From early times, Lenten preparation for celebrating Easter included recounting the history of salvation, which is exactly what happens in the lectionary readings on the Sundays during Lent.
Through our baptism we embrace the new and eternal covenant with God, which was brought into being by Christ’s death and resurrection. However, ours is not the only covenant God made with man: the covenants of the Old Testament are a great help in understanding what God has done for us in his New Covenant.
That is why, in her preparation for Easter, the Church remembers the covenants of the Old Testament: to remind us of the stages of God’s plan for our redemption and to instruct those to be baptized.
All the first readings on the Sundays of Lent recount episodes from Israel’s history that show God’s graciousness to the people. The passages from the epistles all highlight the role Christ played in our salvation. The Gospel readings reveal Jesus’ glory even in the face of suffering, as well as the compassion and mercy of God.
Although we regard Lent as a season for repentance, any call to repent in the Sunday readings is only indirect. The emphasis in the readings is to assure us how much God has loved us. Their message is: be grateful, trust in God, and if necessary, reform your life.
1st Reading – Exodus 20:1-17
In those days, God delivered all these commandments:
“I, the LORD, am your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.
You shall not have other gods besides me.
You shall not carve idols for yourselves
in the shape of anything in the sky above
or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth;
you shall not bow down before them or worship them.
For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God,
inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness
on the children of those who hate me,
down to the third and fourth generation;
but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation
on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.
For the LORD will not leave unpunished
the one who takes his name in vain.
“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.
Six days you may labor and do all your work,
but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God.
No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter,
or your male or female slave, or your beast,
or by the alien who lives with you.
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth,
the sea and all that is in them;
but on the seventh day he rested.
That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother,
that you may have a long life in the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,
nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass,
nor anything else that belongs to him.”
Our first reading today is the giving of the Ten Commandments (in Hebrew, “the ten words”), which are considered the foundation of Israelite law and include the basic conditions for covenant membership.
The stipulations are apodictic in form (you shall… you shall not…). They were meant to be absolute and applicable in any situation; sanctions for violation of them were severe.
In those days,
The time is three months after the Israelites left on their exodus from Egypt.
God delivered all these commandments:
The stone tablets don’t come into the story until Exodus 31:18 (11 chapters after this passage).
“I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.
The passage begins with a self-proclamation by God, who has already acted on behalf of the people. This is less about self-identification and more about declaring the authority that is the basis for the covenant, an authority that was established through past experience.
The history of deliverance by God, which is part of this self-proclamation, is the basis of the allegiance that is sought here. The deliverance has already taken place; the initiative was God’s.
It’s important to note that obedience to the commandments that follow are intended as a response to God’s goodness, not the condition for it.
You shall not have other gods besides me. You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.
Israelites are no longer in bondage to the gods of Egypt; God has shown his superiority and singularity. Israelites were therefore forbidden to revere other gods or to carve images for themselves. Perhaps Israel’s religion was aniconic (without image) because it was so easy to move from reverence for an image to veneration of an idol.
For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God,
God demands exclusive allegiance, such as a wife must have for her husband.
inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.
A breach of the statutes in this list would bring severe punishment down on the transgressors, even to the fourth generation.
“You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.
Since Israel believed that one’s name contained something of one’s own identity, disregard for the name was an insult to the person. Thus the vain use of the name of God was comparable to the profanation of God’s divine being. This is especially true in situations of false promising or insincere swearing (e.g., “with God as my witness”).
Note that the commandments are not numbered in the text; in fact, the precise division of these precepts into “ten commandments” is somewhat uncertain. Traditionally among Catholics, verses 1-6 are considered as only one commandment, and verse 17 is considered two. Regardless of how various groups number them, in all cases there are ten commandments and all the prohibitions are contained therein; no commandment is left out.
“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you. In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
Observance of the Sabbath was rooted in the creation of the world (see Genesis 2:2-3). This gave primordial legitimation to the cornerstone of Israel’s liturgical practice.
