lent The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Words to Live By

EXODUS 20:1-17
JOHN 2:13-25

In each of his several epic novels, American author James A. Michener succeeded in making a different culture and civilization accessible to his readers. His works were characteristically massive as Michener spent years researching a single topic, often living on location for extended periods of time. Because he packed such a wealth of detailed, background information and interesting facts into each book, armchair travelers felt as though they had accompanied Michener on his journey.

One such literary excursion was entitled The Source, a 1965 novel about Israel through the ages. Alternating between fact and fiction, Michener chronicled the development of an ancient people who shifted their allegiance to a new god “partly because his demands upon them were severe and partly because they had grown somewhat contemptuous of their local gods precisely because they were not demanding.” (James A. Michener, The Source, Random House, Inc., New York: 1965).

In the readings selected for the Third Lenten Sunday, the scriptures invite the gathered assembly to consider some of God’s demands, albeit from a different frame of reference than Michener’s. Whereas the god featured in The Source appears to be the product of human reasoning and imagination and is portrayed as an ever evolving and maturing concept in the minds of believers, the God of the Hebrew and Christian covenants is the transcendent Creator of all, who through personal revelation chooses to be known immanently and intimately by humankind.

For this reason, the demands of the law, as featured in the first reading and the demands for authentic worship as featured in the gospel are to be understood, not as orders that burden and entrench humanity in a maze of moral gridlock, but as a divine gift and gracious guidance.

Rather than think of the commandments simply as rules set forth by a potentate, perhaps it is more appropriate to regard them as “words to live by.” Indeed, in both Hebrew (debarim) and Greek (decalogue) the commandments are not called rules but words. Moreover, these words have been offered within the context of an ongoing dialogue also known as the covenant. As Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque (Guide for the Christian Assembly, Fides Publishers, Notre Dame IN: 1970) have explained, “God’s commandment is always a word addressed by a person to a person. It is only under a regime of covenant and communion that it becomes livable. All the vicissitudes of life are contemplated, not analytically or casuistically.”

Several of God’s special words to us do, of course, correspond to the natural law. But the form is personal; in each word, God’s loving will for humanity is spoken aloud. These special words are to form the basis of the behavior of the believer; however, they must be carefully heard, sensitively attended and deliberately kept. When these special words become words to live by, then the dialog impacts every facet of the human experience; the covenant deepens personal prayer and liturgy becomes truer.

In the not so distant past, the commandments were often used as the basic structure of a public examination of conscience. Many a Lenten sermon was given over to a series of questions offered by the homilist in order to prompt and guide the reflections of the congregation concerning the commandments. Suffice it to say, these words to live by can speak for themselves and a return to the “legal laundry list” type of examination does not seem warranted.

Nevertheless, in a culture that frequently appears to regard the ten commandments as the “ten suggestions,” the church in its wisdom reminds us today of these words to live by. At each Eucharist, we who ask forgiveness “for what I have done and for what I have failed to do”, would do well to let these words sink into our hearts once again.

EXODUS 20:1-17

Andrew Greeley, priest, sociologist and author suggests that the Sinai experience and gift of the words to live by was “not fundamentally an ethical vision,” but “a religious event, an encounter of man (sic) with God.” In fact, says Greeley, the whole experience could be summed up as a meeting of “I” and “Thou”. Yahweh is revealed as “I” and chooses to be committed to the “Thou” of humankind (The Sinai Myth, Image Books, New York: 1975).

In commenting on God’s commitment to Israel (and to us) J.G. Williams explained that “I am the Lord your God” (v. 1) “means that the Power which governs the planets in their courses, causes water to evaporate, the vegetation to blossom, makes the human heart beat and the human mind think is a power who can and does identify himself (sic) with the word “I”. This “I” does not simply stand over against us; this “I” surrounds us, envelopes us, constitutes us” (Ten Words of Freeom: An Introduction to the Faith of Israel, Fortress Press, Philadelphia: 1971).

In each of the ten words the eternal, absolute and committed “I” explains the spiritual, social and political ramifications of what it means to be called “Thou” or “You” by God. It means that other gods are precluded from this unique relationship (v. 3). It means that the “I” cannot be imaged or confined to any statue, icon or likeness of any sort; in a word, the “I” is greater than any human imagining, and beyond the human capacity to fabricate, control and/or manipulate (vv. 4-5). It means that the name of “I” is holy and to be reverenced (v. 7). For the Israelites, the name was so revered as to be unutterable. Rather than plunder the name of God by speaking it aloud in finite human speech, the ancients circumscribed the sacred tetragrammeton (from Hebrew letters for YHWH) and prayed “Adonai” or Lord. Because God had become committed as “I” to “Thou” within the context of human history, time and space were consecrated and a certain portion of time was to be specifically devoted to acknowledging God’s commitment to the earth and its peoples (vv. 8-10). The explanation that the Sabbath rest was a commemoration of the divine respite (Genesis 1) after six days of creation (v. 11) is debatable, given the fact that, when the priestly editors of Genesis gave it its final form during the exile, the Sabbath rest was already being observed. The promised weekly period of rest and reflection was probably also prompted by humanitarian concerns.

Since the parameters of Israel’s “I-Thou” relationship with God was first learned within the context of the human family, elders were to be respected as the first keepers and purveyors of religious tradition. The fourth word concerning the honor due to parents (v. 12) was also a safeguard in a society where the aged depended upon the care of younger generations for survival.

