Third Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth16)

Confronting Dualism – Dennis Ormseth reflects on God who is both creator and servant of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C (2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

The report of Pilate’s brutal act against some Galileans, with which this Sunday’s gospel reading opens, serves to emphasize once again how dangerous the context of Jesus’ mission is. Last Sunday it was a warning about Herod’s threat to kill Jesus; now it is Pilate’s mixing the blood of Galileans he had murdered with their sacrifices. Luke Timothy Johnson notes that for Luke’s reader .” . .these death notices serve as a reminder that the Prophet himself is heading inexorably toward the city where such terrible things are likely to happen, a reminder that will be made even more explicit in 13:31-35 [last Sunday’s gospel reading]. The fact that this is the second time the name Pilate occurs in the story (after 3:1), and that he is now identified as a murderer of Galileans can scarcely be accidental” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991,  p. 211).

Again the report can be understood as an attempt to intimidate Jesus; he is, after all, a Galilean, whose rising popularity portends trouble for the governor. So it is not surprising that Jesus is provoked to respond. His approach is unexpected, however: he asks how those bringing the report understand its meaning: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (Luke 13:2). As Johnson explains, the view that “disaster is taken as a punishment for sin” is a matter of common “popular piety,” based on promises of Deuteronomy 28-30 and reflected elsewhere in Luke and John. While as Johnson notes, “Jesus does not dispute the equation but simply questions whether they were more egregious sinners than others” (Johnson, p. 211), it is nonetheless the logic of that equation that is his point of concern.

And there is more to the exchange. While the identity of Jesus’ interlocutors is uncertain, the cultural dynamics here are provocative. Jesus proposes they consider another disaster: Eighteen persons, in this instance Jerusalemites, were killed by a tower that fell near the pool of Siloam in the vicinity of the temple. Were they “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4). Does the equation between sin and punishment not apply equally, Jesus appears to suggest, between Galilee and Jerusalem? Or would they be more likely to hold this view with respect to people from Galilee, than if they were inhabitants of Jerusalem? Ched Myers points out that Galilee was “regarded with contempt and suspicion by most southern Jews” because it was “surrounded by Hellenistic cities, populated heavily by gentiles, predominantly poor, and geopolitically cut off from Judea by Samaria” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p.128). Would his audience apply the logic that says the victims in Galilee “got what they deserved” at the hands of the Roman governor, but not to those who suffered an “act of God” in Jerusalem?

In this exchange, we are suggesting, Jesus’ questions expose a cultural dualism that is being reinforced by religious conviction. If bad things happen to bad people, aren’t the unfortunate casualties of the tower’s collapse in Jerusalem as bad as those sinful Galileans? Put in these terms, we recognize a behavioral phenomenon familiar in our own culture. There is “the wrong side of the tracks,” where good people are afraid to go because a “different kind of people” live there, and bad things are likely happen to them. Disasters such as hurricanes or poisoned water supply are not taken with the seriousness given to similar events in the more privileged, white neighborhoods of the city. And recent attention to police actions shows that the rate and pattern of arrests differ in parts of a community, depending on its racial makeup, while people of Muslim faith or black skin fear for the safety of their children, who are vulnerable targets for social, racial and religious prejudice.

Luke’s interest in this question (these reports and their association with the following parable are unique to Luke) is not merely theoretical, of course. The threat raised by the report is real, and how the deaths are to be interpreted bears on how Jesus’ own death in Jerusalem will be understood. This issue is no less lively for the contemporary reader. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shows in his recent book on religious violence, Not in God’s Name, that such dualism can be the first step into a social process which leads to violence. Dualism, he writes, “is what happens when cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believed it ought to be” (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. New York: Schocken Books, 2015, p. 48). “Under extreme circumstances” such dualism can become pathological:

“It is a form of cognitive breakdown, an inability to face the complexities of the world, the ambivalences of human character, the caprices of history and the ultimate unknowability of God. It leads to regressive behaviour and has been responsible for some of the worst crimes in history: those committed during the Crusades, the pogroms, the witch-hunts, the mass murders in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. But when it catches fire among larger populations, it is a prelude to tragedy of world historic proportions.”

