March 11, 2012
The Third Sunday in LentSome people's bedrooms are a total mess. To enter, one might have to wade ankle-deep through clothes. The desk is piled high with books and papers. The closet is jammed with everything but the kitchen sink. They seem oblivious to the mess and don't mind the clutter. They don't have time to clean it up, but they can spend hours texting their friends. And this is the point; cleaning up a mess isn't a priority to them. Their friends and relationships claim their time and attention. The gospel this Sunday is a familiar one about Jesus throwing the money changers out of the Temple. Jesus is clear about his “Father’s house” being a place of prayer and covenant; a place where God dwells. In the midst of the messiness of the Temple Jesus reorders priorities.
What a mess Jesus made! He spilled coins, overturned tables, and even destroyed the most important institution of all of Israel; the Temple as God's dwelling place. He declared that the place of God's presence among people was no longer building up the “temple of his body”. This “temple of his body” would be destroyed by enemies but then raised up to a new life dwelling among us and within us who are now the Body of Christ. What a new creation God made! What a new priority God has established for us!
Jews expressed their covenant fidelity by worship in the Temple and obedience to the commandments. For Christians, Christ is our new Temple and his word is our new commandment. Thus, Jesus’ driving out the merchants and money changers from the Temple is an example that displays for us what ought to be our priority; a worshipful relationship to God and just relationship with each other. The zeal followers of Jesus must show is not for a building but for those Christ has claimed as his own. Our zeal is for the Body of Christ, the living Temple of God's presence.
At the same time Jesus challenges priorities, he announces a new pattern of living. The Temple of his own body would be destroyed, but his body would be raised up. Through Jesus' death and resurrection we have a new covenant with God. No longer is our covenantal relationship measured only by keeping Commandments, but our covenantal relationship to God is measured by how well we pattern our own lives after Jesus in dying to ourselves for the good of others. New, risen life is ours when we conform ourselves to his new commandment of love. As believers and followers of Jesus our own bodies are also temples that must be destroyed in order to be raised up. Our own bodies are given up in love. Such must be our zeal.
As an example of dying to ourselves for the good of others, recently I read of a married couple who adopted a six-year-old boy from Peru. He is physically incapacitated to some extent in that he has been undernourished for years and is smaller in stature than he should be. But he is also emotionally underdeveloped and has the mental capacity of a three-year-old.
Most people if they heard this would swallow slowly and probably softly say, “Wow!” This couple did not adopt a child who's going to be an unadulterated delight. Maybe no child ever is, but people who do adopt into their family have the expectation that the child will be a delight to them at least most of the time. In this case, this couple bought problems from day one. It's enough to make someone stop in their tracks of life.
What this couple did was of God. Their gesture is a response to the word of God. This is the kind of behavior the Jesus exemplified. Let us think for a minute. Don't you think if more people acted in this fashion in our world, the world would be a substantially better place? Don't you think our parish would be different, their neighborhoods, our city, our country would be better? When we open our eyes and see without prejudice, it becomes obvious how prideful, how divisive, how riddled with self-interest we are. Our parish, our city, our nation, our world.
We should all find that the action of this couple is life-giving. In your experience and in your mind, is obedience to the inspiration of God's word life-giving? Or do you see such behavior like this couple more as an experience of death? A gesture like this couple's would mean dying to so many cherished things in life. I know I would have to give up so much to do as they did.
We have come into our artificially created desert of Lent to consider such things. We fast, so as to see what kind of slavery we are in, what alien gods we unconsciously worship. We pray, so that we might rid ourselves of the illusion that we are God. And we do works of charity and mercy to get us thinking more about the other and less about ourselves.
We also entered the desert to find out what God's will may be for us. This is difficult work, especially when we are subject to all sorts of strong attachments. God asks different things of each of us. Do we each want to know what God's will is for us? There are all kinds of ways to avoid the knowledge that God's will for us may possibly be like the action of that couple. So I ask again, do we really want to know what God's will is for us?
Here's the kicker; we say we believe in the word of God, we say we believe that God's will for us means a true and full life. Can we trust enough to be open to what God really wants, as that couple probably was? They were buying into a real diminishment of their lives in some ways, a change in so many things they had. You might say that they were open to downward mobility. They are both professional people, healthy, and have one other child, a little girl who is healthy, bright and well developed. They bought into a situation that will change their lives for years, perhaps for as long as they live.
