Jesus’ Zealous Temple Cleansing, Third Sunday of Lent (B), March 19, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Third Sunday of Lent, Year B
March 19, 2006
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” (Is 42:3), the same Jesus whom the psalms would call “kind and merciful” (Ps 145:8 ) the same Jesus who called himself “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29) started to overturn tables, tossing money on the floor, and making 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 as consumed with zeal for his Father’s house, because out of love for sinners and his father, he both really loved sinners and really hated sin.

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 animals were being sold and money exchanged in the temple precincts that bothered Jesus. It was two things associated with this selling of animals and exchanging money:

a. 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, the size and value of the animal being determined by their personal means and the type of sacrifice being made. Rather than carry an animal with them for the many miles’ uphill 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 had the market to drastically overcharge the people who needed the animals. The poor who had saved their money over the course of the whole year for the trip to the temple had to pay these enormous prices. While they were there, they also had to pay a temple tax, which needed to be given in one of two types of acceptable currencies. That meant that most everyone had to exchange money and the money changers could take an exorbitant commission, which again would penalize 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.

b. 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,” they began to think to themselves, “everything will be all right. God will be happy.” Too many people had started to look at the temple as the place to go “bribe” God with their animal sacrifices. They 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 the true worship of God. He wanted the temple to be a place of prayer, to be His Father’s House once again, and wanted the people to recover 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 on Jesus’ seething with anger and on what made him so irate, so that we might never be the cause of such anger in him again. 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, “and 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 and the more a person loves God, the greater the person hates whatever is evil, whatever keeps one from God. Therefore, Jesus, with his perfect love for his Father and for us, hates sin, because sin is a lie that kills those he loves. Jesus will 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.

4) I’ve always wanted — if the Church allowed priests to make up words of the Kyrie at the beginning of Mass — to do a very different type of one in order to drive home the point of the hatred Jesus has for sin and therefore of our 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 appreciate the Lord’s righteous anger. We 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 grasp how great his love was in establishing the gift of the sacrament of reconciliation, where we can receive his merciful love and be prepared to receive him in Holy Communion. One reason why I think too many Catholics today take that sacrament for granted today is because they don’t love God enough to hate sin like God does.

5) Why does the Church give us this reading on the third Sunday of Lent? Because she wants us to reflect on another sanctuary the Lord wants to clean in the same way. Later on in today’s 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?” (1 Cor 6:19).” Our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and 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.

6) St. Paul, in the same passage about our body’s being a temple 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, giving us straight talk out of love for us and 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..… The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. … Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and … you are not your own. For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:9-20). 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, and took a sledgehammer to the beautiful statue of our Lady. Sin is a sacrilege against what God has made his dwelling place.

7) This is one of the reasons why the Church, in today’s first reading, gives us the ten commandments, so that we might examine our conscience to determine whether our lives — our bodies and souls —have been places where these ten commandments have been treasured and followed or not. They are a concrete means by which we can determine if we have truly hated sin like God does or instead loved it, or flirted with it, or come to peace with it. 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 we envision God as an indulgent grandfather who just “loves us too much” not to overlook our infidelities and take us back every time. Or we can think that God really does not expect us to keep all ten commandments, but is satisfied as long as keep, say, seven out of ten, or five out of ten, or even three out of ten. We can start to give in to the temptation of the devil to say, “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 whom I think I love; so I cheated on that test or on my taxes a little bit…” The point of today’s readings is that each of these types of sins does 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 cleansing each of us deep down knows we need, but Jesus won’t do it without our consent. We’ve got to form the whip for him and with him drive those sins from our temple.

8 ) In the beautiful second reading today, St. Paul says that he preaches not a radiantly beautiful Christ crowned with diadems sitting on a golden throne, but rather “Christ and Christ crucified.” This is what I’m preaching today. When we look at Christ crucified on the Cross, we realize two things.

a. 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 have choose to sin, say, in essence “Give us Barabbas!” in some disguise, and to ask for Barabbas is to crucify Christ. Whenever we lie, or steal, commit a sexual sin, or put something as a greater priority than Church on Sunday, whenver we blaspheme or deliberately curse, disrespect parents or those in authority, covet, hate, or refuse to forgive, we say, “Let Him be crucified!” 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 — like taking the tabernacle filled with the Eucharist and tossing it out on Acushnet Avenue — we begin truly to hate sin.

b. 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 (Rom 5:8 ). 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, to make them sparkle again as temples of God. He wants to fill you with his love and mercy. Instead of whipping you, he hopes that you get the lesson of today’s Gospel and go to him with repentance ahead of time, in the sacrament of reconciliation.

7) Christ crucified is the “power and the wisdom of God.” Even though the Cross is a scandal to the Jews and idiocy to the Gentiles, to us it is the manifestation of God’s love for us sinners. The same Jesus whose hands were tied a cord to drive out the money changers were later nailed by ours to a Cross to free us from our sins. The crucified Lord now extends those gloriously scarred risen hands to us and invites us to trust in him, to take his hands and allow him to lead us to the confessional, that sacred tribunal of his mercy, where his hands are raised in absolution. This is where we will encounter, in a person, the power, wisdom and love of God.