Today’s gospel account [John 2:13-25] is a familiar one. It appears in some form in all four gospels, and has had influence far beyond its original setting and significance. For example, some 82 years ago this week, on March 4, 1933, during what we now call the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated the 32nd President of the United States. Everyone remembers his famous line about fear. But that same speech also included the following words: Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than monetary profit.
In retrospect, it seems FDR may have spoken too soon and too confidently about a future from which the money changers seem never to get completely evicted. But, in an era much more religiously literate than our own, he could at least be confident that almost everyone would recognize his reference to the story told in today’s Gospel.
The “cleansing of the Temple,” as the incident is often called, was certainly a provocative action on Jesus’ part. It has been suggested that it was one of the principal provocations precipitating Jesus’ eventual arrest and execution, which would certainly add significance to our retelling it during Lent.
The original Jerusalem Temple, built by King Solomon and completed around 960 BC, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. A reconstructed second Temple was completed in 515 BC and lasted until its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD, after which Judaism has had to adapt and make do without any Temple.
Around 20 BC, King Herod the Great had begun a grandiose renovation of the Temple Mount, making the Jerusalem Temple one of the most impressive shrines in the ancient world. Herod was a great builder. He built palaces and pagan temples for his gentile subjects, but his grandest project was his renovation of the Jewish Temple, one of the largest construction projects of its time.
In the process, however, the classical, pagan model of a temple as a cultural, commercial, and social center seemed to creep in from the surrounding secular culture. Jesus’ strong reaction to the various activities taking place in the Temple precincts perhaps reflected his identification with more traditional Jewish notions, which got him into trouble with the Temple’s priests (known at that time for a more accommodating approach to secular society).
In effect, what Jesus was fighting for in the Temple was Israel’s core national value – faithfulness to God alone, God who had made Israel a nation and given it his Law, transforming a semi-nomadic mob of ex-slaves into an actual nation.
Like that exodus generation, we too are wanderers in life’s desert, desperately in need of direction. We may wander far and wide, with only the vaguest idea at times of where we may be heading. Along the way, however, God has given us the road-map (or, if you prefer, the GPS) we require – the familiar one he gave the Israelites in the desert – what Jewish tradition refers to as God’s “10 Words” and which we commonly call his “10 commandments.”
The 10 commandments [Exodus 20:1-17] constitute the core of the Law that was God’s gift to his people. The key to understanding the 10 commandments is contained in how God identifies himself in the very 1st commandment: I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall have no other gods besides me. The Lord himself, the Lord who has shown himself to be God by liberating his people, is the rational for this and every subsequent commandment.
The 10 commandments spell out in daily life the consequences of becoming God’s people. Living morally is our response to God’s covenant with us, our cooperation with the plan God has been pursuing through all of human history – from creation to Christ, from Christmas to the end. In our moral lives we reflect our gratitude to God and our commitment to remain faithful over the long haul.
According to an ancient legend, at Mount Sinai God made the wombs of all of Israel’s women as clear as glass – so that all future generations could see for themselves what was happening and personally commit to the covenant. I suppose that’s poor biology, but it’s a great image! It makes the important point that the commandments are addressed to each of us individually, which is why they are phrased in the singular. (Those of us above a certain age will remember having learned them in the old singular form – “thou shalt … thou shalt not.”). We are all each responsible to respond to God with what we do and the way we live.
The 10 commandments constantly call and challenge us to commitment and fidelity:
- commitment and fidelity, first of all, to God himself, who has revealed himself to us, above all, in Jesus his Son;
- commitment and fidelity to God’s world, which God has entrusted to us and which we done so much damage to;
- commitment and fidelity to one another, our companion wanderers in the desert, whom we have been commanded to care about and to care for, whether we like it or not, whether we like each other or not, both when war or economic hardships make us more conscious of our shared condition and common need, and in times of peace and prosperity when wealth and security tempt us to go it alone and leave others behind;
- commitment and fidelity, finally, to God’s holy Church, by being part of which we are united with one another in Christ’s body, the true and eternal Temple, and become God’s people in this world.
Commitment is never automatic, and fidelity does not come easily or cheaply – not for the folks at Mount Sinai and not for anyone else either. But the commandments teach us that the fast food of individual fulfillment and personal autonomy just can’t compare with dining with one another in God’s kingdom.
For, as we just heard form Saint Paul [1 Corinthians 1:22-25], the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 8, 2015.