An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B, John 2:13-25, March 11, 2012
IN ALL WORLD religions, there is a universal belief that God, however he is conceived, is far distant from all of us. He is transcendent and incomprehensible. He is the wholly Other. “For I am God, not man” (Hos 11:9b). But the discovery that God loves and cares for us, that we cannot exist without him makes all of us long for his presence. Whatever might be our reason, we seek him, we want to be with him. But where are we to find him? And how are we to encounter him? How are we to participate in the realm of the divinity? Of course, for some, God is thought to reside in the church. Accordingly, they spend hours praying in the church rather than under the tree. For others, he is encountered through intermediaries. This explains why devotion to the saints, often in the form of novena, litany, and celebrations of their feasts, is popular: one has a sure access to the Father through the blessed in heaven. Still others would insist that God is encountered in the poor. And so, they take up the cause of the underprivileged. To work for them is in a sense to worship God.
For the Jews in the Old Testament, however, God was encountered in the Temple. He was thought to have made his dwelling there: “When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the Lord’s glory had filled the temple of the Lord. Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud; I have truly built you a princely house, a dwelling where you may abide forever” (1 Kgs 8:10-13). Through the Temple, the Jews made some contact with the divinity. This consisted principally in the performance of sacrifice, which took various forms: holocaust, peace offerings, sacrifices of expiation, cereal offerings, and the showbread and perfume offerings (Lev 1-7). It was also in the Temple that they prayed (Ps 5:8) and performed various rituals of purification. A sign of their election as God’s people, the Temple was the privileged venue of encountering God and worshipping him.
But even in the Old Testament, the sacrificial system in the Temple was already subjected to severe criticism. According to the prophets, God does not like burnt offerings (Ia 1:11-17), and is not pleased with them (Hos 8:13). He is not found through them, either (Hos 5:6). For what really pleases God is not sacrificial offerings, but a contrite heart and spirit (Ps 51:16; Isa 66:2). Accordingly, Isaiah stressed the importance of reforming one’s life (Jer 7:3-4). True worship cannot consist in superficialities; for this reason, the prophets emphasized that the people of Israel needed spiritual worship. Since the Temple was the place where sacrifices were offered, it was quite logical that Isaiah denied its necessity: “The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What kind of house can you build for me; what is to be my resting place?” (Isa 66:1). Micah was even more radical: he predicted the destruction of the Temple: “Zion shall be plowed like a field, and Jerusalem reduced to rubble, and the mount of the temple to a forest ridge (Mic 3:12; see Jer 26:18).
In today’s Gospel, we have the Johannine version of the so-called cleansing of the Temple. But what is really involved here is not the cleansing but rather, in John’s view, the replacement of the Temple. When Jesus said that he would destroy it, he was simply bringing to fulfillment what the prophets earlier prophesied. For John, Jesus is the new Temple, the place of God’s presence and man’s encounter with him (John 2:21). This means that God is to be adored through Jesus. Since God is encountered in Jesus’ risen body, his body is the source of the waters of life (John 19:34; 7:38). He draws all (John 12:32). In this understanding, worship takes on a new meaning. To worship God is not primarily to do something for him, as, for example, doing the commandments or offering various sacrifices, but to be united with Jesus in faith. This is accomplished through sharing in Jesus’ risen body (John 6:51), since it is the center of the new worship. This implies, among others, that we ought to offer our life for others (cf Heb 7:27; Mark 10:45). One cannot encounter Jesus in his risen body without having to share in his suffering and death. Consequently, to worship him always implies the offering of our selves. St Paul expresses it this way: “I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect”(Rom 12:1-2).