Third Sunday of Lent: A warning for us
Our second reading from chapter 10 of the 1st letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians is one of my favourite passages in Paul’s letters, largely because it offers us an insight into the way St. Paul reinterpreted the Old Testament in the light of Christ and applied it to his own day.
In context these verses are part of a broader argument against idolatry which begins in chapter 8 and concludes in chapter 11. At stake is the question of whether a Christian may attend cultic meals, whether a Christian may eat meat that is sacrificed to idols. Now in chapter eight Paul has already acknowledged that the pagan deities have no real existence at all, and so it is strictly speaking true that the meat offered to these idols is no different to any other meat. Yet Paul is clearly not happy that the Corinthian Christians are attending pagan sacrifices and in chapter nine he tells us why: first, they might scandalize fellow Christians who might misunderstand their actions; and second, they may not be as immune to the perils of temptation as they might like to think.
It is against this backdrop that our second reading appears. Paul warns the Corinthians of the dangerous line they are treading by drawing their attention to the turbulent history of the people of Israel, in particular the sins and rebellions, the slide into idolatry, that followed their Exodus from Egypt. He does this by emphasizing from the first verse of chapter ten the continuity between the Christian community and the People of Israel, the continuity between what God has done in the past and what God is doing now.
The first point to notice, then, is that Paul calls the Patriarchs of Israel ‘our fathers’ or ‘our ancestors’ (1 Cor 10:1a) even though the majority of the Corinthian community would have been Gentiles. He reminds his readers that the Christian God, the God of the Corinthian Church is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: it is the same God that once addressed Moses from the burning bush in our first reading is now addressing us in Jesus Christ. The history of Israel is now the history of the Corinthian Church: Paul has recognised that Jesus as Messiah fulfilled Israel’s mission to be a light to the nations. It is because Paul understood Jesus to be the fulfilment of Torah that he is able to re-interpret the Pentateuch and see in it a narrative that now stretches from the creation of the world to include the Christian community in Corinth, and of course on into our own day.
Paul spends the first four verses of 1 Corinthians 10 drawing attention to the common religious experience of the Corinthian Christians and the Israelites in the desert: like the Church, Israel lived in the presence of God, or as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 10:1b, they were all under the cloud – the cloud being the sign of God’s presence. Like the Church, Israel had undergone a baptism of sorts when Moses led the runaway slaves through the sea as they escaped Egypt. Like the Church, Israel was nourished with spiritual food and drink as it made its way to the Promised Land and, according to Paul, it was Christ who fed Israel as they made their way just as he now feeds and sustains the Church: for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4).
Then in verses five and six Paul issues a warning: Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. (1 Corinthians 10:5-6).
Paul is bluntly warning his readers, and that includes of course both the Corinthian Church of Paul’s day and the Church of our own day, that our sacramental unity with Christ is not a blank cheque. Sin still means death. God did not tolerate the idolatry of Israel in the desert: the idolatry of the Corinthians will be similarly punished.
In our Gospel taken from Luke we find a similarly direct message coming from Jesus. Twice he tells us: ‘if you do not repent, you will perish as they did’ (Luke 13:3,5), referring on one occasion to the Galileans Pilate had massacred when they came to sacrifice, and on the other to those killed when a tower collapsed at Siloam. Jesus then underlines the point with the parable of the barren fig tree: Israel of course is often symbolized as a vineyard in the Old Testament. This fig tree, then, is planted in the soil of Israel, yet it does not bear fruit. For three years, the same length of time as Jesus’ public ministry, the man who planted this tree comes looking for fruit and finds none. He resolves to give this tree one more year, and if there is still no fruit he will cut it down. Interestingly, in this parable it is the gardener that pleads for the tree, it is the gardener that asks for another year in which he will tend to the tree and give it every opportunity to flourish, and of course in John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene mistakes the Risen Christ for a gardener (John 20:15).
Both Jesus and Paul, then, are using lessons from Israel’s past to warn us to be ready in the present and in the future. As St. Paul puts it: Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction (1 Cor 10:11). Israel succumbed to temptation in the desert and suffered for her sin: we also suffer because of our sins. It is the common insight of the people of God, both Christian and Jewish, that to choose sin, to choose idolatry, to rebel against God is to choose death. But this is not the end of the story: the Christian testimony is that love is stronger than death. If we die with Christ, then we shall live him. So let us recommit ourselves this lent to love, to life, to Christ.