Cleansing the Holy Spirit’s Temple, 3rd Sunday of Lent (B), March 23, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish
Third Sunday of Lent, B
March 23, 2003
Ex 20:1-17; 1Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

1) In today’s Gospel, we encounter a Jesus with whom many of us, especially today, are unfamiliar. The same Jesus whom Isaiah prophesied would “not break a bruised reed nor quench a smoldering wick,” the same Jesus whom the psalms would call “kind and merciful,” the same Jesus who called himself “meek and humble of heart,” started to overturn tables, tossing their money on the floor, and made a whip of cords to drive the sheep and the cattle out of the temple. And there is no contradiction between the image of Jesus as the kind, merciful friend of sinners and Jesus, consumed with zeal for his Father’s house. The Lord was fuming with anger and he had good reason.

2) The Temple in Jerusalem, built in order to be the dwelling place of God on earth, built to be a place of encountering God in prayer, had become something very different. It wasn’t so much the fact that things were being sold and money exchanged in the temple precincts that bothered Jesus, but two things associated with this selling of animals and exchanging money. The first was that the money changers and animal sellers were tremendously overcharging the people. The temple had become a “den of thieves.” When people came to the temple, they needed to sacrifice an animal to God. Rather than carry an animal with them for the many miles’ walk to the temple — which was too much of a burden — the people would buy one at the temple. But because there was such a demand, especially at the time of the passover, the merchants would drastically overcharge the people who needed the animals. The poor who had saved their money over the course of the whole year, had to pay these enormous prices. They also had to pay a temple tax, but the temple tax needed to be paid in one of two types of currencies. That meant that everyone had to exchange money and the money changers were taking an exorbitant commission, again, penalizing the poor. Jesus was outraged that people were coming into the temple to steal from the poor. That was the first thing that incensed the Lord. The second was worse. The Jewish mentality had become so distorted over the centuries that they began to look at their relationship with God as something contractual or even magical. “As long as I sacrifice this animal to God, everything will be all right. God will be happy. That’s all I have to do.” Too many people had started to look at the temple as the place to go “bribe” God with their animal sacrifices, too many people had started to look at God as someone who needed to be “bought” by these gifts. God had said many times through the prophets, “It is a contrite heart I seek, not animal sacrifices,” but they hadn’t gotten the picture. So Jesus gave them all a lesson they would never forget and we would never forget. Jesus wanted to return first the temple and then the people to true worship of God. He wanted the temple to be a place of prayer, to be His Father’s House once again, and wanted to return the people to a real notion of what their relationship with the Father should be based on — a contrite, merciful and loving heart.

3) On this third Sunday of Lent, it is very important to impress in our minds the lessons the Lord wants to teach us in this scene. It’s important for us to reflect very much on Jesus’ seething with anger, what made him so irate, and then ask ourselves what he wants from us. Sometimes our image of Jesus is as a big divine softy, as an overindulgent, effeminate almost naive wimp whose love we can take advantage of at will, because we think he will always take us back. “Jesus is merciful,” we convince ourselves sometimes and others, “therefore there’s no need to get worked up about our sins. We forget that Jesus HATES, HATES, absolutely DETESTS sin, because it killed him and kills us. The greater one’s purity, the more the person loves God and the greater the person hates whatever is evil, whatever keeps one from God. Jesus therefore hates sin, because sin is a lie that kills. He hates sin, while loving the sinner. He’ll be merciful on us provided that we HATE sin, too, try to root it out and then come to him to be forgiven. This is the type of holy hatred (and this is not a contradiction in terms!) that inspired his driving the money changers from the temple. I’ve always wanted — if the Church allowed priests to do this, to do a very different type of Kyrie at the beginning of Mass that would drive home the point of the hatred Jesus has for sin and therefore the true need for mercy. It would go something like this, “Jesus, you drove the money changers from the temple with a whip! Lord have mercy!; You promised to throw worthless servants into the fiery furnaces of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, Christ have mercy!; You warned us that whatever we fail to do to the least of your brethren, we failed to do to you, Lord have mercy!” This would drive home the point that to appreciate the Lord’s mercy, we first have to recognize just how much he hates sin and how lucky we are that at the beginning of Mass we still have a chance to pray for it. This would also help us to appreciate how great his love was in establishing the great sacrament of reconciliation, which too many Catholics today take for granted, because they don’t love God enough to hate sin like he does.

4) Why does the Church give us this reading on the third Sunday of Lent? Because she wants us to reflect on another temple the Lord wants to clean in the same way. Later on in the Gospel, Jesus prophesied about the building of another temple in three days, far more glorious than Herod’s temple which took 46 years to build and far more pleasing to God. The temple was the temple of his Risen Body, the real dwelling place of God on earth. His body would be the temple. But as we know, when we are baptized, we become members of his body. Our body is destroyed and dies in baptism and Jesus himself rises again within us. Our body and soul become a temple of the Holy Spirit, where God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — really and truly dwell, just like God dwells in this Church and in that tabernacle. This is what led St. Paul to say in his letter to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, meant to be a dwelling place of God. This is the temple that Jesus wants to make sure is clean, a real house of prayer, a real place where God is adored. To the extent that we have not been adoring God with our body and soul, with our whole lives, Jesus wants to make a whip again and drive out from us whatever sin is there. Because again, he HATES sin and wants us to hate it. St. Paul, in the same passage about our body’s being temples of the Holy Spirit, said some very explicit things about what would be incompatible with that temple being a place of worship. Listen to him, speaking for our salvation: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.… The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! … Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

