Here are my thoughts for this, the 3rd Sunday of Lent.
We are presented with an interesting image of Jesus in the Gospel reading for today. (John 2: 13 – 22) Instead of the quiet, contemplative teacher, we find an angry Jesus forcibly and physically clearing the Temple of the money changers and other merchants doing business with the many pilgrims who had come to the Temple for worship. It is an action that not many, either His disciples or His critics, expected. And it is in contrast to the Old Testament reading for today (Exodus 20: 1 – 17), the Ten Commandments. How can we relate a reading of the Ten Commandments with Jesus’ actions in the Temple?
The Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites by God after, not before, He chose them. He did not say “keep these commandments and you will become my chosen people.” Rather, God said that because you have been chosen and saved, you will want to live the kind of life that will lead to salvation. Robert Schuller wrote, “God gave us these ten laws to protect us from an alluring, tempting path which would ultimately lead only to sickness, sin, and sorrow.”
The Ten Commandments are often divided into two parts. The first deals with our relationship with God:
Put God first in everything
Reject ideas about God that He himself has not revealed.
Never speak or act as if God is not real or present.
Set aside a day to rest and remember God.
The second deals with our relationship with others:
Show respect for your parents.
Do nothing with the intent to harm another person.
Be faithful in your commitment to your spouse.
Respect the rights of others.
Respect the reputation of others as well as their lives and property.
Care about others, not about their possessions.
God did not force the Israelites to accept these laws. He did say that this was what was expected of them and He let them know what would happen if they chose not to follow the laws. But God also promised blessings on the people if they obeyed the commandments. (But note that the commandments do not say just do good and you will be rewarded; nor did the commandments or the covenant say when the blessing would come.) This became the foundation of what we call the Law Covenant. Unlike God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17: 1 – 7, 15 – 16), this was between God and Israel.
Over time, the relationships expressed in the Ten Commandments became the basis for the laws of society and the observance of the law became a characteristic of the covenant. This restatement was further restated and elaborated, ultimately becoming what was known as the Law of Moses.
And, over time, the laws and the interpretations of laws based on the Ten Commandments were so restrictive as to make it impossible to live. So afraid were people afraid of breaking the Ten Commandments that 613 additional laws were written and codified. Three hundred and sixty-five of these laws were negative in nature (beginning with “thou shall not”); the other 248 were positive (beginning with “thou shall”) but still limiting in what one could and could not do. (From “The Journey Towards Relevance” by Kary Oberbrunner, page 37)
It was the Law of Moses that stated that only unblemished animals could be sacrificed in the Temple for religious purposes. It was also the Law of Moses that required every Jewish male over the age of nineteen to pay a temple tax. But only certain animals, declared without blemish, and only acceptable coins, ones without the likeness of the emperor, could be used. So the moneychangers were needed to change the money and others were needed to sell the pilgrims coming to the Temple the “correct” type of animal. But the exchange rate for the money and the cost of the animals were often exorbitant. Thus, a moment that was supposed to be special became another instance of exploitation and oppression.
In that day, salvation was only possible through a strict obedience to the law. But if the laws of society are restrictive, salvation becomes either hopeless or impossible. When the laws of society are restrictive, you spend all your time trying to avoid doing the wrong thing and no time doing what is right. Remember that Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath and the Pharisees complained that this was in violation of the Commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. But Jesus pointed out that doing that which helps can never contradict the commandments.
The society in Jesus time was a society in which obedience to the law was the only way to salvation. But God gave the law to the Israelites after he had saved them, not before. Following the law is not a requirement for salvation, believing in God is.
There is a need for laws and rules but it must be understood that laws themselves cannot be so constructed as to harm others. For so many years in the beginning of this country slavery was claimed to be a justifiable act of commerce, simply because slavery was mentioned in the Bible. Our laws of segregation were based on an interpretation of the Bible that said that the races should not mix. But when put against a moral background, slavery and all that followed is a bloodstain that cannot be wiped out. You cannot write laws that suppress one group or individuals, for when you do that, you suppress all.
Growing up in the south, it was not hard during the sixties to ignore the consequences of segregation. When I lived in Alabama in 1962, students, both white and black, in schools in Alabama had to buy their books at bookstores because school boards did not want to provide free books. If your parents could afford to buy the books, then you had the books you needed; if your parents could not afford the books, then you suffered the consequences. In 1966 and 1967, the music programs at the schools in Tennessee got the same amount of money each year. But it was hardly enough money to buy sheet music, let alone repair and buy new instruments. If the band or choir director wanted more music or needed instruments, then you had to raise the funds yourself. Most music programs had booster programs for that reason. So schools where the booster organization had the resources got better instruments and better support; if the booster organization didn’t have the resources, then the band didn’t get the better stuff. Laws should prevent injustice, not cause it.
Yet, in a world where there is so much injustice and oppression, there are voices calling for more laws, more restrictions. They claim that these laws are based on the Ten Commandments, even if the Ten Commandments were only intended as an instruction guide for life. Yet, even while they are fighting to put the Ten Commandments in our daily lives, it is clear that they do not follow the rules themselves.
Many who support the inclusion of the Ten Commandments in daily life work against abortion but easily find justification for the death penalty. Instead of speaking out against war, injustice, and oppression, they find ways to justify wars and prevent individuals from receiving aid, even if we are not supposed to bring harm to others.
Jesus’ anger in the Temple that day was because the rules of society were preventing people from maintaining their relationship with God. The rules of society made it impossible for people to be with God, let alone even know the existence of God. We live in a society today where too many people do not even know who God is. We call these individuals “seekers” and we do it for good reason; they are seeking to find something, even if they do not know what it is. These seekers do know one thing; that the world is in shambles and there must be a way to correct it. They are quite willing to listen to those who argue that we need stronger laws; they are quite willing to listen to those who preach an Old Testament way of life and forget that Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”
The Pharisees and other leaders of Jesus’ day did not go away on that Resurrection Sunday some 2000 years ago. They are still here today, seeking to control what one thinks and says and does. They are the ones Paul is referring to his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25) as the wise. Paul writes, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.” Paul was referring to those who sought to control society through their laws and restrictions on life. But, as Paul writes, they do not know who God is so there is no way that they can tell others what they do not know. As Paul noted, it was the Christ crucified on the cross that overcame the wisdom so it must be Christ that we live by.
It is not our responsibility to point out the foolishness of those who seek to live by the law; for their foolishness will be seen in due time. Each Sunday in Lent we come closer to that moment in time that defines who we are and what we are to become. Each Sunday we come closer to the victory of Christ over sin and death, the victory that gives us life and freedom. So, in this season of preparation, what are we to do? How shall we meet the responsibilities laid down so many years ago on that mountain in the desert? How shall we meet the responsibilities given to us by Jesus Christ when he proclaimed the Gospel message to heal the sick, comfort those in need, and free the oppressed?
We do so by leading a life guided by the Ten Commandments and led by Christ. We do so by showing others that Christ is alive in this world by our words, our thoughts, and our deeds. We lead a life that is the law fulfilled.