by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the man’s branch of the Idente missionaries.
Madrid, March 07, 2021. | Third Sunday of Lent.
Book of Exodus 20: 1-17; First Letter to the Corinthians 1: 22-25; Saint John 2: 13-25.
Jesus is a poet who speaks to us with new, surprising images of God the Father, of our nature and of our relationship with the Holy Trinity.
We should not simply remain in a superficial admiration of his life and words. These images and analogies, which the people of his time could understand, are also addressed to us; they convey an essential message and are never superfluous.
Today he tells us that he is a Temple. Later, St. Peter will remind us of this by saying that Jesus is the living Stone, rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him (1Pe 2: 4). And immediately after, he tells us: you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1Pe 2: 5).
Where does he want to take us with this architectonic metaphor? At other times the Gospel tells us that we are part of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12: 27), but we might have the impression that a stone does not convey the same idea of life, of unity, as do the parts of a living body. In fact, we all remember how the Bible sorrowfully tells us what it means to have a heart of stone, as Ezekiel tells us: I will remove from you yourheart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ez 36: 26).
Firstly, when Christ says that He Himself is a Temple, He is indicating something that in Jerusalem was easy to understand: the Temple is a place destined to create an atmosphere and carry out actions that unite us to God and, therefore, also a privileged space where the act of God makes itself felt in silence and in the prayerful word. That is why, faced with the spectacle of greed and rapacious business that was opening up before his eyes, Jesus decided to take a whip and put an end to this situation of pain and scandal.
In fact, the attitude of the vendors and the religious authorities who took advantage of the pilgrims was the clearest image of hypocrisy, in this case translated into an apparent desire to serve others, when in reality what is sought is to take advantage of their lives.
This hypocrisy was so grievous because it attacked the deepest desire of the human being: to joyfully serve God and neighbor.
We need to understand the harshness and insensitivity of the merchants and the Temple authorities from the context of Jesus’ time.
Once pilgrims made their way up to the top of the Mount of Olives, they would be greeted by a magnificent panoramic view of the holy city, just a mile away. At the front of their view was the huge Jerusalem temple, the centre of Israel’s national and religious life. This was where God chose to dwell, according to the Hebrew Scriptures; it was where sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins could be made; it was where the country’s leading teachers could be heard; it was where pilgrims gathered in tens of thousands, especially at Passover time, to sing and pray to the one true God. For the devout Jew, arriving at the crest of the Mount of Olives and looking down at the temple of God must have stirred up extraordinary feelings of national pride and spiritual awe.
For the Jew, the Temple represented the majestic presence of God. It is better to spend one day in his courts than a thousand somewhere else. It would be better to even be a mere doorkeeper here than to dwell in the tents of the wicked (Psalm 84).
Jesus’ body, crucified and raised, is the Temple. But several times in the Gospel, Jesus identifies himself, without words, with the Temple. In effect, He is doing it every time He hands out divine forgiveness to people.
In first-century Judaism, only the temple priests could pronounce forgiveness, and, even then, only after the appropriate sacrifice had been offered. This is why, after Jesus forgave the prostitute at the home of Simon the Pharisee, the guests murmured: Who is this who even forgives sins? (Lk 7:49). Jesus handed out forgiveness whenever anyone humbly approached him. He acted like a moving, living temple. This is the Temple, as we said above: a place, a space where God’s relationship with man is more apparent, more intimate, in particular, where forgiveness is found.
And what does this have to do with each of us?
We too enter into and become the temple of God: Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you (Cor 6: 19).
The temple that we are is the dwelling place of the Most Holy Trinity. The divine persons do not “visit us,” but dwell in each one of us. The condition that Jesus sets for this is well known: If anyone loves me, he will keep my teaching, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (Jn 14: 23).
And not by chance, today’s First Reading refers to the Commandments. We will address this point later.
