3rd Sunday of Lent, Year B.
Exodus 20:1-17 – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 – John 2:13-25.
In the Synoptics, Our Lord enters Jerusalem towards the end of His earthly ministry, and it is His zeal for the house [of God] (Ps 69:9), i.e. for the Temple (Mt 21:12f; Mk 11:15ff; Lk 19:45f) that leads to His trial, crucifixion and death. In John’s Gospel, however, the Temple cleansing is deliberately placed at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry to highlight the Incarnate Lord Himself both replacing and superseding the Temple as the location where heaven and earth meet. The message is that Jesus is the new Temple who has come to raise us up to new life in God. Today’s Gospel opens with: Just before the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem (v.13); the intention behind the tautological statement (that the Passover observance is Jewish) is to underline that universal salvation came through the Jews. Passover is the foundational Jewish observance commemorating the events that happened in Egypt (Ex 12:3-27), where a lamb was sacrificed and its blood was smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the houses of the captive Israelites. Every home that had the blood smeared on it was ‘passed over’ by the angel of death and every first-born son was spared (v.13). The spotless lamb was slain in substitution for the first-born son, and its blood was the sign of their membership of the Chosen People (the people of God). YHWH, God, instituted the Passover as a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations (v.42). The Jerusalem Temple housed the holy of holies and was the place of sacrifice for sin, which is why the annual Passover observance attracted Jews to Jerusalem.
Jesus entered the Temple and found people selling bulls, lambs and pigeons for sacrifice and burnt offerings. It was possible for locals to offer their own animals, but it was convenient for everybody else to buy them in the colonnades. Money had to be exchanged to pay the Temple tax of half a shekel (Ex 30:13) because the main currency was Roman, and in any case the Roman coinage bore an image on it which was anathema to the Jews (Ex 20:4). In a premeditated act, having made a whip of cord (v.15), Jesus drove out the livestock merchants and scattered the money changers’ tables, demanding that they take all this out of here (v.16). Now, the deep meaning of the passage is brought out in the conversation between Jesus and the Jews. The Jews asked, What sign can you show us to justify what you have done? And Jesus replied, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. So that we don’t miss the point, St. John adds but He was speaking of the temple of His body (v.21). So, how does Jesus’ driving-out of commercial activities from the Temple connect to His death and resurrection?
Jesus’ death on the Cross is the new Passover sacrifice, the efficacious sacrifice in His blood which replaces the former representations of atonement for sin via animal sacrifice. In his Sermons on John’s Gospel, St. Augustine stated that, sacrifices were given to that people, in consideration of the carnal mind and stony heart yet in them, to keep them from falling away to idols. The expulsion of the livestock signalled the beginning of a new order of worship rooted in the self-sacrifice of Jesus, of God Himself, superseding the token but ineffective sacrifice of lambs in atonement for sin. As the new Paschal lamb, the Blood of Jesus is the sign of our redemption, the Lamb of God slain that we might live! Our Lord is the new Temple ‘destroyed’ and ‘raised up’ in three days.
In the 2nd Reading, St. Paul writes about the crucified Christ as the power and the wisdom of God (v.24). Outwardly, to His adversaries, Our Lord appeared weak and even foolish, but the reality is that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (v.25). In St. Augustine’s words, He was scourged by the scourges of the Jews’. Contrast the picture of Jesus wielding the whip with that of Jesus being whipped by the thugs during the scourging at the pillar: the One who scourged the sinful sheep was scourged by the sinful sheep for our sake, in the sense that He took the punishment we deserved. We must make every effort not to scourge Him today by being disobedient to His commandments.
Obeying God’s commands is a sure step towards holiness. Jesus was angry that religious practice had taken priority over prayer, worship and love of God the Father for His own sake. Notice that Jesus desired that the Jerusalem Temple be rid of corruption evidenced by commercial activities in its precincts. He wanted it to be a spiritual domain, a house of prayer for all the nations (Mk 11:17). Notice how His disciples “remembered” (v.17) that His zeal for His Father’s house will devour me, as it did during His trial and crucifixion. As soon as he came of age, Jesus had made a start on His mission. Upon being found in the Temple, He asked Our Lady, did you not know I must be in My Father’s house? (Lk 2:49). It was Jesus’ zeal for souls that led Him to suffer, to die and to overcome death and the power of sin for us (Rom 6:3f), and to open the gates of heaven to us. Our Lord longs to focus us on God, and to cleanse us from sin as He cleansed the Temple. In St. Augustine’s words, then, let every Christian among the members of Christ be eaten up with zeal for God’s house. Energized with this zeal, and boosted by prayer and good works, our aim is become one in holiness with one another in Christ (Gal 3:27f).
St. John describes Jesus as the tabernacle presence of God (Jn 1:14): the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. When Our Lord said, destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up (v.19), He was announcing that He Himself is the Temple presence of God, holy and spotless amongst us. During Lent, we are reminded of our collective call to holiness as the temple of the living God (2Cor 6:16) and as the ambassadors of Christ in our time (cf. 2Cor 2:17). What does ‘holiness’ mean? According to the KJV Dictionary, ‘holiness’ means being “set apart and consecrated for sacred use, or to the service or worship of God”. Just as churches are built and set apart for prayer and worship of God, we Christians individually are built up and set apart for the glory of God. In today’s 1st Reading the Jews, the people of God, received from God the Law, the Ten Commandments necessary for the functioning of any civilized society. Jesus summed up the whole of the Law for us succinctly (Mt 22:37) when He quoted the Shema (Deut 6:4) You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind in tandem with Lev 19:17: and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Obeying the Law of the Lord goes a long way towards ‘destroying’ the sin in us and ‘raising us up’ in holiness. Amen. God bless you.