When coupled with religion, he explains, this pathological dualism does three things:

“It makes you dehumanize and demonize your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim.  And it allows you to commit altruistic evil, killing in the name of the God of life, hating in the name of the God of love, and practicing cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

It is a virus that attacks the moral sense. Dehumanization destroys empathy and sympathy. It shuts down the emotions that prevent us from doing harm. Victimhood neglects moral responsibility. It leads people to say: It wasn’t our fault, it was theirs. Altruistic evil recruits good people to a bad cause. It turns ordinary human beings into murderers in the name of high ideals” (Sacks, p. 54).

In Sacks’s view, the danger of this phenomenon is demonstrated most clearly, albeit in a non-religious form, by Nazism in prewar and wartime Germany (Sacks, pp. 55 – 65).

The phenomenon of dualism has in fact been a significant issue for the church since its founding. Sacks maintains that generally “the mainstream Church and the Synagogue” have rightly resisted various major forms of it such as Manichaenism and Gnosticism (Sacks, p. 53). It is nevertheless concerning that in spite of the Apostle Paul’s insistence that in “Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, no male and female” (Galatians 3:28), we cannot hear his counsel to the congregation at Corinth in this Sunday’s second reading without sensing how close he comes to expressing one. Of the Israelites in the desert, he notes, “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” He characterizes their punishment “as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did” (I Corinthians 10:5-6). Considering the long and fateful history of Christian anti-semitism, it seems possible that the tradition carries a virulent seed of dualistic pathology, with texts like this and the suggestion from last Sunday’s gospel that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus results in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, providing a scriptural basis (See Sacks’ brief summary of this history, pp.73-86). And indeed, as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, the death reports in this gospel text function similarly: “Luke has Jesus respond to these reports of death in the city in classic prophetic style: they are turned to warning examples for his listeners” (Johnson, p.213). What, then, keeps his warning from fostering a dualism of his own?

Jesus’ response to the expression of this incipient dualism is accordingly immensely significant. We note Jesus emphatic, repeated “No!” to his own questions. As Johnson rightly holds, Jesus insists that the people who died, whether Galilean or Jerusalemite, were not more deserving of death than others. “One cannot argue from sudden and violent death to the enormity of sin” (Johnson, p. 213).  In as much as all are sinful, the incipient dualism reflected in the reports is rejected. But from that truth proceeds a different calculation, one reflected in the development of Luke’s narrative. If all are bound together in their sin, all together must repent in order to avoid the disastrous consequences of their sin. As Bernard Brandon Scott points out, the placement of pantes (“all”) between the two verbs “repent” and “perish” in the Greek text makes it the subject of both verbs (Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable:  A Commentary on the Parable of Jesus. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1989, p. 335). At the same time, however, it is important to note that for Luke the focus of Jesus’ call for repentance is not the projected sins by which the parties might differ, but rather to what his audience holds in common, their relationship to God. For, as Johnson notes, “The repentance called for by the prophet Jesus, of course, is not simply a turning from sin but an acceptance of the visitation of God in the proclamation of God’s kingdom” (Johnson, p. 213).

The parable of the fig tree provides further understanding of the significance of Jesus’ resistance to this dualism. The parable is a play in two acts, Bernard Brandon Scott  suggests. In the first act, the tree, which is a symbol for what (following Terry Fretheim’s distinction mentioned last week) we can call the “creational blessings” of God, is barren (For Fretheim’s distinction between creational and constitutive blessing, which we will use here, see the comment in this series for the Second Sunday of Lent. Cf. Scott, p. 332). Three years beyond the first three years when it is regarded as unclean being more than adequate to test the fruitfulness of a newly planted fig tree, the landowner orders the vinedresser to destroy it. The “point is clear,” Scott notes: “The passage of three years indicates that the fig tree is hopelessly infertile.” “So, as the master says, why should it continue to waste good ground?” The rhetorical “pattern of coming, seeking, and not finding is repeated twice, once by the narrator and once in direct speech. A strong drum beat builds up to the imperative ‘Cut it down!’” (Scott, p. 336).

The calculation of the landowner in this first act is thus narrowly economic; time to collect produce is strictly marked and limited. That changes in act two, which in Scott’s view, “presents a counter response to the owner’s proposal.” The threat to the tree’s life—that is, to the creational blessings of God on the land—is resisted by the vinedresser: “The vine dresser wants to care for the tree one more year, to fertilize it with dung.” Here the calculation is horticultural, even ecological; the time is extended, allowing for the tree’s own process to bring it to productivity. As Scott points out, the vinedresser’s expectation is one of hope in the face of barrenness. The contrast is one familiar to readers of the Hebrew Bible, he suggests, although cast more often in terms of infertile women like Sarah and Rachel, as we were reminded in last Sunday’s readings (Scott, p. 338).

