3rd Sunday of Lent – 8th March 2015

"Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up"

Scripture Reading – John 2:13-25

Just before the Jewish Passover Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and in the Temple he found people selling cattle and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting at their counters there. Making a whip out of some cord, he drove them all out of the Temple, cattle and sheep as well, scattered the money changers’ coins, knocked their tables over and said to the pigeon-sellers, ‘Take all this out of here and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’ Then his disciples remembered the words of scripture: Zeal for your house will devour me. The Jews intervened and said, ‘What sign can you show us to justify what you have done?’ Jesus answered, ‘Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this sanctuary: are you going to raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the words he had said.
During his stay in Jerusalem for the Passover many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he gave, but Jesus knew them all and did not trust himself to them; he never needed evidence about any man; he could tell what a man had in him.

TEXT OF REFLECTION

In the Gospel for the third Sunday of Lent we see Jesus cleansing the temple from all the merchants and sellers, turning over tables and using a whip to drive them out. The scene seems to be quite out of character since Jesus is usually kind and merciful with the people. The most harsh that we ever see him is with the scribes and Pharisees, using strong words which he deemed necessary to confront and challenge them. But here, in the cleansing of the temple, we see Jesus in a way no one has ever seen him before. Many see in this story how human Jesus himself was, reacting like most of us would when faced with a situation that makes us angry. Yet, there is a danger that we miss the key significance of the story. For the Jewish people the Temple is the most sacred place and it is central to their identity as a people. It was the place where God’s people could encounter Him, offer sacrifice and worship Him. The Holy of Holies used to house the Ark of the Covenant, in which were kept the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai, until the destruction of the first temple when they were lost. Even today the temple, or the remains of it, is still the place where Jewish people come to pray.

Like any other pious Jew, Jesus would have travelled to Jerusalem every year at the time of the Passover to celebrate this great Festival. Traveling from Galilee, it was a journey which took a couple of days. The Jerusalem Road that Jesus travelled brought him to the East gate of the city, which led directly into the Temple. Actually the gate led into the area close to where sheep, lambs and animals were sold so that people would be able to offer them up as sacrifice. One can imagine, for someone who is on a pilgrimage with pious thoughts on one’s mind as one made the journey, how shocking it must have been if a market place is the first scene you encounter. It comes as a bit of an anti-climax and shock.
Jesus’ immediate reaction is to feel that this should not be so! The house of God should be a house of prayer and not a place of commerce and business. Jesus turns his shock into action, and starts driving anyone in his way out of the temple.
When challenged, Jesus makes an interesting statement; I will destroy this Temple and rebuild it in three days. The Temple will no longer be the place where one could encounter God, but rather the encounter with God from now on will be through the person of Jesus. From now on, it is the body of Christ that is the true house of God. The early disciples came to realize that Jesus was actually God incarnate, the Word made flesh. That is why for the Christians, the temple no longer held the same significance as it does for the Jews.

In driving the merchants out of the temple, Jesus is being driven by a certain zeal and love of God; he is not indifferent, but takes concrete action. He could easily have continued about his business, and let things be. In his Lenten message for this year, Pope Francis says that, faced with disturbing news reports and troubling images of human suffering, we are tempted by indifference. The Pope actually speaks of a globalization of indifference which we Christians need to confront.
God is not indifferent to our world; he actually loves us so much that he gave his Son to share in our human reality. The Temple of the Body of Jesus was indeed destroyed when he had to endure a terrible passion and end up crucified on the cross. But faithful to his promise, on the third day he did rise again, and with him the community of believers.

The early Christians came to an even deeper realization. After Jesus’ resurrection, they came to identify themselves with the body of Christ, with the Risen Lord. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians said clearly: “You are the body of Christ.” (1 Cor. 12:27) They were a persecuted church, and they saw in their suffering a continuation of Jesus’ own suffering for the redemption of humanity.

We do live nowadays in an era where Christians are being martyred publicly. “If one member suffers, all suffer together”(1 Cor 12:26) The news of the beheading of the 21 Coptic Christians, and the kidnapping and killing of so many people, causes anguish to one and all.

