I have always wondered why Jesus just had to do it. I mean, he could have just kept his disappointment to himself knowing he was bucking generations of Israel’s sincere attempts at obedience to the law of Moses despite their extreme interpretation which may have on occasion diluted what they originally meant to convey. The rigidity of some religious traditions and systems may seem to neglect the fundamental truth of the Law but every attempt at first had to be sincere. What began as slight digressions from the original intent of the Law eventually grew exponentially over many years and many generations. But considering the end result, Jesus probably didn’t fix the root problem with his outburst. So what exactly did he accomplish by it?
If he intended to overthrow a lucrative market in exclusive temple merchandise and commerce that exploited pilgrims and the poor while enriching the privileged class and religious leaders, he didn’t. If he intended to point out to those who were supposed to be teachers of the Law that they failed to grasp the deeper spiritual value of sincere and genuine prayer uncluttered by imposed arbitrary meticulous detail, he didn’t. And so many generations later, all everyone remembers is that he drove sheep and oxen and doves out of the temple along with those who sold them, spilled the money changers’ coins and overturned their tables in a fit of righteous anger because he was royally offended that the temple of God had been turned into a marketplace.
And yes, it’s the middle child in me talking, wondering why people can’t just resolve their differences graciously without yelling and throwing things and flipping tables and using coarse language and leaving a mess behind for someone else to clean up. I’m not saying that happened in the temple. But then again? And I’m sure there are contentious encounters and events in our own lives that could be easily explained. But when you’re famous and everyone’s watching, an outburst tends to attract attention.
We encounter this episode in chapter 2 of the gospel of John early on in Jesus’ public ministry. The other gospels place the story in the last days of Jesus’ life, Matthew on the day of his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Mark on the day after that. Either way, we might find nothing unusual with Jesus’ actions because we know what it’s like and we’ve been there ourselves. If it happened early in his public ministry, it was likely passion and eagerness to draw people’s attention to what needed reform and invite them to repentance and renewal. If it happened late, it may well have been out of exhaustion and frustration because they still seemed unrepentant and resistant to his message. But either way, he knew his public ministry was going to be short, just three years long and time was a-wasting. So he had to go big. He had to make it count.
But what was he trying to accomplish? Clearly the temple in Jerusalem was more than just a place of worship. It was a national symbol. It was a tangible representation of Israel’s intangible relationship with God, a covenant relationship with origins all the way back to Abraham and Moses. So it was due the highest honor, nothing less. And Jesus was outraged by what he saw. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
A number of Jewish religious practices easily adapted temple rituals into domestic rituals. We do that in the Catholic faith as well. Every religious tradition does it, I’m sure. Not surprising. The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Lumen Gentium, from the Vatican Council II reminds us that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of our Christian life.” The theological implications are wonderfully rich and far-reaching. But there are less theological elements and traditions of Mass that follow us into daily life. We might not greet one another with “the Lord be with you,” but we will still use the greeting “peace be with you,” and perhaps sign ourselves with the cross without regard to where we are or who we’re with. Some families will hang a crucifix prominently at home, or provide holy water at their doors, or display blessed palms and other religious iconography without much thought. Before the pandemic silenced our singing in church, parents have told me their young children would sing common refrains in the shower, while playing, or randomly around the house.
So conversely some of our domestic rituals might transfer to how we do things in church. Some things are basic and reasonable, like we arrive before mass begins and don’t leave before it ends. We would if we’re at a dinner party with someone we love and care about. But there’s always that person. We check our appearance and wipe our shoes before entering. We greet people at the door. We acknowledge the Owner of the house with a genuflection or a bow before sliding into our seat. And we spend time in private prayer before the official function gets underway. Maybe we’ll visit with friends or swing by the restroom along the way, but nothing disruptive or inappropriate. And when mass begins, we are attentive. We join in common responses and prayers and gestures. And we are cognizant of our neighbors and the God we worship.
Now there are behaviors we would also regard as out of place, like ignoring the host of the gathering or using the occasion to advance a private agenda or inciting riot or rebellion or behaving disrespectfully in any way. We would not look kindly upon these behaviors when we invite guests into our homes or our government institutions or our houses of worship. And yet Jesus did just that!
Setting aside whatever else was going on in the story, we need to more seriously hear Jesus’ words and examine our religious practices and more, our way of life, and focus on their deeper meaning. Are we just going through the motions or do we truly desire an intimate friendship with God? Are we more intent on what people see and think than what God sees and thinks? The season of Lent is an opportune time to dig deeper and chart a course more consistent with what we desire our relationship with God to be. We might not just make God’s house a house of prayer. We might more intentionally make our homes places of prayer and our lives opportunities to encounter God and share the good news of his saving mercy. We might consider more deeply the memorized prayers and casual responses we say at mass, so we actually mean what we say. And the sign of the cross should be more than just another automatic gesture, but that by it we proclaim Jesus Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God.
This Third Sunday of Lent we pause to consider the difference between an automatic unexamined practice of our Christian faith and a truly intimate friendship with God. Intimate friendships require our intentional participation which in turn feeds and nourishes our lives and our souls. Either that, or it’s time for a hard reset.
Rolo B Castillo © 2021