Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cleansing the Temple

(3rd Sunday of Lent-Year B;This homily was given 19 March, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-25)

One of the oldest and most basic ways of establishing a relationship between persons is through what is called a covenant. We see this everywhere, even in our own culture. The most common covenant is the covenant of marriage. A man and a woman make a commitment and agreement with each other, to love one another, to care for one another, to be faithful to each other. It is a covenant of equals.

There is also such a thing as a covenant between two unequal parties. A king would make a covenant with his subjects; a landowner would make a covenant with tenants, agreeing to pay them a certain wage in exchange for the produce they gathered from the land.

Perhaps the greatest covenant in human history is the one we read about in the book of Exodus; it is the covenant God makes with the people of Israel. Having just freed them from slavery in Egypt and put them on the road to the Promised Land, the Lord leads Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, and there He makes a covenant with the people.

The covenant God makes with Israel is a covenant of love and the conditions of that covenant are crystal clear:

You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
—Exodus 19:3-6

This covenant of love, the Ten Commandments, with all of its prescriptions and implications, essentially comes down to two sides of the same coin: love of God and love of neighbor.

The first three commandments are directed towards the love of God:

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.

The people were to put nothing before their relationship with God: not family, not business, not personal interests. God was to have pride of place over everything else that they did and over all other priorities in life.

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.

They were to honor God with their speech, never taking His name in vain or dishonoring His name by the way they conversed with others.

Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.

The people of Israel were to observe that day as a day of rest, and a day of worship. No work was to be done, and God was to be honored in a particular way, for the Lord Himself rested on the seventh day.

The rest of the commandments are concerned with love of neighbor; if we love our neighbor, then we will not steal, we will not covet, we will not commit adultery, we will not kill . . .

To observe these commandments was to dwell in the fullness of life that God was calling them to in the Promised Land. They would be at peace and live in a harmonious relationship with God and those around them.

The history of the nation of Israel is essentially a set of footnotes as to how well or how poorly they observed this covenant and followed the commandments that God had given them. All throughout the Old Testament, God constantly sends them the prophets to call them back to fidelity, back to the covenant that God had made with them on Mount Sinai.

This morning Jesus enters the Temple, the place where the fullest expression of love of God and neighbor should be observed, and He finds anything but that expression. It was the place where the people of God would come together as one, and worship the Lord, their God.

But instead of love of neighbor, Christ finds exploitation of neighbor. He enters what should be a house of prayer and a place of worship, and instead He discovers a marketplace. God is no longer top priority here; now it’s business. And Christ is furious.

We see Christ in rare form in the cleansing of the Temple. In a display of righteous indignation, He makes a whip out of cords and drives away the moneychangers. But the Fathers of the Church have always seen in this event much more than Christ chastising the people. He is preparing them for an entirely new sacrifice, and a new and everlasting covenant.

The cleansing of the Temple is a dramatic and explosive event in the life of Christ, and one of the few moments that is included in all four Gospels. The scene itself goes much further than a reprimand of the moneychangers. St. John tells us that Christ:

Drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen . . . and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here.”
—John 2:15-16

He drove out the sheep and the oxen? What did they do wrong? He orders the doves to be taken out of there. For what reason? Christ is preparing the people of Israel for the day that is fast approaching when the animal sacrifices will cease and there will be an entirely new form of worship.

Historically, we know that in 70 A.D., less than 50 years from this scene in St. John’s Gospel, the Temple itself will be completely destroyed by the Roman Empire. Christ predicts this very event in the Gospels. He says, “Not one stone will be left upon another.”

What He has come to bring is a new sacrifice and a new covenant. No longer will there be a lamb sacrificed every year at Passover to remember the deliverance of the people of Israel. No longer will there be a sacrifice of a lamb every morning and every evening in the Temple for the atonement of sins.

As John the Baptist points out when Christ walks by the banks of the Jordan River: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” The new sacrifice and the new covenant is Jesus Christ. There is only one sacrifice, and one man, Christ the Son of God, who has come to establish a new covenant between God and man.

We have been baptized into the very life of Christ; as St. Paul tells us: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The Holy Spirit lives in us through baptism and we now have the ability—by the grace and mercy of God—to live out the covenant like never before. We are able to love God and neighbor the way Christ commands us because He gives us all we need to do so.

Each time we come together as the people of God to celebrate the Eucharist, we renew this new covenant that God has made with us. We hear the words of Christ, spoken in love at the Last Supper, when He said:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it.
This is the cup of my blood,
The blood of the new and everlasting covenant.

On this Third Sunday of Lent, as we continue to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, how is God calling us to open our hearts and minds more completely to this covenant of love He has made with each of us? Where have we failed to love God or love our neighbor, and where are we in need of change?

If Christ were to enter the Temple of our hearts, or our assembly, what might He drive out and purify? We ask Him to come and cleanse the Temple of our souls and renew our lives in this new and everlasting covenant, that we might be ready to celebrate in the fullness of joy His resurrection this coming Easter.