St. John describes a visit Jesus made to the Jerusalem Temple near Passover. To best understand this episode, we need to know something about the physical arrangement of the Temple at this time, as well as some of the customs and business conducted there. The “temple area” refers to the Court of the Gentiles, a space outside the holy inner chambers that was offered to God-fearing Gentiles who, although not converts to Judaism, wished to pray to the God of the Jews. When Solomon built the first Temple, this space was added to the Tabernacle design used in Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It acknowledged their vocation to be a “kingdom of priests” (see Ex 19:6), inviting the whole world into God’s blessing. This was, after all, part of God’s original promise to Abraham: “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gn 12:3). The Babylonians demolished Solomon’s Temple, with all its great beauty that was so evocative of the Garden of Eden, in 586 B.C. The Temple in Jesus’ day did not have the grandeur of the first one, but it did include the Court of the Gentiles, retaining Israel’s mission to the world.
Over time, the Court of the Gentiles became the place where vendors would sell animals to those coming to offer sacrifices at the Temple. All Jewish males living outside Jerusalem were required by the Law of Moses to make three annual pilgrimages to the Temple to celebrate liturgical festivals. For them, being able to purchase animals there was a convenience; they did not need to bring animals with them on what could be a long trip. Likewise, moneychangers were set up in this area to exchange foreign currency for the appropriate coins needed to pay the annual Temple tax. These services were licensed by those in charge of the Temple. As we know, when services are licensed and taxes are collected, there are always opportunities for corruption and extortion. Such was the case in Jesus’ day.
However, Jesus’ action in the Court of the Gentiles was more than simply an angry outburst against corruption. How do we know that? As He cleanses the area, Jesus quotes a phrase from the prophet, Jeremiah: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incenses to Baal, and…then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My Name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house… become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer 7:9-11) Here, the judgment against God’s people is not simply doing business where they shouldn’t have; rather, it was their great hypocrisy and presumption in believing that simply by keeping Temple rituals, God would deliver them against the threat of their enemies, even though they lived in great covenant infidelity. In Jeremiah’s day, as in Jesus’ day, God’s charge against His people was their empty religion—maintaining their liturgies with hearts far from Him. The fact that the Court of the Gentiles, which was supposed to be a place of prayer and evangelization, had become a “marketplace” was emblematic of Israel’s terrible spiritual desolation.
In His cleansing of the Temple, Jesus prophetically demonstrates that the Temple was no longer a place of true encounter with God, for Jews or Gentiles. It was destined to be eclipsed and replaced. That is why, when the Jews questioned Jesus’ authority for His action, He enigmatically predicts a destruction—but not of the Temple building. No, He referred to His own Body as “this Temple.” He spoke of His death and resurrection as the “sign” of His authority to bring an end to animal sacrifice (which is why He drove out the animals) and to open encounter with God to all the nations (restoring the true meaning of the Court of the Gentiles). Unlike a “zealot,” who unleashes violence on others, Jesus’ “zeal” for His Father’s house would consume Him, leading to His own death on he Cross.
Eventually, of course, the physical Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., never to be rebuilt. It didn’t need to be rebuilt; Jesus was the fulfillment of everything to which the Temple pointed. It was never meant to be permanent. There was nothing wrong with the Temple or the Law of Moses—the problem was in human nature, as St. John indicates: “Jesus would not trust Himself to [the many who believed in Him], because He knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He Himself understood it well.” Human nature, not the Temple, needed cleansing. That is precisely what Jesus came to do for us. He is now the true place of encounter between man and God.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, You are the remedy for my human nature. You now trust Yourself to me. Thank You!
First Reading (Read Ex 20:1-17)
Why is this reading of the Ten Commandments coupled with our Gospel reading? It is good for us to remember the heart of the covenant God made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. These laws represented a true release from bondage for God’s people, one that was even greater than their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The Commandments give us a path to life as God designed it to be. When we live them, we are truly happy. When we depart from them, God calls that “sin,” for it means we have forsaken the beauty, truth, and goodness of life in His image and likeness. In our Gospel reading, we understood that by Jesus’ day, the hope of the Old Covenant had grown dark—not because of the Law or any failure on God’s part to keep His promises, but because of human nature. Seeing our weakness, God sent His Son to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. When the light had become darkness in the Old Covenant, it was time for something new, just as God had foretold through the prophets: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new…do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:18-19)
Jesus was the “Something New”—the New Covenant, the New Temple, the New Life for God’s people.
[Note: Sometimes we are disturbed to read, in Ex 20:5, that God is “jealous” for our love, vowing to inflict “punishment for their fathers on the children of those who hate Me, down to the third and fourth generation.” Is God’s jealousy bad for us? Not at all! First, He has a right to our love, but beyond that, His jealousy means He is against anything that seduces us away from Him. This “jealousy” is a great good for us. God knows what will make us happy and give us true life—knowing and returning His love. His jealousy does not arise from pride or anger. To warn us against false loves is pure mercy to us. Speaking of mercy, even God’s vow to punish the wickedness of fathers for several generations of children is a mercy. We must understand that God is not here threatening to punish people for what they haven’t done (“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin”, Deut 24:16). Rather, God promises to punish those sins that keep appearing within a family because of the poor example set by parents. God’s punishment is always a mercy to us, just as a good parent’s is to his child. Parents punish out of love, not hate. God does, too. Through punishment in several generations, He continues to reach out to His wayward children, always looking for an opening into their hearts. Nothing to fear here.]
Possible response: Heavenly Father, help me cherish Your commandments as light on my path to life.
Psalm (Read Ps 19:8-11)
The psalmist here helps us see how good the Law is that God gave to His people on Mt. Sinai. In fact, it is “perfect, refreshing the soul.” This is the true vision of God’s commandments, one that sees them as “enlightening the eye.” When our hearts are transformed by the new life of the New Covenant in Jesus, we can see that all God’s laws are “more precious than gold.” The laws of God no longer seem burdensome. The healing on the inside that comes through Jesus can enable us to say, “Lord, You have the words of everlasting life.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 1 Cor 1:22-25)
St. Paul describes here why he is unapologetic about preaching “Christ crucified” as the answer to the longing of all human hearts. The Greeks sought it in their philosophies of wisdom; the Jews sought it in the miraculous manifestations of God in their midst, as His chosen people. Neither the Greeks nor the Jews understood that the answer isn’t “out there.” Rather, the answer is a new heart, a new life—the power of Jesus in us to save us. See that St. Paul says God’s “answer” looks unpromising—like foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block (not the Messiah they expected or wanted!) to the Jews. Yet, “Christ crucified” overcomes the foolishness and weakness of men. It was man’s foolishness and weakness that led to the desolation of the Temple in Jerusalem, long before its destruction—the human failure to keep covenant with God (stretching all the way back to Adam). Only the power and wisdom of God could overcome that.
Who would have thought a Man on a Cross could heal the whole world? “We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me to cling to the power of Your Cross this Lent, as I come face-to-face with my foolishness and weakness.