Furthermore, Sabbath rest was guaranteed to children, slaves, work animals, and foreigners — all dependents in a patriarchal society. It is assumed that women are not mentioned either because Sabbath rest had been enjoined on them at the time of creation, or because they are also being directly addressed here.
So far as has been discovered, the Sabbath is a peculiarly Israelite institution.
“Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.
In the traditional and largely oral society of the Israelites, elders were respected as the repositories of tradition. Parents also depended upon their adult children to care for them in old age. However, in modern times, this injunction has too often been relegated to younger children, with adults minimizing their responsibility to their own parents.
This is the only commandment with an associated reward or benefit.
You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
Murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting all threaten the social fabric of the group. Each crime begins with disrespect of and ends in violation of a companion member of the covenant. This explains why they are serious.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him.”
The prohibition against coveting a neighbor’s wife but not one’s husband betrays either the gender bias of the writer (speaking only to men) or of the society (presuming that women have no legitimate sexual desire). This bias notwithstanding, there are no other social distinctions here; these commandments were meant to be observed by all.
At their essence, these commandments provided a sketch of the God with whom the people were in covenant, and they outlined how these covenanted people were to revere their God and live with one another.
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25
Brothers and sisters:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but 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.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
In the few verses that comprise today’s second reading, which are filled with contrasts and paradoxes, Paul accomplishes several things. He dismantles the evaluative criteria that formerly divided two cultures and replaces it with a religious standard; he redefines wisdom and folly; and he contrasts God’s ways with human ways — all the while arguing for the prominence of the crucifixion of Christ in the lives of believers.
Brothers and sisters: Jews demand signs
In the tradition of Israel the saving works of God were often accompanied by marvelous signs that demonstrated God’s presence and power. These signs were thought to be visible expressions of the nature of the saving act. They were either understandable in themselves or they were explained to the people by some agent of God who possessed insight into their meaning.
These signs came to be considered evidence or proof of God’s presence or power. To demand them was to require visible, identifiable acts or events in which God’s claims could be validated.
and Greeks look for wisdom,
The Greeks, on the other hand, cherished rationalism and appealed to reason rather than faith. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, became the ideal. Although this philosophy took many different forms, at the heart of each school of thought was an appreciation of every kind of learning.
Chief among these accomplishments were the practical knowledge gleaned from the mastery of life and its various situations and the ethical standards necessary to live in harmony with this knowledge.
“The Jews seek signs because they do not reject the possibility that things like this can happen. What they want to know is whether it has actually occurred, like Aaron’s rod, which sprouted and bore fruit (see Numbers 17:8), and Jonah who spent three days and nights in the belly of the whale before being spewed out alive (Jonah 1:17-2:10). But the Greeks seek wisdom, refusing to believe anything which does not accord with human reason.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
This verse is one of the reasons the Church displays a crucifix rather than an empty cross. While we certainly also worship the resurrected Christ, the Scriptures tell us that without the crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection.
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
Paul criticizes both cultures, because in clinging to what they could understand they had set themselves up as authorities for identifying God’s ways. However, as we shall see, this is foolishness because God’s ways are not man’s ways.
The customary wisdom of these two cultures would reject a crucified Christ. He did not conform to the prominent messianic expectations of Israel; a suffering Messiah was just too much to accept. Further, his disgrace made him a laughingstock in the eyes of the Greeks; a truly prudent wise man would not have acted with the abandon that Jesus exhibited.
“Since the world had become puffed up by the vanity of its dogmas, the Lord set in place the faith whereby the believers would be saved by what seemed unworthy and foolish, so that, all human conjecture being of no avail, only the grace of God might reveal what the human mind cannot take in.” [Pope Saint Leo the Great (after A.D. 461), Sermons].
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
True wisdom and power are to be found paradoxically where one would least expect them, in the place of their apparent negation. To human eyes, the crucified Christ symbolizes impotence and absurdity — but God’s standards frequently reverse human standards.
