THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (2021)
Readings:Exodus 20:1-17Psalms 19:8-111 Corinthians 1:22-25John 2:13-25
For the third Sunday in a row, our Old Testament reading begins with the very important concept of “covenant,” that contract with God that reminds us, “I am your God, and you are my people” if we do as God commands. The first covenant we encountered was with Noah, whose sign was the rainbow, and whose promise assured the Israelites He would never again destroy them by a flood. The second covenant we have been given for our Lenten reflection, was the covenant with Abram, Abraham, whose sign would be the numerous progeny who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. Today’s first reading reflects the covenant made with Moses, whose sign is the Ten Commandments, which are cherished by every Judaeo-Christian society since they were given.
The notion of covenant is an essential concept for all those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, for we declare Jesus to be “our God,” and we make every effort to be “His people,” by doing what He has taught us to do. Like good Jews, we too, follow the Ten Commandments, but we know because of what Jesus has told us that that is not enough to fulfill our end of the contract. He tells us often that it is not enough to say “Lord, Lord!” to secure salvation. At one time the Ark of the Covenant was said to hold the tablets with the Ten Commandments, and when a Temple was built it was looked on as the dwelling place of the Almighty God. For Catholics, our churches are looked upon as places where God dwells, and our tabernacles hold the very Body of Christ, the consecrated host. But neither Temple nor Church can restrict or fully contain the God of our covenant, for that God exists in all of creation, all that has been fashioned by God’s hands.
In our present era, it is not hard to convince anyone that the very places where God is said to dwell can become places of malice, places where the sin of clericalism overshadows the presence of a loving God, and where those entrusted with the church’s care can get lost in a miasma of falsehoods and untruths. It is a “human condition,” once created good, that can succumb so far to original sin, that it can lead one to even abuse those entrusted to their care. Earthly pleasures and treasures lead many astray, and, as Pope Francis would surely agree, this can take place anywhere, from the Vatican to the smallest of country churches.
It is with this in mind that we view today’s gospel from John, the recounting of what is called Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple. This happens early in John’s gospel, a gospel where Jesus makes frequent trips to Jerusalem. In the Synoptics, the action appears towards the end of Jesus’ life and is often viewed as the ‘last straw,’ the catalyst for Jesus’ crucifixion. At the beginning of a gospel, like the healings and miracles, an action such as this “cleansing” serves as a reminder of Jesus’ preeminence, His control over all earthly things, and His decision that the worship of His day had become something other than what was intended. The commercial dimension, which can afflict a church in any age, has taken over the Temple, regardless that the money changers were providing a service to those who attended the Temple.
The Jews who witnessed Jesus’ “zeal” wanted a “sign” of why Jesus felt He could do such a thing (“Jews demand signs” says 1 Corinthians 22), and His oblique answer (especially at the beginning of His ministry) went over the heads of His listeners: “you will raise up this [Temple] in just three days?” John, the latest of all gospel’s, makes it clear what Jesus was talking about: “He was speaking about the Temple of His body. Therefore, when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered He had said this, and they came to believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.”
Jesus will replace the Temple, and the “new covenant,” born of His blood, will be the final and definitive covenant that God will make with His people. As we state so often in the words of consecration during the celebration of the Eucharist: “Take this all of you… the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many.” The gospel acclamation for the day is the famous Johannine quote (3:16): “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might have eternal life.”
John speaks of the many who began to believe in Jesus’ name, and suggests that Jesus “would not trust Himself to them because He knew them all.” Jesus did not need “anyone to testify about human nature,” and, in words that should bring no small comfort, the gospel ends with the evangelist stating: “He himself understood [human nature] well.” Yes, He did, and does. Jesus could understand how human nature can turn a Temple into a “den of thieves,” He understood how pride and ambition could turn holy priests into something that was far from holy, He understood how selfishness and pride could cause those created in love to ignore the needs of those less fortunate, He understood how a nation could be confused into thinking that they had a monopoly on God’s love and affection.
Jesus understands human nature, and He understands how difficult it sometimes is to find our way back to Him in a world where the pits are deep, and the darkness blinding. Jesus know us, and wants us to live lives that will secure the unmerited gift of salvation. May this Lenten season find us ever more ready to model our lives on that of Jesus. In doing so we honor the covenant made with us, and truly spread the good news of the kingdom Jesus came to establish.