The Father's house

On this Third Sunday of Lent, the ancient authors set before the praying assembly two of the most important institutions in Jewish life, the law (Exodus) and the temple (John). By their faithful observance of the law, the Jews were sincerely surrendering themselves to God's will, which, they believed, was expressed in the law. By their reverence for the temple, its liturgy, its feasts and sacrificial system, the Jews were expressing their gratitude for the presence of God among them.

But by the time of Jesus, both of these institutions had accrued certain embellishments.

Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-25

Added to the essential Decalogue was a multiplicity of laws, written and oral, so precise and detailed that most ordinary people required an expert to interpret the law for them. The temple, which was in its third construction during Jesus' ministry, was a far cry from the Tent of Meeting in Israel's desert days.

Described in great detail by Flavius Josephus (War of the Jews, Book 5, Chapter 5), the temple was ascended by 12 steps. Its first gate was 70 cubits high and 25 cubits broad (a cubit is 18 inches). The outward face of the temple was covered with plates of gold of great weight, and, at sunrise, it reflected a fiery splendor and made those who to looked upon it avert their eyes.

Jesus went to the beautiful-to-behold temple that day and made a clear, unmistakable statement: "Stop making my Father's house a marketplace." He was not against the temple per se; Jesus objected to the desecration of the holy place by a marketplace mentality, one that took advantage of the poor. As Carol Cavin of Brentwood United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., has pointed out, examples of this marketplace mentality are not difficult to come by; all around us, we see moneymaking schemes in the name of Jesus. Just as Jesus was angry and acted radically to eliminate injustice and greed, so also must the church guard against practices that shut out or even discriminate against the poor.

When we plan our programs and community celebrations, are we assuming that everyone has the resources to participate? Can everyone pay the fees and buy the books for religion classes for their children? Is tuition for the parish school affordable for all? The care of the poor is to be the primary responsibility of those who belong to Jesus, rather than an afterthought.

Luke Timothy Johnson has posited one way of getting our priorities straight and alleviating the marketplace mentality (Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, Fortress Press, 1998). Johnson suggests that we compare the back of a typical Catholic church in America to the front of the church. In the front, all is orderly and correct. Both furniture and art create an ambience of solemnity and reverence. The choirs of angels are placed below God the creator, just as the priest's presiding chair and the stools of the lesser ministers express a more obvious arrangement of power.

In the vestibule of the church, another world thrives. There we find the parish book of intercession, where people request prayers for their difficulties and sufferings, great and small. There, we find signup sheets for various trips, for donating flowers and volunteering for liturgical ministries. There, too, we find pamphlets on a variety of topics, and religious items for sale.

While the front of the church is concerned with the divine presence, morality, authority, proper procedure and liturgy, the back is given over to the nitty-gritty exigencies of life. In order to maintain the whole church as the Father's house and the place where the body of Christ meets to pray, it is necessary to unite the front and back of the church in a creative tension.

When Jesus appeared in the temple area that long-ago day, his words and his presence were transformative. Moneychangers and sellers with their animals had no place within the confines of the Father's house. But he also used that moment to speak of another temple, the temple of his body. "Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up."

As one in whom the very presence of God dwelled, Jesus could readily call himself a temple. Earlier in his Gospel, the evangelist told his readers that Jesus, the Word of God, became flesh and pitched his tent among us (1:14). Tent, or shakein, shares the same root as the word shekinah, the term used for the divine presence in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus' words also remind us that we, too, are temples, holy places where God has chosen to take up residence. Just as the Jerusalem temple was cleansed of a marketplace mentality, so do we have to focus not on the transient but on the transcendent, not on ourselves but on God and on those God puts on our way to love and serve.

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

This story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: The Father's house .

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