The Verse Right Before: A Reflection on the Lectionary Texts for 7 March 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 7 March 2010 (Third Sunday of Lent, Year C)

Isaiah 55:1-9 •  Psalm 63:1-8 •  1 Corinthians 10:1-13 •  Luke 13:1-9

Two of this week’s readings feature some famous verses, or at the very least verses commonly known to those who were part of evangelical youth group culture towards the middle of the nineties and to those who were in Christian colleges, among the thinking crowd, within the last fifteen years or so.  On one hand we have Paul’s youth-group-famous assertion that no temptation that any of us faces is unique and moreover that none is inescapable.  No doubt many of us have heard that one cited relative to fornication and other sins of the flesh, though with my face and personality, sex was hardly one of the big temptations in my teenage life.  On the other, the prophet’s famous oracle from God that God’s thoughts are not the mortal’s but much higher have been deployed to defend all sorts of theological nonsense in all sorts of late-night dormitory theology sessions.  (One doesn’t need good looks and actually benefits from being abrasive in those encounters.)  Its apologia is built in, after all–if some poor soul like me (I was always on the business end of this one, it seemed) pointed out the gross illogic of this or that theological proposition, the interlocutor who had proposed the illogic (even if that interlocutor had never read Isaiah 55) would rapidly counter with, “You’re thinking of things from a human perspective!”

It was much, much later that I realized that such an assertion positions the interlocutor as the one person in the room who has somehow transcended that, often in spite of the fact that all parties involved were interpreting the same passage of Scripture.

At any rate, like Jesus’s Sermon-on-the-Mount command to “be perfect as your Father is perfect” (another favorite for those who enjoy passing off nonsense as theology), these sorts of statements stand almost as ciphers when divorced from their immediate textual surroundings.  (I’m cautious of the word “context” because of similar abuses and because I’ve seen such a range of uses for it.)  Armed with an English translation (which has no tools to distinguish between singular and plural second-person pronouns) of Paul’s injunction about temptation, the proof-text-slinger can cast aspersions on drug addicts, on the weak-willed, on the stranger, and on just about everybody.  And with Isaiah’s lofty oracle about “My ways” at the ready, the Christian college student can ward off all but the most persistent questions about the validity of this or that theological position, casting God in whatever image most suits the caster (and that’s not always “in the theologian’s own image”–sometimes truly kind and humane people prefer for God to be arbitrary, cruel, and otherwise brutal) without having to worry about any “human perspectives” that might challenge him.  (I’ve met women who deploy this passage, but most of the time it’s men.)

The nice thing about the New Testament and Old Testament readings this week is that they put those famous one-liners at the ends of paragraphs, forcing the conscientious preacher to note that they serve as interpretive keys not for reality-in-general (whatever that looks like) but for a particular exhortation and a particular oracle.  In Paul’s case, the statement that God will provide you (plural) an escape from temptation comes not at the end of a youth-group sex talk but the end of an allegorical reading of the Exodus in which Paul equates the journey of the Church in the world to the journey of the Hebrews in the wilderness, and the warnings that Paul gives are not about the normal, mundane, cause-and-effect results of bad choices (one can go to Proverbs for those) but about offending the living God, being cast aside, destroyed by One who could raise up Sons of Abraham from the stones alongside the road were God so inclined.  The temptation is common not simply to Christians (that would make little sense with the plural “you”) but common ground that Hebrews and Church (the two groups to which the New Testament refers when it says “Israel”) walked.  Paul is warning the Church in Corinth, busy as they are forging their own golden calves and putting the source of their living water to the test, that they’re no greater than were the Hebrews.  Both have been saved by grace, one from Pharaoh and one from Satan, and God expects both to be faithful to the God who saved them, and there’s nothing to say that another batch of serpents won’t befall the new Israel if the new Israel behaves as badly as the old.

(For those who are keeping score at home, yes, I did just take an indirect pot shot at the I and the P on the end of the Calvinists’ TULIP.)

As it is with Paul, so it is with Isaiah.  The verse that I’ve had cited at me more often than not to justify a puppeteer-god who fixes the fate of the damned, then blames them for doing what God already knew (and by some accounts ordained) that they would do (as if they could have done other than what God knew or ordained), actually comes at the end of an oracle that proclaims the terrible possibility that God might have mercy on those who we’d rather see smote.  (If you’re not a long-time reader of theonion.com, that last word comes from there.)  If God’s mercy is abundant, then indeed God’s ways are not the ways of mortals, and by no means are they the arbitrary nastiness of mortals writ large.

(Yes, if you were wondering, that was a shot at the L. I reckon I’ll leave the T and the U, since they make some more sense when I read the text of the Bible.  And yes, this is the non-Calvinist Christian Humanist writing this post.)

And as often happens (because the folks who put together the Lectionary know what they’re doing most days), the Gospel reading exposes some of those who came to Jesus and missed both of these realities.  On one hand, they assumed that the brutality of Pilate fell on some but not on others not because they were fighting a brutal nationalistic war but because they must have been “greater sinners” than the rest.  And they figure that, if those folks who died in what they would call a righteous war died because of their sinners, so much more must people who died in the collapse of a Roman fortress have been great sinners.  As Paul would echo later, Jesus points out to them that such things as death are common to people but that a people who do not see what Christ is doing in the world and repent of their attempts to seize the Kingdom of God from the grasp of Fortuna would find the same fate waiting.  And echoing, perhaps, that oracle of Isaiah, when Jesus tells his parable of the fig tree, he ends it with one of those particularly Jesus-flavored narrative anomalies, the reprieve for a year.  If the people find strange a gardener (new Adam, anyone?) who intervenes in behalf of a fig tree that bears no fruit, how much more scandalous will it be when Jesus himself prays for a Jerusalem in the midst of crucifying him, and how much more still when, in Acts 2, Jesus sends the one who denied him to offer mercy one more time to Jerusalem?

Wandering outside of this week’s readings again, I sometimes wonder just how badly Jonah might have freaked out had he been in Jerusalem the day that Peter offers Jerusalem, the city that killed Christ, one more opportunity to “repent and be baptized,” and I wonder whether he would have found a suitable vine under which to pout when three thousand and more grabbed hold of the grace offered.

May all of us enjoy and not resent the strange jokes that God tells.

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