Whether we envision ourselves entering the wilderness with Jesus as he faced his temptations or following him on his journey toward Jerusalem, the path is demanding.
Nearly three weeks into the journey, which is not quite halfway, our readings capitalize upon the beginnings of fatigue that may weigh down our soul. The Lenten path is arduous. It tests our spiritual stamina. We are thirsty and hungry. We wonder about our expectations for the end of the journey.
Thirst and hunger are not part of the experience of most who read these words. For many Christians around the world, however, thirst and hunger are more than metaphor. What is a spiritual journey for Christians of privilege is first of all a physical journey for most Christians in our world. For them the Lenten journey is a daily journey irrespective of the season. As a result, Christians of privilege can and should see Lent as a time to forge solidarity with the Christians of want in our world.
On the third Sunday of Lent the prophet confronts our consumer society: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Is 55.2). Long before our consumer culture the prophet’s words were words of comfort to those captive in Babylon, remembering the end of the kingdom of David and hoping for its restoration, yet to be realized. The exiles had more to worry about than drink and food–but they had, at least, good reasons to be concerned about sustenance.
The hunger and thirst of the exiles was both physical and spiritual. Their physical needs paled when they felt the gnawing need of a nourishing confidence in the God who promised “an everlasting covenant” based upon “steadfast, sure love for David” (55.3).
The prophet announces nourishing hope that God can be trusted. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,” the prophet urges, “call upon him while he is near” (55.6).
The psalmist builds upon the imagery of thirst and hunger as metaphors for our longing for God. Lent is a season of fasting for many Christians (we should note, too, that all religious traditions include fasting as a spiritual discipline). For the well-fed, self-imposed thirst and hunger serves to deepen our appreciation of hunger and thirst comparisons to our spiritual needs.
To recite the psalmist’s words, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (63.1) might also stir a sense of compassion for those in our world with literal needs for water and food. If God can be counted upon to sustain the parched and famished souls of the faithful, then the faithful–God’s people–should be agents of God to at least slake the thirst and sate the hunger of those in need.
The epistle on the third Sunday of Lent blurs the distinction between the physical and the spiritual, suggesting that all food is spiritual. In 1 Corinthians 10 the apostle re-frames the story of the exodus and wilderness wanderings in ways that connect with our Lenten journey. “Our ancestors . . . all passed through the sea . . . and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (vv 1-4).
For the first Israelites the journey from Egypt to Sinai and on toward Canaan was both physical and spiritual. It was arduous. It was fraught with fatigue. There was no turning back. For the first generations of Christians the apostle claims it all was spiritual, “as examples for us” (v 6).
In a swift shift from ancient to contemporary Paul cautions, “Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play'” (v 7). Idolatry in the wilderness following the exodus–is it possible? Idolatry in the wilderness of Lent, following Jesus–is it possible? Yes and yes.
The Gospel bears down upon us even more this Sunday. The distinctions between the physical and spiritual, and even the blurring of those distinctions, get set aside in the Gospel. The lesson is demanding. To hear the lesson is arduous. To carry the lesson is fatiguing. “Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13.3 and 5), Jesus says!
Luke reports that some in a crowd quizzed Jesus about two recent horrors, one political in nature (13.1-2) and the other as a result of human error (13.4). In the first some Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem had been slaughtered by Roman soldiers and, by a decree of Pilate, their blood was “mingled with their sacrifices” (13.1); in the second 18 were killed in Jerusalem when the “tower of Siloam” (13.4) fell on them.
The questioners wanted to know if the dead were quantitatively worse sinners than those who have not suffered so. Jesus would have none of it. His reply seems harsh, but the point is hard to miss. Quality, not quantity, is the issue when it comes to sin and repentance. “Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13.3 and 5), Jesus says!
It is Lent. We are on the move. Seeking to learn the lessons of repentance we are feeling the fatigue of our journey. Thirst and hunger, spiritual and physical, are our companions. What can we say about our journey as we approach midway? The path is well worn, but it is not smooth. There is no turning back.
So let us press forward, eager to be transformed by the promises of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle, and the Gospel.
Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department of religion from 2000-2021.