2014-11-08 10:35:00

Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica – November 9, 2014

Ez 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; I Cor 3:9-11, 16-17; Jn 2:13-22

The story has been told of a lion king that was very proud. He decided to take a walk one day to demonstrate his mastery over all the other creatures.  He strutted his way through the forest until he came across a bear, “Who is the king of the jungle, bear?”  “Why of course you are, mighty lion,” the bear said.  He went on until he found the tiger, “Who is the king of the jungle, tiger?”  “Why you are, great lion,” the tiger replied with reverence.  Next the lion found the elephant, “Who is the king of the jungle, elephant?”  The elephant instantly grabbed the lion with his trunk and spun him around a few times and slammed him to the ground.  He then stepped on him a few times and picked him up and dunked him in the water and then threw him up against a tree.  The lion staggered to his feet and said, “Look, just because you don’t know the answer, there is no reason to get so upset!” The lion was the one who wasn’t getting it.  He missed the truth just as did many of the scribes and Pharisees and Jewish priests, to whom Jesus gave an elephantine shock treatment with prophetic courage, zeal and righteous indignation as described in today’s Gospel.

Introduction: Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome on 9th November 324 AD by Pope St. Sylvester.  Every bishop has a cathedral, and the Pope’s cathedral is the Basilica of St. Johns Lateran, not the Basilica of St. Peter. Hence it bears the title Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater, et caput (the mother of all the churches in the city and in the world – and their head). The Laterani palace was donated to Pope by Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. The first church built in that property was called the Basilica of the Savior. Later the Church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist and so it was called the Basilica of St. Johns Lateran. The central theme of today’s readings is the warning that, as baptized Christians, we are the temples of God where the Spirit of God, the real Source of all spiritual blessings, dwells and that we should not desecrate the temple of God by sin.    We have to keep our parish Church holy and fully dedicated to Divine worship and keep our hearts, as temples of the Holy Spirit, cleansed, just, holy and pure. The first and second readings today remind us to make Jesus the foundation stone and cornerstone of our lives because, if we do, there is a life-giving river flowing from him that will fill us with his grace. In today’s first reading, Ezekiel prophesies to the exiles in Babylon that the restored Temple of God will be a source of God’s blessings for them when they return to Jerusalem. In Ezekiel’s vision, the Temple will produce a stream growing  into a river that will make the land fertile. We can see this vision as a picture of the Church receiving life-giving grace from Jesus to give to the world.  In the second reading, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are the temples of God built on the foundation of Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit dwells in them. Hence, he warns that they have to keep their bodies pure and their souls holy.   Today’s Gospel gives the dramatic account of Jesus' cleansing the Temple of Jerusalem by driving out its merchants and money-changers, followed by His prediction of His own death and Resurrection. 

First reading: In 597 BC, the enemy army of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, uprooted many of God's people and dragged them to slavery into Babylon, some 750 miles from their homeland. Thus began the period known as the Babylonian Captivity, or simply the Exile. Ezekiel had to remind the exiled Jews that the exile was a punishment for their disobedience and infidelity to God and to warn them that more suffering was in store for them. But Ezekiel consoled them by prophesying the restoration of the Temple, the spiritual and cultural center of the longed-for Jerusalem. In today’s selection, Ezekiel describes the Temple as a source of life-giving water for a broad sweep of land that will become the marvelously fertile home of the restored tribes when the exiles return. He prophesies how the small stream starting from the southern corner of the Temple below the altar will flow to the East making the land fertile for the returned exiles. Thus, the Temple in Jerusalem is pictured as the source of God’s abundant blessings for His people when they will finally be allowed to return to their homeland, fully repentant and reconciled with  God.

Second Reading: Corinth was a busy, cosmopolitan, pagan city, a Greek seaport with all the usual vices of a seaport and all the intellectual currents and ferment that a Greek city of the time could have. The young Christian community there was not immune to these influences. There were different groups among Corinthian Christians claiming superiority as Christians by their allegiance to the Gospel as taught by Paul or Apollos or Cephas (the Apostle Peter) or Christ (1: 12). Here Paul reminds them that they are all one because their Church is founded on the single foundation stone of Jesus Christ and each one of them is a temple of God indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  In other chapters of the same letter, Paul introduces the image of the human body as a sign of unity. Christ is the foundation of the building and the head of the body.

