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You may find strange the title I have given to this Lectio, but I think the text from 1 Corinthians that we read today can offer us the right approach to our Sunday liturgy and to the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection that we will celebrate at Easter. Let us go step by step. The first reading, if we put aside the strictly religious section concerning obedience to Yahweh as the only true God, is completely “reasonable.” We can find similar commandments and regulations in Hammurabi’s Code and in some other ethical or legal systems. It is logical and reasonable to conceive a society and a style of life in which basic rights and duties referring to propriety, life, marriage and family are respected and whose transgressions are punished. The problem for Greeks (Gentiles, or non-believers in general) is the way Jesus understands and interprets the Law of Israel, and even what we call natural law: considering yourself an adulterer, just because you desired someone else’s spouse; feeling happy when persecuted or living in poverty? For Greeks, that was simply absurd. Giving your life for a just person? Depending on the circumstances and the attachment you felt, that could be acceptable. “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die” (Romans 5:7; read the whole passage). Frankly, taken as a whole, the way of understanding life, the path proposed by Jesus and his Gospel, seemed foolishness to Greeks in Paul’s time, and even today it demands a rational jump into the void that only through faith do we dare go. No, from a Greek viewpoint, there is no “wisdom” in our Christian message.
In our fragment from John’s Gospel, the context is different from that of the Synoptics. Although it is set at the time of Passover, it does not take place in Jesus’ “last week,” just before his death, but at the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus does not blame the merchants for being “thieves or bandits,” but for having turned the Holy Shrine into a simple marketplace. In fact, they are an image of the way in which the priests have defiled the true worship of God by transforming the Temple into a type of mall where rites and sacrifices have replaced the attachment of the heart to the spirit of the Law. Unfortunately, even the observant Jews had forgotten its authentic meaning: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, Hosea 6:6). But the authorities, who had seen Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and driving them out of the Temple, together with the merchants, had good reasons to ask for a “sign” that explained Jesus’ violent reaction. And, even if he had pronounced them, those words from the Scripture could not be the “sign” they expected as an answer. In fact, Jesus’ criticism went deeper than that ethical approach. When reading his dialogue with the Samaritan woman, one has the feeling that he questions the concept of worship as such. After his own sacrifice no sacred place will be needed, for “the hour… is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in sprit and truth” (John 4:19-26). That Temple/marketplace that Jesus rejects will be replaced by his own death in fulfillment of his Father’s plans. He will be the new Temple, the final priest and the only sacrifice that will reconcile us with the Father. But the Jews cannot understand and accept that as the real sign of the New Covenant – his death on the cross and his resurrection, his body as the true Temple which no human power will ever destroy. The disciples themselves were not able to understand his words until he was raised from the dead. According to Paul, Jesus’ death on the cross would always remain a stumbling block. No, the Jews could not be satisfied with that kind of sign.
The truth is today’s texts, especially those from 1 Corinthians and John’s Gospel, must have disconcerted and turned upside down the ideas of the Jews of that time concerning salvation and the role that both the Law and worship should play. The New Covenant was really “new” and did not fit into their logical and religious schemes. But, if we are sincere, we Christians have not felt too comfortable or satisfied with it, for we have transformed it into something as musty as the Old one. Even if I run the risk of sounding unorthodox, I sometimes have the feeling that our liturgy, the way we celebrate sacraments, pray and worship God, seems closer to Levitical religiosity than to the newness of the celebrations of the New Testament. History is history, and we have to respect it and accept our heritage, but haven’t we fallen into the old trap of conceiving worship as some kind of “trade” between us and God? Do we offer our rites and gestures in exchange for blessings? Has the Word of God, the most vital and renewed part of our liturgy, become another worn-out rote? Do we “live” the Eucharist as a sharing in the one and final sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, or do we simply “attend” a rite as if we were in Jerusalem’s Temple?
Let us pray for ourselves who so often hide our lack of commitment to Jesus and his Gospel behind a cloud of rites and celebrations: that we may live liturgy and worship as a source of renewal for our Christian life.
Pray for those (including ourselves, of course) who live the Eucharist or other acts of worship with a weary attitude: that they (we) may discover that in our rites it is Christ himself, our High Priest, who baptizes, celebrates the Eucharist and forgives sins.
“Contemplate,” pay attention to the way you celebrate and pray in your community and try to find the traps of repetition into which we have fallen. Is there a team preparing your weekly or daily worship? Do you cooperate with them? Could you do something to help them renew their activity? I am sure you can find something that can be improved. In any case, even if nothing can or must be done, you will have become aware of that dimension of your community.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,
Our passage follows immediately on the first sign that Jesus gave in Cana of Galilee (2:1-12). Some expressions and phrases are repeated in both scenes and lead us to think that the author wanted to contrast the two scenes. In Cana, a village in Galilee, during a wedding feast, a Jewish woman, the mother of Jesus, expresses her unconditional faith in Jesus and invites others to accept his word (2:3-5). On the other hand, “the Jews”, during the Paschal celebration in Jerusalem, refuse to believe in Jesus and do not accept his word. In Cana, Jesus worked his first sign (2:11) and here the Jews ask for a sign (v.18) but then do not accept the sign Jesus gives them (2:20).
The development of our little story is quite simple. Verse 13 places in a framework a context of space and time that is very precise and significant: Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Paschal feast. Verse 14 introduces the scene that provokes a strong reaction on the part of Jesus. Jesus’ action is described in verse 15 and is caused by Jesus himself in verse 16. Jesus’ action and words in turn provoke two reactions. First, that of the disciples, one of admiration (v.17); secondly, that of the “Jews”, one of dissent and indignation (v.18). They want an explanation from Jesus (v.19) but they are not open to receive this(v.20). At this point the narrator intervenes to interpret Jesus’ words authentically (v.21). “The Jews” cannot understand the real meaning of Jesus’ word. However, also the disciples, who admire him as a prophet full of zeal for God, cannot grasp the meaning now. It is only after the fulfilment that they will believe in Jesus’ word (v22). Finally, the narrator offers us a brief account of Jesus’ reception by the crowds in Jerusalem (vv.23-25). Yet, this faith, founded only on his signs, does not enthuse Jesus.
The temple in Jerusalem was the place of the presence of God in the midst of the people. Yet the prophets constantly insisted that it was not sufficient to go to the temple and offer sacrifices there in order to be accepted by God (see Is 1:10-17; Jer 7:1-28; Am 4:4-5; 5:21-27). God wants obedience and a life morally straight and just. If the exterior cult does not express such a vital attitude, then it is empty (see 1 Sam 15:22). Jesus inserts himself in that prophetic tradition of the purification of the cult (see Za 14:23 and Mi 3:1 for the action of the coming “Messiah” in this context). The disciples admire him for this and immediately think that for this attitude he will have to pay personally like Jeremiah (see Jer 26:1-15) and other prophets. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ action is more than just a prophetic gesture of zeal for God. It is a sign that prefigures and proclaims the great sign of the death and resurrection of Jesus. More than just a purification, that which Jesus does is to abolish the temple and the cult there celebrated, because from now on the place of the presence of God is the glorified body of Jesus (see Jn 1:51; 4:23).