To some people, the Gospel story for the Third Sunday of Lent, unfolds in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus has another name for this building. He calls it, ‘My Father’s House’ (v14). We can see the problem. If the building is a Temple, there is business to be done and deals to be struck. Here, worship is a commercial venture. Exchange is the name of the game. Worshippers give God something and God gives them something. The basic exchange is flexible enough for all the versions of, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” And if you can offer an animal without blemish, you go to the front of the queue. The mindset of the marketplace so fills the Temple that it has become a place for making deals with God.
Jesus’ Father is not a deal maker. He does no exchange favours or forgiveness for sacrifices. The Father is Free and the flow of Love from His Heart cannot be bought, bartered, bargained for or gained with a bribe. Hard cash and animals are useless to those who know they are in the Fathers House. So, you set the animals free and you chase out the cash converters. They may be needed in the Temple but they are not needed in ‘My Father’s House’ (v.16). What is more, when Jesus entered into a conversation with a woman who came to draw water at a well, He tells her that the building itself isn’t necessary. (Jn 4:23-24) Worship can unfold right where we are. We don’t have to move towards anything. Anyone who asks for the gift of the Holy Spirit and is moved by the Spirit is worshipping The Father! Since Jesus is the fullness of Grace and Truth from whom all receive the Spirit, (Jn 1:14,16) His presence stirs up a sense of the Sacred. Jesus may be doing more than a clearance of the Temple, He may be replacing it!
This isn’t going to be well received by the Temple Authorities. What Jesus has done is dangerous. His zeal will consume Him and it will provoke conflict. He will be consumed by the anger of others who profit from Temple commerce. They arrive on time and they know that His cleansing actions and words can belong only to the Messiah. So, they ask for a sign of authenticity, a miracle or two might do. But what He offers only baffles them. They take literally what is offered symbolically. They cannot see the spiritual revelation. So Jesus says, ‘Destroy this Temple – His Body – the dwelling place of God – and by the power and presence of God he will rise again because of His communion with His Father. Their malice and violence will only reveal more of the Fathers face. But the sign they seek is a sign they cannot read.
So, let’s go back to our favourite pastime – deal making. It isn’t hard to see how an activity that is so embedded in our lives could be carried into our spiritual lives. How do we get what we want from God and how does God get what He wants from us? We think we have to bargain with the Father to get what we want. This is more than a little theological error. It is a huge obstacle to any real spiritual development. And it can turn ugly when so called religious ‘elitists’ set themselves up as brokers of the deal. Jesus rejects this approach. “Beware of the scribes who … devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (Mk 12:38). These intermediaries are being paid to pray to God for poor widows. It is an unscrupulous manipulation by callous people. But the sad truth is that it is easier to destroy the Temple than to eradicate the deal making God.
In the film, “A House of Sand and Fog”, the son of an Islamic man is shot. His distraught father instinctively begins to pray for him. He says to God, “If you let my son live, I will lay in the park, put bird seed in my eyes, and let the birds eat out my eyes”. The deal emerges from the depth of his suffering and wells up to the heart that he shares with all people. Stress, hurt and tragedy bring it out of hiding. For most of us it is hard to move beyond the deal making default. Or perhaps the Father of Jesus who is often not at home with images of buying and selling, is at home when we are grateful for the gift of life and serve life in any way we can. We can receive and give, and when both make us truly happy, we can be said to be at play in God’s Temple. In fact, we have been admitted to the ‘Holy of Holies’ (Heb 9:3). Here, our ‘sacrifice’ mingles with the divine ‘sacrifice’ which makes life holy by pouring Himself out.
The challenge and the gift is not in making a good deal, but in getting beyond deals and into …………