Lent 3 C: Our Chance to Get Things Right

The readings for the Third Sunday of Lent are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 55:1–9

Psalm                    Psalm 63:1–8

New Testament     1 Corinthians 10:1–13

Gospel                   Luke 13:1–9

The Gospel of Luke is the text where God’s grace and human responsibility most vividly come together. The resurrected Jesus lays it down simply in Luke 24:45-47, when he tells his disciples that the good news is that his suffering and resurrection has won humankind the opportunity to get its act together:

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading actually has two parts. In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus parries our human and sinful tendency to rationalize our own lack of character by staking out supposed higher ground: “We can’t be responsible for our wrongs when others are worse.” Then, in verses 6-9 the theme is the gift of the opportunity for change. With the image of a fruitless fig tree, Jesus gestures toward the heart of Luke’s Gospel when the gardener intervenes on behalf of the barren tree: “Leave it alone for one more year and I’ll dig around it and spread manure around it. Then, if it bears fruit, let it live.”  

There is an amazing scene in the 1992 Revisionist Western film, The Unforgiven, starring, and directed and produced by Clint Eastwood. The story is about a group of prostitutes who hire gunmen to track down and punish cowboys who have mutilated one of the women. One of the gunmen is young and out to make a name for himself. He finds one of the men being tracked down relieving himself in an outhouse, opens the door, and shoots the man dead. After the deed, the young gun is sickened by remorse for the murder, and the cowardly way it unfolded. After admitting that all his former bravado was feigned, and that this was, in fact, the very first time he had killed a man, he breaks down before the Eastwood character. Taking swigs of whiskey, he finally reasons, yes he had just “shot the hell” out of a man, but “Well I guess he had it coming.” To this the Eastwood character replies, “We all have it coming.”

That’s Jesus’ point. That was John the Baptist’s point. That is what the prophets had been saying for a thousand years. Galilean or Judean, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, pious or impious, we all fall terribly short. We all embellish our resumes. We all fake it. We all excuse our faults while exaggerating others’. We all have it coming.

Liberals today would like to cover their own sins by acting woke. Conservatives try to cover theirs by spitting on all wokeness as hypocrisy, and by pretending to the mantle of authenticity. But hypocrisy is just another name for sin, and we are all sinners by nature. We all have it coming.

Now, Luke doesn’t tell us the whole of the good news. We need the other three gospels, the letters of Paul, and, indeed, the whole of the Bible to help us round out the picture. But Luke, with the help of John the Baptist and Jesus, does remind us of an essential element. God’s grace is a gift, but not a free pass. Forgiveness is a certain quality and gift of God, but it is not an alternative to amendment of life. Bearing the fruit of repentance is both the path and the necessary sign of life. And so, God’s grace opens for us the opportunity to embrace repentance, not work our way around it. The good news won by Jesus, the Gardener of humanity, through his suffering and resurrection, is that we have “one more year” to produce the fruit of repentance.

Because of Christ we all have our opportunity to oppose Putin’s tanks and missiles not simply with more of our own, but with the ways of reconciliation, diplomacy, and peace. Because of Christ we have a chance to invest money in the health of the whole world, and prepare for the coming next pandemic. Because of Christ Americans have the chance to quite hiding from our collective responsibility to end ongoing racism, and get our act together for the sake of equal respect and opportunity for all our people.

Because of Christ we can wake up to the brutal fact that “we all have it coming,” but we have the opportunity to truly amend our way of life. FIND ALL OUR PANDEMIC BLOG POSTS BY CLICKING ON THAT CATEGORY IN THE LISTING TO THE RIGHT OF THIS PAGE.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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