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THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT B 2018
The historian Josephus describes the temple in Jerusalem as follows: “Now the outward face of the Temple in its front wanted for nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes, for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. …Of its stones, some were ..[a hundred tons]..” The Wars of the Jews, Bk 5,6(222).
In cleansing it Jesus accused The High Priests and the aristocracy of betraying their responsibility to God. This did cost him his life: ‘Zeal for thy house has eaten me up’ (Ps 69:10). For Christians the Temple episode was indelibly etched in their minds, for in 70 AD the Roman General Titus destroyed it and both Jews and Christians blamed Jewish religious infidelity for the tragedy. Centuries later in 687 AD the Moslem Caliph Abdul Malik built the Mosque of Omar on its ruins, above the Holy of Holies. That is what we see today.
The Action of Jesus
What precisely did Jesus do in the Temple precinct? He made a real but powerfully symbolic gesture by overturning tables and shooing out people and animals and verbally protesting at the abuses perpetrated there. The varying data of the event are given in the parallel Gospel accounts Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-17; Lk 19:45-46; Jn 2:13-17). Despite so many pilgrims around at the time, and with the esplanade surveyed by Roman soldiers, there was no riot or he would have been overpowered. Jesus was not arrested immediately but circulated freely until Gethsemane later that same week. What he had done was not in the Holy of Holies where prayer and sacrifice took place. It was in the court of the Gentiles where the necessary commerce for providing for sacrifices and services took place. He excoriated the abuses but not the Temple worship itself. However, the High Priests knew the danger he placed them in, and awaited their moment for getting rid of this self-appointed prophetic critic. The crowd was fickle. And the place during the Pasch could be particularly volatile. We recall that when Paul was accused of abusing the Temple, allegedly introducing a gentile there, a riot ensued. He was saved ultimately from being lynched by his declaration that he was a Roman citizen (Acts 21:27ff.). Anyone who violated that sacred sanctuary risked death. Notices to that effect were posted there in Greek and Latin.
Our Gospel accounts were written long after the events they recorded. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christians continued to go up to the Temple to pray, as they did in the synagogues “until they were forced out of them” (Comment of C.K.Barrett, The International Critical Commentary on Acts, Vol I, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1994, p.177). They understood Jesus to be the new Temple of God. He made God accessible to everyone, exactly what the original Temple was supposed to be for all the nations (Mk 11:17). As for the Jews, after their second revolt against the Romans (132-135 AD), they were only allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall. And it continues to be a major contention to this day between Israelis and Palestinians.
Access to Jesus
Christianity is not a religion of the Book nor primarily a religion of institutions. It is the religion of a Person. The two first readings at today’s Mass help us get the focus right. The essence of the Old Testament is acceptance of the one God and the Law he gives (Ex 20:1-17). God is loved when his Law is obeyed. That continues in the New Testament. Eventually the new people of God is described as: The Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), and the Body of Christ (Eph 1:23; I Cor 12:27). Christ is at the heart of Christian belief. Everything he said and everything that he did, everything that he was and is, the Church wants to identify with it all. I have come to do your will (Heb 10:9; Ps 40:6-80) expresses this attitude perfectly. Effectively it is love and service of others. Anything that is non essential must be discarded if it keeps people from knowing and loving Christ and fellow human beings. The early Jewish Christian converts had to learn to do without the Temple, the sacrifices, the pilgrimages, the diets, the fasts and all the aspects that made up Judaic practice. Christ was at the centre: I am the way the truth and the life (Jn 14:6). For me to live is Christ (Phil 1:21).
The Lenten readings help us to keep this focus right. Persons are at the heart of life that is love. A life of happiness is about open and reciprocal personal relationships; everything else should contribute to this as the Common Good. People who overtly deny this by restricting their relationships only remind us of how important relationships are. While listening to the political and economic discussions about Brexit, and the misery of what we call the immigration crisis, it is hard to to keep the essential in focus. An occasional word of regret on a politician’s lips would be reassuring. The slogan to put America first hardly seems a good slogan for peace and compassion in a troubled world. Today’s Gospel concludes (Jn 2:15) with the disciples remembering the most important things. We would like to do the same as our Lent proceeds towards Easter. We are encouraged by the excellent folk taking care of the most emarginated needy in this freezing weather, with many marvelous examples of genuine selfless caring. Christ knows what is in our hearts. A happy Sunday to you all. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International.
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK