Gospel Reflection Sunday March 3rd 2024 – Third Sunday of Lent
Gospel Reflection for Sunday March 3rd 2024 | Third Sunday of Lent
Imagine for a minute going to Lourdes, or indeed any other site of religious pilgrimage throughout the world, and joining the throngs on visitors making their way to the shrine, Temple, Church or Holy Place to pray and offer sacrifice.
Now imagine as you move through the streets, jostled by the crowds but enjoying the sights and sounds of the souvenir sellers offering their wares and bartering good humouredly with potential buyers, you hear, in the distance some shouting and a commotion of some kind. There are too many people to really see what is going on but you ask a person coming towards you what is happening. “I don’t really know…”, he tells you, “…some man went mad and started overturning the stalls and yelling something about not respecting the holiness of the place. He did quite a bit of damage too, but his friends managed to drag him away before security got there. They’ll have it all on CCTV cameras so I’m sure they’ll pick him up fairly quickly.”
As you move on you find yourself looking at the stalls and sellers in a slightly different way. Maybe, you think, there is too much noise and too much focus on business and profit and getting as much as possible from those who come only to pray.
Regardless of what you think of the way things are being done, I am fairly certain that you won’t really approve of taking the law into your own hands and breaking up the stalls and causing chaos in the marketplace.
The actions of Jesus in today’s Gospel are not unlike the example above, and, quite honestly, they seem out of character for Jesus. Why would a man who spoke constantly of peace and forgiveness (even forgiveness of enemies) suddenly “make a whip from some cords” and set about stampeding the animals being sold for sacrifice, and destroying the tables and stalls of those selling food, mementoes and souvenirs?
It is this ‘out of character’ action of Jesus which, I think, makes this incident hugely important and significant. It is almost as if Jesus is bringing things to a climax, no longer content to stay in the countryside and small towns but bringing his message right into the Temple itself – the place where God dwelled with his ‘chosen people.’
Jesus would have been in Jerusalem for Passover on many occasions during his life. He would have witnessed the buying and selling, the heaving thongs of people crowding the huge forecourt of the Temple. He himself, often with his parents, would have bought an animal or bird to offer in sacrifice. Remember the incident recounted in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus, at the age of twelve, gets lost in Jerusalem and is found in the Temple three days later listening to the Rabbi’s discussing the Law of Moses and the Prophets? When Luke is introducing this story he says, “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.” (Luke 2:41). Even as a child Jesus witnessed and was part of Passover celebrations in the Temple.
Nothing he saw or heard on this occasion was different – animals, birds, buyers, sellers, money changers to facilitate the pilgrims who had come from foreign countries, noise, crowds, colours, smells; everything was the same, yet somehow on this occasion everything was different!
What was it, then, that made this Passover different from others. If nothing externally had changed then we must conclude that in some way the change had taken place within Jesus himself.
From the very beginning of his ministry, when he was baptised by John in the Jordan, the ‘Kingdom of God’ was at the heart of his message. “It is near, close at hand…” he said then, and he continued to say with ever increasingly urgency. In some way the coming of the Kingdom of God took root in his heart and shaped everything he said and did from that moment. In his own great prayer, his words “…thy Kingdom come…” capture both his longing for, and his conviction, that everything he did was on behalf of the Kingdom of God.
How sad that Jesus never kept a diary or journal. Imagine getting an insight into how his understanding of the Kingdom of God developed and changed as he preached, prayed and encountered people. We don’t have anything as clear as a journal but we do have the Gospels and in them we, perhaps, get some small clues as to what was happening within Jesus.
The first thing we must realise, I think, is that Jesus was a good and committed Jew all of his life. Mary and Joseph saw to it that everything stipulated in the Law of Moses was carried out. He was circumcised, presented in the Temple, and as we saw earlier, Mary and Joseph brought him annually to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Right through his life he regularly attended the synagogue and, at times, read from the Law and the Prophets and spoke there. When he died he was taken from the cross and buried according to the rites of the Law.