The Holy Father urges us not to be indifferent but to be engaged. First through prayer; praying for the needs of those who suffer, firmly believing in the power of prayer. Then through acts of charity, especially towards those who are poor and in need. Indeed, If Jesus lives in us and we in him, then we are his body, we are his temple. It is our mission today to bring Jesus to others.


Download text of reflection in PDF: 3rd Sunday of Lent – Year B

INTRODUCTION TO LECTIO DIVINA

This gospel presents a somewhat unusual scene from the life of Jesus, the cleansing of the temple of Jerusalem, round about the time of the Jewish feast of Passover. The episode does not surprise us any more, partly because we have heard it so often, and partly because our situation seems totally different from the one described in the gospel. For the people at the time of Jesus this was an absolutely incomprehensible action, unlawful and extremely unpleasant. Even now, if we think about it, we are surprised at the fact that Jesus suddenly became violent, made a whip out of cord, overturned the tables, scattered the money and drove both men and animals out of the temple precinct. This is far removed from the image of Jesus, meek and humble of heart, that has been handed down to us. He must have had good reasons for such extreme behaviour, and in fact the gospel narrative tells us what those reasons were. As always we Christians of today can learn something important from Jesus’ way of acting, however surprising it may seem. If we were devoured by zeal for God’s house, there would be a lot more transparency in our world, in our Church, and in our hearts.

LECTIO DIVINA

I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it

The gospel passage has two very distinct parts, the account of the purification of the Temple by Jesus before the Passover (Jn 2, 13-21), and a brief summary of his actions during the time of the feast (Jn 2,23-25). The evangelist records Jesus’ ability to read the human heart. This serves as a preparation for his meeting with Nicodemus described in the next chapter (Jn 3 ,1-21).

The expulsion of the money changers from the Temple is one of the few facts described in all four gospels. The synoptics place it at the end of Jesus’ life (Mk 11, 15-17; Mt 21,12-13; Lk 19,45-46) but John puts it at the beginning. The first visit of Jesus to Jerusalem and to the Temple, is marked by a dramatic gesture. He uses extreme violence against the money changers and the sellers, who were, after all, facilitating the ordinary worship of the Temple by assisting people in paying their taxes and providing the animals for sacrifice. Changing money and selling animals were not in themselves reprehensible. However, that is not how Jesus saw it! Their trading had turned his Father’s house into a market-place. Wherever God is present should be a place of adoration and praise. His disciples, who were still only beginners, were able to guess the reason – Jesus is devoured by zeal for his Father’s house. He will do everything in his power, even to the point of losing his temper, to ensure that God is given due respect.

The episode could have finished here, since the unusual gesture of Jesus has been explained. But the account becomes more realistic by including the surprise and annoyance of the Jews who demand some justification for what Jesus has just done. As often happens in John’s gospel, the reply given by Jesus is enigmatic. It seems to refer to the Temple which he has just cleansed, the same building that his listeners have seen under construction for quite some time. But, as the disciples realized much later, Jesus was referring, not to the Temple but to his own body, not to the expulsion from the Temple but to his resurrection. It was when they remembered this that they became believers. The journey of faith which makes more profound sense of Jesus’ action, must pass through the memory of his words. Anyone who wants to believe must remember the words and deeds of Jesus and preserve them in his heart. This is the way of discipleship.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

Jesus’ reaction was, without doubt, excessive. The people who were changing money or selling animals were doing so to help the pilgrims to fulfil their religious duties. Jesus saw the situation differently. He was consumed with zeal for God and he acted in an unusual way that his contemporaries considered unjustifiable. In point of fact, his gesture was a sign. The Temple is no longer necessary as a sign of the presence of God on earth. Where Jesus is present, man’s relationship with God is not to be commercialized. The disciples will understand what he has done, only after the resurrection when his living body reveals God’s power. The purpose of the account is surprising and revealing. Many believed in Jesus because of his works, but he did not trust them. A faith which is based only on signs is not worthy of him. To have faith we must submit to his judgment. Only Jesus guarantees the presence of God – not any sacred place or any holy occupation. We need to look again at the use we make of devotions and holy places in our own day. Are we not also misusing God, as they did in the past?

