3rd Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2021
The Anger of Jesus (John 2:13-25)
Some years ago, a friend of mine was full of indignation over a trifling situation. I urged my friend to move beyond his anger as quickly as possible, because anger is bad for the soul and bad for one’s health. Not ready to let go of his intense feelings, my friend retorted, “But Jesus got angry. Just look at what he did to merchants in the temple!”
You will immediately recognize my friend’s reference to today’s Gospel from St. John. As you recall, Jesus entered the temple precincts in Jerusalem and saw the merchants selling animals to pilgrims, from near and far, for use in the Passover sacrifices. Jesus did indeed become angry and overturned the tables of those who were selling animals and also those engaged in currency exchange. Why did Jesus become so angry?
I used to think it was because those merchants were cheating people. After all, Jesus condemns them for making his Father’s house “a den of thieves” (Lk 19:46). Yet, there is no clear evidence that those merchants were particularly dishonest. Rather, there was another kind of robbery going on, and it was this: While merchants had not set up shop in the temple itself, they did set up in an outer area known as “the courtyard of the Gentiles”. It had been built to accommodate believing Gentiles who came from many places to take part in the annual celebration of the Feast of Passover. But with all the hustle and bustle, the buying and selling, the noise and commotion, none of those believing pilgrims could prayerfully participate in the great feast. In other words, a place that had been set apart for a sacred purpose, a holy place, had been transformed into a profane marketplace, not too different from any other. Thus, those who had come to worship were deprived of that ennobling experience. Thus, zeal for a place set aside for the worship of his Father, consumed Jesus.
And let me add this point: When the leaders of the people challenged Jesus for what seemed an angry outburst, Jesus baffled them by saying, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The leaders thought Jesus was referring to the physical structure of the temple when in fact Jesus meant his body, his humanity, the true temple which, so to speak, “housed” his divinity as the only begotten Son of God. This is the “temple” wherein everyone can “worship the Father in spirit and in truth”. This is the “temple” set apart by God for the redemption of the world.
The Power and Wisdom of Christ Crucified (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
What Jesus alluded to in the temple precincts, St. Paul proclaimed clearly in today’s second reading from First Corinthians, namely, the sacrifice Christ offered on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Father sent his only Son, all holy and all glorious, to cleanse us of our sins, and he did so by laying down his life for us on the Cross and by rising from the dead. When Paul proclaimed this most fundamental truth of the Christian faith, the Jews demanded to see signs and wonders confirming what he proclaimed, whereas the Greeks demanded from Paul philosophical analyses …
In truth neither signs and wonders nor the profoundest analysis could even come close to the power of God and the wisdom of God who surrendered his Son into our hands, who gave up his only Son for the sake of our salvation, the Son of God who cleansed us by the blood and water flowing from his side as he hung on the Cross.
God the Father did all that for us because he also views us, each of us, you and me, as temples, as a dwelling place for himself and his Son in the Holy Spirit. Further on in First Corinthians (6:19-20) St. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…and that you are not your own; you have been purchased at a price; glorify God in your body.” Clearly, the temple in Jerusalem is not the only temple Jesus wants to cleanse. No, Jesus wants to cleanse the temple of our humanity, especially now, in Lent.
And let us admit it, there’s a lot of noise and commerce going on in the temple that is us, maybe even more than was taking place in the temple of Jerusalem. Not everything going on in our hearts is bad but there is a lot going on…to name 3: our legitimate worries, unfounded fears, and our feelings, good and bad, toward others. Such things can easily absorb much or all of the “bandwidth” of our hearts, so much that there is scarcely any room left simply to worship the Lord, to enter into his rest, to open our hearts to him, and to give ourselves entirely to him. If Jesus is “angry” with us, it is not because he is anything less than utterly merciful; rather, he is zealous that our hearts be a temple set apart, indeed, a house of prayer, a place of divine intimacy, a place of peace.
The Ten Commandments: A Call to Holiness (Exodus 20:1-7)
What, then, is the upshot of all this for us and for the conduct of our lives? We find the answer to that question in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus in which God delivered to Moses the Ten Commandments. Normally, we tend to think of the Ten Commandments as mere rules of conduct, and truth to tell, they track closely the natural law, the law “written on the human heart”. If everyone obeyed the Commandments, no doubt our world would be a better place. Yet, as we reflect on the fuller presentation of the Commandments in today’s reading, we should be struck by the fact that God gave them to us because he loves us, because he wants to set us apart, to make us holy, to enable us to love as he loves. Summed up as love of God and love of neighbor, the Ten Commandments stand as the definitive guide to the cleansing of our inner and outer temple, to our being and becoming a living part of that Holy People whom God has set apart.
The first three Commandments pertain to our relationship with God – forbidding the worship of idols, not just molten calves, but money, power, and pleasure; forbidding the profanation of God’s holy Name, using it casually or even as a curse, and enjoining us to set aside the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship, by taking part in the celebration of the Eucharist, that is to say, Holy Mass. God has set us apart and called us to holiness, but these commandments prompt us to ask whether we are willing to make more room for the God of holiness and love in the temple of our hearts, or conversely, if our hearts will be mostly given over to daily transactional relationships.
The remaining seven Commandments pertain to our relationships with others – commanding us to love our parents who gave us life, and forbidding us from inflicting harm on others, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual. For God has willed each person to come into existence, endowed them dignity, and called them to be set apart for friendship, eternal friendship with himself. That fact alone means that we owe love and respect to our neighbor – not merely the neighbor we like and admire, but those whom we find difficult. Our hearts must be cleansed of all wrongdoing toward others if we would indeed worship the Lord in spirit and truth in the temple of our hearts. For, as St. John teaches us, ‘we cannot claim to love the God we have not seen if we fail to love the neighbor whom we do see’ (cf. 1 John 4:20).
The Sacrament of Reconciliation
Where, then, can we avail ourselves of the cleansing Jesus wants to bring about in us? One very important answer to that question is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which brings the power and wisdom of Christ Crucified to bear on our hearts. This is how Jesus cleanses our inner and outer temple, overturning whatever blocks or obscures the holiness of God in us while expanding our hearts to reflect his holiness more and more completely by loving our neighbors, including our enemies, and especially those in need. Sometime before Holy Week, I urge you to make an unburdening confession of your sins in the Sacrament of Penance and to receive with gratitude the forgiveness of your sins so that you may approach the Passover of the Lord with worthiness and joy. And may God bless you and keep you always in his love.