My dear Parishioners,
The second chapter of John’s gospel opens with the story of the wedding at Cana. This marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and was the setting for the Lord’s first sign: turning water into wine. Jesus was now openly a miracle-worker.
Just two verses later, we come to today’s reading. Now we meet a rather outraged Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem, snapping his whip, overturning tables and driving people away.
Who were these people? We read that they were sellers of oxen and sheep and doves, and moneychangers, too. The animals, of course, were being sold for sacrificial offerings. If you were coming from a great distance, for many people it made sense to buy an animal for sacrifice at the temple rather than to bring your own from back home. You can be sure the vendors charged a premium for their service—much like buying a Coke or a bag of popcorn at the movies instead of bringing your own—but such is the price of convenience.
As for the moneychangers, they were running a kind of banking operation. Remember, the pilgrims came from many different countries. The temple bankers exchanged foreign currencies for the local silver coins required for the annual temple tax or for liturgical offerings. And yes, they too charged a hefty fee for their service.
I don’t suppose the Lord had a real problem with the fact that animals or currency exchange was available at the temple. Maybe it was kind of tacky and maybe even unnecessary—but not per se outrageous. No, what Jesus objected to was that these were just crass business enterprises intended to gouge pilgrims—and to add insult to injury, it all took place on holy ground. It would be like setting up a souvenir shop in a cemetery to “guilt” people into buying overpriced mementoes of the dead.
Christ reminds us that the temple—or today, the Church—is supposed to be just the opposite. It is first and foremost our heavenly Father’s house… a place of prayer and worship. As the gospel says, quoting Psalm 69, Zeal for your house consumes me. That zeal for God and his house should consume all of us.
Sometimes it’s easy to get so caught up in the rituals and “things” of our religious practices that we lose sight of what our faith is really all about. Jesus poignantly tells us today: Don’t do that. Pure and simple, our faith is about loving God and letting him love us. Our devotions and rituals and offerings—and even our fish fries or chicken dinners—are simply the tools we use to stir up our hearts. They are merely instruments to help us on our faith journey. If the things we’re doing or focusing on have an object other than God, then something’s wrong.
I’m afraid most of us have at some time or another been guilty of putting our religious emphasis on things other than the real substance of our relationship with God. Maybe we’ve looked down on someone who didn’t dress for church up to our standards. Perhaps you’ve been to a larger church and seen people switch communion lines to receive from a priest or to avoid a particular communion minister. Or maybe the lessons we’ve heard on Sunday about love, tolerance, patience, compassion are all but forgotten by Monday…
Fortunately for us, God is extremely patient with our weaknesses and our sinfulness. He continues to reach out to us in the hope that we will make the decision to love him above all else—and live our lives like we really mean it!
A good Lenten word for this process of being refilled with zeal is “repentance.” It’s a strong and formal-sounding word—maybe one we don’t like too much. One meaning of “repentance” is turning around and changing the path that you’re on. That’s great if you’ve headed in the wrong direction… but what if you are on the right path? By the grace of God, many of us have not messed things up that badly. We should thank God for that, but do we still have to repent?
Repentance also means feeling remorse or regret for what you’ve done. We have all made mistakes—sometimes knowing full well at the time that we were wrong. But here again, with the benefit of hindsight, many of us can see that we have not only gotten better, but we’ve also been forgiven. Our prayers, communions and good deeds help take away our venial sins—and a good confession, of course, takes away the mortal ones, too.
Nobody’s life is perfect, but I know that many of us have been blessed enough to have made pretty steady progress. In a way it’s ironic that we’re called to give thanks and repent at the same time. Yet that is precisely what we’re supposed to do.
Repentance, then, isn’t so much of a radical reversal as it is a gentle and ongoing process to take away the things in your life that go against God’s love, and add the things that honor and lift up that love. Repentance calls for vigilance and constancy, but not fanaticism.
I like to illustrate this by pointing out that we priests wear black clothes. My shirt and pants may look pretty clean, but if I walk over to a window with sunlight streaming in, I’ll discover all kinds of lint and specks on my clothing. The closer I get to the light, the more flecks I’ll see. So it is with our lives and souls. As we get closer to the Light—to God—the more imperfection we’re bound to see in ourselves. What do I do about the lint? I gently brush it off. And what about the spiritual lint? Do exactly the same.
In our opening prayer today, we asked God: Give us confidence in your love. We pray that God will inspire us all and continue to draw us to himself—with confidence, with zeal and with faith.
Fr. Manolo Punzalan