3rd Sunday of Lent Year B, Father Ambrose Bennett, OSB

Jesus Cleansing the Temple.jpg

In this morning’s gospel, we see Jesus himself, the Holy One of God, cleansing the Temple itself, the Holy Place. What was the situation?

First, recall that the key moments of our Savior’s life always had some connection to the Temple in Jerusalem, either directly or by implication. As an infant, he had been presented to the Lord forty days after his birth (Lk 2.22-39). St. Luke’s gospel tells us that the Temple was central in the lives of Mary and Joseph, as well, and that they always went up to the Holy Place for every Passover (Lk 2.41). On one such occasion, when Jesus was twelve years old, Jesus caused his mother great distress by remaining behind in the Temple in order to be about his Father’s business (Lk 2,46-49). And it is clear that our Lord’s public ministry was patterned by his pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great feasts of the Jewish liturgical calendar.

And now we come to the great and dramatic episode of the cleansing of the Temple.

According to St. John’s Gospel, it was near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He had already performed his first miracle at Cana, when he changed the water into wine; perhaps he had spent a week there for the wedding festivities. However, the Passover was approaching, and Jesus wanted to be in Jerusalem for the holy day.

After a brief detour to Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jerusalem and went to the Temple, together with a vast throng of pilgrims. In the Temple complex itself, there was a series of courtyards. One was called the Court of the Gentiles, and pagans were allowed to enter it. In Jewish law, this court was still considered holy ground; yet it had been turned into a place of commercial traffic in sacrificial animals and in currency exchanges. The use of Roman coinage was not allowed in the Temple precincts, since Roman coins bore the image of the emperor and had to be exchanged for acceptable currency before the Temple could accept the contributions. No doubt there was some dishonest practices that went on at these religious festivals; yet that was not the primary fault that our Lord found with them when he made a whip of cords and drove out the sellers and the money-changers. Jesus did this because they were desecrating a sacred place, as his very words tell us: “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (Jn 2.16).

Think about the situation: in the holy city of Israel, with huge crowds of pilgrims around, and in the Temple precincts themselves, Christ takes upon himself to cleanse the Temple. One wonders why he encountered no greater resistance from the sellers and money-changers, why the priests did not simply arrest him for daring to take upon himself such a role. There must have been something majestic and overwhelming about Jesus’ person at that moment that prevented anyone from standing in his way; and then again, for religious Jews, Jesus’ rebuke had stung their consciences, at least for a moment. And they knew that God had sent prophets in the past who had done and said similar things, and that God had promised a Messiah, a Son of David. Could there have been a thought that this might be the one whom they had awaited, come at last, after so many centuries?

And so they asked for a sign, saying, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” (Jn 2.18). Jesus replied in a cryptic way, saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2.19). St. John tells us that the Temple of which Jesus spoke was the Temple of his body; but Jesus’ hearers thought he was referring to the great Temple that had been under construction for forty-six years already. This seemed preposterous to them. They had asked for a sign, and then he had given him this strange answer that sounded either like a threat of destruction against the Temple, or else as some sort of claim to BE the true Temple. In either sense, Jesus’s words seemed strange and shocking. As Simeon had said to Mary, Jesus was to be a sign of contradiction.

It is only in the light of faith that one can see in Christ, crucified and risen, the true Temple, the dwelling-place of God himself within our very humanity, the Savior in whose body we can worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth (Jn 4.21). Only in this light can we see the meaning of Christian discipleship as one of consecration in Christ, so that we ourselves become living temples.

This divine in-dwelling is called grace. The Lord’s cleansing of the Temple reminds us that that there is no cheap grace, that being consecrated in Christ by our baptism will not avail us if we do not live lives of discipleship. In other words, we must not preach cheap grace. And what is cheap grace? Isn’t grace, by definition, a pure gift of God, freely given and un-earned? Indeed it is. It was the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death for his opposition to the tyranny of Hitler, who explained what he meant by criticizing the notion of cheap grace. Bonhoeffer described cheap grace as follows:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 47).

Now Bonhoeffer was much drawn to the monastic life and spent long periods at the Benedictine abbey of Ettal in Germany; I think that, if he had lived, he might have become a Catholic in the end: his writings about discipleship come close to the Catholic understanding of seeking holiness, sainthood. His respect for monastic life was surprising for a number of reasons. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, and the ex-monk Luther had bitterly attacked the monks and their vocation; Bonhoeffer had been raised in that anti-Catholic prejudice against monks and nuns. Yet Bonhoeffer came to see something in the monastic vocation that blesses the whole Church, for a man or woman who professes religious vows is one who gives up all in faith for the Kingdom of Christ. It is in this sense that the Church has infallibly taught the greater perfection of celibacy and religious vows as means to the holiness to which all Christians are called. Precisely by being an icon of discipleship, the monastic life, especially in its contemplative form, draws down countless graces that enrich the whole Body of Christ and every true Christian vocation within it. For this reason, it is especially important that young men and women seriously consider whether God is calling them to vowed religious life; and it is similarly important that Catholic fathers and mothers encourage their sons and daughters to think about a vocation and to assure them of support if they wish to try that vocation.

For this is the paradox of the Christian life and especially of the religious life of nuns and monks: grace is freely given and yet costs us everything, for the grace of Christ requires of us the surrender of our very selves.

Aidan McDermott