Paul argues that the vulnerable and debased Christ is in fact the power of God; the ridiculous and despised Christ really is the wisdom of God.
“When Jews believe in Christ, they understand that He is the power of God. When Greeks believe in Him, they understand that He is the wisdom of God. He is God’s power because the Father does everything through Him. He is God’s wisdom because God is known through Him. It would not be possible for God to be known through anyone who was not from Him in the first place. No one has seen the Father except the Son and whomever the Son has chosen to reveal Him to.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
In this light, it becomes clear that what the Jews and Greeks rejected was actually authentic wisdom, and what they cherished as wisdom was really misguided and folly.
However, it takes faith to see this, and grace to accept it. Those who are called and who are open to this call will be able to recognize it. They will understand that what passes as human wisdom is empty in comparison to faith.
Gospel – John 2:13-25
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.”
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture,
Zeal for your house will consume me.
At this the Jews answered and said to him,
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Therefore, when he was raised from the dead,
his disciples remembered that he had said this,
and they came to believe the Scripture
and the word Jesus had spoken.
While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of 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.
Today’s gospel reading revolves around the theme of the temple. Jesus’ actions there are acted-out prophecy and his words are prophetic forthtelling.
The time is two years before Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. This is his first trip to Jerusalem and the Temple since the start of his public ministry.
The story of the cleansing of the Temple occurs in the synoptic gospels at the close of Jesus’ public ministry (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48), whereas John’s gospel, our reading for today, places it just after Jesus’ first miracle (turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana). It is unclear whether these are separate occurrences or two accounts of the same event.
Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
The entire episode is framed by reference to the observance in the city of Jerusalem of the Jewish feast of Passover, the feast of Israel’s salvation and the most important of the Jewish feasts.
According to the Law of Moses, every male Israelite over the age of 12 had to “appear before the Lord God” (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16). This was the basis of the custom of making a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
This is the first of three Passover celebrations mentioned in John’s gospel; the second is the setting of the feeding of the five thousand, the third is the setting of Jesus’ passion.
He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there.
The only money accepted at the Temple was the half-shekel. No coin bearing the image of Caesar, or any foreign prince, or any idolatrous symbol (which was quite common in those days) would be allowed in the sacred treasury.
In addition, most pilgrims were not able to bring animals along for sacrifice. This lead to a second necessary service of selling animals. Both types of vendors performed a necessary function – if they conducted their endeavors honestly and with the proper reverence.
All of this took place in the temple precincts, a vast area that included the outer court and the court of the Gentiles; not the sanctuary, or temple proper.
He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen,
The cords were likely those used by the merchants to lead the animals into the temple area. Jesus probably used the whip to drive out the animals — it is unlikely that he used it on the merchants themselves.
As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have witnessed this spectacle many times throughout his life. Why did he wait until now to take action? This is the first Passover after Jesus’ baptism. He is taking upon himself the public character of a prophet. It is possible that the whip played a part in this aspect of the scene, serving as a symbol of authority rather than an instrument for inflicting damage.
Note that Jesus did not deprive anyone of their possessions, he simply causes them to relocate.
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.”
Why is Jesus so irate? He accused the merchants of making the Temple a marketplace. However, a part of it really was a marketplace. Conducted appropriately, the businesses were legitimate and transacted in an appropriate area. They were certainly essential supports of the temple service.
One interpretation is that, like any trading practice, this market was susceptible to potential abuses. Some commentators suggest that the trading booths were brought into the temple area from outside so that the temple could charge them rent for being there, and fees for searching the animals sold in order to certify that they were without blemish (and therefore fit for sacrificial use). Given the number of pilgrims that flooded the city each year, this could have been a considerable source of revenue.
His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
A reference to Psalm 69:9, which states that zeal for the house of God makes the psalmist vulnerable to the scorn and abuse of others. This, combined with Zechariah 14:21, which states that at the end-time there would be no need for merchants in the house of the Lord, provides a second explanation for Jesus’ behavior: in his new public ministry as a prophet, he is proclaiming that the end-time has arrived.
