Friday, March 6, 2009

Third Sunday of Lent

St John records the following scene in this Sunday's Gospel,

Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there.

Jerusalem by all appearance was a small provincial city in the Judean hills. It was geographically isolated and not on the main trade routes. It had only one natural resource and that was stone. Olive trees grew well in the soil there but not in sufficient quantities to be a major export. The expectations for such a city did not match the reality. Jerusalem was in fact the unrivaled center of Judea and the entire Jewish nation. Even the Gentile historian Pliny the Elder, describes Jerusalem "as by far the most distinguished city not of Judea only, but of the whole Orient" (Natural History, 5.14). The explanation for its importance was the Jewish Temple and the pilgrimages that took place there during the Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths. Herod has just renovated the temple using 10,000 lay workers and 1,000 specially trained priests. The Herodian Temple was widely considered one of the most impressive shrines in the ancient world.

The estimated population of Jerusalem varies between 50,000 and 100,000 people within the walls but this population doubled during the festivals. All Jewish people were encouraged to journey on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for these feasts, but due to the cost, many only came once per year or in some cases once in a life time. Every Jew was obliged to pay a half-shekel tax, and pilgrims would bring this tax for themselves and all their kinsmen. The need for animals, food and wine for temple sacrifices generated a great deal of commercial activity around the temple. Historians estimate that some 18,000 priests and Levites had to be supported each year. A huge catering, hospitality and tourist industry existed to care for the pilgrims.

The response of Jesus to this scene is surprising;

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, "Take these out of here, and stop making my Father's house a marketplace." His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.

Jesus reacts to seeing the temple used as a place of commerce rather than a place of worship. His actions appear somewhat irascible, but they have clear prophetic significance in light of the Old Testament traditions. Jesus use of the term "my Father's house" is interpreted in light of Psalm 69:10 "Because zeal for your house consumes me, I am scorned by those who scorn you." St. Paul comments on the same verse, "For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, 'The insults of those who insult you fall upon me'" (Romans 15:3). In the Greek translation of the Psalms we find another parallel in Psalm 119:139 which reads, "Zeal for your house wasted me because your enemies forgot your words."

In the first century there were Jewish expectations that the coming Messiah would purge the temple and reconstitute it. Various collections of psalms highlight King David as a type of the coming Messiah who would be a righteous sufferer. Collections of passages like these were used by the early Christians to show that Jesus was the Messiah. Later in John 19:24, St. John quotes Psalm 22 which is a virtual prophetic passion narrative. In Luke 22:37 Jesus identifies himself with as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 42-53.

The Suffering Servant Poems of Isaiah show a progression. In the he First Poem (Isa 42:1-7) the Servant is the chosen one of God, in whom God takes delight (cf. Matthew 3:17; 17:5). He is a suffering meek prophet bringing holiness to all nations. In the Second Poem (Isa 49:1-9) the Servant speaks in the first person. He identifies with all people (v. 3) and gathers the people. In the Third Poem (Isa 50:4-9) we see the persecution and opposition the Servant will receive. Finally in the Fourth Poem (Isa 52:13-53:12) we see an impressive prophecy of the passion and death of Christ.

Jesus did not fulfill directly the earthly expectations of first century Judaism. The Temple of Herod was destroyed in 70 A.D. and the Church itself is seen as the household of God built on the foundation of the Apostles as "a holy temple in the Lord" (Ephesians 2:21) which points to God's presence in his heavenly "Temple" awaiting the consummation of the Kingdom of God (Revelation 3:12; 7:15; 11:1, 2, 19). Yet at the end of St. John's Revelation, he notes "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (Revelation 21:22).

This is precisely Jesus' point in the close of our Gospel passage,

"Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he spoke of the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21).

The temple worship of the old covenant has been replaced with new covenant in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are joined to Him through baptism and especially through the Eucharist. We see the implication of this new form of worship in the words of St. Paul,

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 21:1-2).

Let us prepare ourselves this Lent to more worthily offer our bodies as living sacrifices, through prayer, alms and fasting. Let us especially strive to deepen our love for the Eucharist. Let us ask for the help of Our Blessed Mother who says to us, "Do whatever he tells you." (John 2:5).


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