Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cleansing the Temple

Today’s Gospel’s account of Jesus at war with the Temple’s money-changers (John 2:13-25) is a familiar one. It appears in all 4 Gospels, and its imagery has had influence far beyond its original context. Some 79 years ago, on March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated President of the United States in the depths of the last Great Depression. Everybody knows his famous line about the only thing we have to fear. In an era much more religiously literate than our own, however, almost everyone would have recognized the reference to today’s Gospel is something else he said in that speech.

“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 mere monetary profit.”

(Imagine a President - or Presidential candidate - with the fortitude to talk like that today!)

The “cleansing of the Temple,” as it is often called, was obviously a provocative act on Jesus’ part. It has been suggested that, together with Jesus’ Messiah-style entry into Jerusalem, it may have been the provocation precipitating his arrest and execution.

For devout Jews in Jesus’ time, the Temple was certainly something worth fighting – and dying – for. Contemporary Palestinian progaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, the Jewish Temple was the heart and soul of historic Jerusalem. The original Temple (built by King Solomon and completed around 960 BC) had been destroyed by the Babylonians on the 9th of Av in 586 BC. A reconstructed 2nd Temple (completed in 515 BC) lasted until its destruction by the Romans – again on the 9th of Av – in A.D. 70. Before that, however, around 20 BC, King Herod the Great had begun a grandiose renovation of the entire Temple complex, making it one of the most impressive shrines in the ancient world.

In the process, perhaps, some of the classical, pagan model of a temple as a cultural, commercial, and social center seems to have crept in from the surrounding secular culture. Jesus’ strong reaction to the activities in the Temple precincts probably reflected his fidelity and devotion to a more traditionally Jewish notion of the Temple and so soon got him into trouble with the Temple’s priests (Sadducees, known at that time for their more accommodating approach to secular culture).

What Jesus was fighting for was Israel’s core national value – faithfulness to God, who had made Israel a nation and given it his Law, transforming a semi-anarchic mob of ex-slaves into an actual nation and a moral people.

Like the exodus generation, we too are wanderers in life’s desert, desperately in need of a map. (Here in Rome, one need not go far to get lost amid little zig-sagging streets with constantly changing names. A city street map is absolutely essential!) Likewise in life, we may wander far and wide with only a vague outline of where we are heading. Along the way, however, God has given us the map we require – the familiar map he gave the Israelites in the desert – what Jewish tradition refers to as God’s “10 Words” and which we commonly call the “10 Commandments.”

The 10 Commandments spell out in daily life the consequences of becoming one of God’s people. Living a morally serious life 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 (and continues to pursue to the end). In living morally serious lives we reflect our gratitude to God and our commitment to remain faithful over the long haul.

According to one legend, at Mount Sinai God made the wombs of all of Israel’s women as clear as glass – so that all future generations would see for themselves what was happening and personally commit to the covenant. I suppose that’s poor biology, but it makes for a great image! It certainly makes the all-important point that the commandments are addressed to each of one us individually (which is why they are phrased in the singular – “thou salt ... thou shalt not”). We are all each individually responsible to respond with what we do how we live.

As our map through the desert of daily life, the 10 Commandments call us over and over to commitment and fidelity:

- commitment and fidelity to God, who has revealed himself to us, in his world and in his word and above all in Jesus his Son;

- commitment and fidelity to God’s world, which has been entrusted to us and which we have individually and collectively managed to make such a mess of;

- commitment and fidelity to one another, our fellow-wanderers in God’s world, whom we have been commanded to care about and care for, whether we like it or not and whether we like each other or not, both when war or recession may make us more conscious of shared danger and common need, and in times of peace and prosperity, when wealth and safety may tempt us to go it alone and leave others behind;

- commitment and fidelity finally to God’s Church, by being part of which we are being empowered to live as God’s people in this world.

Commitment is never automatic and fidelity doesn’t come cheaply – not for the folks at Mount Sinai (as so many subsequent episodes in Exodus illustrate) 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 in God’s kingdom. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus saw that – despite the blinding glare of the grandeur of Herod’s Temple.

And that, this Lent, is what he challenges us also to see with him.

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