It is, in fact, a double claim. First, by driving out the merchants, he is announcing that the time of fulfillment has come, and as such, merchants are no longer needed or welcome at the house of the Lord. Second, he identifies God as his Father. Aside from being an astounding claim in itself, this affirms his authority in the matter.
It is possible that both interpretations are correct: the merchants are corrupt and Jesus is also announcing that the messianic age has arrived.
At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
The Jews referred to here are most likely the temple authorities, who demand that Jesus justify his actions.
The gospels recount demands made of Jesus for “signs” on several occasions; this is also a clear connection to today’s second reading.
Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Jesus employs a clever use of language in his answer. In this passage, two words are employed for “temple”: hierón appears when the entire temple area is intended (previously, in verses 14-15); Jesus uses naós here, when he is referring to his body. The Jewish authorities mistakenly use naós in a general sense, though in Jesus’ words, it is used here very specifically.
Since Jesus is portrayed as using naós, the word for temple proper or sanctuary, in referring to his body, he is actually predicting his death and resurrection. This corresponds to the allusion to Zechariah, because by replacing the temple sacrifice with his own suffering and death, there is no longer a need for sacrificial animals at the temple.
Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.
The disciples only understand what has happened in hindsight. Their experience of the risen Lord is required for them to comprehend what has occurred.
While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of 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.
The passage ends with a play on the word for “believe.” The disciples “believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken”; many began “to believe in his name when they saw the signs”; yet Jesus would not believe enough in them to trust them.
With the knowledge that belongs to God, he knew the fickleness of the human heart.
Connections and Themes
We ended last week’s meditation with a reflection on our belief that Christ is our future. For the remaining Sundays in Lent we will reflect on the significance of this for our lives and for the lenten season. These are the three Sundays for the scrutinies that the catechumens must undergo. They too will consider the role that Christ will play in their lives as Christians. For all of us, Christ is the new temple, the wisdom of God, and the power of God.
The new temple. The temple of Jerusalem was not only the place where believers went to offer sacrifice to God; it was also the place where God dwelt in the midst of the people. It was built over the navel of the universe, the axis mundi, that spot where the world above and the world below come into conjunction with the world of history, thus enabling the three worlds to communicate. The temple was a sacred place because of where it was located and because of what took place within it.
When Jesus identified himself as the new temple, he was claiming to be the center of the universe, the spot where three-way cosmic communication occurred, the presence of God in the midst of the community. When we accept him in faith, we are acceding to his claims. We are agreeing that he is the center of our universe, the medium of our communication with God, the presence of God in our midst. We may profess this belief, but do our lives reflect it?
The wisdom of God. Although the law is considered by some to be rigid set of precepts, it is really more a collection of directives that have grown out of the experience of life. The Hebrew word tôrâ might be best understood as “instruction” or “teaching.” Thus the law is really a kind of codified wisdom. It is accorded the highest praise because it points to God. For this reason alone it should be cherished more than gold. It reflects the order that God intended for the world, and thus it is worthy of our respect.
We believe that Jesus is the wisdom of God. This means not only that in him God’s wisdom is made known but also that he is the way that points to God. While laws often embody distinctive cultural values or customs, as wisdom of God, Jesus crosses cultural boundaries and breaks down cultural distinctions. As the wisdom of God, Jesus fulfills the expectations of any and all codes of law.
The power of God. Two marvelous religious institutions, the law and the temple, witness to the power of God in the lives of believers. The first has endured down through the centuries to our own day; the second survives in the various religious hopes of both Jews and Christians. As significant as these institutions have been and continue to be, they pale in the light of Jesus, who is identified as the power of God. God’s power is not revealed in lofty precepts or in magnificent stones but rather in the broken and pierced body of Jesus Christ. This Sunday we are given the opportunity to discover whether we consider these claims empty foolishness, stumbling blocks, or the ground of our faith.