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March 3, 2013 (Third Sunday of Lent)

Revised Common Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Lent can be a heavy time for followers of Jesus. As it should be, of course, given that this is the season in the Christian calendar when we recall his journey to the cross. Thus, for example, we are encouraged to pray more. We are often compelled to turn inward for reflection and self-examination.

At first glance, this week’s biblical texts provide encouragement for this kind of personal quest. The prophet Isaiah invites us to “seek the Lord while he may be found” and “call upon him while he is near” (55:6). The Psalmist addresses God with the words: “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (63:1). And the Gospel of Luke includes the parable of the barren fig tree, which is introduced with Jesus’ repeated urging that “unless you repent, you will all perish” (13:3 and 5).

These texts also emphasize the great gulf that lies between us and God. In some passages this is because of the greatness of God. For example, the passage from Isaiah includes the well-known verses:

     For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
        nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
     For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
        so are my ways higher than your ways
        and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)

Other passages make clear that our own shortcomings are what keeps us separated from God. For example, the Apostle Paul insists that “we must not put Christ to the test” through idolatry, sexual immorality, and complaining (10:7-10). He goes on to warn the Corinthians: “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (10:12).

What may be less obvious is the extent to which these biblical texts remind us that reflecting on heavy things like sin and repentance should not stop with a turn inward. Yes, we must consider our own failings. And yes, we must give thanks for the good news that God is merciful, steadfast, and faithful toward each and every person. But we must also consider our collective failings, and thus our need for collective forgiveness and blessing.

After all, 1st Corinthians makes reference to the accumulation of wickedness, and shared rather than individual punishment—the people of Israel “were struck down in the wilderness” because “God was not pleased with most of them” (10:5). And Isaiah describes God’s covenant with David as being for “everyone who thirsts” and those “that have no money”—blessings that surely would have implications for the social order as much as individual circumstances (55:1).

Finally, consider again the words of Jesus in response to being told of the death of some fellow Galileans at the hand of Pilate: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” He goes on: “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (13:2 and 4) Jesus’ answer in both cases was no.

This framing of sin, repentance, and healing in public rather than private terms may pose a challenge to our modern, individualistic ears. Should it though? After all, those who work on public policy issues have long recognized that in many cases people suffer or benefit because of circumstances beyond their control, not only because of the choices they make as individuals.

As we heed Jesus advice to repent, perhaps we should reflect not only on our personal shortcomings, but also think of the ways we participate in unjust systems and structures. Perhaps Lent is an especially important time to be reminded that sinful consequences do not always depend on sinful intentions.

Let us take this opportunity to not only turn inward, but to turn outward for reflection and collective self-examination.

By Paul Heidebrecht, Ottawa Office Director, MCC Canada