The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Third Sunday of Lent||March 19, 2006|
We might think of it as kind of a providential irony that this particular passage from Johns Gospel is read today when we are mindful that this date is the third anniversary of the bombing of Iraq, the beginning of the second violent Persian Gulf war. Its ironic because its the one place in the gospel where people sometimes say Well look, Jesus used violence, as though knocking over some tables would be the equivalent of firing a missile at a neighborhood. Theres just absolutely no comparison; its absurd to think of what Jesus did as violence.
Yet I think the passage probably does disturb us somewhat, partly because we underestimate the full humanness of Jesus. We forget that Jesus really was like us, and so he could become outraged and angry. Obviously on this occasion he was angry. They had made Gods house, which is to be a sacred, holy place into, what Jesus called, a den of thieves. A den of corruption; a den of sin. And so he was angry.
But if we are truly to understand this passage we must go even beyond that anger of Jesus and see it really in the context of the whole Gospel of John, which is unique among the four Gospels. The other three are very similar to one another; Johns is unique. Partly because Johns Gospel uses what he calls many signs, symbolic actions, that are a way of God speaking to us, telling us about Jesus and who Jesus is.
Just before this action I mentioned, Jesus had performed that sign at Cana in Galilee. Changing water into wine in extravagant amounts. It was a symbol of the utter fullness of joy and happiness in the reign of God. A wedding feast is a symbol of Gods fullness of life in joy and love. And so Jesus symbolizes all of that with his actions at Cana. At the end of Johns Gospel you may remember John says, There are many other signs that Jesus did, but there are too many to put into this book. We have recorded the ones we have in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Todays passage, near the beginning of Johns Gospel, is another sign that Jesus is using to show us who he is -- the son of God. And to show us what kind of change is necessary if we really accept this. Change is necessary in our lives if we accept that Jesus is the son of God, and that he is the one that shows us the way to God.
Mark put it so much more simply in a way. He begins his gospel with Jesus starting his public life immediately and starting off by saying, The reign of God is at hand, change your lives. Jesus is telling us the same thing only in a kind of dramatic way. The reign of God is at hand. God is present in our midst. And his first witnesses of this sign would have understood what he was doing: claiming to be God. Thats one of the reasons those religious leaders were so upset and so angry. How dare this, what they would think of as, illiterate, peasant from Nazareth come in to the temple and act as though hes God.
By doing this, claiming to be God, Jesus was fulfilling what God had proclaimed through the prophet Malachi. Now I am sending my messenger ahead of me to clear the way, then suddenly God, for whom you long, will enter the sanctuary. The envoy of the covenant which you so greatly desire already comes, says Yahweh of hosts. God is going to come into our midst in a very powerful and clear way.
Jeremiah the prophet proclaimed something of the same, but also of the need for change. As I mentioned, introducing the first lesson today, God had just entered into a beautiful covenant with the chosen people. I am your God, you are my people. Then God gives us the way to make that a reality. That we love God with our whole heart and mind and soul -- the first three commandments. And then we love one another -- the rest of the commandments. Carry out the covenant.
But down through the centuries so much had changed. The chosen people and the religious traditions continue to evolve. They began to build a temple even though God had discouraged David from doing that. But they felt they needed their temple. Then they established all kinds of institutional structures to go with it, and sacrifices and so on, but in the midst of all this, much corruption had begun to develop. And so Jeremiah says, Is this house on which rests my name a den of thieves? Ive seen this for myself. It is Yahweh who speaks. Go into the sanctuary of Shiloh in Israel where I first let my name rest and see what I did to that place because of the wickedness of my people Israel. You have done all this and have not listened when I repeatedly warned you. Neither have you answered when I called you. What I did in Shiloh, I will likewise do to this temple on which rests my name. This sacred place in which you trust and which I have given to you and your ancestors. As for you, I will drive you out of my sight.
So much sinfulness and corruption and evil had entered into the practices of the chosen people. Expressed even more powerfully by Isaiah where in the very first chapter, Isaiah points out, or has God speaking, What do I care, says God, for your endless sacrifices. I am fed up with your burnt offerings and the fat of your bulls; the blood of fattened and lambs goats I abhor. When you come before me and trample on my porch, who asked you to visit me? Im fed up with your oblations; I grow sick with your incense. Your new moons, Sabbaths, and meeting evil with holy assembled, I can no longer bear. I detest your new moons and appointed feasts. They burden me. When you stretch out your hand I will close my eyes, the more you pray, the more I refuse to listen. Why? God says it. Because your hands are covered with blood. Then the prophet points out, Remove from my sight the evil of your deeds, put an end to your wickedness and injustices. Learn to do good, seek justice. Give the fatherless, the orphans their rights. Defend the widows. In other words, stand up for the poor, the oppressed. Stop cheating, depriving people of what they have a right to.
