Reflections for the III Sunday of Lent
Ex 20. 1-17, Cor 1. 22-25, Jn 2:13-25
Homily starter Anecdote: Righteous anger, good anger, healthy anger: Abraham Lincoln, angry at slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr., angry at racial discrimination, Mahatma Gandhi angry at the racial discrimination against the “untouchables” by the “high castes” in India, Nelson Mandela, angry at apartheid in South Africa. That was righteous anger. When we see a bully beating up a young kid, when we see a thief stealing an old woman’s wallet, when we see a group of girls being catty and mean to another girl at recess, when a husband beats up his wife -- the list goes on and on and the anger we feel is righteous anger. The Lord God has wired us in such a way that most healthy human beings are angry inside when we see evil and injustice being done to someone. “Anyone can be angry. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, with the right purpose … that is not easy.” (Aristotle). In today’s gospel we see the peace loving, meek and humble Jesus showing his righteous anger at the unjust and scandalous commercialization of his Father’s house.
Introduction: Today’s readings from Holy Scripture teach us that Lent is the ideal time for cleaning out the Temple of our own hearts and to offer to God proper Divine worship by obeying the Ten Commandments. They also teach us that our New Covenant with God demands that we should keep our parish Church holy and our Divine worship vibrant by our active participation in the liturgy with hearts cleansed by repentance, and holy by allowing the Holy Spirit to control our hearts and lives.
Scripture lessons: Today’s first reading teaches us that the Ten Commandments are the basis of our religious and spiritual life. Instead of restricting our freedom the Commandments really help us to love and respect our God and our neighbors. The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 19) depicts the Mosaic Law’s life-enhancing attributes: it refreshes the soul and rejoices the heart; it is pure and true, more precious than gold. The second reading reminds us that we must appreciate the Divine “foolishness” of the crucified Christ and obey His commandment of love as expression of our Divine worship. Today’s Gospel gives us the dramatic account of Jesus' cleansing the Temple of its merchants and money-changers, followed by a prediction of his death and Resurrection. The synoptic Gospels place the "cleansing of the Temple" immediately after Jesus' triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on the back of a colt on Palm Sunday, while John places it at the beginning of his Gospel. Jesus cleansed the Temple which King Herod began to renovate in 20 BC. The abuses which kindled the prophetic indignation of Jesus were the conversion of God’s Temple into a “noisy market place” by the animal merchants and into a “hideout of thieves” by the money-changers with their grossly unjust business practices – sacrilege in God’s Holy Place. Jesus' reaction to this commercialized Faith was fierce. Since no weapons were allowed inside the Temple, Jesus had to construct his own weapon, a whip of cords to drive out the merchants and money-changers from the Court of the Gentiles.
First reading, Exodus 20:1-17, explained: On the first Sunday of Lent, we reflected on the Covenant that God made with the world through Noah after destroying all living things on the land with the flood. Last Sunday our meditation was on the Covenant promises God made to Abraham and his descendants. On this third Sunday of Lent we consider the third Covenant God made with His chosen people through Moses at Mount Sinai. In that Covenant, God Who had liberated His people from slavery in Egypt promised to make the Jews His own people, to lead them to the Promised Land and to protect them from their enemies. The people, in return, agreed to obey the Ten Commandments and other laws given by Yahweh through Moses. The Ten Commandments form a list of directives or instructions for living out our Covenant relationship. In other words, it is the Constitution of the people of God because the Ten Commandments were part of a Covenant which God entered into with a specific group of people: the Israelites. The Covenant offered these people a society genuinely free, secure, mutually respectful and trustworthy, superior to neighboring societies, and more humane than anything the earth had yet seen. The Ten Commandments are based on two basic principles, namely, the principle of reverence and the principle of respect. The first four commandments demand from us reverence for God, reverence for His holy name, reverence for His holy day (Sabbath) and reverence for our father and mother. The remaining commandments ask us to respect life, to respect the bodies of other persons, to respect the good name of people, to respect our own words in a court of law and to respect our neighbor’s wife and his property. Jesus summarized all the commandments into two: love of God and love of neighbor and later clarified the latter further: “Love others as I have loved you.”
Second Reading, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, explained: Since today's Gospel portrays Jesus as causing a scandal by his prophetic cleansing of the Temple, Paul says that Jesus’ cross is a scandal, or “stumbling block,” to the Jews and “foolishness” to Gentiles. A crucified Christ did not fit into the their concept of a triumphant political Messiah. In the same manner, the idea of a suffering God who was crucified but rose again did not appeal to the intelligentsia of Corinth who considered it an affront to their dualistic tendency to write off the body as valueless! Hence, the Apostle simply reminds the Corinthian community of something they already know: “The ‘foolishness’ of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the ‘weakness’ of God is stronger than human strength.” Though Jesus expected His disciples to adhere to the Ten Commandments, it quickly became evident to them that such adherence was simply "entry-level" Faith. After His death and Resurrection, they discovered it was essential to follow Jesus himself rather than a series of laws. The only way to live a fulfilled life was to imitate Jesus' dying and rising, whether it scandalized others or not. Hence, this second reading reminds us that we must appreciate the Divine “foolishness” of the crucified Christ and obey His commandment of love as expression of our Divine worship.
