure forever. “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

The Liturgy of the Passion C

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Now our readings turn darker and more painful as Holy Week draws near. But even as shadows and twilight fall, the hope that rests in faith and trust remains. The Prophet Isaiah surely meant the “Suffering Servant” figure as a metaphor for Israel under the iron foot of exile, hoping some day to return home with God’s help. Christians must respect this tradition, but the Servant’s pain may make us think of Jesus too, particularly in its clear call to turn the other cheek against our enemies, knowing that God is with us.

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

The darkness deepens as we hear this Psalm. These verses that echo the pain of the Suffering Servant remind us that numbing anguish can sap the strength of body, mind and soul. But even in the darkest depths, hope remains! Even when life seems full of pain and void of hope, we trust in God and pray: “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

When Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell in Rome, he may have had Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in mind. In poetic verses that historians believe may have been taken from an early Christian hymn, Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied himself” as a human, even a slave, becoming one with us even in suffering. Jesus took on human frailty as he bore the gruesome pain of crucifixion. With this as our model, Paul shows that all are called to serve God and our neighbor humbly and obediently, becoming “more” through being “less.”

Gospel: Luke 22:14-23:49

Now the joy and celebration of the procession with the palms is fully turned. We see Jesus and his friends at the Last Supper, and now the crowds who had cheered for Jesus are mocking him and calling for his crucifixion. Before long we listen in horror to the familiar account of Jesus’ torture and gruesome death. In the midst of it all, though, take a moment to reflect on a brief passage at the Last Supper when Jesus turns the disciples’ bold ideas upside down after they started arguing about which of them was to be the greatest: “The greatest among you must become like the youngest,” Jesus tells them, “and the leader like one who serves.” What direction might we take from this? How are we called to serve?

Lent 5C

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for April 3, 2022 (Lent 5C)

First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21

The whole world, it seems, is divided into Marthas and Marys, and most of us know which one we are. In Sunday’s Gospel, we hear the familiar story of these two friends of Jesus and their differing ways of showing their love, as Jesus progresses toward Jerusalem and the Cross.

Christ in the House of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus

Christ in the House of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (c.1577). Oil painting on canvas by Jacopo Bassano (1510-1592). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Click image to enlarge.)

Each of Sunday’s readings touches on the idea of progress toward a goal. In the first reading, Isaiah envisions the people in exile, defeated and hopeless, unable to get up; “extinguished, quenched like a wick.” But in God there is hope for new ways, the prophet assures us. God will make a path in the wilderness and create rivers in the desert, protecting God’s chosen people and bringing them home.

Psalm: Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is one of a series of hymns known as “Songs of Ascent” that may have been sung as the people approached the Temple in ritual procession. Celebrating the people’s return to Jerusalem from exile, the Psalm echoes the Isaiah passage: It reminds us that God’s redemption can turn our tears into shouts of joy even though life’s burdens once seemed to be more than we could bear.

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

Once a proud Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, Paul thought he had a lot to boast about. But once he felt that he knew Christ, everything changed. He has lost everything that he had before, and all that is now rubbish to him, he says in his letter to this Greek convert community in Philippi. Having gained righteousness from God through faith in Jesus, his new hope rests in the resurrection. As Isaiah advised Israel, so Paul urges the Philippians: Forget what lies behind you. Press on toward the goal of resurrection and life through God’s call in Jesus.

Gospel: Gospel: John 12:1-8

Our journey through Lent with Jesus is nearing its end. In John’s Gospel, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, and now the high priests are worried. Jesus’s miracles are getting too much attention, and the clamor might upset the hated Roman rulers. They decide to kill him if he shows his face in Jerusalem during Passover. Of course, that’s just where Jesus is headed. But first, as told in Sunday’s Gospel, he stops in Bethany to visit Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and Martha shows her love by bathing his feet extravagantly with a costly perfumed oil. Profit-minded Judas objects, but Jesus says, “Leave her alone!” The oil is for his burial, Jesus says, reminding them, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Lent 4C

Parable of the Prodigal Son (1536) painting on oak wood by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c.1500-c.1566). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. (Click image to enlarge.)Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 27, 2022 (Lent 4C)

First Reading: Joshua 5:9-12

Repentance – literally, turning back from a wrong path and changing to a right one – forms a consistent theme through Sunday’s readings.

