Third Sunday of Lent
When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it seemed to the early Christians to confirm the passing of the Old Law and the inauguration of the New, which required no more sacrifices after the one, perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Yet, Jesus had recognized the Temple as “my Father’s house” and a “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). He was outraged at the market mentality and the extortion that had turned the Temple into a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). He flipped tables over and chased out the money changers and even the animals with a whip! It is the only time we see Jesus using something akin to a weapon in all of Scripture. And it is a sobering reminder that Jesus is not always “nice,”—sin and corruption lead him to righteous anger.
We are now the living temples of God. St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Imagine, then, that Jesus approached this temple that is our body. What would make him angry? What would he chase out with a whip? What tables would he flip over in our soul? What coins would he fling to the ground? Our reflection should lead us to a holy kind of fear, the type the Psalmist described when he said, “the fear of the Lord is pure.”
It also makes me hope that I never encounter the angry Jesus!
In Matthew’s Gospel, the cleansing of the Temple is followed by Jesus’ healing of the blind and lame in the area (Matthew 21:14). His anger about those who profaned the sacred space immediately subsided in the presence of those who needed his care and compassion. His wrath was directed at those who manipulated the religious laws for profit, to cheat people of their money, committing sacrilege and harming the very people the Temple rituals were meant to help. For the blind and the lame, though, he had nothing but tenderness. I can imagine Jesus dropping the whip, taking a deep breath, and smiling again as he made them whole.
This is how I hope to encounter Jesus. I imagine it is the same for you.
John follows his story of the cleansing of the Temple with Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. This Jewish leader was convinced that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus tells him about being “born from above… by water and the spirit” (John 3:3ff.). And then, in that exchange, we hear some of the most comforting words of Scripture:
“[Jesus said,] ‘No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’ For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:13-17).
We are living Temples of the Holy Spirit. As we make our way through Lent, like Jesus we must cleanse the Temple, which is precisely what the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the discipline of penance are for. After all, we don’t want Jesus to take out his whip again! Holy fear of the Lord is a healthy spiritual quality, unrelated to the anxious fear that terrifies us. It is not psychological terror, but simply the wonder and awe we feel in the presence of the power of God. It moves us to repentance and deeper conversion. It makes us fall more deeply in love with God, and prepares us to receive and to share God’s love more fully.
Having encountered the merciful God, we reject all barriers that make it difficult for others to experience the same encounter (barriers like those the profaners of the Temple set up). Instead, we imitate Christ and bring the Temple to the people, fostering the encounter with God wherever healing and mercy is needed. For, through us as living sacraments, people everywhere will come to know and experience—and we will know and experience through them—the profound truth this Lenten season prepares us to celebrate: “For God so loved the world…”