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Third Sunday of Lent (B)

Ex 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

March 11, 2012

Two powerful and classic scenes from the Bible make up the readings for this third Sunday of Lent. The Gospel reading is the account of Jesus' purification of the Jerusalem temple in the Gospel of John. The Old Testament reading paired with it is God's presentation of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai as recounted in the Book of Exodus. According to the rationale of the Lectionary, the Gospel text is the "anchor" and the Old Testament reading is to be in harmony with the Gospel selection. How does that work out this Sunday? What does Jesus' dramatic disruption of the Jerusalem Temple have in common with God's solemn declaration to Moses, except a lot of noise and chaos (right after God delivers the commandments to Moses thunder and lightning breaks out!)?

The answer to that question can take us deep into the heart of our readings for this Sunday during our Lenten journey. Both texts in fact share a common biblical conviction - namely that authentic worship of God also entails ethical commitment. This is, in fact, a distinctive feature of both Judaism and Christianity - one that in most instances distinguishes our heritage from other ancient religions. In the ancient world one might be a devotee of a particular God or even an ensemble of deities but such devotion did not necessarily require a particular ethical response on the part of the worshiper.

The reading from Exodus is part of a wider context that is very important. The Book of Exodus tracks the people Israel on their flight to freedom from slavery in Egypt. During their desert sojourn Moses and the people he leads have a dramatic encounter at Mt. Sinai with the God who had rescued them. The awesome and tender God of the Exodus story forges a covenant with Israel - they will be his people and he will be their God. This covenant relationship, which stands at the heart of the Old Testament, is built on God's fidelity and love of his people, but there is also a similar response of love and fidelity expected in turn from the people.

This is what the Ten Commandments spell out. They are not a list of arbitrary rules, but rather flow from the very nature of the covenant relationship with God. The first several commandments remind Israel of their obligations to God who has given them life and freedom. They are not to worship false gods; they should worship God and express their love for him; they should observe the Sabbath as a sacred day devoted to worship and rest, a day in harmony with the very rhythm of God's creation. The latter commandments spell out the basic responsibilities to others that one has as a son and daughter of God: reverence for one's parents; fidelity to one's spouse and family; doing no harm to others and giving them respect. In simple terms, the relationships among God's people are to reflect the very manner of God's relationship to Israel. Here, too, is a fundamental conviction of the Bible: the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. Astoundingly, God calls us "to be holy as I am holy" (Leviticus 19:2, a passage where another, more expansive, version of the Ten Commandments is found). The commands God gives to Israel (and which Jesus will amplify in his own teaching) reveal the very nature of the human person as created by God. Worshiping God with love and respect, dealing with others in a similar spirit of love and respect and justice - these are not arbitrary ethical demands but spring from the very nature of the human person as created by God. In effect, we were built this way and to act contrary to our deepest nature violates our very selves as made in the image and likeness of God. That is the wound of sin.

This backdrop helps explain Jesus' actions in the Jerusalem Temple, the most sacred place in Judaism where God's presence was especially intense. All four evangelists consider this act of Jesus as a climatic point in his mission, one that would trigger deadly opposition to Jesus and lead ultimately to his death. John puts this scene at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry but also links it to his death: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up...he was speaking about the temple of his body." Scholars debate precisely what was the original context of Jesus' action. The selling of sheep and oxen and doves to the pilgrims that came to worship was, in fact, necessary for the temple sacrifices. So, too, were the money changers who provided special coins purely minted in Lebanon that did not have the image of the Roman emperor on them, as ordinary coins did making them unsuitable for donations to the temple.

Jesus undoubtedly knew this but his action makes a dramatic point. Like the prophets of old he calls Israel back to authentic worship that expresses itself in deeds of justice and mercy and love - the kind of worship prescribed at Sinai. This assault on false worship, worship that was not coupled with acts of righteousness, was a hallmark of the prophets of Israel. The famous words of Isaiah echo Jesus' own anger: "Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me...Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice..." (Isaiah 1:12-17).

This is the strong challenge we hear on this stage of our Lenten journey. The God of Israel, the God revealed by Jesus, is bound to us in an enduring covenant of love. Because of that and because we are made in God's image and likeness, we, too, must strive to lead lives of love and justice.                                                   

By Donald Senior, C.P., President and Professor of New Testament Studies 

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