Last weekend I had quite an interesting conversation at the dinner table. The topic put forward for discussion by my guest was a rather pessimistic view of the world order, where a small number of big companies are on the point of taking over control of the entire global market, from commodities to the food chain. Governments will become servile to those companies because of their financial power and influence. The rather dispiriting vision was of a high-level conspiracy theory. Interestingly enough, all the companies mentioned in the vision happened to be based in the Western democratic countries, governed by allegedly servile yet democratically-elected parliaments. Absent from the vision were those powerful but as-yet undemocratic countries, where corruption and dubious connections between business and civil authorities have long been endemic. It was possible to create such a pessimistic vision of Western democracies because there’s plethora of information available out there. As long as we continue to hear or read about scandals, governmental abuse of power, monopolistic practices and so on, we can feel safe. Does that sound contradictory? Perhaps. But it means that there are institutions, organisations, journalists and others who keep in check people of influence and power, and look at what they’re up to.
In today’s gospel Jesus interrupts a corrupt system that stained the Temple in Jerusalem. There were three factions with vested interests. The first one exploited the requirement that any animal to be offered in sacrifice must meet certain criteria. Of course, people could have brought in their own animals. But such animals had to be inspected and certified by the Temple authorities, who comprised the second faction. So, instead of risking dismissal of one’s own offering, it was easier to give in and buy ‘pre-certified’ animals in the Temple. The third faction with vested interests were the money changers. Pilgrims to the Temple were expected to make a significant donation towards its upkeep. Because Roman currency was considered ‘unclean’ by the Jews, coinage had to be exchanged for the Temple currency at an extortionate rate, a bit like the service in place at airports nowadays. Of course, those money changers were licensed by the Temple authorities! The system was effective and profitable for those involved, while those who were being ripped-off couldn’t do anything about it. And that’s why Jesus’ intervention stirred everyone up. Those with vested interests were vehemently protesting against Jesus’ actions, while the victims of the corrupt system were cheering him on.
Sadly, this wasn’t the sole example of turning religion into a cash-cow. The story has repeated itself all too often over the centuries, with the sale of indulgences in the late Middle Ages as its most notorious incarnation. But such commodification of religion isn’t unique to Christianity; it can – and does – happen in any religion or ideology. There will always be people who see commercial potential in spiritual and temporal matters, and who will not hesitate to milk such opportunities I find myself inundated with a permanent flow of every conceivable (and a number of inconceivable) offers to the parish.
However, such a corrupt attitude isn’t reserved to particular people. Each one of us is in similar danger from within. St Paul asks us: ‘Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (1 Corinthians 3:16); and St Peter urges us: ‘like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 2:5). Individually each one of us is a temple of God, and as a community we make up the temple of God. That spiritual temple can turn imperceptibly into a marketplace, be it through our sinful thoughts, words or actions, or even by our negligence of good. At the beginning of Mass we said these words together: ‘I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do through my fault.’ Was that just formulaic patter for you, or was it a verbal expression of the genuine realisation that not everything you did last week was right? The temple within the human heart needs regular clearing of any corruption before it gets too clogged up. If we don’t let Jesus do this frequently, others might feel the need do it for us: spouses, family members, friends, neighbours, workmates and so on. If we ourselves don’t do it, it will be a much more unpleasant and painful experience for us if others take it upon themselves to do it. So, instead of leaving the cleansing of the courtyard of your heart’s temple to agents of corruption, take charge of it yourself and invite Jesus to sweep it clean. That’s what Lent is for, isn’t it?