Thus the parable serves to reframe the previous encounter with reports of sudden and disastrous death. In the first act, the landowner is himself at least an incipient dualist, sorting out good and bad fig trees. We can imagine that he no doubt feels cheated by this tree that bears no fruit, frustrating his sense of control and damaging his prospects for wealth. He is accordingly more than ready to rip it out. The vinedresser, on the other hand, has his personal investment in the care of the tree over several years to consider; he may not know for sure whether it can become a healthy producer, but he has hope, and therefore is willing to work with it, bringing manure to till around it and feed it. He is, that is to say, no dualist, but a servant of the tree who “tills and keeps” it (Genesis 2:15).

Now if the parable is to be understood in terms of the coming of God in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, then the first act is about a God who rules in strict fidelity to the calculation of economic efficiency; and the second act is about a God who attends to his creation with ecological sensibility and care. Which God would we welcome? The first reading from Isaiah deepens the contrast, making the decision easier for us: God is there imaged as the uneconomical God who invites “everyone who thirsts” to “come to the waters” and without money, buy wine, milk and good food. The offer is especially meaningful in our context, with recent reports of racially and socially discriminatory actions on the part of governmental agencies in Flint Michigan. This is the God who gives David to the people in “an everlasting covenant” as a witness, a leader and a commander for the peoples, on account of whom “nations that do not know you shall run to you” (Isaiah 55:3-5).

We would therefore have the God of the second act, of course, the one who brings constitutive blessings to the land  (in the form of manure!), those which are mediated through the elect and are so essential for the best life possible for everyone. Doesn’t the psalm we sing on this Sunday commit us to the God who satisfies thirst, “as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). Only we don’t really get to choose, of course.  As both acts make up the whole of the play, and the landowner is the same in both acts, there is only one God. We don’t get to be dualists with respect to our God, any more than we can be dualists with respect to the sinfulness of our communities. God is both the discerning landowner who judges good and evil in the creation and who, with the vinedresser, restores the tree to life. Again we see the strength of the Genesis narrative of creation: God is both the priestly author of order and value, and the one who creates from the soil. Nor do we get to choose Jesus over the God who creates, a question long settled in the controversy over Manichaeanism. Instead, with the team of landowner and vinedresser, we get a God who is both creator, with passionate concern for God’s good creation, and the servant of that creation, who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty if it helps restore the creation to life.

The readings for this Sunday thus draw us into an awareness of the real danger of the dualisms we allow to persist in our culture and in our faith. When coupled with religious convictions regarding our righteousness, we can be on the way to a situation in which a feeling of victimization gives rise to the demand to take, or at least severely limit, the life of dehumanized, “sinful” others. The parable shows us another way: with sustained, down-to-earth care, the tree that was deemed worthless can be restored to life in the community. It is probably significant that Jesus’ choice of the fig tree, long a fixture in the Biblical imagination, is itself an ecologically important metaphor. His audience would of course know what he was talking about; fig trees were part of the landscape and everyone was aware of their importance. That probably doesn’t hold for the church’s audience for telling this story today; so the planting of a tree this spring in the congregation’s garden, accompanied by lessons for all ages on tree horticulture and the need to get one’s hands dirty with “dung,” would be very meaningful and effective. And best of all, it could serve as an especially good opportunity to invite one’s multicultural neighbors to visibly participate, giving public witness to our determination to resist the dualistic propaganda which surrounds us. Who knows, but what they might be able to instruct us, in how to both care for the tree of life and to avoid dualism in society.

Suggested hymn of the day:  ELW 334 Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery, including special v. 3

Prayer petition: God of all creation, yours is the tree of life from which we are all fed; yours is the river of waters that sustains it in life. You are patient beyond measure in the face of our failure to care for your creation. Give us wisdom to reform our habit of excusing our irresponsibility by blaming others, and draw us into the good work of your Servant in restoring it to health and fecundity.  Lord in your mercy . . .

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2016.