Some might ask how this could be a sign of life? It is an act of faith. And we have our model for this sort of living and it is in Jesus. The wisdom of God showing Jesus was absolute folly to people. Jesus’ life was a secular disaster. It looked and smelled like death. No worldly wisdom could justify the kind of life Jesus lived. None of us here today would choose it. He loved unpopular people; he took unpopular stands, being faithful to his Father's will as he saw it. Jesus is anything but a conformist. Instead of embracing cultural assumptions, he does or says the opposite. Worldly wisdom makes no sense of that. Jesus’ life, just like that couple’s act, was what some would call a signal of transcendence. This means an element of human experience simply cannot be explained by the collective wisdom of the world. We want to live by the wisdom of God that is the source of true life.
And so we continue our Lenten, desert experience, but probably with some trepidation. God may ask something of us other than what we expect. We are tempted to say that we are good people and we tried to obey God's law. And today we are called to wonder whether maybe being a good person is just not good enough. Maybe we are compromising the true wisdom of God. The gospel story should make us wonder if we are behaving like the merchants in the Temple.
I would suspect that the merchants in the Temple did not think they were bad people, yet Jesus kicked them out in a rage. The practice of buying and selling in the Temple area was not considered blasphemous, and maybe for some it was even imagine as being pious. They were providing a needed service for the worshipers. Roman coins, because the coinage used in Jerusalem could not be used to pay the Temple tax; one had to use shekels. The Judaic law forbade graven images; therefore one would think that Roman coins with Caesar's image would have to be exchanged. So the faithful had to deal with moneychangers when they went to the Temple. People also needed animals to offer as sacrifice, so one might argue that the merchants were providing this service for good religious cause. Merchants provided the necessary service for the worshipers. All so it would seem. Conventionally, it all made sense.
What caused such anger in Jesus, some scholars surmise, was a factor the business of buying and selling had gradually moved from outside of the Temple into the very court of the Gentiles. He felt that the house in the worship of God was being compromised and insulted. Jesus’ zeal for his Father's glory was uncompromising. The Temple was supposed to represent God's assured presence to Israel. Hence his justified anger. The gospel tells us that the disciples would later see Jesus' prophetic act as fusing with the Psalmist’s profound expression of faith as was written in Psalms 69. In hindsight it is especially easy to see that human conventions can blind us to spiritual truths. What seemed legitimate really profane what was holy.
Yet in amongst all this, the Jews asked him what sign he would show for doing these things. And Jesus answered them that if they destroyed the Temple, in three days he would raise it up again. The very problem of this to the ears of the Jews at the time was that they did not understand what Jesus truly meant. Jesus was not speaking of the Temple on the mount made of brick-and-mortar. He was speaking of the Temple of his own body. He was speaking in advance of his crucifixion and his own dying and rising again.
This speaks to us today in a way that many of us also do not understand any more than the Jews of two thousand years ago. We as Catholics are called to a faith and belief that for some is hard to accept. As Catholics, we have the inheritance of the teachings of the apostles. And as such we take seriously the direction that Jesus later gives when he celebrates the Passover supper with his disciples. That we are to take the bread and break it in memory of him; we are to take the wine and drink it. We are to believe in full faith and by Jesus’ own words, that the bread becomes his body; the wine becomes his blood. This is a miracle; this is our very own supernatural experience each and every Sunday.
Being Catholics, as I often have said and will continue to say, is not just a religion; it is a way of life. Just as the Jews of that time and even of today, we Catholics take seriously what God through Jesus Christ has commanded us to do and to be. We come to the Christian variation of the Temple, known as a church, to take in God's holy word, and then Christ's very own body and blood within us. We become the spiritual Temples of Christ’s body within ourselves. We must be willing to tear down these temples only so they can be rebuilt as one’s belonging to Christ. As Catholics, we believe in the miracle of the Eucharist, of which our eyes deceive us with. We believe that miracle of the Eucharist is the bringing of a spiritual sustenance to our body and souls. Whether we “feel” it or not, we know in faith it to be so, because Jesus promised it so.
To what extent have we behaved like the merchants in the Temple? God's hard word faces us, challenges us, but also strengthens us. We believe what the psalmist says, that the law of the Lord is right and makes the heart rejoice. The commands of the Lord are sweeter than honey. We believe this. And we ask the Lord God, in the celebration of Christ's holy supper to reassure us that our dying with Jesus shall be our rising with God to a fuller life. We too, must be willing to love unpopular people; take unpopular stands on various topics society is dealing with; we must be faithful to the Father’s will as we understand it. We must be willing to tear down the temple of our old selves and allow the Holy Spirit to rebuild it as God desires it to be; one worthy of Christ Jesus.
The risen Christ is the ultimate countersign in a world where death is imagined to be final. He is a new presence visible symbol of God. It seemed like foolishness back then, just as it may seem to some today. To live in the risen Christ, is to not let conventions blindness the truth. The Gospel is neither irrational nor absurd. Therefore, let us open ourselves to the call of God. Whether it is to become human temples receiving Christ body, or simply following his call to do that which the world may find strange.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.