Editor’s note: Rev. Ed Foley is a professor of liturgy and music and the founding director of the Ecumenical D.Min. program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. A member of the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, he helps out on Sundays at Ascension Church in Oak Park and is one of the better homilists we’ve heard. He consented to let us publish his sermon from March 19. We thought it would make a good Lenten commentary. Readings referred to are Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:22-25; John 2:13-25.
My guess is that most Catholic worshippers here and around the globe did not expect to hear the readings proclaimed this day which seem to follow no lectionary rhyme or reason. Consequently, it makes sense for assembly and homilist to ask not only what do they mean but why were these readings chosen?
What is the logic, that on the third Sunday of Lent, cycle B?#34;a lectionary cycle when we read Mark?#34;that we end up in the second chapter of John? Or what is the scheming behind the first reading, Exodus, the 10 commandments, one of most famous “shalt not” litanies in human history?
Those inclined to conspiracy theories, of course, will think the positioning of the 10 commandments on the 19th of March is a German plot designed to prod moderation among food-indulging Italians who this day celebrate the feast of St. Joseph and its accompanying Joseph’s table with all those tempting delectables.
Or, even more believable, is the conspiracy theory circulating on the Net that positioning the 10 commandments on the 19th of March?#34;just two days after Irish Easter?#34;is an English plot aimed at guilt-ridden Celts who haven’t yet fully arisen from the St. Paddy’s Day bog … putting them on notice that it’s time to get back to Lent.
But I think the rationale is more obvious but none the less subversive … for each of the readings goes the heart of this Lenten season and offers a not-too-subtle challenge to the foundation of Lent and the Christian life.
A theme that weaves through each, some places more apparent than others, is that of idolatry?#34;a topic that ordinarily does not take the headlines in contemporary society or even church teaching and preaching but just may need some paying attention to.
It may seem that, for civilized societies like ours, idolatry is one of those long-forsaken practices like cannibalism and witchcraft. Thus it may be instructive to note that idolatry is not only one of the taboos mentioned in the commandments of Exodus. It holds pride of place, and with its auxiliary commandments about taking the Lord’s name in vain and keeping holy the Sabbath, it actually takes up two-thirds of the reading of the decalogue.
The basis of the taboo is the initiative of God serving notice before that foreboding list of “shalt nots.” God reminds Israel … and us … that the covenant was God’s idea. God took the initiative. God shaped Israel into a people. God has had a love affair with humankind while DNA was still a twinkle in the divine eye.
But despite the scriptural evidence to the contrary, we really don’t believe it. Oh, we would never say that out loud; we’re much too polite … and some of us even went to Catholic School.
And so, despite the fact that we rattle through prayers and creeds that profess faith in an unrelenting God who virtually stalks us, we’re collectively unconvinced. The result: a few are openly atheistic, more are simply disinterested. But most of us exercise just the right amount of religiosity?#34;not too much to seem like a lunatic, not too little to appear uncaring. Just enough … and just at the right moment.
And it is often in the small moments of life?#34;the way we react in a grocery line, at a stop sign, on the telephone, to the person selling Streetwise when nobody is looking?#34;that we begin to discern the line between having a religion, and living a religion.
It is in the small moments of life that we or others can often detect where we have negotiated our religiosity, whether we’ve settled for “just enough” religion in our lives. A “just enough” which leaves room for other more important things to occupy us just enough, which leaves room for contemporary forms of “idolatry,” for other gods working their way to the top of the palm pilot before the God of Jesus Christ.
That’s the kind of problem Jesus was confronting in today’s gospel, but the irony is that the idolatry that seemed to have gotten in the way of some Jews’ relationship with the God who brought them out of Egypt, who delivered them from slavery, who forged a covenant with them, was religion.
Clearing the temple
The facts of the story are relatively simple: Jerusalem and all of Palestine was under Roman rule but you couldn’t use Roman coins in the temple because they had images on them which would have been idolatrous.
So you had to change your Roman money for Jewish money for buying the animals for sacrifice. The Jewish money had no images on it, so their money was keeping the commandment.
It seems that the “traders,” who used to sell their beasts outside the temple on the Mount of Olives moved inside?#34;a symbol that sacrifice had become commerce worship of the Holy One, had become a formula covenant, had become calculated appeasement. And the mutual exchange, rooted in faith and gratitude, known as sacrifice had been transformed into a monetary transaction.
