‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Third Sunday of Lent
1 Corinthians 10:1–6, 10–12
March 20, 2022
We read several chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in
some depth earlier this year. The section today is taken from Chapter 10 somewhat
before our previous readings but reflecting the same concerns. Readings
chosen for Lent, however, must be read not only for their original
meaning but also how they reflect Lenten themes. This year this reading
will, alas, also shed light on our present situation.
Paul today is clearly referencing the Exodus. He is doing so as a
literate member of the Greek speaking world, a Jew, and a Christian.
As someone literate in the Greek language and familiar with its
culture, he is using a rhetorical device that will develop into
“Typology.” Seeing a historical event as a precursor or at least a means
of explaining a future one. It would have been used by public speakers
more than philosophers and would have been rather general. Chirstian
writers with a Greek cultural horizon in the century after Paul would go
beyond general references to a certain story and make more specific
comparisons. We see this in some ways in Paul, but many if not most of
readers of this letter would have been Greek thinking and would have
paid most attention to the entire story of the liberation of the Hebrews
from Egypt and not the individual parts.
For the Jews, past events explaining future ones were more than
rhetorical but had a theological purpose. The most important use was
interpreting the return from exile in Babylon by the Exodus from Egypt.
They saw divine intervention in their history and that the LORD was
committed to their freedom.
Paul as a Christian goes one step further. He saw the events of the
Old Testament illuminating the New, but also the New revealing the true
meaning of the Old. Most importantly, he believed that Jesus, as the
means of creation and redemption, is the motivating force of both. He is
the only way to truly understand either.
This was not only in terms of doctrine, but also practical ethics and
this reading gets very practical.
He repeats the Exodus story in proper order but shows how each
element is connected as type, precursor, and antitype, fulfillment. The
chart below will review the type/antitype in this passage:
|The Exodus||The Church|
|The cloud||The Holy Spirt|
|Baptized into Moses||Baptized into Christ|
|Spiritual food: manna||Spiritual food: the Eucharist|
|Spiritual drink: water||Spiritual drink: the Eucharist or the Holy Spirit|
|Rock: source of water||Rock: Christ, source of the Holy Spirit|
|Rock: followed them in space||Rock: Present with the Church followed the ancestors in time.|
These images are far too rich to examine in detail, but we need to
glance at several.
The cloud is a symbol for the presence of God. It appears several
times in the Exodus story, most importantly on their journey:
The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day,
to lead them along the way,
and in a pillar of fire by night,
to give them light,
so that they might travel by day and by night.
Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night
left its place in front of the people.
The cloud also appeared over Mt. Sinai when the covenant was sealed
(Ex.19:16) and then again when Moses built the tabernacle:
Then the cloud covered the meeting tent,
and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling.
Moses could not enter the meeting tent,
because the cloud settled down upon it
and the glory of the LORD filled the Dwelling.
This language is used by St. Luke to express the Holy Spirit
“overshadowing” Mary (Luke 1:34–35) and, as we saw last week, the
Apostles at the transfiguration.
“Baptized into Moses” is a neologism of St Paul. The Jewish people
were joined with Moses who led them to the promised land, we are joined
to Jesus who leads us to salvation. This communion is formed by a common
meal. Spiritual food here means real edible food but given by God not by
human hands. Many of the sections of First Corinthians which have not
read together are concerned about eating. The Eucharist is a meal and
thus, how we behave at the table of the Lord should reflect our beliefs
(1 Cor 10:14–21) and how one uses meat which might have been offered to
idols is also a concern. (1 Cor 8) (A very practical one for reasons we
do not have time to explain here.)
Spiritual drink is the water from the rock which Moses struck in the
desert. It is also spiritual, because it was supplied by God. As Paul
will say later in 1st Corinthians: “We were all given to
drink of one Spirit.” (12:3) When Paul says that the rock followed them,
he is relating a rabbinic legend that the rock followed the people in
the desert so they could have a source of potable water. Paul expanded
this to include Jesus the source of life is the rock.
These were great signs, wonders and gifts, yet “Yet God was not
pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.” (1
Not only were some killed in the aftermath of worshipping the golden
calf (Es 32:25–28), but the rest of that generation save for Josuah and
Caleb died before they reached the promised land.
These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire
evil things, as they did. (1 Co 10:6)
Worship and eating were intimately connected, and Paul is telling the
people that they must worship as God wants them to or incur the same
fate. In the context of First Corinthians this means recognizing the Gpd
given dignity of everyone.
Paul then writes three lines which are not part of our reading today:
And do not become idolaters,
as some of them did, as it is written,
“The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.”
Let us not indulge in immorality as some of them did,
twenty-three thousand fell within a single day.
Let us not test Christ as some of them did
and suffered death by serpents.
(1 Co 10:7–9)
The quotation is significant: It is from the story of the golden
calf. Aaron has taken their gold and formed the calf, uttered the
blasphemy “This is your god who took you forth from the land of Egypt”
and promised a festival so “They rose early the next day, and offered
burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat
down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (Ex 32:6)
The tribe of Levi remained faithful to the LORD, and they exacted his
vengeance by killing 23,000 who were not faithful. The reference to
death by serpents were to those who referred to manna as wretched food.
Manna was a God given gift and to complain about it was to complain
about God with predictable results. In this case death by seraph (fiery)
serpents. (Numbers 21:4–9)
Our passage starts again with “Do not grumble as some of them did and
suffered death by the destroyer.” (1 Co 10:10) This is a warning for us
who have experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul this
is “the end of the ages,” there is no greater or deeper covenant,
relationship, with God and our fellow humans. We must then avoid the
complacency that comes from pride. We can fall as well, and we have been
We read this in Lent to examine our relationship to our worship. True
worship brings us closer to Jesus by strengthening our covenant
relationship with him, our fellow humans and nature. Paul today is
showing us that if we forgot that this is a gift, we will become blind,
then rebellious and then fallen.
The horrors around us are many. The news from Ukraine seemingly
cannot get worse, until it does. The images are indelible, until they
fade. The people of Ukraine have our attention and support now but what
about six months from now when they will be either rebuilding their
nation, fighting a guerrilla war, or some ghastly combination of the
two? What will we feel then? Worship and principally the Eucharist is
God’s way to maintain fellow feeling.
It is true for home as well. Although the maniac who shot homeless
men at daybreak in our own city has been captured, many on our streets
are still in danger? What do we feel about these poor men who barely
exist on the margins of our society. Do we feel connected to them? Would
we feel differently someone was murdering grandparents? Worship must be
connected to real charity to be true.
Paul tells us today that if those in need do not receive our material
charity then God has not received our spiritual worship.