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March 3, 2024

Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19;
I Cor. 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

We are in the midst of our Lenten reflection and discipline. On our own, our inadequacies and sin seem to stare us in the face. We are looking in a mirror with ourselves looking back . We want to turn away with a sense of incompletion. Will we ever get our act together, we ask ourselves halfway through Lent? But the scriptures won’t let us get bogged down in self pity, or even embarrassment. They reveal a God of mercy and power today, something the scriptures continually do for us.

All four gospels have the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. The threes synoptic gospels have the event at the end of Jesus’ ministry, where it is an affront to the religious authorities. As a result they conspire to have Jesus killed. John has another purpose in mind. He places the story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is Passover time when Jesus drives the merchants out of the temple area. At Passover time Jews traveled to Jerusalem to observe the feast with purification rituals and then festivals. Jesus is performing another kind of purification for a different temple.

What about those merchants doing business in the Temple precincts? They served an important function in the daily activities of the Temple. Animal merchants sold the creatures that were to be sacrificed. Jews could not use the Roman, or Greek, coins in the Temple because they had images on them with captions calling Caesar divine. It would be blasphemy to take those coins into the Temple. So money changers helped convert the “street money” into Jewish currency to pay the Temple tax. While necessary, prophets like Zechariah, yearned for the day when there would be “no longer traders in the house of the Lord” (Zech 14:21)

There are many reasons we build temples and holy places. Some are even erected for vain glory, paid for by the well-endowed and established. They have their name plates on the walls and pews honoring their generosity. There is much to cleanse in our temples that seem to favor one group of people over another. But temples are primarily built to honor the God we worship and who dwells among us. We go to those places, those “holy places,” to remind us how close God is, the God who listens to our prayers and is present among us everywhere, not just in buildings and memorials.

That’s what the Temple was for the Jews, the place where God dwelt in the heart of the community of believers. It drew the devout to pay tribute to God. The First Temple had been destroyed and, from the text, the Second Temple was still under construction in Jesus’ time. In the year 70 it was also destroyed by the Romans. (The main remnant is the outer western wall, the Wailing Wall, where today people from all over the world come to pray.) The physical Temple was destroyed. The true temple of God’s presence, Jesus Christ, would also be destroyed. But, as he promised, he would be raised up after three days.

Jesus referred to his body as a temple where the Holy Spirit dwells. We are joined to Christ through our baptism and so the body of Christians is also a temple of the living and present God. Lent offers a focused time to reflect on what makes our “house of prayer,” our bodies, unclean and in need of cleansing? What makes our church body unclean: recent sex scandals; divisions caused by attacks on the pope; local congregations’ attitudes towards newcomers; splits because of economic differences; clericalism, etc.?

The opposition to Jesus asked, “What sign can you show us for doing this? They wanted external proof of his authority. But their faith was not based on faith in Jesus and his mission. Later, in John (6:26-31), the crowds will see the sign of the multiplication of the loaves and will follow him. But they didn’t see the deeper significance of the sign when Jesus explained it to them. As a result his disciples “broke away and would not remain in his company any longer” (6:61).

There’s a Lenten reflection for us. Is our faith just skin dep, needing reassuring signs to keep us believing? Shall we invite the Spirit of Jesus to enter our temple to drive out what is superficial about our faith; what relies on daily reassurance and can even evaporate when life tests us with economic stress, sickness, family strife, aging, social disorder, etc?

Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t refer to his Father’s “temple,” but to “my Father’s house?” What do you think he is suggesting about what our place of worship should be like? Is it God’s house and has an “open door” policy. When Jesus drives the merchants from the Temple grounds his disciples recall a line from the Psalms (69): “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus, a messianic prophet, has come to purify the “house” that is his people. Did you come from a family that welcomed guests and newcomers to your table? Was it a “house” where outsiders felt at home even though they did not have economic or social influence? Where guests were not of your family’s race, or national origins...yet felt welcomed and at home?

Jesus’ opponents want a sign that will authorize his actions. He returned with a challenge, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. The implication is that there are destructive forces already in the temple that would destroy it, like the negative forces that corrode our church. So, what sign will Jesus give them that authorizes his messianic actions? He promised he will raise up the destroyed temple in three days. He is not speaking of stone and mortar, but to the temple that is his body. He is looking ahead to his resurrection and to us disciples recalling his words. Jesus has authority in this “house” because he is resurrected from the dead. Who are we? We, the baptized, are the “home,” that welcome all to his table. We are by no means fully cleansed but, staying in the house of God, we are being cleansed as individuals and a church.

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