3rd Sunday of Lent (B) (March 11 2012)
First Reading (Exodus 20:1-17).
This reading with the Ten Commandments has been chosen for this particular day in keeping with the overall plan of the new lectionary which is to have Old Testament readings about the history of salvation, which is one of the subjects of the Lenten catechesis. In each year the series of texts gives the principal elements of that history from the beginning to the promise of the New Covenant, with a reading about Abraham on the second Sunday and the exodus on the third. The revelation of the Ten Commandments is linked with the account of the desert wanderings at the Exodus, and at Sinai. The list of the Ten Commandments itself (the Decalogue) in origin is probably independent of any Sinai revelation. They were a neat guide as a summary of central Jewish belief, some of them having to do with the real danger of succumbing to the worship of false gods by the making of statues or graven images. The commandment on the Sabbath day of rest and worship, so central to Judaism, has extended treatment. This danger of polytheism and the Sabbath day as Saturday were less relevant for the Christian Church; hence the optional shorter version of this text, omitting these sections, presented in our lectionaries. Some items in the traditional text are also historically dated, such as the status of women in the final commandment. The centrality of the Decalogue as guide to life is clear from the Gospels and other New Testament texts. When the rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel (Mat 19:16-22) asks Jesus “Master, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”, Jesus answers: “If you wish to enter into life keep the commandments”. When asked to specify Jesus gives as examples some of the traditional list, but ends with the words: “Also, you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Jesus also reinterprets some of the commandments for the new age which he himself was introducing: not merely murder, “Thou shalt not murder”, the destruction of the image of God the human person, but also forbids all anger, insults against the person, and lack of forgiveness; not merely adultery, but unchaste behaviour and thoughts (Matthew 5:21-30).
The Ten Commandments should still be taught and learned by heart by all believers, as a guide to the central tenets and demands of our faith.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 18). The law of the Lord is perfect.
Second Reading (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).
In tracing the career of Paul the Acts the Apostles speaks of his presence at Athens, the centre of culture. The gross polytheism of the city deeply distressed him. He argued with the leading philosophical groups Stoics and Epicureans. They failed to understand his message on the Gospel and resurrection of Jesus. Some regarded him as a babbler or rag picker. He was invited address the learned body of that city, the Areopagus, which he did in a well prepared learned address. Again, on mention of the intervention of God (their unknown God) through Jesus and the resurrection, Paul was again politely dismissed. Having reflected on the failure of the Jews and the learned Greeks to accept Christ and his gospel, Paul moved on to Corinth. Earlier in this letter Paul had reminded the Corinthians: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). He goes on to say that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to believers on the road to salvation it is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Paul dwells on this theme of the failure of human wisdom, past (at the crucifixion) or present (any elite) to understand God’s action in Christ. “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). This mystery of God’s way in Christ is revealed to believers through faith, through the Spirit, who knows God’s plans and the human heart (1 Corinthians 2:10). It is against this background that today’s reading is to be understood.
Gospel (John 2:13-25).
As is well known, the Fourth Gospel differs from the other three (the Synoptics) in placing Jesus’ cleansing of hr Temple to the beginning of the public ministry, after the miracle at Cana, not at the end. John’s text, of course, does not say it was immediately after Cana. The Fourth Evangelist has a special interest in showing how Jesus gives new and deeper meaning (with reference to himself and his mission) to Jewish feasts and traditions. In the new age Jesus’ risen body would be the true temple; his crucifixion and resurrection would be the true Passover (to the Father). The Temple itself, and the large Temple area, at Passover required sacrifices, necessitating the sale and purchase of animals, and the presence of money changers who changed Roman coins (with the Emperor’s image, or those of false gods) for Tyrian coins, accepted in the Temple. The whole area, feast and operations, could be far removed from what God intended. Jesus, reflecting on Ps 69:9, is “eaten up” with zeal for his Father’s house (the Temple), and acts as he did. When questioned and asked for a sign he tells them, “Destroy this sanctuary (Temple) and in three days I will rise it up”. This for Christian readers was a clear reference to his death and resurrection. His Jewish audience, at about 28-30 A.D., thinks he is referring to the actual Temple, the embellishment of which was well known to have been begun by King Herod about 20-19 B.C. — and would be ended only about 62 A.D., shortly before it was totally destroyed. The disciples, and the readers of John’s Gospel, understood the deeper meaning of all that had occurred, through their faith in Jesus as risen Lord.
B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day
Belief in God and his Saving work through the death and resurrection of Jesus
Belief in God and his Saving work through the death and resurrection of Jesus
Today’s readings present a very good opportunity of entering into dialogue with one burning question of our own day, that is, belief in or doubts about the unseen God. Outright rejection of belief in God is today voiced abroad by a number. Others have only doubts. Others still regard themselves in a position in which they find it hard or impossible to “engage” with an unseen God. There are many who have a high regard for the spiritual, or the quest of the absolute (as they understand or state it) but want the nature of this “absolute” to remain undefined. The situation is somewhat as it was in Athens in Paul’s day. Paul addressing the learned Areopagus could speak of the Athenians as extremely religious in every way, and even spoke to them of their altar to an unknown god, this as a lead up to his statement that what they worshiped as unknown he proclaimed to as having revealed himself through Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. The result was a polite dismissal on the part of that learned body (Acts of the Apostles 17:16-33).
Throughout history, and in our own day, there have been and are movements intent on mixing traditional religions, with their definite creeds of belief, with their own spiritual or mystical frames of personality and mind to produce a form of belief more in keeping with what they believe the society of their age demands. In dialogue with such movements or trends it is good to combine courtesy for the beliefs of others with a firm stand on what is essential to the Christian way of life. In the words of the First Epistle of Peter (1 Peter 3:15-16) always ready to make our defence to anyone who demands from us an account of the hope that is in us, but to do it with gentleness and reverence.
Judeo-Christian monotheism, belief in the unseen God, has never been too easy, It is basically a matter of faith. The Decalogue forbade any representation of God or gods, this against the temptation of falling into polytheism. The problem is not something of our own day. It has been there since monotheism, the belief in the one and only God, was first clearly formulated by Second Isaiah about 550 B.C. While this God is unseen, he or she, is not unknown. The Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, has spoken in many and varied ways, including through Moses and the prophets, but in a definitive manner through Jesus Christ, who has revealed the unseen God, the Father to us. Monotheism is not a mere abstraction. It is ethically oriented. To Moses God revealed himself not merely as One, but also revealed his will through the commandments, with regard to behaviour towards God and our neighbours.
God is infinitely wise, but has willed to save us not through human wisdom or by human means, but by the crucifixion, death and resurrection of his Son. No dialogue with any new age can be meaningful without the mystery of the cross and resurrection, not with the Areopagus of Paul’s day, or any dialogue of our own times.