Scripture and the Liturgy

Jesus, God’s Law: 3rd Sunday of Lent

What is the best way to communicate law?  Written law has its limitations, because we are all familiar with the concept of the “loophole.”  There always seem to be methods of interpreting the written law in ways that run contrary to its intent.  The constitution of the United States, for example, says that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but somehow in American jurisprudence that has morphed into “a wall of separation between church and state,” such that there are lawsuits to remove memorial crosses from government land. 

So what is the best way to communicate law?  Already in antiquity, the prophet Jeremiah longed for a better way than a written code: ““Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… this is the covenant which I will make: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.”

One of the themes that arises from this Sunday’s Readings is Jesus as the embodiment of the law, who gives himself to us, that God’s law may be inside of us.

The context of the Church Year

Obviously we are in the season of Lent, and beginning last week with the account of the Aqedah, the First Readings from the Second through Fifth Sundays progress through some high points of salvation history as we move toward the Cross: Covenant with Abraham (Gen 22; 2nd Week), Covenant with Israel at Sinai (Exod 20; 3rd  Week), Breaking of the Covenant and Exile (2 Chr 36; 4th Week); the Promise of a New Covenant (Jer 31; 5th Week).  Alongside this progression, the Gospel moves through some pivotal events in Christ’s life of ministry (mostly in the Gospel of John) that anticipate and lead up to his passion, death and crucifixion.  The First Reading progresses through salvation history; the Gospel progresses through the life of Christ.  There is not a tight integration of the First Reading with its proper Gospel, but nonetheless interesting and provocative combinations are created which give rise to interesting perspectives on the Readings.

1. The First Reading is the account of the Ten Commandments, which were at the heart of the covenant relationship established between God and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai:

Reading 1 Ex 20:1-17

In those days, God delivered all these commandments:
“I, the LORD, am your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.
You shall not have other gods besides me.
You shall not carve idols for yourselves
in the shape of anything in the sky above
or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth;
you shall not bow down before them or worship them.
For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God,
inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness
on the children of those who hate me,
down to the third and fourth generation;
but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation
on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.
For the LORD will not leave unpunished
the one who takes his name in vain.

“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.
Six days you may labor and do all your work,
but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God.
No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter,
or your male or female slave, or your beast,
or by the alien who lives with you.
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth,
the sea and all that is in them;
but on the seventh day he rested.
That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother,
that you may have a long life in the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,
nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass,
nor anything else that belongs to him.”

Americans tend to have a very negative attitude toward law, as if all law is just restriction.  So it is necessary to explain how law fits into a positive relationship with God.  The relationship with God the people of Israel entered was called a covenant, which can be defined as “the extension of kinship by oath” (so Gordon Hugenberger, in his Marriage as Covenant).  So by a “covenant” God invites Israel into his family.  That is why they have a family meal together after the covenant is solemnized (see Exod 24:9ff). 

Now all families operate by some rules, either understood or expressed explicitly.  Typically, the bigger the family, the more rules.  In my family, with eight kids, there are rules for every child, posted on what is for us the sacred center and focus of our familial life: the refrigerator.

The Ten Commandments are, then, the “family rules” for living in the Family of God.  They give three basic principles for our relationship with the Father of the family; and seven rules for our relationship with our siblings.  This is meant to help the family live in peace.

The Ten Commandments do not explicitly cover every possible circumstance, but they formed the basis on which Israel’s law was further elaborated in Exod 21-23, Leviticus 17-25, and Deuteronomy 12-26.  As we will see below, the elaborated laws had “loopholes.”

2.  The Responsorial Psalm thanks God for the perfection of his Law:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11

R. (John 6:68c)Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
The decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
R. Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye.
R. Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true,
all of them just.
R. Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.
They are more precious than gold,
than a heap of purest gold;
sweeter also than syrup
or honey from the comb.
R. Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.

Truly we do need God’s law to gain wisdom; even to gain common sense!  Although we ought to be able, by the light of human reason, to figure out what is morally right and wrong, in actual practice, when we reject God’s revelation, we end up getting blinded to common sense morality and commit the most senseless crimes.  Although it ought to be obvious—and indeed is obvious to most people—that a baby in the womb is a human life, nonetheless we aggressively murder over a million of these babies in the U.S. alone each year.  Some years ago, many were shocked when the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article advocating infanticide, claiming that newborns weren’t “persons” and therefore could be killed at the whim of their parents and medical professionals.  So this is where we are in modern America: back to infanticide, which was practiced in ancient Greece and Rome but eliminated by the Church in late antiquity.

