Saturday, March 10, 2012

Clean-up Time!

It’s not difficult to picture the temple, the salesmen, the crowds, the confusion, the market area of the temple with easy access to town, the money-changers, the special licences and huge fees charged for selling there, with obscene profits going to those who ran the temple while the poor were shamelessly exploited. It worked smoothly, very smoothly! But then came Jesus with a heart full of love for his Father and those who were being ripped off. So, he deliberately spoiled the fun and the profits. He saw what was going on, and he got angry. He overturned the money-changers’ tables. He threw out the salesmen. He cleaned up his Father’s house. 

Actually, that was a very Jewish thing to do. 

You see, Passover was approaching, the season we’re in now, the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. And in first century Jewish society, spring cleaning was a major operation. 

At Passover - the time of unleavened bread – to make sure that the bread was completely free of leaven, the wife had to see that no leaven was left in the house. Everything had to be cleaned, dusted and washed. Then just before the Passover meal, the father did a ritualised investigation to verify that no leaven remained. (A quirky part of the ceremonial was that the wife deliberately left a little leaven in a corner somewhere so that the husband could feel useful, as, with some ostentation, he threw out that last bit.) 

The Jewish tradition regards leaven as a symbol of sin (and this was taken over by the early Church). The way leaven infiltrates and changes a whole mass of dough is symbolic of what sin does to the human heart, our network of relationships, and society as a whole. So, getting rid of leaven from the house symbolised the removal of sin. 

As we see in today's Gospel, to Jesus, what was going on at the temple was a sinful leaven corrupting worship and prayer. It obscured the love of God and the grace with which he reaches out to us. It also oppressed the powerless. Driving the salesmen and money-changers out of the temple became a sign of the salvation Jesus would bring. He would rid this world – you and me – of the leaven of sin by his death and resurrection. “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days,” he said. His body was the temple, and the rebuilding is his body the Church. 

Lent (which comes from an old English word meaning “spring”) is the season for our spiritual spring-cleaning. 

We hear the Ten Commandments in our first reading. Now that’s not a bad place to begin, because, as Jesus reminds us, they all have to do with loving God and one another. Each of the commandments evokes a whole range of related matters for self-examination. We can’t say, “I haven’t killed anybody so I’m OK”, because, according to Jesus, that commandment should prod us to search our hearts for hateful anger and destructive thoughts. And while the one about sex might mention only adultery, what about the way Jesus applied it not just to actions, but to our lustful thoughts and desires? And what about all the other ways we fail to show respect for sex and marriage as God intended? So, you see, it’s time for a clean-up. Let’s honestly check out the state of our lives and get everything dusted and washed. Let’s acknowledge our ingenuity in pushing God away in order to run our own lives according to what we think will be to our selfish advantage, with disastrous results in all our relationships. 

The Church asks us to “spring clean” each Lent because of the enormous capacity we have for self-deception. We are always finding new ways to rationaliise and fool ourselves. 

We’re at a turning point in Lent, shifting from penitence to redemption, to the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s examine our hearts and make a conscious return to the Lord.


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