Brief synopsis of the readings: In Exodus Moses returned from Mt.Sinai with two tablets. Written on them were what we now know as the 10 Commandments. Those gathered were prohibited from worshiping other gods or carving images of them. They couldn’t take God’s name in vain and they needed to rest on the Sabbath. They were commanded to honor their parents. They were prohibited from murder, adultery, theft and perjury. Finally they were prohibited from desiring to steal their neighbor’s wife, slave, or any of his possessions. John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ anger outside of the Temple. Fellow Israelites made their trade exchanging Roman coins for Temple coins and accepting money for sacrifices of oxen, sheep and doves. Jesus then began to overturn their tables and drive those away from the Temple. He accused them of turning the Temple into a marketplace. When they demanded an explanation Jesus told them that when the Temple is destroyed he will rebuild it in three days.
Even casual Christians will recognize our first reading as the 10 Commandments. We read them on plaques, in booklets and even in public places. Many of us have watched the 1956 movie of the same name so often we can recite dialogue.
Several years ago I was blessed to teach 10th graders in New Jersey as they prepared for the sacrament of Confirmation (I’m not being sarcastic: they were a terrific group). One week the pastor grumbled to me that that they had no appreciation for the 10 Commandments and implied that this meant they were never going to be good Catholics. A few weeks later the lesson plan was on the 10 Commandments and the students expected another boring lesson on memorizing something that had no relation to their lives.
I was determined to mess with their heads. I took a dry erase board and drew a line down the middle. I then asked them this question: “What could your best friend do that would end your friendship?” After several seconds of silence one of the girls said: “If she steals my boyfriend.” Another said: “If he lied about me to others.” Another: “If my friend stole something from me.” I wrote these and others down the left column of the board.
I then wrote the 10 Commandments down the right side of the board and started drawing lines to connect the two columns. “Stealing my boyfriend” connected with “Coveting your neighbor’s wife.” “Lied about me” connected with “Bearing false witness.” Stealing was self evident.
Obviously this wasn’t one for one; none of the students spoke about keeping the Sabbath holy or would end a friendship is his friend didn’t honor his parents. But I spoke about how they shared with me their core values, those things that mattered the most to them. And I told them that what we now see as the 10 Commandments were the core values of the Exodus community. They needed each other to keep these promises to each other to stay together as a community.
We all carry values with us but we see our values in ascending order. I find value in honoring my ancestors (and spend a scary amount on time on my family’s genealogy) but I don’t unfriend Facebook friends who don’t care about their ancestors. On the other hand I have no patience for someone who often makes promise but breaks them when the promise has become inconvenient. That person cannot be my friend.
And so let us look at Jesus in the Gospel. For those who witnessed the scene in the Gospel this was the ultimate throw down. According to the laws of the time, the merchants outside the Temple did nothing wrong. Passover was near and Jews from all around the area gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate, and the city was much more crowded than usual.
Since they were occupied by the Romans the coins everyone carried bore the image of Caesar but Jewish law forbade those coins in the Temple since they bore graven images. Because of this there were moneychangers who exchanged Roman coins for Temple coins (at a small profit) that were allowed. Additionally, it was a custom to sacrifice animals in the Temple. Those who traveled to Jerusalem didn’t wish to carry animals and merchants figured out that if they set up tables outside the Temple with an assortment of animals they could make a good living (with a small profit). Today we could call this a “win-win.”
So what was wrong with this? Why did Jesus get so angry? As an aside I like to use this scene when I hear someone tell me that getting angry is a sin. Anger in the face of injustice is no sin.
In any case I suspect that Jesus saw this as something that may have started off well but went off the rails. What may have started as a way to make things easier, and even possible, had devolved into a marketplace. Jews going through this likely thought nothing of this and saw as only doing what they were supposed to do. Perhaps they recognized that the money they spent gave glory to God, but it could be argued that they saw this as nothing more than purchasing a gallon of milk and gave little worship to God.
Today I can give a modern example. My parents grew up in a French part of a small town in Massachusetts. They were devout Catholics and they revered rituals. When someone died everyone showed up at the funeral parlor to pay their respects. Next to the registrar was a pile of envelopes, addressed to the local church. Mourners would take an envelope, place in a few dollars, and write their names on the envelope.
After the funeral the family would take the pile of envelopes to the church and “have masses said.” It is a Catholic tradition that each mass have an intention. On that day, at that mass, all those present would pray for the person whose intention was for that mass.
Catholic teaching commands that churches cannot charge for a mass intention but they can accept a donation. Truthfully, if someone asks for a mass intention and cannot (or won’t) make a donation, the church is obligated to accept the intention.
But we’ve been doing this for so long that many Catholics assume that they need to pay for a mass and they don’t really think about it. In the years I spent working in churches I thought about this often. The idea that we can pay for God’s approval, whether it’s a dove at the Temple or mass intention, can lead us away from the reality that God does not ask for our wealth but our sacrifice.
Lent encourages us to find ways to bring ourselves closer to God. Let us not think it calls us to open our wallets but instead open our souls.