Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
Jesus whipped the bodies of those Jews who desecrated His Father’s house, so as to save their souls; and, even though market trading in our churches is not a feature of present-day Catholic life, nevertheless, we must not pass over our Gospel reading too quickly or too easily, for Jesus still whips – so to speak – those who do public evil, through the words of His Church condemning such evils. And though good and practicing Catholics sincerely reject and avoid what is bad in the public eye, because there are some, who, though remaining most concerned to evade the public eye do not always seek to avoid the evil, our reading continues to demand our attention as its scope both widens and deepens:
Jesus knew them all. He never needed evidence about any man.
And so, in this season of Lent, it is good, and we are well advised, to have a critical look at our religious practice. First of all, is it basically in tune with human life?
Frequently religious practice is said to be a futile, and somewhat cowardly, attempt to escape life; or a childish fear of, and refusal to face up to, the flesh and blood experience of our human situation. And at times some Catholics might seem to give substance to such assertions by leading dangerously split lives in which their Church life, their religious life, is seen to be something quite different from, other than, their ordinary living: something so intensely emotional and secretly obsessive that is can only be maintained for relatively short periods and must be cut off, separated from, the rest of the person’s ‘ordinary’ life.
That such are mistaken appreciations of Christian and Catholic religious life is immediately evident, surely, from the fact that Jesus, ‘a friend of publicans and sinners’ is our inspiration, aspiration, and our model, not John the Baptist who lived on locusts and wild honey he found in the desert.
True Christian religious practice is, indeed, much more intimately connected with, and indeed consistent with, our everyday living and being than anything else could possibly be, for it informs and embraces, and would fulfil and transfigure, the whole of our life, living, and being.
Religious faith is concerned with God: our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Hope; and expresses itself in and through basic, every-day, attitudes and essential activities: we thank God for creating us; we praise Him for the beauty that surrounds and inspires us, for the majesty and power that fill us with humble admiration and awe; we ask Him to sustain us in all our many and daily-recurring human needs; we pray to Him for guidance, help, and strength in our acknowledged personal weaknesses and failings; and finally we hope for, aspire to, His promise of an eternal future for which life here on earth, through the relationships we have formed and the truths we have envisaged, seems to be preparing us.
Such attitudes just touched upon: gratitude and joy in response to creation in and around us; humble peace and trustful confidence as we accept ourselves before God; and hope for a transcendent future …. that is what our Catholic religious practice is about, and as such it is a supremely healthy and most fulfilling preparation and support enabling us, as human beings, to live life to the full. It is, most assuredly, basically in tune with human life!
Lent, however, calls upon us to look beyond the basics, for we are painfully aware that our practice of the faith, as Catholics, is obviously not good enough to convince the world around us … not good enough, apparently, to convince, perhaps, even friends alongside us … and indeed, most sadly, not always good enough to convince some our own family living most intimately with us, that it is admirable in itself and desirable for them. Therefore, let us turn our attention back to today’s readings for help to recognize how best to practice and thus, we pray, to present the faith we love to those we love.
As we regard Our Blessed Lord in the Gospel reading one thing surely hits us in the eye: He was not wishy-washy! His love for His Father, His appreciation of the holiness of the Temple and the dignity befitting worship conducted there -- in His Father’s house for His Father’s glory -- burst all possible restraints of human self-centred prudence, self-promotion and self-protection. He was Lord in all His words and deeds, and His actions on that occasion are all marvellous in our eyes! Ours indeed to admire, but not, in our state of comparative un-holiness to directly imitate. Nevertheless, with that awareness of Jesus in mind let us look at the other readings Mother Church has put before us today, and with their help continue to critically regard ourselves.
Our first reading recounted God’s gift of the Ten Commandments to His People through Moses. Then recall the psalm we heard … what sheer delight and most beautiful joy the psalmist takes in God’s commandments … they refresh the soul, give wisdom to the simple, they rejoice the heart and enlighten the eye: words that are absolutely and sublimely true for all who have tried to live and learn from their observance over the years. And then, above all, for me, those blunt and earthly words of wonder at the end:
They are more precious than gold, than a heap of gold! Sweeter also than syrup or honey from the comb!!
And how apologetic are we today about those commandments, how easily embarrassed in their defence, how solicitous lest we offend others by defending them, especially when targeted by some tearful woman or aggressive man!!
Again, notice the confidence of Paul and the early Church in our second reading: they were small in number; most being poverty-stricken outcasts from what was their native society, be it Jewish or Roman; they were persecuted and prosecuted by the Jewish religious or the Roman civil authorities. Reviled, mocked, and criminalised on all hands by the learned or by the mob, and yet, for all that, Paul could say, as you heard in the second reading:
The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
And so, despite contradictions, mockery, and persecutions, the early Christians were full of confidence in their witness to Jesus Christ, because, as Paul said:
We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
What pride and confidence they had in the Faith! Those forebears of ours, the early Christians, were totally convinced of, and boundlessly grateful for, the Faith they had been privileged to hear and embrace; and for the fact that they themselves had been personally called to witness to Christ before the world through the power of the Spirit they had received from the risen Lord of Glory in Mother Church:
To (us) who are called, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God..