We might do well to rediscover the intransigence of Jesus when God’s honour is in question. The idea we have of Jesus and the memory that has been handed down to us, do not fit in easily with this episode, and for that reason we need to take it more seriously. This incident is all the more revealing because it does not seem reasonable. Precisely because it is somewhat scandalous, it deserves our attention. The disciples who accompanied Jesus knew the reason for his actions – he was devoured by zeal for God’s house. Jesus was able to overlook many things, to excuse different ways of behaviour, and to forgive sinners, but he could not tolerate trading in his Father’s house. If there is disrespect for God, as there was that day in Jerusalem, it is enough to make Jesus lose his temper. As Son of God he was jealous for his Father and could not tolerate any lack of respect for him.

Today, however, Christians, good people like us who go to Mass every Sunday, are inclined to withdraw from public life, either for the sake of convenience or because we are ashamed of being Christian. We think we can defend our faith better by practising it in silence or in private. What is to be gained by speaking out in defence of God, if we put our own people at risk? Where are those Christians who, like Christ, go to the Temple to see if God’s will and his honour are being respected? Why is it that the better believers, very often, are less committed socially, and less demanding? How do we explain the fact that people who pray most seem to forget that God and his honour are often questioned nowadays and sometimes in serious danger? God and his honour are at stake in many situations, and there are many people, many programmes and ideas, that are contrary to the honour due to God. People who defend God become his sons and daughters, like Jesus. What more could we hope for? What better reason could there be to intervene in defence of his name?

Jesus gave us the reason with his intransigence. The place of prayer was transformed into a house of traders, the place of God’s presence had become a market-place. Prayer and the worship of God had become a means of making money. However, Jesus’ way of thinking was not understood by the people of his time, and his behaviour was considered strange. Everything in the Temple, traders and animals, tables and money, were intended to help pilgrims to fulfil their religious duties. Everything was at the service of the Temple, for the devotion of believers, and ultimately for the worship of God. But Jesus did not see it that way! The personal encounter with God must not be used for one’s personal business advantage. Buying objects, however sacred they may be, does not mean that we can buy God.

The God of Jesus is not satisfied with what we offer him, if we do not offer all that we have and all that we are. Very often we think we have an authentic relationship with God, we think we are offering everything to God, and we take it for granted he could not ask any more of us. We do not come to him with sheep and doves, as they did in the time of Jesus, but we are no less guilty than those people. We too become dealers, without realizing it, and we deserve to be driven out. The worship God expects of us is a spiritual acknowledgement that we owe him everything, all that we are and all we want to be, all we have achieved in life and all our future plans. If we are not ready, every time we go to meet God, to put everything at his disposal, then we are not praying and we do not encounter God.

Quite frankly, we are trading in the Temple every time we try to make a deal with God, offering him what we have left over, or what we have acquired through the gifts he has given us. We may come often to church and yet never go to the temple, the place where God dwells and where he is waiting, not just for our offerings, but for the offering of ourselves. The little that we offer shows a lack of respect. We fail to respect God when we try to draw benefits from our life of faith in return for the time we spend in serving God. The God of Jesus is not served by those who offer most, or who want to give most, but only by those who are willing to give him what he asks for.

The people who asked Jesus for a sign to justify his actions, received an enigmatic reply. Jesus referred to his body, dead and risen, as the definitive place of the presence of God. Jesus was intransigent, at least once, because he was willing to give his life to defend God’s rights, and he knew that God would raise him from the dead. Through his death for God and his restoration to life, he became our best temple, the best place for us to meet God. Other places and other temples could be destroyed or misused, but in Jesus we have the true God, deserving of true worship, total, exclusive and intransigent. True worshippers are not those who give most, but those who allow God to be their God, allowing him to look after their needs, and concerning themselves only with doing his will, “on earth as in heaven”.

It should not be difficult to live with certainty in God’s presence, if we live in the presence of Christ. If Jesus is a real living person for us, God will be present as a living person. If we rediscover Jesus in our hearts and in our homes, in society and in our own lives, it will help us to find God without leaving the world in which we live. Praying to God does not mean loading ourselves down with things to offer him. It simply means having Christ in our hearts and on our lips. And this should not be difficult. Jesus Christ lives forever. True worship of God is not a promise to be fulfilled but a reality. It is our responsibility to attain that true worship.