Third Sunday of Lent, Year B – March 8, 2015
In the Scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Lent (Year B), I would like to focus our reflection on two powerful images present in the texts: that of Jesus purifying Jerusalem’s Temple, and St. Paul’s message of the cross of Jesus Christ. Both the purifying action of Jesus and Paul’s understanding of the cross can be of tremendous help to us as we grow in our knowledge and love of Jesus Christ this Lenten season.
John’s account of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is in sharp contrast to the other Gospel accounts of this dramatic story. In the Synoptic Gospels, this scene takes place at the end of the “Palm Sunday Procession” into the holy city. With the people shouting out in triumph, Jesus entered into the temple area, not to do homage but to challenge the temple and its leaders. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and upset the stalls of those selling birds and animals for the sacrifice. What a teaching moment this was! Jesus quoted from the Scriptures: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations … but you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17, Isaiah 56:6-7, Jeremiah 7:11).
In the Fourth Gospel, the cleansing of the temple takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and not at the beginning of the events of the last days of Jesus’ life. The startling words and actions of Jesus in the temple, whether they are from the Synoptic accounts or John’s account, took on new meaning for later generations of Christians. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” The temple was not a commercial center or shopping mall but rather a holy place of the Father. Like the prophets before him, Jesus tried to awaken the hearts of his people.
Jesus’ disciples recall him saying in the temple the words of Psalm 68:10: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” I have often understood this verse to mean: “I am filled with a burning love for your house.” When the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, and both Jews and Christians grieved at its loss, the followers of Jesus recalled this incident in the temple. Now they could see new meaning in it; it was a sign that the old temple was finished but a new temple was to be built. This new temple would not be of stone and wood and gold. It would be a living temple of holy people (I Peter 2:4-6; Ephesians 2:19-22).
One intriguing aspect of today’s Gospel story is the portrait of an angry Jesus in the temple-cleansing scene that gives way to two extremes in our own image of the Lord. Some people wish to transform an otherwise passive Christ into a whip-cracking revolutionary.
Others would like to excise any human qualities of Jesus and paint a very meek, bland character, who smiled, kept silent and never rocked the boat. The errors of the old extreme, however, do not justify a new extremism.
Jesus was not exclusively, not even primarily, concerned with social reform. Rather, he was filled with a deep devotion and burning love for his Father and the things of his Father. He wanted to form new people, created in God’s image, who are sustained by his love, and bring that love to others. Jesus’ disciples and apostles recognized him as a passionate figure — one who was committed to life and to losing it for the sake of truth and fidelity.
Have we given in to these extremes in our own understanding of and relationship with Jesus? Are we passionate about anything in our lives today? Are we filled with a deep and burning love for the things of God and for his Son, Jesus?
Message of the Cross
In writing to the people of Corinth, Paul was addressing numerous disorders and scandals that were present. True communion and unity were threatened by groups and internal divisions that seriously compromised the unity of the Body of Christ. Rather than appealing to complex theological or philosophical words of wisdom to resolve the difficulties, Paul announces Christ to this community: Christ crucified. Paul’s strength is not found in persuasive language, but rather, paradoxically, in the weakness of one who trusts only in the “power of God” (I Corinthians 2:1-4).
In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1:18, 22-25), we hear about “the message of the cross that is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” For St. Paul, the cross represents the center of his theology: To say cross means to say salvation as grace given to every creature.
Paul’s simple message of the cross is scandal and foolishness. He states this strongly with the words: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
The “scandal” and the “foolishness” of the cross are precisely in the fact that where there seems to be only failure, sorrow and defeat, precisely there, is all the power of the boundless love of God. The cross is the expression of love and love is the true power that is revealed precisely in this seeming weakness.
St. Paul has experienced this even in his own flesh, and he gives us testimony of this in various passages of his spiritual journey, which have become important points of departure for every disciple of Jesus: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness'” (2 Corinthians 12:9); and even “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something” (1 Corinthians 1:28).
The Apostle to the Gentiles identifies himself to such a degree with Christ that he also, even in the midst of so many trials, lives in the faith of the Son of God who loved him and gave himself up for his sins and those of everyone (cf. Galatians 1:4; 2:20).
Today, as we contemplate Jesus’ burning love for the things of his Father, and the saving mystery of his cross, let us pray these words:
O God, whose foolishness is wise and whose weakness is strong,
by the working of your grace in the disciplines of Lent
cleanse the temple of your Church and purify the sanctuary of our hearts.
May we be filled with a burning love for your house,
and may obedience to your commandments
absorb and surround us along this Lenten journey.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, the man of the cross,
your power and your wisdom,
the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Exodus 20:1-17 or 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 and John 2:13-25. For use with RCIA, Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8 and John 4:5-42 or 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42]