Exegesis: The time of the incident: Passover was a major Jewish festival when pilgrims from all over Palestine and beyond would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast and to pay their annual Temple Tax.  Matthew, Mark and Luke (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48) report only once that Jesus participated in the Passover feast in his public life and that was just before his arrest, emphasizing the time when Jesus cleansed the Temple.  The synoptic Gospels place the "cleansing of the Temple" immediately after Jesus' triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on the back of a colt.  For Matthew, Mark, and Luke the powerful scene in the Temple demonstrated Jesus at the height of his power and popularity.  His conflict with the religious establishment and at the religious capitol itself provided fuel for the fires of indignation and alarm set among the Sadducees and Pharisees.  John puts the incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because he was not interested in telling us when Jesus cleansed the Temple, but rather that this cleansing was an act prophesied of the Messiah.  John considered the raising of Lazarus, and not the Temple-cleansing, as the precipitating event for Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. 

2) The Temple Jesus cleansed: The Temple of Jerusalem was the symbol of Jewish religion and the only center of their common worship and sacrifices.  Weekly Sabbath prayers and the teaching of the Law took place in local synagogues under the leadership of the rabbis. King Solomon built the first Temple in 966 BC, and I Kings, chapter 5, gives a detailed description of its solemn blessing.  After 379 years, the Babylonians destroyed this Temple in 587 BC and took all the healthy Jews as slaves.  On their return, after 59 years of Babylonian exile, the Jews rebuilt the Temple in 515 BC under the leadership of Zerubbabel.  The Temple area covered some 35 acres. It was desecrated and stripped by Antiochus  IV Epiphanes in 168 B.C. and cleansed and restored by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 B.C. Herod the Great, began the renovation and beautification work of the Temple in 20 B.C. It was not yet completed while Jesus was there and was not finished until 68 A.D., a short time before its complete destruction in 70 A.D. The Herodian Temple was extremely lavish and more beautiful than the Temple of Solomon. Jesus did his controversial cleansing of this Temple in its outer courtyard called the Court of the Gentiles, since Gentiles were allowed to enter it. 

3) The abuses which infuriated Jesus: a) The merchants selling animals and the money-changers at work had converted the Court of the Gentiles into a noisy market making it impossible for the Gentiles to worship Yahweh.  b) The Temple authorities, by sharing the profit made by merchants and money-changers, had converted the Temple into a “den of thieves” (Mk & Luke). c) In particular, the scheme worked this way: i) The merchants sold the animals and birds for sacrifice at unjust and exorbitant prices (18 to 20 times the regular price outside the Temple).  ii) The animal-inspectors, bribed by the merchants, disqualified even the healthy animals brought by poor shepherds and farmers for sacrifice.  This was an unjust extortion at the expense of poor and humble pilgrims, who were practically blackmailed into buying animals and birds from the Temple booths.  Jesus considered this a glaring social injustice aggravated by the fact that it was perpetrated in the name of religion.  iii) Roman coins, bearing the images of pagan gods and the emperor, were forbidden as offering in the Temple.  The money-changers, who took Roman coins in exchange for the Temple coin (Galilean shekel), demanded 1/6 of the value of the coin as their commission, even from the poor people who had to pay one and a half days of their daily wage as their annual Temple tax.  What especially enraged Jesus was not that a fee was being charged but that the amount being charged to the poor was exorbitant and hence unjust.  What was happening was a great social injustice done in the name of religion.  iv) In fact, the money-changers were street-level representatives of a corrupt Temple banking system.  The Temple banking system had become an instrument of injustice, fleecing the poor to benefit the powerful.   By chasing the money-changers and merchants from the Temple,   Jesus was questioning the validity of the entire sacrificial system itself – what had become, in practice, Israel's ability to atone for its sins by its own works, to be forgiven and stand in right relationship with God by making the proper offerings.

Jesus got whip-wielding mad: Jesus' reaction to this commercialized Faith was fierce.  Since no weapons were allowed inside the Temple, Jesus had to construct his own: a whip of cords.  He then wrought havoc on those who were committing abuses.  He pushed people and animals out of the way, overturning tables, and spilling the money-changers' coins.  With over a hundred thousand pilgrims in the city to make their sacrifices at the Temple, it seems likely that there would be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sheep and cattle.  Considering the crowd and the damage, it is one of the unsung miracles of Jesus' ministry that he was not set upon and killed by a mob of outraged businessmen and Temple police.  Because of his righteous zeal, he inspired people with respect for his actions.  His words bit into the consciences of those who were taking advantage of the system.  John adds an additional note that Jesus’ disciples remembered Psalm 69:9 (“Zeal for your house consumes me”), as a justification for Jesus' rage. Filled with zeal for the House of God, that special place where humans and God met, Jesus challenged a religious practice that was simply external.  Jesus acted out of the call of a higher obedience, regardless of the consequences.

