“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus says this in response to those who question his cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. The reference is to his body that will be offered sacrificially on the cross. His hearers do not understand. This prediction of his passion comes in the context of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.
The temple was the locus of Jewish worship. Here sacrifices were offered to God. Some were offered in praise, some in thanksgiving, others as a sin-offering in reparation for sins. The money-changers are present so that Roman money can be changed into local coinage. The Roman coins had the image of the emperor and this would not have been acceptable for paying the temple tax, so the people exchange the money similar to what we would do when traveling to a foreign country.
The merchants in the temple were selling animals for the sacrifice. The exchange of these goods and the activities associated with the sales prompt Jesus to action. He overturns the tables and cries out: “Stop making my Father’s house a market place.”
In doing this Jesus expresses rage at the denigration of the temple into a place of business. In this context a contrast emerges between, on the one hand, viewing the temple as a public gathering space for commerce and worship; and the other hand, a place where Jesus’ Father dwells. Jesus refers to God as his Father. The temple is his home on earth. Here he gathers his family together to be with him.
As the language shifts from that of business to family, Jesus calls for a reevaluation of the people’s relationship with God. The people gathered in the temple courtyard were shocked not only with Jesus’ actions with the whips and cords; but perhaps even more so by his referring to God as his Father. Here Jesus, the One sent by the Father, speaks on his behalf and calls the temple “my Father’s house.”
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus says in response to the Jews’ demanding a “sign” of his authority to do and say these things. In doing so he associates the Father’s dwelling place with himself. The Father and Jesus are one. The Father dwells in Jesus. Thus Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection manifest God’s dwelling among men in his Son.
The paschal mystery becomes the “sign” for which the Jews ask. Many of those hearing him speak do not understand for they think Jesus is referring to the temple built of stone. The disciples, however, come to understand following the resurrection when they recall his words. St. John tells us it is then that they “came to believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.”
The Passover context for Jesus’ purification of the temple is a reminder that God’s love for mankind is manifest in Jesus’ sacrificial offering on the cross. Remember that the Passover celebration recalls Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The ritual celebration involves the sacrifice of the lamb. In his passion, Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice that will deliver mankind from the slavery to sin and death. He places his faith in the Father and moves forward in his mission. On the cross the revelation of God’s love and mercy is complete. Thus Jesus is, as the Baptist refers to him, the “lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world.
For many the cross is hard to understand. St. Paul reminds us of this in the passage from First
Corinthians which serves as the second reading for today’s liturgy. He says: “Jews demand signs” and “Greeks look for wisdom” but we “proclaim Christ crucified.” The cross becomes a symbol of divine love in the emptying of self in love for another. The Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father, God’s love for his people. The triumph of the cross is love. This is the “way” of God and as St. Paul says: “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
The first reading for today’s liturgy comes from the Book of Exodus. The passage recalls the Lord giving the law to Moses, specifically the Ten Commandments. The commandments are part of the larger Mosaic law, albeit a foundational piece. The law regulates the covenant and at the same time symbolizes the covenant. In Jewish thought at the time of Jesus, righteousness was achieved through faithfulness to the covenant. Thus a person’s “good standing” with God was based on his keeping the commandments.
St. Paul will point out in his preaching and writing that while the law still has a force it does not have the power to justify or make us “righteous.” Jesus is the one who lives the Father’s will and in offering himself on the cross accomplishes salvation. It is Jesus where the locus of salvation and righteousness resides. We are made “right” with God through Christ Jesus. We are united to Christ in his passion, death and resurrection through the sacraments of initiation.
At the same time, the Ten Commandments retain their authority insofar as they help us to live good lives by loving God and neighbor. Jesus heals us and restores our relationship with God and each other through his mercy. He further pours forth his Spirit to dwell with us and empower us to love and live as sons and daughters of God. The Commandments, along with Jesus’ example, interpretation of the law, his teachings and the presence of the Spirit give us guidance and direction as to “how” to live the law of love and mercy.
Jesus says: “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” During the season of Lent we reflect on these central mysteries of our faith. We ponder Jesus passion. We are awed by his faithfulness to the Father. We recognize his love for us in offering himself. We recognize this is an undeserved love, a love that is freely given. In response we seek to live in this love. We repent of our sins seeking forgiveness so that we can strive ever more to love God and neighbor.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Morrisville.