So are we surprised that Jesus went ballistic, making a whip, driving out people and animals from the temple precincts, overturning the tables, with denarii and shekels flying in every direction?
And in doing so, in this powerful, symbolic action, he overturned the definition of worship and put on notice one of the most sophisticated forms of idolatry?#34;where religion displaces God, where offering sacrifice or showing up for Mass substitutes for a personal relationship. And where a brooding, jealous God is held at bay by the very rituals designed to honor the divine.
Quite the irony.
So Jesus turned the tables on the economy of salvation, on doing business with God.
In what some theologians call his “occupation of the temple,” he not only overturned the definition of worship, he rewrote the commandments. He didn’t throw out the decalogue, of course, but he changed the balance of the law and equated love of God with love of neighbor, an equity and balance unknown to the book of Exodus.
He redefined what it means to take the name of the Lord in vain which is not using the name of the holy one in conjunction with some expletive but using the name of the holy one and that of the Christ in political speeches and op-ed pieces to sanctify practices and policies that oppress, and discriminate in the name of Jesus.
He redefined what it means to steal, for it is not just about taking goods in the new dispensation but depleting someone, anyone, of their dignity and humanity?#34;the homeless, the underemployed, the incarcerated, the undereducated, our contemporary equivalents of the outcasts who oddly enough populated Jesus’ table in the gospels.
He redefined what it means to bear false witness against a neighbor, for in the Jesus dispensation, mercy overwhelms sin and hurt or disagreement is no excuse for the destructive retaliation or unmasking an obliterated command in this political hunting season where negative campaigning has the audacity to present itself as righteous.
Ultimately, in turning the tables in the midst of the temple precincts, Jesus ultimately redefined religion, not as a series of socially acceptable, pleasant rituals fulfilled at pre-determined times in a glittering temple with well-manicured ministries, but as a passion for praise whose daily lyrics are justice and charity and peace, a passion to sing the reconciling hymn of the Christ.
Jesus put Israel on notice that God was relocating, leaving the temple precincts and moving to the seamier side of town, taking a place at table with the fishermen, hooks, and con-artists who took up the mantle of true discipleship.
So they killed him?#34;not because he overthrew tables in a temple, not because he overthrew theological standards, calling himself the son of God, not even because of trumped up charges of sedition that he was trying to overthrow the state, but because he overthrew the status quo and made clear that keeping religion didn’t ensure salvation.
The antidote to idolatry
Welcome to Lent?#34;which isn’t a season of the church year, no, if that’s what you think it is. I have bad news. Lent is an attitude … a Christian spirituality that unmasks every instinct to use the commandments as a spiritual checklist, that exposes every attempt to use church as a hiding place from God, and foils every attempt to substitute religion for a driving, passionate, obstinate faith in action.
It’s a challenge to live in a society?#34;a privileged society where democracy can export such oppression, where public service is so self-serving, where human services are driven by a bottom line, and even where a church can resort to abusive secrecy in the pursuit of self-preservation.
You can call it what you want?#34;avarice, greed, power-mongering?#34;but maybe it’s best understood as idolatry, deciding something is bigger in our lives than authentic gospel.
What antidote is there to this shrinkage of God and religion and spirituality so that they can be reshuffled in daily life, rescheduled in our daily planner, and so easily superceded by other idols.
Only one antidote, it seems, the one Paul hymns today in his Corinthian reading?#34;the cross in all of its folly, reveling in human weakness and in the model of Jesus being willing to be emptied of ourselves and not just our inadequacy and sin and addiction and tendencies toward idolatry, but emptied of every allusion of self-achievement or self-determination or self-preservation so that we can be filled with God.
That is the invitation of Christian Eucharist, of course, to give right thanks and praise, to admit all as gift, and, especially in this spirituality we call Lent, to confront the bald reality of the cross of Jesus Christ who held back nothing, not even divinity, in pouring out godly passion for humanly creatures.
And what does it mean to embrace the cross, to allow it to overtake every idol, to individually and collectively choose the wisdom of the cross even though the world holds it as folly?
There are many ways to explain, many images that offer a glimpse of what this could be in my Franciscan tradition. The one that consistently moves me the most is the prayer of Francis … a prayer consonant with his life, a prayer consonant with the cross inscribed in his own skin, a prayer that captures the spirituality of Lent:
Make me a channel of your peace; where there is hatred let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Ed Foley 2006