Now, if we are to bear witness to Jesus today in our modern society which is largely secularised and unsympathetic to religious attitudes and values, we must have like confidence in the God we worship, the Saviour we love, and the faith by which we live in the Church we believe. Our confidence, however, cannot be a worldly confidence which sometimes manifests itself as the brashness of those who come knocking and arguing at our doors; nor, what is much worse, can it be a devilish confidence based on a presumed personal holiness. Our confidence, on the contrary, must be a confidence in God, shot through and through with gratitude to the glorious God and Father who has deigned to choose us and wills to use us for His saving purposes despite our obvious failings and weaknesses which the Gospel has enabled us to see. People of God, without such humble gratitude our confidence would not be a Christian confidence.
Today, part of the failure of Christians to bear witness to the truth about Jesus is due to the fact that they are embarrassed by Paul’s words:
(The Gospel) we proclaim -- Christ crucified -- (is), to those who are called, (the Gospel of) Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
They fear it is somehow proud and sinful to think like that; and, because they are afraid of appearing to be disrespectful of other peoples’ religious opinions, they will seek to persuade themselves to sideline the faith they profess and water down the glory of their calling.
How sad and foolish such thinking is! For, as I said, the confidence we must have is a confidence in God’s power and God’s wisdom, together with a humble awareness of our responsibility to live up to the calling He has given us; and the modern refusal to embrace such confidence is a sign of lack of faith, lack of gratitude, and also a sign of self love which would make people afraid that the gift they have received might stir up opposition or criticism from others.
The glorious apostle Paul had no doubt concerning his own fitness for his ministry:
I became a minister (of the Gospel) according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. (Ephesians 3:7)
His fitness for the work of apostle was a gift; and that gift of the grace of God was not in any way exclusive to Paul himself since he proclaimed a like gift of power and fruitfulness for all true believers when (Ephesians 1:19-21) he spoke of:
The exceeding greatness of (God’s) power toward (all of us) us who believe.
Moreover, the Word we are called to bear witness to, the Word we celebrate and meditate here at Mass every Sunday, of its very nature, does not return to Him fruitless, as the prophet Isaiah (55:11) tells us:
My word that goes forth from My mouth shall not return to Me void, but shall accomplish what I please and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
And so, God’s word working in and through us might well appear as the foolishness and weakness of ourselves before it is revealed as the wisdom and power of God. We cannot refuse such a blessing, surely!
Likewise, only if our witness to Him is made in simple trust and confidence in His truth – that is, unadulterated by any scheming of our own -- will it bear the fruit He wants from us.
The world we are seeking to serve in Christ is beyond our understanding:
While He was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, many began to believe in His name when they saw the signs He was doing. But Jesus would not trust Himself to them, because He knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He Himself understood it well.
Only God fully knows the mind and heart of man. Jesus did not trust Himself even to those in Jerusalem who appeared to believe in Him because of His miracles He had performed. Likewise, we must not rely on human schemes or stratagems, for only God’s wisdom can guide us in our endeavours to promote the Gospel in our world today. Our witness to the Faith has to be a proclamation of Jesus’ truth made in love and sincerity by the power of the Spirit; we most certainly have no need to seek to ingratiate the Gospel, or ourselves, by trying to conform it to modern preferences or practices. The Faith we profess and proclaim is God’s great blessing for mankind; the gift of the Spirit through faith in Jesus as the Father’s Son, is the supreme expression, and only authentic channel, of God’s uniquely saving love for men and women of all times.
Therefore I encourage you, today, to have confidence in God and your own calling: confidence in the wisdom enshrined in the Faith proclaimed by Mother Church throughout the ages, confidence in the power of His Word to which you witness, confidence in His goodness and care that will, if you look trustfully to Him, be with you all the way in your Catholic and Christian endeavours. We must seek to please one only, God; and we can only please Him if, first of all, we trust Him, and have full confidence in Him. Then, under the inspiration of the Spirit of Jesus, we have to go forward in trust and confidence, and work in accordance with the word of Jesus, seeking the Father‘s glory and the good of souls. And if, at times, because of our sinfulness and failings, we may have to try to curb or correct our personal character and attitudes in order to help our neighbours hear and recognise the Gospel of Christ, we must never think that the Good News of Christ which is ours in the Faith, needs to be ingratiatingly adapted to what others may want.
Bring to light (for all) what is the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past in God Who created all things, that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the principalities and authorities in the heavens. This was according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness of speech and confidence of access through faith in him. (Ephesians 3:10-13) (2012)