5) St. Paul says we either treat our body as a temple, in which we glorify God, praise him and love him, or we desecrate that temple, much like if we came into the Church and vandalized the walls with graffiti, turned over the tabernacle, took an axe to the pews, put all types of filth and garbage on top of the altar, took a sledgehammer to the beautiful statue of our Lady. We either love God and unite with God in that temple, or we “make love” with sin. This is one of the reasons why for the first reading today we have the ten commandments. Have our lives — our bodies and souls — been places where these ten commandments have been treasured and followed or not? The ten commandments are the minimal sign of someone’s trying to keep his end of the Covenant with God. In order to get into heaven, we need to keep them, Jesus tells us. When the Rich Young Man asked Jesus the crucially important question, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus responded, “First, keep the commandments.” On another occasion when a lawyer asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “Loving God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. On these,” he said, “hang all the law and the prophets.” The ten commandments are meant to teach us and help us to love, and when we violate them, we’re failing to love God and others. Sometimes people with a wrong idea of God and his mercy think of the ten commandments as “ten suggestions,” as ten things that would be good for us to do, but strictly speaking don’t have to do, because, hey, God’s a forgiving God, right? Just like the people in the temple of Jesus’ day thought they could please God by “bribing him” with a killed animal, so we sometimes can think we’ll placate God by the simple fact that we’ll keep a few of his commandments to show that he’s not completely irrelevant in our lives. We can start to think, we’re a pretty good person, because we keep about 7 of them. So I don’t come to Mass every week; so I tell a few lies; so I use God’s name and curse words every once in a while; so I’m coveting someone what someone else has; so I haven’t responded to my parents in love; so I’m sleeping or living with someone to whom I’m not married, but I say I love the person; so I cheated on that test or on my taxes a little bit… Each of these types of sins do tremendous harm to our temple and not to focus on them is a sign of a lukewarm love of God and of a lack of hatred for the things that killed Jesus and kill us. Jesus wants to drive those attitudes and sins from our lives this Lent. This is the type of cleaning each of us deep down knows we need, but we have to work with him. We have to form our whip and drive them from our temple. This is hard. It requires sacrifice, dedication and God’s help. God’s help will be there, but we need to be willing to invite Jesus in for the temple-cleaning.

6) In the beautiful second reading today, St. Paul says that he preaches Christ and Christ crucified. This is what I’m preaching today. When we look at Christ crucified on the Cross, we realize two things. The first is just what our sins do and why we have to hate them. Our sins killed Jesus. As the saints and popes have said throughout the centuries, it wasn’t really the Romans and the Jewish leaders who killed Jesus, it was us through our sins, for which he died. Every time we choose to sin, we’re faced with the choice they were given in Pilate’s courtyard, and we say to Jesus, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” “Give us Barabbas!” We prefer a thief and a murderer to Jesus. We prefer lies, or stolen things, or Sunday soccer games, or our own pleasure and ego, more than God. Each time we sin, we say “Give us Barabbas! Crucify Christ!” A priest friend of mine says that each time we choose to sin, we spit on the Crucifix. When we realize just what our sins have done to Christ and do to us, how they kill him and kill us, kicking God out of our temple — taking this tabernacle and tossing it out on Alden Street — we begin truly to hate sin. But that’s only the first lesson of preaching Christ Crucified. The second is the flip side, the incredible love of God who died to save the lives of those who were killing him by sin. God loved us so much, St. Paul says, that while we were still sinners, he, the Innocent One, died for us. His mercy and love are even greater than our sins. No matter how great our sins, he will forgive us, if we turn away from our sins — truly hate them — and turn to him to be forgiven. Christ is ready right now, this Lent, to clean out your temples as we’ve been cleaning and renovating this Church, to make it sparkle again as a temple of God. He wants to fill you with his love. But in order to be filled with his love, in order to be full of grace, we need with him to take the whip to all the false uses of our temple, to drive out whatever is incompatible with God. That happens in three steps. First, by beginning to truly hate our sins. Second, by trying to root out whatever sinful habits and choices we make. And third, to go to the sacrament Christ himself instituted to clean us, to make us sparkle again with his grace, which is the sacrament of reconciliation.

7) I finish with a powerful image from St. Paul, to acknowledge that what Jesus is calling us to today, during this Lent, isn’t easy. At the place where St. Paul is buried in Rome, where many of our parishioners were 30 days ago today, right over the main entrance of the basilica, there is a huge Cross with the Latin expression underneath it, “Spes unica!” “Our only hope!” And that’s true in two senses. The Cross of Christ is our only hope, first, because were it not for his death on that Cross, we would have no chance of having our sins forgiven and of entering eternal life. But the Cross is “our only hope” in another sense too. Without our picking up our Cross every day to follow the Lord, without our denying ourselves (especially our inclinations to sin!) every day, picking up the Cross of the effort to root out sin and replace those choices with loving ones, and following the Lord all the way to dying to ourselves on the Cross, we have no hope. Our hope is in Christ on the Cross and in our being willing to die to ourselves and unite ourselves to him through hating sin and loving God all the way. This Cross, this Christ Crucified, is our hope, is, as St. Paul says in the second reading, “the power and the wisdom of God.” The same Jesus whose hands tied a cord to drive out the money changers, the same Jesus whose hands were nailed by ours to a Cross, now extends that those gloriously scarred hands to us and invites us to trust in him, to make the effort. Take his hand!