Sermon - Year B

3rd Sunday of Lent

It took ten days or so to cover the distance of about 200 miles between my home county and the national Marian shrine of Jasna Góra (The Bright Mount). A walking pilgrimage that was a staple of my summer for eleven years. Except for the very first one, I was involved in organising and running those walking pilgrimages in various roles. So, you can guess I was rather a fan of those – and for good reasons. They offered me a great religious and spiritual experience, gave me a fantastic sense of community of the faith, and certainly had a great positive impact on my spiritual development in so many ways. I’m still very fond of those walking pilgrimages. So, you might be surprised to hear that the lowest point of each of them was the arrival at the shrine, the very destination of the walking pilgrimage. I strongly disliked the omnipresent air of commercialisation on a semi-industrial scale in and around the shrine. In that respect, I think I know how Jesus felt when he arrived at the Jerusalem Temple at the end of his traditional Jewish pilgrimage of Passover.

In line with the Law of Moses, the ancient Israelites living in the Kingdom of Judah would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Three Pilgrimage Festivals: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles or Tents. Many Jews from outside would make such pilgrimages, too, as testified by the Acts of the Apostles regarding Pentecost: “There were some godly Jews in Jerusalem at this time. They were from every country in the world.” (2:5) An important part of the festivities was making sacrifices of sacrificial animals; those creatures had to meet high criteria. Travelling with such animals could have been cumbersome, so many Jewish pilgrims resorted to buying them in Jerusalem. Such a convenient solution created another headache. Most coins used by pilgrims bore the head of the issuer, a fact cleverly used by Jesus when he was trapped by some officials on taxes: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.” (Mark 12:17) Any images of people or animals were banned in the Law of Moses; consequently, practically all foreign coins had to be exchanged for the Jewish shekel, the only currency accepted for buying sacrificial animals and for a traditional donation towards the upkeep of the Temple. It was a convenient system of supporting pilgrims making their way to the Temple; it produced numerous jobs in Jerusalem and around it and provided much-needed funds for the Temple. It also utilised the vast temple grounds called the Court of Gentiles that otherwise would have been unused. In other words, the whole system worked like well-oiled machinery. That’s why Jesus’ action in the Temple made so many Jews indignant: “Show us a miracle as a sign from God. Prove that you have the right to do these things.” (Easy-to-Read translation)

It would be easy to interpret Jesus’ intervention as his total opposition against any form of the financial or material aspect of religious life. It would be idealistic but false. Jesus had seen the system three times a year since his first pilgrimage at the age of twelve. He couldn’t have remembered it, but his parents had sacrificed a couple of doves (Luke 2:24) forty days after his birth; quite likely, the birds had been bought in the same place Jesus wrecked in today’s gospel. His followers “used their own money to help Jesus and his apostles.” (Luke 8:1-3) Jesus and his companions also had a fund to support those in need, as mentioned in the gospel of St John, referring to Judas suddenly leaving the Last Supper after having had a wee chat with Jesus: “Since Judas was the one in charge of the money, some of them thought […] that Jesus wanted him to go and give something to the poor.” (13:29) A poor widow who put two small coins into the Temple collection box was praised by Jesus because – unlike many wealthier people – “she gave all she had. It was money she needed to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44) Jesus went the extra mile to pay the two-drachma Temple tax, instructing Peter to go fishing and to use a coin found in the mouth of the caught fish to pay the tax for both of them (Matthew 17:24-27). So, what angered Jesus on this occasion that he decided to act so violently?

A passage from the First Letter to Timothy indirectly casts some light on the situation: “The love of money causes all kinds of evil. Some people have turned away from what we believe because they want to get more and more money. They think that devotion to God is a way to get rich. Devotion to God is, in fact, a way for people to be very rich, but only if it makes them satisfied with what they have. People who want to be rich bring temptations to themselves. They are caught in a trap. They begin to want many foolish things that will hurt them. These things ruin and destroy people.” (6:10.5-6.9) What had started as a well-intended convenient solution to aid the pilgrims and the Temple turned into a business opportunity, mercilessly milked by those with power and connections. Such systems tend to slip into corruption that develops shady practices, concessions, deals and bribery. It’s inconceivable to think that the Jerusalem Temple was exceptional. As such corrupt systems enrich few and impoverish many, my educated guess is that Jesus’ anger was triggered by such a corrupt shift. Perhaps it was a massive, intolerable spike in prices of sacrificial animals that provoked unholy quarrels and arguments between the sellers and those who couldn’t afford the animals anymore, consequently rendering their pilgrimage worthless. The professional greed of the sellers might have killed the spirit of the Passover; the God who was worshipped in the Temple was effectively replaced by the idol, Mammon.

What can we learn from this Gospel reading?

Firstly, even the most spiritual organisations need material support to function. Our parish community does; we must upkeep the church and associated buildings, pay the bills, and so on. Fundraising is part of our parish community life. But raising funds must always be in service of raising the faith because that is the sole purpose of the Church’s existence. My experience over the years has been that when we “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these [material] things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

Secondly, as a faith community, we are the Temple of God. How do I treat my fellow members of the Body of Christ? My overall impression of our community is that we care for one another. It might present itself in small things and gestures, but it’s vital, nevertheless. We should never stop striving for active charitable love towards others!

Thirdly, individuals can be tempted to treat the sacraments (baptism, first communion, marriage) as mercantile goods. It’s unlikely they have joined this Mass, so – my ranting aside – there’s no point in preaching to the absent…

Finally, as individuals, each one of us is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Lent is a particularly good time to check in what condition we keep this temple. What does fill it? What does occupy your mind most of the time? What drives your actions, behaviour and attitudes? Is your life a temple, as described by Jesus? “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Image by vined mind from Pixabay