Each of the three readings laid before us by the Church this Sunday is so rich in food for thought that it can fill a whole Sunday and enrich the week that follows. The emphases overlap, but are slightly different.
The first reading gives us the Ten Commandments. The Old Testament readings in Lent are working through the story of the People of God towards the fulfilment of the New Covenant at Easter, and in each year of the three-year cycle the third Sunday brings us to Moses. On Sinai God made an alliance with Moses and his people by which the Hebrews became God’s People. The Ten Commandments are the conditions for being God’s People. If you want to be God’s People, this is the way you must behave, putting God first (the first three commandments), people second (the next five commandments) and material things last (the last two commandments). Some of the commandments are put in a negative way, so that it almost seems as though it is a series of “Don’ts”. Looked at positively, it is really a series of values. Far from being in contradiction to the two commandments of Jesus, the Ten Commandments are only spelling out the applications of the two. God is the highest of all values and must be treated with unrivalled respect and honour.
Then comes the family, working in both directions, children honouring and respecting their parents, even into old age, and parents honouring and nurturing their children, even at the expense of their own liberty. This is a wonderful reassertion of family values, vitally needed in our age of fragmentation and independence. The same theme continues into “Thou shalt not kill”. Not many of us are tempted to kill, though in the sphere of family morality one immediately thinks of the killings by abortion. But, as Jesus shows in the Sermon on the Mount, killing is only the extreme case. A lesser case is maliciously calling a brother “Fool”. The commandment is also a matter of positively promoting life by sympathy, friendship and encouragement. Similarly in the next commandment: adultery is only the tragic endproduct of a relationship not positively fostered through thick and thin. Only when basic family values have been reaffirmed do the commandments begin to deal with wider society and material things such as property and reputation. False witness, of course, should be considered not solely in the law courts but also in terms of truth in public life, journalism and a true presentation of history and science in the classroom. The second reading forms a splendid bridge to the gospel passage. Paul puts forward Christ as the Power and the Wisdom of God, folly by materialistic standards but the embodiment of the values expressed in the Ten Commandments, in contrast to the hankering for power and the wisdom boasted by the Greeks.
With the Gospel reading we begin seriously to approach the Passion. Although this year of the three-year cycle is the Year of Mark, and the first two Sundays of Lent have been faithful to Mark with the testing and the Transfiguration of Jesus, we now turn to readings from the Gospel of John. In John the Passion story can be seen to begin right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. In Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem only once, for the final week. In John, however, he goes up four times, beginning his ministry with the Cleansing of the Temple, a stark assertion that Judaism is corrupt and failing to serve its purpose.
To what was Jesus objecting? There is no sign that the merchants were engaging in sharp practice. It was a risky business to bring your sacrificial victims from home, for they might be damaged on the way and so be unacceptable. It was only common sense to buy the offerings when you arrived at the Temple. Similarly, the money-changers were genuinely serving the worshippers, for many of the local currencies used adulterated silver, so that only the trusty Tyrian coinage was accepted in the Temple. It was not the details that were wrong, but the whole institution, no longer a genuine vehicle of service to the Lord. This is clearer in John than in the synoptic gospels, for John lists the incident among the seven signs which Jesus gives to show that he has come to bring the renewal and perfection of Judaism. Just so, at Cana he changes the water of the Law into the wine of the messianic wedding banquet. He himself is the stable fulfilment of the ephemeral institutions of Judaism: Law, Temple, bread of life, living water, light and, above all, sacrifice.
The purpose of the Temple will be served only by the Temple which is Christ’s body. Typically of John, the saying is on more than one level. We cannot tell whether he means the body which will be crucified and will rise again, or his Body which is the Church. In either case, the decisive step has been taken at Jerusalem which will lead to his death. Henceforth, the custodians of the Temple are thirsting to apprehend and dispose of him whenever he appears in Jerusalem. In John, the final trigger is the acclaim excited by the raising of Lazarus, and fear, at the approach of Passover, that Jesus might rouse a disturbance at the popular festival. “Better than one man should die for the people,” says the high priest prophetically (Jn 11:50). Again with typical Johannine irony, the high priest speaks truth more profoundly than he realises. There is even a double irony, for Jesus’s gift of life to Lazarus is the cause of his own death. The shadow of the Cross, however, hangs over the Gospel from the cleansing of the Temple onwards. Only the hour of Jesus has not yet come. Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB is a Scripture scholar based at Ampleforth Abbey. He is the author of the Lenten book 40 Days with Paul (Bible Reading Fellowship £5.99). His latest book, The Sunday Word: A Commentary on the Sunday Readings, is published by Burns & Oates, priced £19.99