The temple shall be raised in three days

  • March 9, 2009
Third Sunday of Lent (Year B) March 15 (Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-25; John 2:13-25)

A few years ago a conservative politician in the United States was pushing energetically for the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings in his state. He was challenged during a TV interview to name the commandments but a blank and stricken look was his only reply. The interviewer lowered the bar and asked him to name even one commandment but the hapless politician remained mute and embarrassed before the unblinking eye of the camera.

We can be generous and make allowance for stage fright and the blank-mind syndrome that many suffer from when put on the spot. But this still highlights a major problem: we think that by tipping the hat in public and giving lip-service to biblical values that we have done our duty.

Part of the problem is that we really don’t feel affected by the commandments — after all, who bows down to idols in the traditional sense? How many of us are murderers? Do we really understand what making wrongful use of God’s name means? We are not helped by the fact that the commandments are couched in the symbolism and language of a culture more than 3,000 years old. It is not that the commandments are obsolete or useless — they need to be interpreted and expressed in 21st-century terms. We are guilty of idolatry whenever we put anything else before God and people also murder by thought and word. And our economic system not only encourages but in some sense requires some form of covetousness and greed. Some of the prohibitions — adultery and murder — are the prominent themes in our many forms of entertainment. We need to ask how the commandments would be packaged if they were being given for the first time in our own time and culture. Despite the wry observation of some they are definitely not the 10 suggestions. They represent the basic foundation for human community: respect for life, relationships and property and the absolute primacy of God.

In the first-century Roman Empire the cross — a symbol of weakness and shame — was viewed with horror and loathing. Strangely but brilliantly, Paul chose it as a symbol of God’s wisdom and judgment on all human claims. Paul insists that this symbol of weakness is God’s response to a world based on power, competition and brutality. Non-violence, love, justice, forgiveness and total reliance on God are not held in high esteem in this worldly value system, but in the crucified Christ God has shown that they represent true wisdom and power.

John’s Gospel presents the temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of the end as in Matthew, Mark and Luke. And rather than calling the temple a den of thieves, Jesus is upset that it is turned into a marketplace. John’s version, using different quotations from the Old Testament, represents a different theological outlook. But the point is the same: the temple is being misused. As in all religions, sacred and holy things easily become twisted for selfish human purposes. But for John this incident merely sets the stage for a puzzling statement Jesus makes about Himself: destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days!

In John, ordinary people understand such statements in literal terms, unaware that Jesus is speaking on a higher spiritual level. He is speaking of the temple of His body — the new locus of divine presence and the body in which we dwell. As a side-note, in 1 Corinthians Paul insists twice that we are also temples of the Holy Spirit. God is encountered within and the human person is reverenced as the bearer of God’s Spirit. But at the time, the apostles understood none of this — the story assures us that it was only after the Resurrection that they remembered and understood His words. This gives us an insight into how the Gospels developed and were written down.

Jesus was certainly not naïve: even though many believed in Him because of His signs, He kept His distance. He was fully aware of human fickleness and the tendency to misunderstand and twist His words and teachings. It is no wonder that He got angry in this story. We can only imagine His anger and disappointment at what people have done with His words and teachings over the last 2,000 years.