3rd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
I saw a meme on FB once. It read: “When someone asks you WWJD, remember: freaking out, flipping tables, and using a whip are all legitimate options.” Not the comfortable picture we usually conjure when thinking about what Jesus would do. Nonetheless, he did it. And he had good reason. His Father's house of prayer had been turned into a house of thieving merchants. We could erroneously conclude from this episode that Jesus is upset with capitalism in general and merchants in particular. That he's upset b/c buying and selling for a profit is somehow evil. But that's not what he's upset about. Jesus is upset b/c the presence of the merchants and the money changers in the temple courtyard turn the faith into an accounting exercise, an exchange of goods. Buy two doves for sacrifice and get your minor sins forgiven. Buy a goat for sacrifice and get one major sin forgiven. That these sacrifices also make a profit for the merchants makes the violation of the temple worse. Literally, the merchants and money changers were profiting from sin! God's generously and freely offered mercy is not for sale. His grace is a gift not a product for purchase.
Some of our ways of thinking about sin and forgiveness can sometimes look a lot like a marketplace exchange. Especially during Lent. We're focused on repentance and conversion; we're focused on being prepared for Easter – praying, fasting, and giving alms. These Lenten disciplines can (and often do) become deals, bargaining tools, maybe even outright quid pro quo exchanges with God. Lord, I'll fast once a week, and you'll agree to cure my sister's cancer. Lord, I'll pray an extra rosary everyday, and you'll agree to bring my grandchildren back into the Church. Lord, I'll throw an extra fiver in the plate every Sunday, and you'll make sure I pass my mid-terms. Enter Jesus. Whip in hand. Kicking over tables. Scattering the money changers and merchants of grace. This is not how our faith works. Your Father's house is not a marketplace! Treating prayer, fasting, and alms giving as a way to get on God's good side so that He'll grant your wishes is superstitious and pagan. We don't have to do anything for God to give us every good thing we need. He always gives us every good thing we need. What we need to do is receive all that He gives. That's what our Lenten disciplines are about. Praying, fasting, and giving alms so that we are best prepared to receive all that God has to give.
After Jesus trashes the temple courtyard, the crowd demands that he show them a sign. They want to know by what authority he presumes to clear the merchants away. He tells them that if they destroy the temple he will rebuild it in three days. He's talking about himself, of course. And that is exactly what happens. They destroy the temple of his body and in three days he rebuilds it in the resurrection. This is the sign they demand – and it will be persuasive, if they remember he prophesied it. Some do. Most don't. The disciples are among those who do remember. And b/c they do, they come to believe on Easter morning. As he continues preaching and teaching, many others see the signs of who and what he is. But Jesus doesn't trust himself to them. Why? B/c he understands human nature all too well. Jesus knows what it is to be human. He knows that faith in him and his mission cannot be rooted in signs and wonders. The fascination we humans have for the spectacular, the unusual, and the miraculous is fleeting. Once the showy show is over, we're right back to our very human ways. What's required is a deep-down conversion, a turning-around of our nature at a fundamental level. What we need is Christ. And him crucified.
If the mercantile exchange of goods and services for grace is pagan and superstitious; and chasing after miracles, apparitions, locutions; signs and wonders is fleeting, then what keeps us grounded in Christ during Lent. Easy. Prayer. Fasting. Alms giving. These are the practical, down-to-earth, ordinary means of making ourselves ready to receive all that God has to give us. Nothing fancy. Nothing showy or weird. Nothing excessive or extravagant. Just plain ole prayer, fasting, and alms giving. Each one of these disciplines – properly understood – will tune us up to run smoothly. Pray with praise and thanksgiving for everything you have and everything you are. Fast to acknowledge your total dependence on God for everything, including your very existence. Give alms to expand your capacity to receive His blessings. Generosity is contagious; it's a force multiplier. God's grace is not for sale. Or exchanging or refunding or borrowing. Nor is our faith rooted in signs and wonders. Trust in God is a gift we nurture in humility with praise and thanksgiving. You have what you need. Use it!