Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Homily at Parish Mass Lent 3 2015

Exodus 20.1-17
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
John 2:13-22

The cleansing of the temple is all four gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke it takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, shortly before the crucifixion. But in John it happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has called the first disciples, and given the signs of the wedding at Cana and the cure of the Centurion’s servant, but the cleansing of the temple is his first public encounter with the religious authorities who will later condemn him to death.  
The scene is fraught with tension. The temple is the centre of the national cult of Israel. But Jesus’ idea of what it should be is radically different from it actually is, so different that it moves him to action in an outburst of anger.
What the temple should be, according to Jesus, is “his Father’s house”. The Greek word “house” here means not a private dwelling but an open house, a large place where all are welcome. The scene takes place in the court of the gentiles, a vast space which was supposed to be open to people of all races and languages to come and pray. The temple was seen as the dwelling place of God, with and for Israel, yes, but also with and for all humanity, and all should be welcome.
Instead, the court of the gentiles was crowded with market stalls selling animals. Why? Because the dominant function of the temple at the time of Jesus was as a place of sacrifice, that is the ritual killing of animals, which happened on an industrial scale, especially at the time of Passover, when this scene is set.
The animals were sold by traders licensed by the temple management, because they had to be certified ritually pure. A nice monopoly. And they could only be bought with official temple money, as roman coins carried the image of the emperor and an inscription calling him a god, which was regarded as blasphemous. So the temple authorities also regulated the exchange of money. Sacrifice had become a lucrative trade and the temple authorities had grown rich on it.
Now the Bible is a bit ambivalent about sacrifice. As is often the case, the scriptures seem to offer more of an argument than an answer. Mostly the Old Testament emphasises ethical behaviour and doing your duty to God and neighbour. The ten commandments, which we heard this morning, sum that up. And you’ll notice that there’s nothing at all in the ten commandments about sacrifice or ritual. Many of the prophets and psalms are very critical of sacrifice, saying that God had not asked for it and instead wanted people not to oppress orphans and widows and not to defraud labourers of their wages.
On the other hand there are books like Leviticus which prescribe sacrifices and rituals in great detail. So there are these different strands in scripture which seem to be in tension and to interrogate each other. But Jesus throughout his ministry seems to side with the prophets, so he is against oppressing the poor and weak and vulnerable, and he wants to include the excluded. At best he is indifferent to ritual and sacrifice.
But when that gets in the way, when ritual observance turns into an instrument of oppression, when it keeps people away from a living relationship with God, then he gets angry. As we see today. The temple should be a place of inclusion where all are welcome in the Father’s house, and human inequalities are overcome. Instead it has become a monstrous machine devouring the substance of the poor to increase the wealth and power of the aristocratic elite who run it.
Jesus’ anger is motivated not by any slight to himself or his own reputation. He is angry on behalf of the poor and excluded, he is angry that the gentiles are being kept away from Israel’s God who is their true God too. And his anger leads him to action to put right what is wrong.

So this morning what we are talking about is anger. So in twos or threes could you discuss please what makes us angry, and what we do about it. For instance, do we experience anger at injustice and wrong? Do we experience anger because we feel personally slighted or irritated by something? Are those the same? Can we use the energy that anger releases positively, to make a difference? How does this affect our attitude to conflict – are there conflicts we should avoid, and others we should not avoid?

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