The Preacher’s Study
Third Sunday of Lent, Year B
John W.B. Hill
1 Corinthians 1:18-25;
The unfolding revelation of God’s covenant partnership with humanity develops from simple beginnings as a covenant with all flesh (Genesis 9 – first Sunday of Lent), into a more personal covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants (Genesis 17 – second Sunday of Lent), and now into a nation-defining covenant revealed through Moses (Exodus 20). This new dimension finally raises the question, What will it look like for us to dwell within a covenant partnership with God?
One of the most illuminating ways to hear these ‘ten words’ is to hear the first and last commandments as ‘bookends’ to the other eight — one positive, the other negative, but otherwise saying one thing: “Choose this day whom you will serve!” (Joshua 24: 15) Will we live for God, desiring above all to fulfil God’s will for the world (#1)? Or will we live for our own self-advancement, always driven by our envy of those who have what we desire, or by our resentment of those who are obstacles to our desire (#10)?
In this light, it will be important to hear today’s gospel for its radical critique of the Temple. It is generally thought that in Jesus’ day the business oversight of the Temple establishment was good, and Jesus was unlikely to be concerned about specific abuses within its financial practices. What he attacked was nothing less than the very phenomenon of the Temple and its sacrificial system, much as Jeremiah had done (see Jeremiah 7: 1-14, scripture that Jesus actually quoted, according to the synoptic accounts of this episode). In effect, God’s covenant people have made the Jerusalem Temple into an idol — a very dangerous thing to do, according to the second commandment! As Cynthia Ozick, a contemporary Jewish author, has observed, “There are no innocent idols. Every idol suppresses human pity. That is what it is made for.”
This may be the sharpest challenge to anyone who aspires to be a disciple of Jesus. A Temple, a Church, or indeed any religious institution can become an end in itself, and therefore a method of ‘pinning down’ the Ineffable Mystery, replacing the Holy One with a manageable idol. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to sanctify its abuses.
In the lectionary for Year B, Mark’s version of the gospel and John’s version are interwoven to illumine one another, and today’s episode is especially intriguing in that respect. Why has John moved this episode from the last week of Jesus’ life (according to Mark’s version) to the beginning of his ministry? In Mark, this is the ‘last straw’ which triggers the arrest of Jesus (Mark 11: 18); in John, his arrest is triggered by the raising of Lazarus (John 11: 46-53), and so the Outrage in the Temple (it is no mere ‘cleansing’) is presented as the defining episode of Jesus’ mission from the beginning.
John takes this liberty because his entire portrait of Jesus is drawn expressly from the perspective of the Paschal Mystery. He therefore combines into one both Jesus’ action in the Temple (which, in Mark, comes before his arrest) and Jesus’ saying, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up” (which, in Mark, comes after his arrest); he then observes, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered...and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” It is by finding in Jesus’ words and actions the fulfilment of scripture that we will recognize what he was really up to.
So Jesus did not come to prop up our religious institutions, but to build the temple of his body. And the sign he gave to those who asked for one was the impending destruction of his body — which would then be raised from the dead as the company of his disciples. That is how God’s law will come to its fulfilment in us; that is an acceptable form of temple, a ‘holy place’ where God’s presence can be known.
That doesn’t sound like much of a plan for temple-building, however; as Paul observes in today’s second reading, it sounds like foolishness! But “in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom;” so “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe...we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Last Sunday Jesus told us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” That is really all we can recommend to those who are seeking meaning for their life! But it is enough. All around us, the majestic temples we have built are crumbling; this fragile temple of Christ’s body is the one that will endure.
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.
“Cleaning the Temple,” by Alexander Smirnov.
“Bible lithograph, Moses with the Ten Commandments,” by Reuven Rubin (1972), available for purchase at https://www.1stdibs.com/art/prints-works-on-paper/figurative-prints-works-on-paper/reuven-rubin-bible-lithograph-moses-ten-commandments/id-a_112516/