The remainder of the “I-Thou” dialogue, which comprises today’s first reading, reaches out to extend the covenantal communion with God to others. The eternal “I”, who is committed in saving love, to every human “Thou” speaks words that challenge believers to live and think, to choose and act, in terms of “We” and “Us”. Therefore willful homicide is prohibited as well as theft (v. 15). Nor may the reputation and good name of another be destroyed by lies (v. 16). If marriage and family are to remain healthy and holy, adultery cannot be tolerated (v. 14). Property of others is also to be respected (v. 17). The term covet, in Hebrew (hamad), means more than just envying or desiring; hamad involved a deliberate scheme to take for oneself that which belongs to another.

For centuries, these words were regarded as the basic terms of the covenant. With Jesus’ appearance however, these words were lifted to a new level of dialogue, thoroughly informed by selfless love and service. Jesus’ saving death and resurrection was made known the very depth of the eternal “I’s” loving commitment. “I the Lord, am your God.”


Someone once quipped, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” To many of the Jews and Greeks to whom Paul ministered, the apostle was indeed regarded as a fool. He preached a message, which for the Jews was contrary to their expectations. . . a messiah who would die in ignominy on a cross?. . . Never! For the Greeks with their complex systems of logic and elitist philosophies, the crucifixion was a contradiction of good sense. . . and the resurrection?. . . an affront to their dualistic tendency to write off the body as valueless! But Paul would not be silent. He was a fool for the sake of the wisdom of God!

In the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul dealt at length with the contrast between worldly and divine wisdom. Six times, within chapters one through three, Paul drew on texts from the Hebrew Scriptures to illustrate his point; those who think they have achieved wisdom do not truly understand it (1 Corinthians 19 = Isaiah 64:4; 2:16 = Isaiah 40:13; 3:19 = Job 5:13; 3:20 = Psalm 94:11). Today’s short second reading represents a synopsis of his argument.

Whereas some of his listeners regarded wisdom as a human quality, which could be achieved by sheer dint of intellectual and philosophical effort, Paul understood wisdom as God’s gift to an otherwise weak and foolish people. The fullest extent of divine wisdom was revealed in the crucifixion of Christ; on this point Paul was unrelenting, caring not whether his message shocked or offended.

No doubt Paul had grown in his resolve to preach plainly and without pandering during his stay in Athens. As Kevin Quast points out, “there he tried to engage Stoics and Epicureans in their game, evangelizing them with logic and rhetoric (Acts 17:16-34).” For the most part, the philosophers ridiculed him. His next stop was Corinth. He arrived “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3); that may have had as much to do with the Athenian encounter as Corinth’s reputation (Reading the Corinthian Correspondence, Paulist Press, New York: 1994).

The fact that Paul did not mince words may also have been motivated by his urgent sense of mission. With no time to waste and so many people to bring to Christ, he was bold in the truth. That same truth challenges all who hear his words today. Christ, crucified, is God’s gift of wisdom to the world. Take it or leave it! Decide for or against it! But remember, those who appropriate this gift in faith will live; those who will not, have chosen their own demise.

JOHN 2:13-25

Visitors to the Holy Land, and to the sacred sites revered by Jews, Christians and Moslems for centuries, may gain a sense of Jesus’ frame of mind as he entered the temple precincts that day. In Jesus’ day, money changers, animals, and those who sold them, crowded into the temple, making that consecrated place of prayer resemble a marketplace. Today, hucksters in Jerusalem hassle the pilgrims over the price of religious souvenirs. Merchants sell votive candles to visitors at the city’s sacred sites, only to extinguish the candle and sell it again to the next tourist. Tour guides purporting to know the precise location of this or that event offer their services to the highest bidder. Suffice it to say that crass commercialism has been the distasteful companion of organized religion for a long time.

As a partial explanation of his actions in the temple, the Johannine Jesus referenced Jeremiah (7:11-14), who blamed the desecration and destruction of the temple on the evil deeds of the people. Also referenced were Tobit (14:1-10) and Zechariah (14:20ff); both contained prophecies of an ideal temple in which no business would be conducted except the proper “business” of authentic worship. Jesus’ description of the temple as “my Father’s house” (v. 16) and the citation of Psalm 69 (“Zeal for your house consumes me”) underscored the special relationship Jesus shared with God, an intimate “I-Thou” relationship made accessible to all believers because of Jesus’ saving words and works.

But, as is usually the case when one reads the fourth gospel, there is a further depth of meaning in this pericope. An event included in each of the four gospels, Jesus cleansing of the temple probably occurred late in his ministry as indicated by the synoptics. Such disruption of the official cult would not have gone unnoticed by the religious authorities; in fact, Jesus’ words and action on this occasion were condemned as blasphemy and were used as evidence against him at his “trial.” But the Johannine evangelist chose to place this event at the beginning of Jesus’ public mission, as a dramatic announcement that the Lord, who was expected “to appear suddenly in the temple to cleanse and to purify (Malachi 3:4; Zechariah 14:1-21), had indeed come! By his actions, Jesus was, in effect, inaugurating the long awaited messianic age.

Contextually, the temple cleansing and the prediction about the temple’s destruction (v. 19) are separate episodes in the other gospels. However, John has paired these narratives and juxtaposed them quite closely with his first sign, the changing of water into wine at Cana. To understand the evangelist’s rationale is to become familiar with two more Johannine literary and theological techniques. By replacing the water with wine, Jesus signaled that he was about the task of replacing the ways of the old dispensation with himself, his teaching, and the new ways of the reign of God.

Capitalizing on the misunderstanding of those who thought Jesus was predicting the temple’s destruction, the evangelist cut through the double entendre to inform his readers that Jesus was “speaking about the temple of his body” (v. 21). Like the water at Cana, the temple and its liturgy would be supplanted by the person of Jesus. He, whose body would be destroyed but raised after three days, would thereafter be the place for meeting God and for hearing those all important words to live by.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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