This week’s blog focuses on the three Common Worship lectionary readings for Lent 3: Isaiah 55.1-9; I Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.19
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
What we are offered this week as our lectionary Gospel, Luke 13.1-9 feels quite problematic. My initial thought was to focus on this week’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 55.1-9, which has long been a favourite passage of mine. But I resisted the temptation (well it is Lent!) and have determined to do my best with the Gospel, though as you will see I do draw in the Epistle and Old Testament reading later on.
After all, the key issue with which the passage is dealing is the problem of apparently unmerited human suffering – or it might be more accurate to say comparatively unmerited human suffering. And that is a topic that over the last two years that has been on the agenda of many people: first due to the pandemic and now in a different form because of the war in Ukraine. Its actually a topic that has been around at least as long as Christianity and in fact much earlier. It is wrestled with in the pages of the Old Testament (par excellence in Job) and it was certainly explored in the religious and philosophical traditions of other Mediterranean peoples. One of the books that I have most appreciated reading in the last year or so (‘enjoy’ would not be quite the right word) engages with several aspects of this topic. The book is called Honest Sadness: Lament in a Pandemic Age by John Holdsworth and published by Sacristy Press. John Holdsworth is an Old Testament scholar and teacher who was also Archdeacon in Cyprus 2010-19. The book ‘marries’ his biblical scholarship, his theological reflections on the suffering caused by the pandemic, and his experience of working with people in several parts of the Middle East. It also encompasses the deep sadness he had to experience during much of this period as his wife Sue suffered from and eventually died of Lewy body dementia. The book is considered, thoughtful and moving.
If we look at the Gospel passage we discover that two different kinds of human suffering are being referred to. The first, the killing by Pilate, of a number of Galileans (presumably in Jerusalem). That suffering is caused directly by the evil actions of human beings. The second example refers to a form of natural calamity, the fall of a tower in the area of Siloam (in Jerusalem). There may have been an element of shoddy workmanship that caused the collapse, but it is also possible that it was caused by something like a minor earthquake (frequent in the region). In terms of how most people think about the problem of suffering/evil – I suspect that the first kind (evil human action) is in some ways easier to ‘accept’ than the second.
But in relation to both these kinds of suffering Jesus’ comments, as presented by Luke in these verses, feel harsh. Many of us associate the Jesus we meet with in the Gospel of Luke with ‘compassion’ (which is a word Luke uses more than the other Gospel writers). But initially at least there doesn’t seem to be much compassion in evidence in Jesus’ remarks to his disciples (or the crowd). Jesus seems to suggest that all are guilty – and have deservedly been punished. The only question around seems to be whether others will repent in time to avoid a similar fate. Such a viewpoint echoes certain strands of Old Testament spirituality which considers suffering as a punishment for sin, although this idea is profoundly challenged by other strands such as are found in the Book of Job.
And yet… that is not quite the end of the story. Because Jesus then goes on to tell the parable of the fig tree. As Luke shares it with us, it is the tale of a barren tree being offered one last chance to prove itself by bearing fruit – that last chance being offered due to the plea of the gardener (Luke 13.8). It is of course intriguing that when Mary encounters Jesus in the garden (John 20.11-18) she assumes that Jesus is the gardener; a mistake which contains within it a deep truth.
The harsh logic of being cut down due to ‘unfruitfulness’ is thus overturned – or at least deferred.
I will return to the Gospel passage in a moment but to turn briefly to the Epistle (1 Corinthians 10.1-13) and the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 55.1-9). I find it interesting to compare and contrast the two passages. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians presents the ‘traditional’ view that the death of many in the Exodus wilderness was due to sin. The passage draws on language associated with Exodus and Sinai. Which means that I think it is reasonable to see it linked in some way to the Sinai covenant tradition – as set out for example in Exodus 19-20. Now I realise I am oversimplifying here, but the basic premise of the Sinai covenant tradition is that it is a ‘conditional’ covenant: so there is a correlation made between the obligation on the people to keep the covenant ‘laws’ and the ongoing continuation of this covenant. And the implication of the Exile to Babylon might then well be that those essential laws have been so thoroughly infringed that God has drawn that covenant to an end.
However… the Sinai covenant is not the only covenant tradition in the Old Testament. There are also covenants made by God both with Abraham and David. And both these covenants seem to be ‘unconditional’. In other words God makes promises that he will keep – no matter what the response and behaviour of the people will be. Both these covenants become increasingly important for people at the time of the exile – due to the ‘failure’ of the Sinai covenant. And here in Isaiah 55.1-9, which I, like many others, believe to be a part of the Book of Isaiah composed during the Exile in Babylon, we have an affirmation of God’s enduring love for the people, linked to God’s covenant with David:
‘I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
My steadfast sure love for David’ (Isaiah 55.3).
In other words God’s love ultimately triumphs over the logic of the Sinai covenant which seemed to suggest God should disown the people.
What is more, the ‘original’ Davidic covenant was primarily with the king and the royal family. They of course had effectively come to an end due to the Exile. So the writer of Isaiah 55 creatively ‘extends’ the Davidic covenant to incorporate the whole people of God, who are now therefore seen as ‘royal people’ with the responsibilities of royalty towards others. (Remember Elizabeth II’s letter of last month, signed ‘Your servant Elizabeth’?).
The lectionary extract from Isaiah 55 concludes with the affirmation by God that, ‘my ways [are] higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55.9).
I would want therefore to suggest that this is hinting that God ultimately refuses to be bound by any narrow logic that correlates ‘sin’ and ‘disaster’ and ‘punishment’. Love will ultimately ‘find a way’. And that we need to read this insight from the Book of Isaiah back into our interpretation of this passage in Luke. It is of course echoed in the wonderful hymn by FW Faber, ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’:
“For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of the mind
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.”
Perhaps ‘life’ will also find a way? One of the intriguing things about Luke 13 is that all three New Testament occurrences of the number 18 occur in this chapter – the first one referring to the number of people killed when the tower of Siloam fell upon them, and the latter two referring to the number of years the bent woman healed by Jesus had lived with her debilitating condition (Luke 13.11, 16).
I owe to Revd Ian Paul whose regular and helpful blog you can read at Psephizo.com part of the following insight. Ian is very interested in how and why numbers are used in the New Testament. Certainly I accept his view that in the Book of Revelation they form a sort of code.
In the first and second centuries AD when the early Christians wrote the name of Jesus they often did so by using the first two letters of his name in Greek viz IOTA and ETA and there are early manuscripts of Luke 13 written in just such a way. Now in Greek letters also have a numerical value. And the numerical value of Iota in New Testament Greek is 10 and that of Eta is 8. Put them together and we come up with 18. So these references to 18 in Luke 13 might be intended first as a hint that it is Jesus himself who overcomes the long period of the woman’s suffering, and also by linking our earlier passage of judgement (Luke 13.1-5) with the later story of healing (Luke 13.10-17) help to remind us that healing rather than punishment is Jesus’ ultimate goal.
I don’t know, and of course it can’t be proved, but it is an intriguing thought. As is the other one I had. Throughout much of Jewish history the number 18 has also been important. This is because Hebrew, like Greek, also assigns numerical value to letters. And the numerical value of the Hebrew word CHAI (two letters in Hebrew) which means ‘life’ is actually 18! A lot of young Jewish women wear a Chai symbol round their necks (see below). So, is it just possible that in repeating the number 18 three times in this chapter Luke is suggesting to us that Jesus is Life and that Life will find a way?