Gospel Exegesis: 1) Time of the incident: Passover was a major Jewish festival when pilgrims from all over Palestine and beyond would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast and to pay their annual Temple tax. Matthew, Mark and Luke (Mt 21:12-17; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48), report that Jesus participated in the Passover feast only once in his public life and that was just before his arrest, emphasizing the time when Jesus cleansed the Temple. The synoptic Gospels place the "cleansing of the Temple" immediately after Jesus' triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on the back of the colt of an ass. For Matthew, Mark, and Luke the powerful scene in the Temple demonstrates Jesus at the height of his power and popularity. His conflict with the religious establishment in Jerusalem, the religious capital, provided fuel for the fires of indignation and alarm set among the Sadducees and Pharisees. John, however, put the incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because John was not interested in telling us when Jesus cleansed the Temple, but rather in showing that this cleansing was an act prophesied of the Messiah. John considered the raising of Lazarus, and not the Temple-cleansing, as the precipitating event for Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion (John 11-12).
2) The Temple Jesus cleansed: The Temple in Jerusalem was the symbol of Jewish religion and the only center of Israel’s common worship and sacrifices. Weekly Sabbath prayers and the teaching of the Law were conducted in local synagogues. King Solomon built the first Temple in 966 BC, and I Kings, chapter 5, gives a detailed description of its solemn blessing. The Temple area covered some 35 acres. After 379 years, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 587 BC and took all the healthy Jews as slaves. On their return, after 70 years of Babylonian exile, the Jews rebuilt the Temple in 515 BC under the leadership of Zerubbabel (who was of the House of David). It was desecrated and stripped by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168 B.C. and cleansed and restored by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 B.C. King Herod the Great began to renovate it in 20 BC, and Jesus did his controversial cleansing of this Temple, in the outer courtyard (called the Court of the Gentiles, since Gentiles were allowed to enter it).
3) The abuses which infuriated Jesus: a) The merchants selling animals and the money changers had converted the Court of the Gentiles into a noisy market making it impossible for the Gentiles to worship Yahweh. i) The merchants sold the animals and birds for sacrifice at unjust and exorbitant prices (18 to 20 times the regular price outside the Temple). ii) The animal-inspectors, bribed by the merchants, disqualified even the healthy animals brought by poor shepherds and farmers for sacrifice. This was an unjust extortion at the expense of poor and humble pilgrims, who were practically blackmailed into buying animals and birds from the Temple booths. Jesus considered this a glaring social injustice aggravated by the fact that it was perpetrated in the name of religion. b) The Temple authorities, by sharing the profit made by merchants and money-changers, converted it into a “hideout of thieves” (Mark & Luke). Roman coins, bearing the images of pagan gods and the emperor, were forbidden as offering in the Temple. The money-changers, who exchanged the Temple coin (Galilean shekel) with Roman coins, demanded 1/6 of the value of the coin as their commission, even from the poor people who had to pay one and a half days of their daily wage as their annual Temple tax. What especially enraged Jesus was not that a fee was being charged, but that the amount being charged to the poor was exorbitant and, hence, unjust. What was happening was a great social injustice done in the name of religion. In fact, the money-changers were street-level representatives of a corrupt Temple banking system which had become an instrument of injustice, fleecing the poor to benefit the powerful. By chasing the money-changers and merchants from the Temple, Jesus was questioning the validity of the entire sacrificial system itself -- of Israel's ability to atone for its sins, be forgiven and stand in right relationship with God. “Jesus’ symbolic attack on the Temple would (in His culture) have had a meaning not unlike that of the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Centre—symbolically attacking a building that was widely seen as the “nerve center” of an entire network of political, economic and religious power. In addition to its key religious functions, the Temple had also taken on political and economic roles in Judaea. Apparently, its Treasury was used by many wealthy Jewish people as the “central bank of Jerusalem,” where they stored their wealth, considering it safe from theft or pillaging.” (Dr. Murray Watson).
Jesus got whip-cracking mad: Jesus' reaction to this commercialized Faith was fierce. Since no weapons were allowed inside the Temple, Jesus had to construct his own: a whip of cords. He then wrought havoc on those who were committing abuses. He pushed people and animals out of the way, overturning tables, and spilling the money-changers' coins. With over a hundred thousand pilgrims in the city to make their sacrifices at the Temple, it seems likely that there would have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sheep and cattle. Considering the crowd and the damage, it is one of the unsung miracles of Jesus' ministry that he was not set upon and killed by a mob of outraged businessmen and Temple police! Because of his righteous zeal, Jesus inspired people with respect for his actions. His words bit into the consciences of those who were taking advantage of the system. John adds an additional note that Jesus’ disciples remembered Psalm 69:9 (“Zeal for Your house consumes me”), as a justification for Jesus' rage. Filled with zeal for the house of God, that special place where humans and God meet, Jesus challenged religious practice that was simply external. Jesus, answering the call of a higher Authority, obeyed, regardless of the consequences.
