Third Sunday of Lent
March 4, 2018
Readings (Year A):
First Reading: Exodus 17: 3-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Second Reading: Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8
Gospel: John 4: 5-42
Readings (Year B):
First Reading: Exodus 20: 1-17 or Exodus 20: 1-3, 7-8, 12-17
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 19: 8, 9, 10, 11
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25
Gospel: John 2: 13-25
For some reason, among Christians, there is a fascination with what is commonly called The Ten Commandments. As if Jesus never happened. We have had calls for The Ten Commandments to be posted in courtrooms, and carved on slabs outside the courthouse. When asked what their children should be taught in school or religious ed., parents will often reply, “The Ten Commandments.” What is puzzling is that there is no talk of Jesus, as if salvation can be accomplished on our own, without any divine intervention. Perhaps it’s the result of the Enlightenment.
What we see in the readings today–both for Cycle B and, when catechumens are present, Cycle A–is that our faith rests, not on a code of conduct, but on a relationship with the Lord Jesus, who has been crucified but raised up. It doesn’t take a head-count of spouses. It doesn’t require certain coins or certain creatures. It simply requires a relationship with the Lord, in whom we will find life, and who invites us into an encounter with the divine.
Before they became objectified, that’s what the Ten Commandments were meant to do. They invited Israel into that divine relationship that God had with Israel. They were not just static rules of conduct, but a reminder to the people of Israel of what Moses told the people in the Book of Deuteronomy: “What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon the Lord?” The law is a sign of the closeness of God, and is a reminder of the special relationship that existed between God and Israel. The law was an invitation into a relationship.
In the first reading of the Cycle A readings, the people had begun to doubt that relationship. They grumbled against Moses, and asked “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” So God made life-giving water spring forth from the rock, to remind the people of the life-giving relationship that existed between God and Israel. It is that same life-giving water that springs up in the believer, as Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John’s gospel (Cycle A), and that draws her into a relationship that will be life-giving for others.
The gospel for Cycle B shows the dangers of objectifying that relationship. Just as people today see the Ten Commandments, but not the relationship that the Commandments call us into, the danger for the people of Jesus’ time was in seeing religion as a matter of following certain rules, rather than being faithful to a relationship. The rules had produced a brokered kingdom, where if someone wanted to offer prayer and sacrifice to God, they needed to go through someone else. They had to exchange their Roman coins for the coins that could be used to pay the Temple tax. They had to purchase the right kind of animals that would be acceptable for Temple sacrifice. What Jesus offered was a non-brokered kingdom, where you didn’t have to go through someone else to have access to the life-giving God. It was not so much that the activities that took place in the Temple precincts were evil; they were just no longer necessary in the presence of Jesus. (So we can still sell those raffle tickets and baked goods in the back of church.)
Unlike the other gospels, though, John has the “cleansing of the Temple” occur at the very beginning of his gospel. It’s one of the first things that Jesus does, rather than being the thing which is connected to Jesus’ death. From the very beginning, there is crisis and contrast. John has identified Jesus as the light that cannot be overcome by darkness and the word that calls to be heard. He continues this contrast in the story that we have in the gospel today. It is through Jesus that we have access to the living God, not through exchanges of money or the offering of the right creatures.
In the world that Jesus encountered, there always had to be someone to tell people what they had to do: what coin they could use and what animal they could sacrifice. It was a system based upon power, which required inequality among the people. It was precisely that “brokered kingdom” that Jesus sought to do away with. There was to be a certain equality among believers, and an equal access to the one God.
This is what Pope Francis talks about frequently when he speaks of “synodality” as meaning that everyone has something to say and everyone has something to learn. It was why his document from the Synod on the Family, Amoris laetitia, differs so radically from the documents written after other synods. In previous synods, the teaching of the Church was laid out; the job of the people was to listen. In the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis called the bishops of the world to first listen to what their people were saying, and then to reflect that in the synod meetings. Amoris laetitia was the fruit of both listening and speaking.
In the second reading (Cycle B), Paul says that the crucified Lord is the only thing that he can preach, because it only through our relationship with Jesus that we can ever encounter the living God.
But that encounter is something that transforms our lives. When we drink of the life-giving water that Jesus offers, it becomes a fountain within us, leaping up to eternal life. When we encounter the one who understands us completely, even in our multiple failures, we run to tell others about the encounter we had. We lead them to Jesus, so that they may have that encounter too; and so that their salvation rests not on something that someone else has told them, but on their own encounter with the living Lord.
Msgr. Patrick R. Lagges
Adjunct Professor, Word and Worship Department