So the chosen people were expecting someone to come, to bring purification again. That God, Yahweh, was going to enter into their midst. Now Jesus is claiming he is the one that is going to do this. And in a beautiful passage in Isaiah, further on in Chapter 56, the prophet tells us, This is what Yahweh says: Maintain what is right, do what is just, for my saving love is close at hand. My justice is soon to come.
Then he proclaims a new kind of people. Going beyond the bounds of those born into the Jewish race. Yahweh says to the foreigners, who joined God, served God and loved Gods name, keeping the Sabbath unprofaned and remaining faithful to the covenant, I will bring them to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. I will accept on my altars their burnt offerings and sacrifices, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations. All the nations. This love of God is going to be taken beyond the chosen people, and extended to all.
All this will happen because as Jesus proclaimed in todays Gospel, he is now the temple of God. You dont need a building. You dont need all the marvelous things that people thought were necessary to praise God. Jesus is Gods temple in our midst. And everyone who enters into the life of Jesus, shares the life of Jesus, through Gods pouring forth Gods love onto this world becomes part of that living temple. All of us are part of that temple, but we need to hear the words of Jesus about how we are to live now, in order to be part of this new covenant, sealed in his blood, the sign of his total love for us.
Thats what St. Paul is talking about -- how to live according to the way of Jesus. Here am I preaching a crucified Christ, Paul said. Yes, to the Jews, thats a scandal, a stumbling block they cant get over. A crucified Christ is God?! Thats foolish, say the Greeks, who are the wise people in the world. A God who would allow himself to be tortured, to be nailed to a cross, to be executed like a criminal and not respond using power and force? No! Its foolish! How could that be God? And yet, Paul says, This is what I must preach. This is who God is. The Jesus who extends his arms between heaven and earth in what has now become an everlasting sign of the covenant of Gods love for us -- that cruel form of execution now is a sign of unlimited, unconditional love.
We must try to live the same way. Yes, well struggle against it. It does seem foolish. Saying no to war as we should have said three years ago, it seems foolish, but the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. We would not be in the quagmire we are today in Iraq if somehow we had learned better the foolishness of God, learned how to reach out in love to those who are thought of as enemies, transformed that hostility into hospitality, into friendliness, into love. Thats the way of Jesus.
He came to bring about extraordinary change and he walked through the temple and drove out those moneychangers, overturned their tables saying, Something new has got to happen. God is here now in your midst and God is showing you a whole new way -- peace in the world, joy in our hearts, calm in our spirits, serenity in our lives -- a different way.
During this past week perhaps you read on Thursday the short account about Fr. Lawrence Jenco in the Little Black Book*. To me its a marvelous carrying out of what we prayed this morning as we made the Way of the Cross. At the Eleventh Station we prayed, Jesus really lived his teachings about forgiveness -- love your enemies, pray for your persecutors, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. Jesus love is so pure and generous that he seeks only to build up others no matter what they do to him. If someone throws a lance into his heart, the blood that flows from it washes away that persons sin. Perhaps Jesus greatest gift is his forgiveness, for without it we are locked in permanent alienation from God and from each other. With it we are set free to be one with God, with ourselves and one another.
Thats what Fr. Lawrence Jenco learned. He was a captive, as you will recall if youve read this book this week, in Beirut. He was held hostage 564 days by Muslim radicals. He had been the head of the Catholic Relief Services in the Middle East and so was there doing works of mercy and love and then held hostage.
About 13 months into his captivity, a young captor named Sayeed asked Fr. Jenco for forgiveness. Fr. Jenco leaned against a wall and said, Sayeed, there were times I hated you. I was filled with anger and revenge for what you did to me and my brothers. But Jesus said on a mountaintop that I was not to hate you. I was to love you. Sayeed, I need to ask Gods forgiveness and yours.
At that moment, as Fr. Jenco later wrote in his book, Bound to Forgive, he knew intuitively I had been set free and could go home. I had empowered myself with Gods word. I was going to be freed. He was freed first in his heart and his spirit and then he was eventually freed from that prison. Thats what can happen to any of us if we learn this way of Jesus and follow it. It will happen in our own lives; well be freed from the hatred that imprisons us. We can spread that spirit in our world and be free of the violence and the hatred that keeps us all imprisoned.
The way of Jesus, the crucified Christ, is the way that God calls us to live. Jesus came into the temple today to cleanse it, to purify it. We are that temple. We must open ourselves to his way, to his love and then we will find his freedom and his peace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Editors Note: The Little Black Books that Bishop Gumbleton mentions are produced in the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan. During his tenure as bishop of the Saginaw, Bishop Ken Untener wrote inspirational passages based on Scripture for each day of special seasons of the Liturgical Church year, Advent, Lent, Easter. The name of each small book comes from the color of its simple cover: black, blue or white. They became so popular that parishes, religious orders, and other folks from beyond the diocese began ordering them. Bishop Untener died March 27, 2004, after a short struggle with cancer. In his honor and memory, his friends in the diocese continue to publish these meditation booklets. To order these books, visit the Web site for the Diocese of Saginaw.
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