The Temple in Jerusalem replaced by Jesus, the Temple: The Johannine account, in which Jesus quotes Zec 14:21, "Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace," seems at first glance to support the interpretation of the event as a cleansing. However, the greater emphasis here is not so much on the cleansing of the Temple, as on the replacement of the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God made His Name or Glory to dwell. With Jesus’ coming on the scene, the Temple was no longer important in Jewish life as John tells the story. The Temple ceased to have a function. Jesus' promise of a new Temple suggested that God's glory would be manifested, not in a building, but in a person. By the end of the first Christian century, whenever Christians heard the word Temple, they no longer thought of the destroyed stone and mortar edifice which Solomon had originally constructed, but of the risen Jesus: the Temple which had been destroyed and raised up again in three days. Jesus had replaced and superseded everything the Temple had formerly symbolized. By his prophetic actions in the Temple, Jesus made it clear that the God Who gave the Law on Sinai could not be bought by sacrifice or bribe. Jesus is the Temple in Whom His followers come into contact with God. Our faith is Person-centered, and we are dealing with a relationship. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus conveys to us the message that our parish Church should be the source of strength for our spiritual life and the proper venue for its public expression.
The Sadducees’ challenge: Jesus threw the mechanics of Temple worship into chaos, disrupting the Temple system during one of the most significant feasts of the year, so that neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day. No wonder the Jews who were gathered at the Temple asked for a sign to warrant his actions! The Sadducees responsible for the Temple’s ongoing life demanded some sort of an explanation (but surprisingly no reparation), for the holy mess Jesus had made. That is why they demanded "signs" which might legitimize Jesus' disruptive actions. Jesus' response only promised more destruction, with an infinitely greater cost. The Sadducees took this talk of Temple-destroying literally and were properly horrified. John’s account once again jumps forward in time, giving as the reference behind Jesus' reply, his future death and Resurrection. Both interpretations are shocking. Suggesting that God would allow the Temple, the most holy site in Judaism, to be reduced to rubble was nothing less than blasphemy.
Life messages: 1) We need to avoid a calculating mentality in Divine worship: Our relationship with God must be that of a child to his parent, one of mutual love, respect and a desire for the family’s good, with no thought of personal loss or gain. Hence, fulfilling our Sunday obligation only out of fear of mortal sin and consequent eternal punishment (a loss), is a non-Christian approach. In the same way, obeying the commandments and doing acts of charity merely as prerequisites for Heavenly reward (a gain), are acts driven by a profit motive, of which Jesus would not approve. Hence, let us ask these questions during this third week of Lent: Can leading worship become simply a business for the clergy for which they are paid? Do the laity sometimes think that they are "paying" the minister to do the worship for them -- thinking, "we pay them to do this for us"? Do we think of God as a vending machine into which we put our sacrifices and good deeds to get back His blessings? Do we use our acts of obedience to the Ten Commandments as bargaining chips with God? The theologian Karl Rahner put it this way: "The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny Him with their lifestyles are what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable."
2) We need to remember that we are the temples of the Holy Spirit: St. Paul reminds us that we are God’s temples because the Spirit of God dwells in us. Hence, we have no right to desecrate God’s temple by impurity and injustice. We are expected to cleanse our hearts of pride, hatred, jealousy and all evil thoughts, desires and plans. Reminiscent of what Jesus did in cleansing the Temple, we, as 21st century disciples, must, with His grace, cleanse ourselves of attitudes and behaviors that prevent us from seeing and responding to hurt wherever we find it. Let us welcome Jesus into our hearts and lives during Lent by repentance and the renewal of our lives. We will drive out the wild animals that do not belong to the holy temple of our body by making a whip of cords out of our fasting, penance and almsgiving during Lent, and by going to Confession to receive God’s loving forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
3) We need to love our parish Church and use it: Our Church is the place where we come together as a community to love and praise God. It is the holy place where we gather strength to support one another in the task of living the Gospel. It is the place where we come privately to enter into intimate conversation with God. In this building many prodigal sons and daughters have met the merciful Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and have been welcomed back to our community. In this building, tears have been shed by those in pain and grief. Let’s look around our Church this morning and treasure it. When we pass our Church, we might take the time to make a brief visit. Let us make our Church even more of a holy place by adding our prayers and songs to parish worship and offering our time and talents in the various ministries.
4) Do we deserve the presence of Jesus with his whip in our contemporary world? In the industrialized countries, a) Cases of reported child abuse have risen from under one million cases annually to nearly three million. b) Cohabitation statistics are up six-fold. Contrary to popular belief, "trial marriage" -- living together followed by marriage -- is a statistical predictor of later divorce. c) The divorce rate has doubled, and happiness in surviving marriages has slightly declined. d) In 1960, five percent of babies were born to unwed parents. Today, more than 27 percent of all children are raised by single parents. In 1960, one out of 10 children lived with only one parent, whereas today, three of 10 is the average. (Fr. Antony Kadavil).