This is important, I think, because it means Jesus himself grew up with the same expectations of the coming Kingdom of God as those of the rest of the ‘chosen people’. He would have learned that the Kingdom would come in power and glory, with the armies of the Lord bringing judgement and punishment to Israel’s enemies. He would have been taught that the Kingdom of God would have its home in Jerusalem – a new and eternal Jerusalem, where God would forever rule over the world in a Kingdom of eternal peace and justice.
Only when we appreciate this can we even begin to imagine the conversion and change necessary for Jesus to speak about the Kingdom presented to us in the Gospels.
It must have been a huge struggle for him to move from long held, traditional understandings of the Kingdom. Possibly in the ‘temptations of Jesus’ we get an echo of those struggles and the many times he was tempted to give up and choose an easier life as a healer and story-teller.
How frequently in the Gospels we hear Jesus begin a parable or a story with a question to himself; “…To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God? It is like…..” In these parables can’t we almost see Jesus testing his own changing understanding of the Kingdom?
The changes he was somehow discovering within himself were both radical and far reaching. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus was coming to know it, was for all people, not just Jews. Entry to the Kingdom was not by birth-right but by faith and acceptance of the values of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom as Jesus was coming to know it would be based on forgiveness and humility rather than on power and judgement. His parables of the ‘Good Samaritan’ or the ‘Prodigal Son’ express just how far Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom was changing.
When Jesus knelt and washed his disciples feet at the Last Supper he was showing us, not just how we must live, but how our God lives – in endless and outpouring love, in humility and service, in forgiveness and acceptance of all people. Here was a Kingdom and a King who was very new.
We can also see in the Gospels that as Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom changed and developed, he encountered more and more opposition from the Pharisees and other religious leaders. It is too easy to look back and condemn the Pharisees for their short-sightedness and their rush to condemn Jesus, and while jealousy and anger fuelled much of their opposition, it is also true that the Kingdom Jesus was talking about was utterly different to anything they expected. As leaders of their people, conscious of the growing political dangers they faced from Rome, we can, I think, understand some of their hesitancy in accepting Jesus and his message.
But by far the largest development in Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom was his own self-awareness. Something very fundamental seems to have been developing in Jesus. He was moving, indeed had moved, to a realisation that in some real way he himself was identified with the Kingdom.
He was coming to an acceptance that in some way the Kingdom of God was being revealed in and through him. With this must have come a sense that he really was the ‘Messiah’, only not the Messiah the people were expecting!
We also see in the Gospels a growing awareness that his life was inevitably leading to suffering and death. More and more he talks to his disciples about the Cross, preparing them, and probably also himself, for what he saw coming. He did not need to be a prophet to recognise this. He was well aware of the growing opposition he faced from the Pharisees and he was being told of plots to kill him.
Important, I think, is the fact that Jesus was well aware of the ‘suffering servant’ sections in second Isaiah. “The innocent lamb led to the slaughter…”, the ‘chosen one of God’, the ‘suffering servant of God’ are all there in Isaiah’. That the ‘Messiah’ would have to suffer and die was a concept familiar to Jesus.
Perhaps as opposition to his message grew, a growing acceptance that he must suffer and die also grew within him. Accepting this for himself must have been agony. Maybe the word ‘agony’ is the correct word to use, since the ‘Agony in the Garden’, where Jesus, we are told, ‘sweated blood’ as he prayed that the Father might take the cup of suffering from him, give a clue to the awful fears and doubts he was experiencing.
Finally, if Jesus somehow saw himself as the revelation of the Kingdom, then he must have had a sense that he himself was the ‘new’ Temple where God would dwell. At heart, the Kingdom that Jesus was introducing to us was an internal Kingdom. It would live within us. There would no longer be any need for a Temple of wood and stone. God would from now on dwell within us.
In our Gospel this Sunday Jesus says almost exactly this: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Even though his disciples didn’t understand it at the time, after the Resurrection they were able to see that “…the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
We will never be sure exactly why Jesus chose this particular moment to cleanse the Temple an action which, in many ways, sealed his fate. However, we can, I think, see that Jesus’ life, his mission, and his awareness of himself as being the revelation of the Kingdom, have led to a climax, a conclusion he knows he must face.
As we journey closer to Easter we have so much to ponder and bring to our prayer. Asking the Lord to open our hearts so that we can better understand the great mystery of Easter is a prayer well worth making.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at email@example.com