Nurturing Spiritual Fruitfulness -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent (3)

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Nurturing Spiritual Fruitfulness

            There are a variety of ways in which we can envision nurturing or nourishing spiritual fruitfulness.  We could take the route of parents providing good nourishing food for their children or that of the gardener who tends the trees so that they bear fruit.  Whatever the images we choose, the point is that the life of faith is expected to lead to spiritual maturity.  We’re expected to bear fruit.

The call to covenant, which is a dominant theme in the biblical story, starts with God’s initiative.  God reaches out to humanity and seeks to build a relationship, but for the covenant to bear fruit, we must respond.   God reaches out in love, but in making the covenant, God sets out certain expectations for us.  The question is, while God will be faithful, will we be faithful to that covenant as well?  There is recognition in the biblical story that this relationship needs to be nurtured and nourished by the Spirit.  Therefore, as we continue our Lenten journey the biblical texts for the week remind us that our faith will be tested, that our willingness to abide this covenant will be challenged, and that we’re expected to show evidence of our faithfulness to the covenant.   

            As we turn to Isaiah, we hear the prophet of the exile, inviting those living in exile, to come and drink if they’re thirsty, and to eat if their hungry.  The offer is free – no charge.  Just come and be nourished.  People who’ve known only anguish and despair receive a word of hope in the invitation to share in covenant relationship with God.   “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” . . . and as for the wicked, may they return to the Lord (i.e. repent) so that they might experience God’s mercy.  The good news is that God will “abundantly pardon.” 

            The invitation goes out to return to the Lord, to find nourishment on the way to faithful embrace of God’s covenant.  The ending of this passage is intriguing, because it speaks of God’s incomprehensible decision to issue this pardon.   Why would God welcome the wicked?  Why would God show mercy to those who previously spurned the call to covenant relationship?  The answer is – “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”  There is a great distance between our thoughts and those of God.  Nonetheless, if we repent, if we turn around and return to God, we will be restored.

            Isaiah offers a good word to a people who are struggling with their situation in life.  They feel abandoned.  They need reassurance.  Isaiah offers this to them, and to us.  Turn and you will be received.  It may not make sense.  The story of the prodigal son may not make sense either, but the message of welcome is there, so turn and receive divine grace. 

            If Isaiah offers a word of grace, Paul offers a warning.  There is in this passage from his first Corinthian letter a strong word of judgment.  Paul points back to the Exodus and notes that even though the people were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea and while they “ate the same spiritual food” (a reminder that the sacraments aren’t magical), they failed to bear spiritual fruit.  God was not pleased with them, and they suffered judgment.  Paul finds these stories to be an example to the Corinthian church (and to us).  He tells them to heed the warning lest they fall into evil.  Don’t become idolaters.  Don’t indulge in sexual immorality.  Don’t test Christ or complain.  The consequences are dire.  I trust that this word comes to the reader in a way that produces a bit of alarm.  We like to think of God as being love, and love can’t involve judgment – or can it?

            Paul’s vision is apocalyptic.  He clearly sees the end being near.  The Day of Judgment is on the horizon and so we must be attentive to the ways of God.  There’s no room for complacency.  We will be tested, but not beyond what we can endure.  We hear this word that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength . . .”   God won’t test us beyond what we can endure – that is the message we often hear, but what does this mean?   Too often this passage is used to “encourage” people to “grin and bear it.”  You’re strong, you’ll make it, so don’t upset the apple cart.  Women are often encouraged to “suffer” for righteousness by staying in abusive marriages.   Is this what Paul means?  And if so, how should we respond?  What we can take from this is that God will provide a way.  God will give us the strength to move forward in the pursuit of what is right and what is just.  God will, in other words, nourish us toward fruitfulness and faithfulness, for God is faithful.

           The gospel reading from Luke falls into two sections.  First there is a word about repentance and then there’s a word about fruitfulness.  There is a connection. 

            As in Paul there is an apocalyptic context here.  Judgment is on the mind of Jesus.  He speaks in the closing verses of Luke 12 of keeping the act of judgment within the community.  From there they get into a conversation about sin and repentance.  Some wonder whether tragedy is a sign of judgment.  There were, for instance, those Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” – were they worse sinners than those Galileans who didn’t suffer this fate?  And what about those who died when the “tower of Siloam” fell on them – were their sins greater than others who lived in Jerusalem?  Were those who died on 9-11 greater sinners than the rest of us living in America at the time that weren’t touched?  Are New York, New jersey, and Connecticut places of such wickedness that they deserved to be hit by Sandy’s destructiveness?  What about all those Syrians who are dying in that Civil War?  Those who died in the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide or . . .  ?  The list can go on forever.  Are they worse sinners?  Jesus answer is simple – don’t worry about them – simply repent.  Don’t try to play the blame game – just accept that you are a sinner.  You need grace.  You must repent.  Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note that the call to “repentance is fundamental to the mission of Jesus and the church.”    Such actions are necessary if we’re to live “supportively in community.” (Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentaryp. 196).   

            The parable of the barren fig tree takes this call to repentance a step further.  Faithfulness to the covenant requires a willingness to turn from evil and turn back to God.  We in the more progressive side of Christianity don’t talk as much about sin or judgment.  We prefer a conversation about love.  It’s understandable, especially if you come out of a rather judgmental, unloving version of Christianity, but can we not talk about sin?  Or to put in terms of the parable – fruitfulness.

            Jesus tells this brief parable about man planting a fig tree in his the vineyard.  He planted the tree because he expected it to produce figs.  The point isn’t producing leaves or flowers – it’s food that he seeks from the tree.  So, he comes to take the harvest of this tree, but there’s no fruit.  It should bear fruit, but it hasn’t.  So, the owner of the vineyard tells the gardener to cut it down.  It’s taking up valuable space.  It’s wasting good soil.  The gardener asks for a bit of patience.  The gardener asks that he be allowed to nurture the tree for a year – digging around it and putting manure on it, so that perhaps it will bear the fruit expected of it.  And if it doesn’t well next year you can cut it down.  The owner agrees – the tree gets a reprieve, but the expectation is that it will, given a bit more attention, bear fruit.  And what is the word for us?  The Spirit will tend to the need for nourishment, and the expectation is that we shall bear fruit as a result.  Putting this in apocalyptic terms – the day of judgment has been delayed, so there’s still time to turn around and live a life that bears the fruit of righteousness.  Just don’t take too long.  Don’t waste time.  The consequences of failing to turn around aren’t pleasant! 

            The good news is that there’s still time.  The Spirit is willing and ready to nurture and nourish us into a life of faithful fruitfulness.  


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