3rd Sunday in Lent (B)
Between the Words & the Song
Readings: Exodus 20:1-3,7-8,12-17; Psalm 18:8-11; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25
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Sisters and brothers, I’m quite sure that you’ve heard stories about genies. Those spirits that grant wishes to people. But have you also heard stories where the genie somehow fails to give the master what he wants? Have you heard, for instance, of the man who tells his genie that he wants to become attractive to women everywhere? In response, the genie turns the guy into... a bar of chocolate. Or how about the middle-aged couple, who meet a genie while on vacation? When asked for their request, the husband looks at his ageing wife and proceeds to wish for a much younger travelling companion. Immediately, there’s a puff of smoke, after which the guy discovers that he himself has suddenly aged 20 years. These stories are not always funny, though. Sometimes they can also be very tragic. Like the one about the woman who tells her genie that she wants to strike it rich. She gets her wish. She receives a million dollars of insurance money when her parents are killed in a plane crash.
Quite obviously these stories contain a moral for those who make wishes. The moral being, be careful what you wish for. But could there also be a moral for those trying to fulfil the wishes of others? A moral for genies? I think there is. To discover this moral, we need to consider how the genies in those stories fall short. At one level, they do seem to fulfil their masters’ wishes. The first person becomes attractive to women. The second gets a much younger companion. And the third does indeed strike it rich. But, at another level, those genies do not actually give their masters what they want. The genies listen only to what their masters say, but not to what they mean. If we were to think of each wish as a song, we might say that the genies listen only to the words, but ignore the music. And, of course, a song without music is not a song. Hence the moral: if you truly desire to fulfil your master’s wishes, take care to listen, not just to the words that are said, but also to the music of the song the master is singing.
It’s good for us to be mindful of this moral today, because, on this 3rd Sunday of Lent, our Mass readings remind us of God’s wishes for us, what God wants of us. God’s wishes are heard quite plainly in the first reading, where God imparts the 10 Commandments to Moses: You shall have no gods except me. You shall not utter the name of the Lord to misuse it. Remember the sabbath day. Honour your father and mother. And so on. Sisters and brothers, we know all these commandments very well. Or at least we think we do. But do we really? Or could it be possible to keep the 10 Commandments literally, but still fail to fulfil God’s intentions for imparting them to us? Could it be possible that our performance is often like that of those genies? We heed the words, but neglect the music? We miss the song?
When God first imparts the 10 Commandments to Moses in the first reading, God states quite plainly the reason for doing so. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. God’s intention, God’s wish, is that the people be free from all forms of slavery and oppression. And the way to attain this freedom is for them to surrender themselves to God alone. This is what the commandments are for. They provide the means by which people can submit themselves to God, and so become truly free. Such that, if we were to think of God’s wishes as a song, then the commandments are the words, and freedom the music. To fulfil God’s wish, to truly sing the song, it’s important to heed both music and words. We’re called to act as the commandments require. But in a way that makes us truly free. Otherwise, we may end up frustrating God, the way those genies frustrated their masters.
All of which should help us to understand a little better why Jesus gets so angry in today’s gospel. The Jewish religious authorities take pride in their own strict observance of the Law. And yet, throughout his public ministry, Jesus continually finds them falling short of fulfilling God’s wishes. Instead of leading people to freedom, these men burden others with all sorts of rules and regulations that serve only to defeat God’s intentions. They oppress people rather than make them truly free. And, in today’s gospel, instead of preserving the Temple as a sacred place for people to encounter God, these men condone the buying and selling of various apparently religious items there. They allow God’s house to be contaminated, and God’s people to be oppressed, by the attitudes and practices of the marketplace. Not unlike the genies in our stories, these leaders fall short of fulfilling their Master’s wishes, because they are familiar only with the words. They haven’t quite heard the music.
And their lack of familiarity with the music of God becomes even clearer to us, when we hear them demand that Jesus justify his actions by showing them a sign. Throughout his public ministry Jesus has been performing great signs. He has changed water into wine. He has multiplied bread for thousands to eat. He has even raised the dead. And yet, the leaders continue to ask for a sign. They do this because they are unable, or unwilling, to recognise Jesus himself as the ultimate Sign. Which is why Jesus tells them that there is really only one sign given by God: Jesus’ own Dying on the Cross, and Rising to life on the third day. Destroy this sanctuary–the sanctuary of my body–and in three days I will raise it up. In his own Dying and Rising, Jesus demonstrates for us what true freedom looks and feels like. The freedom of One who submits so humbly to the will of God, that He is willing to lay down His life so that others may be free.
But, of course, the Jewish leaders fail to understand what Jesus means. They continue to ignore the music of freedom that Jesus embodies. They cannot bring themselves to believe in him, to sing his song, because they remain too attached to the words. They are clinging too tightly to their need for signs. But we Christians are called to be different. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, while the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, we preach a crucified Christ, who is, for us, the power and the wisdom of God.
And isn’t this what Lent is really about? It’s not just about finding ever stricter ways to keep the Law. Not just about laying down ever more regulations to follow. Not just about dietary rules and dress codes. Rather, above all, it is about preparing ourselves to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Dying and Rising. The same mystery that we celebrate at this Eucharist. A mystery that requires us to recognise more clearly the different things in our lives and in our world today that may continue to oppress people. Things that hinder people from encountering God. And in recognising these things, to do what we can to remove them, so that we and others may truly be free. It is only in this way that we can begin to fulfil the wishes of God. Only in this way that we can begin to hear not just the words, but also the music.
Sisters and brothers, how might the Lord be inviting us to enter more deeply, to sing more wholeheartedly, God’s song of freedom today?