Parable of the Prodigal Son

Parable of the Prodigal Son (1536) painting on oak wood by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (c.1500-c.1566). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. (Click image to enlarge.)

From the people’s arrival at the Promised Land to the prodigal son’s joyous return home, we hear that God is with us through transition and change. In our first reading, the Israelites have come to Canaan, the land of milk and honey, after 40 years wandering in the desert. They celebrate with bread made from the produce of the promised land. Later in Joshua we will discover that people already live on the land. It will have to be taken by bloody force, a darker side of Scripture’s ancestral legends. In this passage, though, we simply share in the joy of completing a long journey.

Psalm: Psalm 32

Hear the message of Psalm 32: We don’t always do the right thing. In our hearts we know this, even as we feel the pain of knowing that we have wronged another, or hurt a loved one. When we step away from God, who loves us and who always stands ready to forgive, our guilt piles up and we groan in sorrow. When we repent – when we stop being stubborn and turn back from our wrongful ways to trust in God – we feel the comfort and joy of knowing God’s forgiveness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Paul was dealing with an angry, troubled congregation as he wrote his second known letter to the people of Corinth. They are mad at him, and he’s not happy with them, either. But he loves them still and seeks their forgiveness. God gave us Christ to reconcile the world to God, Paul writes. Our new direction as Christians, he tells them, comes when we recognize Jesus not only as human but as the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah. In Christ everything old has passed away, he says. Everything has become new!

Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

It seems easy to grasp the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son: God forgives us when we stray and then return. Even if we have been prodigally sinful, God welcomes us home with a father’s joy and abundant celebration. But wait! There’s more: Look at the rest of the story. At the end of this passage, the older brother, hurt because his consistent good behavior won him no such praise, hears of his father’s loyal, long-standing love. And at the beginning of this parable, we hear why Jesus told this story: It was a response to a group of grumbling Pharisees and scribes, showing them that a sinner’s return deserves as much celebration as the recovery of a lost sheep or a silver coin.

Lent 3C

Thoughts on Sunday’s Lessons for March 20, 2022 (Lent 3C)

First Reading: Exodus 3:1-15

Scripture offers us scores of images and metaphors to help us visualize a God who is beyond our imagining. It is no surprise that its efforts to portray some small sense of God’s power sometimes stretch our imagination.

The Gardener and the Fig Tree

The Gardener and the Fig Tree from Luke 13:1-9; stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church of Ireland in Dungarvan, Waterford County, Ireland. (Click image to enlarge.)

One such image is fire. God led the Israelites in the wilderness as a pillar of fire and column of smoke, and, as we hear in Sunday’s first reading, God surprises Moses by speaking out of a bush that burns and burns but is not consumed. The people have suffered enough in slavery in Egypt, God says. Moses receives God’s call to lead the people out of slavery to a promised land that flows with milk and honey.

Psalm: Psalm 63:1-8

The Psalmist creates the striking metaphor of a voice crying out in the wilderness. The one who speaks – traditionally said to be David in the Wilderness of Judah – is alone and thirsty, yet nevertheless they trust in God. Even in a barren and dry and probably scary place where there is no water, their souls thirst not for mere liquid refreshment but for God: God’s loving-kindness is better than life itself. Even in hard times we trust in God, finding comfort under the shadow of God’s wings, held in God’s strong right hand.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

In verses that draw together the themes of Sunday’s First Reading, Psalm and Gospel, Paul reminds his audience that many of the Israelites died in the wilderness. He argues that these bad things happened because God was not pleased with them. Recalling lessons from Exodus, Paul urges the people of Corinth not to practice idolatry, an issue that frequently arose among this community’s formerly pagan Christians. Don’t put Christ to the test, Paul warns. Don’t complain. These things happened to our ancestors to serve as an example to us, Paul wrote, reminding the people to be faithful during hard times: God will provide strength.

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

Pilate had murdered a group of Galileans in grisly fashion, and more people had died unexpectedly when a tower fell. A crowd clustered around Jesus, worried. Why did these bad things happen to good people, they asked. Were these people punished because they had sinned? God does not punish sin with suffering, Jesus told them. But repentance – turning away from bad behavior – brings forgiveness and eternal life. Then Jesus told them a parable about a gardener who allowed a barren fig tree one more year of nurturing in hope it would bear fruit. Like the fig tree in this story, Jesus tells the crowd, it’s best to repent and wait for God’s forgiveness and another chance.