THEME: True Worship of God

BY: Fr. Luke Ijezie

Exodus 20:1-17;
Psalm 19:8-11;
1 Corinthians 1:22-25;
John 2:13-25.

The readings of this 3rd Sunday of Lent invite us to reflect on our individual and collective approaches to the worship of God. Much depends on how we treat God’s presence and His laws. The two dimensions are represented by the temple and the law. These two are the greatest institutions of the Jewish religion. It is a temple religion and it is a Torah (law) religion. Christianity inherited both institutions from Judaism but reinterpreted them with the Centrality of Jesus the crucified Messiah. We are invited to focus on Jesus as the new means and centre of true worship of God.


Today’s Gospel text from John 2:13-25 narrates the dramatic episode of Jesus’ entry into the temple to purify it. It is a text that requires proper interpretation, as the story itself is a very symbolic one and should not be understood literally, on the face value. Jesus is not just telling people to stop selling or doing business in the temple. He goes deeper than that.
The account of the cleansing of the temple is found in all the three Synoptic Gospels (Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-47), but apart from John, it is always placed at the end of Jesus’ ministry, during his final trip to Jerusalem. Why does John recount it at the beginning of his Gospel?
This episode at the temple is purposely put at the beginning of John’s Gospel because it presents many significant elements regarding the identity of Jesus. The occasion is the Passover feast which is the greatest of all Jewish festivals. Jesus goes to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover as a pious Jew. So Jesus and his disciples are present in this feast as a religious obligation. The problem begins with the report in 2:14: “And he found in the temple those who were selling cattle and sheep and doves and the money changers sitting there.” It may sound strange that people were selling these animals in the temple. But it is good to note the reasons so as to interpret better the action of Jesus. These animals are meant for sacrifice in the temple.
But why the money changers? In the time of Jesus the official means of exchange was the Roman currency. But the mandatory money for the temple transactions was the Jewish Sheckel and not the Roman currency. So people needed to change money before buying these animals for sacrifice. That explains the presence of the money changers. And what did Jesus do? “Making a whip from a chord, he drove them all out of the temple, sheep and cattle as well, scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their table” (2:15).
This is the first and only context in the Gospels where Jesus is said to have been violent. However, it is not stated whether he actually flogged the people.
“And he said to the dove sellers, ‘Take these out from here and stop making my Father’s house a market” (2:16). It is interesting that Jesus calls the temple his Father’s house. This is very instructive. By calling the temple “My father’s house” (ton oikon tou patros mou), Jesus shows his positive regard for the Jewish temple. The Jewish tradition from the Old Testament regards the temple as the house of God, but Jesus goes further to identify with this house by calling it the house of his own Father. The statement that they have turned the house into a market recalls Zech 14:21: “There shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” The Jews were not so much perturbed by the action of Jesus but asked him to prove himself with a sign. But by demanding a sign, the Jews implicitly understand that what Jesus did was a symbolic act. They recognize it is an act of purifying the temple which is known as one of the actions of the messianic times. They ask questions about his authority, given that such a sign is reserved to the one who is to come (see Mal 3:1). Does he have messianic authority? He has to prove it with a sign. The Apostle Paul will tell us in the second reading of today (1Cor 1:22-25) that the Jews always ask for a sign while we preach a crucified Christ.
What Paul says about crucifixion is not completely different from the response of Jesus to the demand for a sign: “Jesus replied and said to them, ‘Destroy this sanctuary (naos) and in three days I will raise it'” (John 2:19). Jesus volunteers to give a sign but a strange one: their destruction of the temple and his raising it in three days. It is good to note that Jesus now talks of the sanctuary, which is called “naos” in Greek and not of the main temple (called “hieron”). The Naos (sanctuary) is the inner section of the temple where sacrifices are made. The reply of the Jews also shows that they also understand he means the sanctuary. The only problem is, which sanctuary?
There is a difference between the physical sanctuary that the Jews are talking of and the sactuary that Jesus is talking of. The Johannine author here explains that the body (soma) of Jesus is the real sanctuary to be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. The temple as “hieron” is the house of Jesus’ father (2:16), but the temple as “naos” (sanctuary) is the body (soma) of Jesus (2:19-21). In fact, Jesus drives away the animals meant for sacrifice because such sacrifices are usually carried out in the area of the temple called the naos. In the new dispensation which Jesus inaugurates, animal sacrifices are no longer needed since Jesus as the Lamb of God plays that role. The body of Jesus is the new locus of communion with God and it is this body that functions as the new sanctuary. The ritual dimension which the temple sacrifice expresses is no longer needed, since that access which the ritual purports to effect is definitively realized through the body of Jesus. The animals are no longer needed since Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Thus, the centre of the new religion, as Paul tells the Corinthians in the second reading, is the crucified Christ. The new locus of true worship of God is the crucified Jesus, even though this may sound foolish to others.
The total allegiance to God which the Ten Commandments stipulate, as recorded in the first reading from Exod 20:1-17, are now to be observed wit Jesus and his teaching as the point of reference. As a matter of fact, the whole laws of the Ten Commandments are different ways of expressing total submission to the reign of the Liberator God. The laws treat how we are to relate to God (first to third commandment) and how we are to live in harmony with one another as people of God (fourth to tenth commandment). The harmony and peace of the society depend on keeping the laws, as the basic ethics for harmony in every branch of life is captured in the Commands.
All these laws hang on the first Commandment which says that one should have no other gods except the One God. The abandonment of the worship of the one God, which expresses itself in idolatry, apostasy, and polytheism, only leads to moral relativism and societal breakdown. This is because people pledge allegiance to diverse and opposing authorities with contrary laws and moral codes. This is a real problem in today’s multi-religious environment. Sometimes people pretend to be calling on the name of God or the name of Jesus, but what in fact they worship is Satan or Mammon or other hedonistic ideologies. The consequence is the multiplication of all forms of evil and depravity.
Some others use religion as a means for selfish gain, and they use every opportunity to desecrate the worship of God through many aberrations. These are the types of people Jesus drives away from the temple in the Gospel of today from John 2:13-25. His words are very significant: “You shall not make my father’s house a house of trade.” The same words may be addressed to many contemporary religious worshippers who turn the worship of God into a business venture or as means of acquiring more economic, social or political power. For such people, God is relevant only when He is manipulated to solve their mundane problems. Paul encourages his hearers to remain steadfast in the faith in One God even when what they experience seems absurd as in the fact of the crucified Christ, which appears foolish to the learned.
The worship of God in the Christian context presents many challenges, and many find it difficult to endure to the end. In our African traditional context, many are searching for a powerful, miracle working God who intervenes without delay in situations of misery and oppression. Sometimes many resort to the gods and divinities of the old African Traditional Religion as they find the Christian God too weak and too slow to work or to wreak vengeance. They, however, forget that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1Cor 1:25). Thus, the only way to succeed in life is to keep following God and walking according to His wise Commands. The psalmist of the beautiful Psalm 18 sums it: “The law of the Lord is perfect; it revives the soul. The decrees of the Lord are steadfast; they give wisdom to the simple.”
May the Spirit of God keep guiding us on the part of true worship!



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