Without the light of God’s revelation, we can become blind to even the most common sense issues of morality. Our lusts become our guide, and every behavior regardless of its short- or long-term consequences on ourselves or others, is justified if it allows us to satisfy our pleasures. Thank you, Lord, for your Law, which keeps us from descending to the level of brutes and animals, which teaches us to live with dignity appropriate to rational and spiritual beings, to Children of God.

3.  The Second Reading helps us to understand the crucifixion of Christ, which we will be celebrating liturgically in a few weeks:

Reading 2 1 Cor 1:22-25

Brothers and sisters:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Jews were religious people who wanted miracles, signs of God’s power.  Greeks were intellectuals who wanted a sophisticated philosophy.  For both, Jesus Christ didn’t make sense.  His teachings weren’t elaborated philosophically in a way that please Greeks, and his central miracle—his passion, death, and resurrection—wasn’t the kind of “sign” the Jews were expecting from their Messiah.

Nonetheless, St. Paul asserts that Christ is the “power of God” (answering to the demand for a sign of power) and the “wisdom of God” (answering the demand for sophia).  It is paradoxical, because Jesus comes in “foolishness” and “weakness”.  In other words, his teaching is “foolishness” because it is simple for the common people to understand, not elaborated and articulated like the Greek academics.  And his works are “weakness,” because his central work is to submit himself to the power of others and accept his own death.  Yet despite all, he works victory through “foolishness” and “weakness.”  God wins, despite “tying both hands behind his back.”

4.  The Gospel is the Cleansing of the Temple account from John:

Gospel Jn 2:13-25

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.
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.
At this the Jews answered and said to him,
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Therefore, when he was raised from the dead,
his disciples remembered that he had said this,
and they came to believe the Scripture
and the word Jesus had spoken.

While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover,
many began to believe in his name
when they saw the signs he was doing.
But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all,
and did not need anyone to testify about human nature.
He himself understood it well.

Let’s relate this Gospel to our First Reading: one of the laws given later in Israel’s history to facilitate the worship of God (required by the Ten Commandments) allowed the people of Israel to sell their livestock for money, travel to the Temple, and purchase other livestock for sacrifice.  This made pilgrimage to the Temple easier: you did not need to travel with your flocks or herds, just bring money in your pocket (see Deut 14:24-26).  In many ways it is significant that permission for this is granted in Deuteronomy, the “second law,” which in many ways contained compromises from the divine ideal, like the permission for divorce (Deut 24:1, cf. Matt 19:1-12).  Be that as it may, this ability to purchase animals for sacrifice at the site of the sanctuary, while well-intended by Moses, gave rise to an extremely profitable business that took advantage of the Jewish pilgrims (a kind of sacred “tourist trap”).  Although not doing anything technically wrong according to Jewish law, the merchants in the temple were breaking the intent of the commandment, “You shall not steal.”

Christ enters the Temple, then, as a sort of “embodiment of the Law.”  Although the written code could not put an end to the abuses against divine law that were taking place, Christ, who is the Law in the flesh, put an end to it personally.  Written codes have loopholes, but persons do not.

Spiritually applied, Christ does the same for us, because each of us is “the Temple of the Holy Spirit.”  When we receive the sacraments in docility and faith, Christ enters and “cleans up” our Temple—especially through the sacrament of Reconciliation, to which we should have frequent recourse during this season of Lent.

In the Gospel of John, this account has a very important role.  Coming near the beginning of the Gospel, it foreshadows and announces Christ’s passion and resurrection (“destroy this temple and I will raise it up”) at the start of the story of Christ’s life, so that all that unfolds in the rest of the Gospel does so with an eye to the cross.

Also, by identifying his body as the “temple,” Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of salvation history and all the covenants, because that’s what the Temple was for the ancient Jews.  A few chapters later (John 6), our Lord will speak of given us his body to be eaten, which suggests that we, in turn, are also incorporated into God’s Temple.

The First Reading was the Ten Commandments, the rules for Israel to become God’s Family.  In antiquity, the family of the king was called his “house,” as in the expression, “House of David” (Isa 7:13, Jer 21:12).  So the people of God became the “House of God” in the sense “Family of the God.”  But in this Gospel shows us the way the people of God will become “House of God” in a different sense: as a Temple (see Eph 2:19-22).  All who have “zeal for the house of God” will “consume him,” and become both family and Temple of the Lord.

As we take the Eucharist this Lord’s Day, let’s ask Jesus to continue to “clean our Temple” during the rest of this Lent, as we stay faithful to our practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

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