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Third Sunday in Lent, Cycle C

The profound subject of suffering is a factor in each of the texts selected for next Sunday. Perhaps Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) was on target when he reached the conclusion that “to live is to suffer,” that suffering is universal — the first of his Four Noble Truths. At any rate, there are few subjects about which we proclaim our message that hold the attention of the members of the assembled congregations as well as the subject of suffering. If we dare to consider seriously the profound subject of suffering that is present in each of these four texts, we can be assured that those who hear us will be involved with us as we proclaim the Word of God next Sunday.

We have an excellent opportunity to show with these texts that on subjects as complex as the subject of suffering, various views are expressed within the biblical accounts, even within the four texts selected for Lent 3, Series C. It should become clear within our study of these texts and in our proclamation based on these texts that the biblical texts do not provide unequivocal answers to all of the questions that we and others may ask about God and the subject of suffering. Nevertheless, the subject of suffering is central in our lives and especially during the season of Lent, reaching a climax in our observance of the suffering of the Jesus of history on what later was to be called “Good” Friday. Therefore, we accept our responsibility of dealing with the subject of suffering here during Lent 3.

Isaiah 55:1-9

The suffering is intense here. There is no food, not even water to drink. With neither food nor water, a person will soon die. When the need is greatest, however, the gift of God and the grace of God are announced. The supply of God’s grace is abundant. There is more than enough for all who hunger and thirst. All are invited to come, to buy, to drink, and to eat from the gifts that God provides, gifts of mercy and forgiveness. When those whose lives are polluted with thoughts of evil and wickedness return to the Lord, God will abundantly pardon. By the grace of God, all suffering is overcome.

The thoroughly theocentric view expressed in this joyous announcement of God’s grace differs greatly from the thoroughly anthropocentric view of Siddhartha Gautama cited above. Gautama concluded that all suffering is related to and caused by desire and by the desire not to suffer. He taught that the way to reduce suffering is to reduce desire and to live the right way, to follow his Eightfold Path of right thought, right speech, right lifestyle, and so forth. For Gautama, the resources lie within the self. They are not external.

For the inspired poet who wrote the Isaiah 55 text, suffering is overcome when a person returns to the Lord. Only beyond the self, receiving the gifts that God wishes to bestow, can anyone’s suffering be overcome. By one’s faith in God, a person is given wine, milk, and the food that sustains life, a life that will be lived in accordance with the thoughts and will of God, thoughts that far transcend human thoughts.

Psalm 63:1-8

The situation for the psalmist here is similar to the situation depicted in Isaiah 55:1-9. The psalmist is physically and spiritually dehydrated and famished; with no outside help, the psalmist will soon die. At the last moment the psalmist turns to God, beholds the power and glory of God, receives the steadfast love and mercy of God, and lives! The suffering of the psalmist is overcome externally. Within the shadow of God’s protective love, the psalmist sings for joy.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

The Apostle Paul wrote here, as in the Isaiah 55:1-9 and Psalm 63:1-8 texts, that deliverance from suffering and temptation are gifts that God provides for all who will endure throughout these “last days.” Paul urges the Jewish background followers of Jesus in Corinth to remember the history of their people, the spiritual as well as physical food and drink that God provided for them. God especially now by means of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, overcomes their suffering. Help comes from God, beyond the self, in mystical union with God in Christ.

Luke 13:1-9

At least initially, in our study of Luke 13:1-9, it is helpful to consider verses 1-5 separately from 6-9. In Luke 13:1-5 the correlation between suffering and specific sins is the issue. Unlike many other biblical texts, it is stated in Luke 13:1-5 that there is no correlation in some instances between suffering and specific sins. We look at our own experiences and at what we observe in other people and we too wonder whether there is always a correlation between suffering and specific sins. We ponder this when we are relatively healthy and when we are ill. According to this Luke 13:1-5 text, we should not always connect suffering with specific sins. Nevertheless, without sincere repentance, all will perish.

We are the fig tree in the Luke 13:6-9 parable. We are expected to be doing more than merely occupying space in the vineyard. If we suffer by being uprooted and destroyed, it is because we have not been fruitful in the vineyard.

As we look back over these four texts, we see that the persons who consider the causes of suffering differ considerably. All are united, however, in their proclamation within these texts that deliverance from suffering is external, a result of actions received from God. We, by our actions cause suffering, directly as well as indirectly. God by God’s actions overcomes our suffering. These are gifts from God, received by faith, which itself is a gift from God.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen