Commentary to the 3rd Sunday of lent –Year B–
FROM THE TEMPLE’S RELIGION TO THE WORSHIP OF THE HEART
When one refers to the need of renunciation, self-control and sacrifice, the audience is often surprised. They express it sometimes with a wry smile and a blink while a few is amused. It's pretty embarrassing; it was also for Paul in Caesarea. The Roman procurator had listened carefully to the apostle, but when Paul began "to speak about justice, self-control and the future judgment" he interrupted him: "You may leave now—he said—I shall send for you some other time" (Acts 24:25).
In a world where success smiles at opportunists, where those who enjoy life are admired, every intemperance is allowed and they make their force the rule of law (Wis 2:6-9). Who recalls certain values, some challenging choices, runs the risk of not being understood and becoming unpopular.Yet, this is not the only reason why today Christian ethics is viewed with distrust or mocked.
There is an error that educators, motivated with the best of intentions, often make. They expose the moral obligations before speaking about God and his love, before having made clear that he is not the antagonist of man’s happiness but the Father who desires that his children may have the fullness of life. This right theological and pedagogical approach is the first reason for the rejection of Christian morality.
There's a second one: hypocrisy. It is the impeccable religious practice disconnected from love and justice; the worship of God associated with attachment to money and to a grudge against the brother; the performance of external rites to silence the conscience. The liturgical services are authentic only when they celebrate a life according to the Gospel. The prayers acceptable to God are those done "lifting up pure hands, without anger and dissension" (1 Tim 2:8).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"The pure and unblemished religious practice faultless is never separated from loving people."
First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
The law of God and the ten comandments may seem, to the less observant, a long list of prohibitions that arouse an instinctive sense of rejection or even encourage, as Paul stated, all sorts of desires: "I would not have known sin - he said – if the Law did not tell me: Do not covet"(Rom 7:7-8).
Let us draw near to the famous text that is being proposed in today's reading, starting with giving back to the ten commandments their true name: decalogue, that is, ten words. They are not—and this cannot be emphasized enough—legal rules imposed by a despot who is not obliged to justify his orders. There is no penalty attached. There is only a promise of good for those who honor father and mother, "that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord has given you" (v. 12).
It is wrong to present them as precepts upon which, one day, every man will be judged and will receive a prize or suffer a punishment. No, there will not be an offended and angry God, ready to punish the offenders. Who does not listen to the Lord does not have to fear future punishment but is called to realize that today he is ruining his life and damaging also that of others. It is today that God, as a loving father, turns to his son and sincerely reminds him: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose life, that you and your descendants may live" (Dt 30:19).
The ten words are recorded in the Bible in two versions (Ex 20:2-17; Dt 5:6-21), introduced by the same formula: "I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery"(v. 2). It is the key to understanding the whole text. The decalogue is not a hard and heavy yoke, not a list of unjustified injunctions, but ten words of a father who cares about the lives of the children.
He who shows the actions to take in order to remain free, is the same God who has delivered his people from Egypt and does not tolerate any form of slavery.
Only after realizing the identity of the author of these ten words and the purpose for which they were spoken, one is willing to respond to God, as Israel did, "All that the Lord said we shall do and obey" (Ex 24:7).
No code of the ancient Middle East has an introduction similar to that of the decalogue. The most famous, that of Hammurabi, is preceded by a lengthy prologue in which the great king first introduces himself as "the zealous prince in charge of manifesting justice, directs and teaches the people the right way to the country," then gives instructions, fruit of his insight and wisdom. No king of Israel has ever assumed the right to promulgate a code: in Israel the way of life could only be given by God.
Even the language used by the biblical legislation is original and in keeping with the verse that introduces the decalogue.
In the codes of the ancient Middle East the precepts were stated with a generic, impersonal formula, "If anyone will do such a thing ... he will suffer the following sentence ...". Not so with the ten words. These are addressed by the Lord directly to everyone, "You do or you do not do this or the other." The pious Israelite is always asked directly by his God and never reduces his loyalty to the strict observance of rules, but lives it as a personal response to the Lord.
The decalogue has had a considerable significance in the religious life of Israel. It was the synthesis of the entire Torah. It was solemnly read during the Feast of Tabernacles and was used in the daily liturgy of the temple. Even today, every Jew repeats it, twice a day, in the morning and evening prayers. On the feast of the bar mitsvah, he who, having reached the age of 13, becomes an adult, proclaims it before the assembly congregated in the synagogue, to declare his decision to remain faithful to all the law of his people.
The interest in the Decalogue has always been so high that the priests of the temple had restricted its use to some particularly solemn moments. Some rabbis, to prevent the spread of the belief that only the ten commandments were given by God, sustained that, on the two tablets, from one leter to the other of the decalogue, God has written all the 613 precepts.
Given the importance the Decalogue always had in the Jewish religion, it is surprising that, in the New Testament, it is never explicitly mentioned and did not have a specific place in the preaching of Jesus and the early church. Only Mark tells us that Jesus, only once, quoted it in an incomplete way (Mk 10:19). Although its value is never questioned, it did not occupy the center of the Master’s moral preaching. It has never been identified with the will of God.
Jesus summed up the entire Torah not in ten words, but first in two: "You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor" (Mt 22:34-40), then only one: "Love one another" (Jn 13:34-35). Throughout the rest of the New Testament it is always talking about one commandment, as Paul reminds: "The one who loves his or her neighbor fulfilled the Law. For the commandments: do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not covet and whatever else are summarized in this one: You will love your neighbor as yourself" (Rom 13:8-9).
The precept of love is not only the synthesis of all commandments, but opens endless horizons and possibilities. None of the "ten commandments" obliges to love the enemy, to forgive without limits and conditions, to generously distribute one’s goods to those in need, to sacrifice one’s life for the brethren, including the enemy. None of this is imposed by the "ten commandments," but the law of love demands it. It requires constant attention to the brethren, boundless generosity, a heart as big as that of the Father who is in heaven.
If the disciple of Christ is one who is willing, like the Master, to give, at any time, one’s own life, does it still makes sense to remind us not to kill, steal, commit adultery…?
The ten words are always present, even if they indicate only the first steps, the most basic and essentials of discipleship. They do not cover the whole law of God because, as Paul says, "love fulfills the whole Law" (Rom 13:10). However, they are useful because they resemble those that are the minimum boundaries of love. Who is aware of not being faithful even to these should take note of his plight and admit to have exceeded the last fence that separated him from the choices of death.
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:22-25
In these four verses we have, in short, Paul's preaching: Christ crucified is the sign of God's love. In the face of this love, no one can remain indifferent; all must take a stand.
There are two negative responses: that of the Jews, for whom the crucified Jesus is a scandal and that of the Greeks, who consider him insane.
The Jews were expecting spectacular demonstrations of God's power, as it happened during the Exodus from Egypt. They were convinced that the new world would be prodigiously born (v. 22). Jesus, however, was challenged to show, by coming down from the cross, that God was on his side. He accepted defeat.
The sages of Greece did not believe in miracles. They trusted only as the eighteenth-century Illuminists, on rationality (v. 23). The death of Jesus on the cross did not respond to any human logic and was therefore a genuine madness.
The two attitudes are denounced by Paul because they can always infiltrate the community of disciples. There may be those who think like the Jews and consider faith and religion as means to obtain graces and miracles, to be preserved from calamities and misfortunes that affect other people. Don’t many Christians perhaps worship the saints more like the authors of wonders than witnesses of the one who gave his life for the brethren?
There may also be Christians who behave like Greeks. They claim rational proofs of faith and forget that, for those who judge according to the criteria of the people, the proposal of Christ will always be crazy.
Gospel: John 2:13-25
The scene of the expulsion of the merchants from the temple, is recorded by all four evangelists. This shows the importance they attributed to the fact.
During Passover, Jerusalem was full of pilgrims, from all over the world to celebrate the festival, offer sacrifices and fulfill vows. The city, which normally counted fifty thousand inhabitants, on the occasion of Easter could reach hundred and eighty thousand. Therefore all the families were involved in hosting a few guests. Many pilgrims came from distant countries, after saving, made sacrifices and renouncements for years to afford, perhaps once in a lifetime, “a pilgrimage” (Ps 84:6). During the festive days they went to the temple to pray, to seek counsel from the priests, to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, to deliver their generous offers with copper coins, the only ones that could use in the holy place. The money of Rome was declared legally unclean and had to be changed at the appropriate tables of money changers.
For the traders the time of the Passover was an opportunity not to be missed. In a few weeks they could accumulate more gains than throughout the rest of the year. Despite high prices, pilgrims thronged the shops from early morning until late at night. It was difficult for the temple priests to resist the temptation to get into a so profitable turnover. In fact, during the three weeks before Easter, under the arcades of the sacred precinct, they also opened their market. They decorated the royal porch for the sale of lambs. (It is said that, for the Passover meal, 18,000 oxen and other animals were sacrificed). At the bottom of the stairs that, from the southwest, led into the temple, four rooms intended for the moneychangers were extracted. They were operating a deduction of twelve percent for their commission. In and around the holy place, the comings and goings was indescribable. It was all a clamor of merchants, farmers, tanners, guards and pilgrims.
The aristocrats of Jerusalem, belonging to the sect of the Sadducees, were the beneficiaries of this trade. The managers were members of the family of the high priests Annas and Caiaphas who, for decades, maintained the control of economic and religious power of the capital.
The house of prayer had been transformed by its own ministers in a market place.
The dramatic episode narrated in today's Gospel is inserted in this context. It is on the occasion of a Passover feast that Jesus came to the temple. He came across the unworthy spectacle described above (vv. 13-14).
The emotions that he experienced are not referred to by any evangelist, but they are easy to understand, considering the reaction he had. He did not say a word; he made a whip, probably using ropes with which the beasts were tied. Then he began to furiously cast out all from the royal porch. He upended chairs, money, cages of doves. Then, without pausing, he went down the staircase, and took the moneychangers by surprise. He overturned their tables and threw down the coins that they piled on top.
John, the only one among the evangelists, notes that, in addition to the vendors, sheep and oxen were also driven out (v. 15).
The gesture of Jesus has decreed the end of religion related to the offering of animals. He declared God’s refusal of bloody sacrifices whose inconsistency had been denounced by the prophets: "What do I care—says the Lord—for your endless sacrifices? I am fed up with your burnt offerings, and the fat of your bulls. The blood o fatlings and lambs and he-goats I abhor" (Is 1:11). In the greatest proof of love that Jesus was going to give, the only sacrifice pleasing to the Father would be shown, the one, John would have said to the Christians of his community: "This is how we have known what love is; he gave his life for us, for our brothers and sisters" (1 Jn 3:16).
The gesture made by Jesus in the temple is amazing. From one who presented himself "meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29), no one would have expected a similar reaction, almost unsettling. Why has he behaved in this way? The explanation lies in the two sentences he uttered.
The first: "Take all this away, and stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace" (v. 16). He was referring to an oracle of the prophet Zechariah who, after announcing the appearance of a completely renovated world in which the Lord would become king over all the earth, and the country would be transformed into a garden, concluded: "There will no longer be merchants in the house of the Lord" (Zec 14:21).
By purifying the temple of the merchants, Jesus pronounced his severe, final sentence against mingling religion and money, between worship the Lord and economic interests. God expects only love from man and love is free. It shows and nourishes itself only through generous and disinterested gifts. To avoid dangerous misunderstandings, Jesus ordered his disciples: "You received this as a gift, so give it as a gift. Do not carry any gold silver or copper in your purses. Do not take a traveler’s bag, or an extra shirt, or sandals, or a staff: workers deserve their living" (Mt 10:9-10).
The most important teaching is, however, in the second sentence: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (v. 19). He was not referring to more trade and unworthy traffic that took place in the sanctuary, but the inauguration of a new temple. He announced the beginning of a new cult. The comment of the evangelist is a clarifier: "He was referring to the temple of his body" (v. 21).
The Jews believed that God dwelt in the sanctuary of Jerusalem, where they flocked to offer sacrifices. Jesus said that this religion had now fulfilled its function.
The dramatic scene of the rending of the temple’s veil (Mt 27:51) would mark the end of all the holy spaces, of all places reserved to the encounter with God. It was the solemn declaration that the time of the separation between the sacred and the profane is over. Wherever one is, who is in communion with Christ is united with God and can worship the Father.
Jesus' gesture is not equivalent to a simple correction of abuses, but the announcement of the passing of the temple, regarded as a guarantee of the presence of God and salvation. Man’s encounter with God would no longer be in a particular place, but in a new temple: the body of the risen Christ.
To the Samaritan woman who asked him the place where the Lord is worshipped, Jesus replied: "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you shall worship the Father, but that will not be on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for that is the kind of worshippers the Father wants"(Jn 4:21-24).
Some New Testament texts make clear in what consists the new worship introduced by Jesus. In writing to the Romans, Paul recommends: "I beg you, dearly beloved, by the mercy of God, to give yourselves as a living and holy sacrifice pleasing to God; that is the kind of worship for you, as sensible people." (Rom 12:1) and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews:"Do not neglect good works and common life, for these are the sacrifices pleasing to God" (Heb 13:16 ). James concretized even more the content of the new cult: "Pure and blameless religion lies in helping the orphans and widows in their need and keeping oneself from the world’s corruption" (Jas 1:27). These sacrifices that the Christian is called to offer do not take place in a sacred ambient nor through rites, but in life itself.
The construction of the new church began—as is repeated twice in today’s Gospel—after three days (v. 20), that is, on Easter day.
Raising from the dead his own son, the Father has laid the cornerstone of the new sanctuary. Peter urges the newly baptized in his community to be united to Christ, "living stone, rejected by people but chosen by God and precious to him." He explains: Set yourselves close to him so that you, too, become living stones built into a spiritual temples, spiritual sacrifices that please God" (1 P 2:4-5).
Now it is clear: the only sacrifice acceptable to God is the gift of life; they are the works of love, the selfless service rendered to persons, especially the poorest, the sick, the marginalized, the hungry and the naked. Who stoops in front of a brother to serve him, performs a priestly gesture: united to Christ, the temple of God, who brings to heaven the sweet aroma of a pure and holy offering.
What is the point then of our solemn liturgies, sacraments, chanting, processions, pilgrimages, community prayers, devotional practices?
They don’t give anything to God; they do not add anything to his perfect joy.
The religious manifestations respond to a deep human need: to celebrate, through gestures and sensible signs, individually and in community, what one believes in. The sacraments are signs by which God communicates his Spirit and man expresses his gratitude to him for this gift. The error is to assume that the performance of rituals is sufficient to establish a good relationship with the Lord and that participation in the solemn celebrations can replace the concrete works of love.
The Gospel ends with a surprising information: during the feast, Jesus performed signs and many people believed in him, but he did not trust himself to them because he knew them all and knew what was in every man (vv. 23-25).
The reason for this detached attitude of Jesus is that these people were drawn to him not because they were attracted by his message, but because they had witnessed miracles. The faith that needs to see, to verify outstanding works is fragile. Jesus would not trust, not even today, one who seeks him as a miracle worker. True faith is to accept to become, with him, the living stones of the new temple and in sacrificing one’s life for the brothers and sisters.