Secondly, the meaning of being the dwelling place of the Holy Trinity is that they never cease to be active, day and night, inclining our thoughts, our desires and our natural compassion towards the heart of the Father. This should make us understand why it is necessary, on our part, to keep a permanent state of prayer, to discover what it means to be in continuous prayer at all moments of life.
On the other hand, we all need to worship and the temple means the place of worship and sacrifice.
Sacrifice is not a concept of ancient cultures, nor is it exclusive to religions.We all worship something or someone, for whom we are willing to give anything. From the person who gives his life and puts his health at risk for his children, to the person who loses his job because of his addiction to some substance. Conciously or not, we all offer sacrifices to that which is the object of our adoration.
Whether we interpret it symbolically or literally, for a sacrifice to take place, three elements are necessary: the priest, the altar and the victim of sacrifice. This is precisely what is said about Christ in the Preface V of Easter. And this is why the Baptist testified: Behold the Lamb of God (Jn 1:36). The great novelty that Christ brings us is precisely this, that our need to offer a sacrifice can be fulfilled in every instant, without the need to go to any particular place and in the most complete way: the offering of ourselves, of our life. This is easy to say, but only with Him can we make it a reality in our lives. This is how we can understand that Christ is really a Temple and that each one of us can be one as well.
To the Samaritan woman who asked Jesus the place where the Lord is worshipped, He 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).
In Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, the climax came when a family was in deep trouble. The husband was about to be executed during the Reign of Terror (La Terreur) in Paris, and the man who loved the hero’s wife had the strange gift of being virtually identical in appearance to the condemned man. Had the hero died, perhaps this character would have had the opportunity to court the dead man’s wife. Instead, he substituted himself for the hero, through trickery, thus becoming the hero himself. He went to the guillotine and died in place of the other with the words, It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. In this bit of fiction one sees the sort of love that is joyful, sacrificial and complete. By becoming incarnate, by taking on a body, Jesus transformed the our body and its soul, the dwelling place of our spirit, into prayer.
An immediate conclusion: Where do we encounter God every day? Through the daily events in our lives, especially in our relationships with our fellowmen, in their needs and aspirations.
It seems appropriate now to recall the message of the First Reading.
The ten Commandments may seem, to a not very reflective or superficial observer, a list of prohibitions… that arouse an instinctive sense of rejection.
But they are not legal rules imposed by someone 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.
It is simplistic and mundane to present them as mere precepts upon which, one day, every man will be judged and will potentially receive a punishment. Who does not listen to the voice of God 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).
If we want to have no idols, to be truly free and not slaves to the wisdom or power of the world, as St. Paul says in the Second Reading, we must be faithful to the teaching of the Ten Commandments. The first four focus on our relationship with God: You shall have no other gods before Me, You shall not make idols, You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. These four Commandments are the starting point. By being faithful to them we will be ready to obey the remaining six, which refer to our relationship with our neighbor. Jesus Christ, after giving us the example of his life, could be even more explicit: As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (Jn 13: 34).
A purely moralistic and legalistic consideration of the Commandments leads to complacency and the sin of omission, which inevitably accompanies the sin of commission, because we become blind and deaf to the voice of God, who always asks us for something new.
The precept of love is not only the synthesis of all commandments, but opens endless horizons and possibilities. None of the Commandments obliges to love the enemy, or to forgive without conditions, but the law of love demands it. It requires constant attention to the brethren, boundless generosity. The permanent effort (not only in “critical” moments) to imitate Jesus in his way of loving, thinking, desiring, speaking and acting, is what we call Spirit of the Gospel.
Jesus’ gesture in today’s Gospel Text is not equivalent to a simple correction of abuses, but the announcement of a new worship: Pure and blameless religion lies in helping the orphans and widows in their need and keeping oneself from the world’s corruption (James 1:27).
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.
The religious manifestations respond to a deep human need: to celebrate, through gestures and sensible signs, individually and in community, what one believes in. 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.