The Temple of Jerusalem replaced by Jesus the Temple:  The Johannine account, in which Jesus quotes Zech. 14:21, "Stop making my Father’s House a marketplace," seems at first glance to support the interpretation of the event as a cleansing. But the great emphasis here is not so much on the cleansing of the Temple, but on the replacement of the Temple.  The Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God made His Name or Glory to dwell.  With Jesus’ coming on the scene, the Temple was no longer important in Jewish life in John's view.  The Temple had ceased to be functional. Jesus' promise of a new Temple suggested that God's glory would be manifested, not in a building, but in a Person.  By the end of the first Christian century whenever Christians heard the word Temple, they no longer thought of the destroyed stone and mortar edifice which Solomon had originally constructed, but of the risen Jesus: the Temple which had been destroyed and raised up in three days.  Jesus had replaced and superseded everything the Temple had formerly symbolized. By his prophetic actions in the Temple, Jesus made it clear that the God Who gave the law on Sinai could not be bought by sacrifice or bribe. Now Jesus is the Temple through whom His followers come into contact with God.  Our faith is Person-centered and we are dealing with a relationship.  The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus conveys to us the message that our parish Church should be the source of strength for our spiritual life and the proper venue of its public expression.

The Sadducees’ challenge: By His cleansing of the Temple, Jesus threw the mechanics of Temple worship into chaos, disrupting the Temple system during one of the most significant feasts of the year so that neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day.  No wonder the Jews who were gathered at the Temple asked for a sign to warrant his actions!  The Sadducees responsible for the Temple's ongoing life demanded some sort of explanation (but surprisingly no reparation), for the holy mess Jesus had made.  That is why they demanded "signs" which might legitimize Jesus' disruptive actions.  Jesus' response only promised more destruction, with an infinitely greater cost.  The Sadducees took this talk of Temple-demolition literally and were properly horrified.  John once again jumps forward in time and interprets Jesus' reply in the light of his future death and Resurrection.  Both interpretations are shocking.  Suggesting that God would allow His Temple, the most holy site in Judaism, to be reduced to rubble was seen as nothing less than blasphemy.

Life messages: 1) We need to avoid the business mentality of loss and profit in Divine worship.  Our relationship with God must be that of a child to his parent, with no thought of loss or gain, but only of mutual love, respect and the common good.  Hence, fulfilling one’s Sunday obligation only out of fear of mortal sin and consequent eternal punishment (hence a loss), is a non-Christian approach.  In the same way, obeying the Commandments and doing acts of charity merely as prerequisites for Heavenly reward are acts urged by a profit motive, which Jesus would not approve from his followers.  Hence, let us ask these questions:  Can leading worship for the clergy become simply a business for which they are paid?  Do the laity sometimes think that they are "paying" the minister to do the worship for them -- thinking, "We pay them to do this for us"?  Do we think of God as a vending machine into which we deposit our sacrifices and good deeds so as to obtain His blessings?  Do we use our obedience to the Ten Commandments as bargaining chips with God?  The theologian Karl Rahner put it this way: "The number one cause of atheism is Christians.  Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny Him with their lifestyles are what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable."

2) We need to remember that we are the temples of the Holy Spirit:  St. Paul reminds us that we are God’s temples because the Spirit of God dwells in us.  Hence, we have no right to desecrate God’s temple by impurity and injustice.  We are expected to cleanse our hearts of pride, hatred, jealousy and all evil thoughts, desires and planning.  Reminiscent of what Jesus did in cleansing the Temple, we, as 21st century disciples, must cleanse ourselves of attitudes and behaviors that prevent us from seeing and responding to hurt wherever we find it.  Let us welcome Jesus into our hearts by repentance and the renewal of our lives.  We will drive out the wild animals that do not belong to the holy temple of our body, making a whip of cords by our fasting, penance and almsgiving, not just during Lent but all year round, and by going to confession to receive God’s loving forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

3) We need to love our parish Church and use it.  Our Church is the place where we come together as a community to love and praise God.  It is the holy place where we gather strength to support one another in the task of living the Gospel.  It is the place where we come privately to enter into intimate conversation with God.  In this building, many prodigal sons and daughters have met the merciful Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and have been welcomed back to our community.  In this building, tears have been shed by those in pain and grief as well as by those in joy.  Let us look around our Church this morning and treasure it.  When we pass our Church, let us take the time to make a brief visit.  Let us make our Church an even more holy place by adding our prayers and songs to community worship and by offering our time and talents in the various ministries.

(Source: Homilies of Fr. Anthony Kadavil)


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