3rd Sunday in Lent (B)
Picture: cc Kevin Lim
My dear friends, if you were to go to a crowded foodcourt or a hawker centre, and you see an empty table with a packet of tissues placed on top of it, what would you do? Would you sit there? I’m not sure, but I suspect that many people in Singapore would not. And we know why. It’s because we recognise what those tissues mean. We realise they’re a sign that the table has already been reserved by someone else. For someone else. And respecting the sign, we leave the table empty.
Have you ever marvelled at the great power that little packet of tissues has, especially in a place like Singapore, where space is in such short supply? Where, even in a church like ours, people often insist on parking their cars in forbidden places. Have you ever wondered why, even though many of us refuse to respect yellow boxes or no-parking signs, we still somehow choose to give way when we see a simple tissue-packet? From where does this humble object receive its mysterious authority to reserve a precious space?
Believe it or not, sisters and brothers, it is a similar question that we find in our Mass readings today. For isn’t there a deeper meaning to those Ten Commandments that God is giving to the people of Israel in the first reading? These commandments are not just so many rules that the people are obliged to follow on pain of punishment. Rather, by inviting them to keep these commandments, God is actually claiming the people for himself. Reserving them as a precious space belonging only to God. By keeping the commandments, the people prove to the other nations that God dwells among them. And that they have no god except the Lord.
But to do this is not easy. Just as it’s not easy, in a crowded foodcourt, to walk past a table occupied only by a packet of tissues. It’s also not easy to keep the commandments in the way they are meant to be kept. To keep not just the letter of the Law, but more importantly also its spirit. To live in such a way that one’s heart and one’s life is always maintained as a sacred space reserved for God alone. To truly have no gods except the Lord. This is not an easy thing to do. For isn’t it true that I can be very good at keeping the rules, and still care nothing for the One who gave them to me? Isn’t it true that I can come to church every Sunday, perhaps even every day, and still be filled with anger and resentment towards others? Isn’t it true that I can scrupulously go for regular confessions, and still refuse to be moved by the plight of those who suffer? Simply because I am too preoccupied with my own concerns.
To keep the commandments the way they are meant to be kept is not an easy thing to do. Isn’t this also what we find in the gospel? Strictly speaking there is no law against buying and selling in the outer court of the Temple. Why then does Jesus get so worked up about it? Isn’t it because this practice reflects what is going on in the lives of many of those who pride themselves in keeping the Law? Even though they may follow the rules, their hearts and their lives are occupied by other concerns. Commercial concerns. Selfish concerns. Idolatrous concerns. Repeatedly, in their own lives, they turn the Father’s house into a market.
So that by cleansing the Temple, Jesus is not just reclaiming a physical space. He is signalling to people what he has come to do. He is showing them, and us, the mission he has received from his Father. To reclaim not just a Temple, but a whole people. And not just a people, but the whole of creation. To reclaim all of reality as a sacred space reserved for his heavenly Father alone. By first calling people to turn their lives over to God. By giving them the power to keep the commandments the way they are meant to be kept. And so to truly become children of God.
Which brings us to the question with which we began. The same question that the opponents of Jesus address to him in the gospel. What sign can you show us to justify what you have done? Or, in other words, what gives you the right to you reserve this space for yourself? By what authority do you expect us to obey you? This is a question that we all need to ask. Especially when we ourselves find it difficult to keep God’s commandments in the way they are meant to be kept. When we find our hearts being filled more and more with worry and anxiety, or arrogance and ambition. When we allow the cares and concerns of daily life to cause us to forget that we belong to God. That God has reserved us for himself.
In times like these, where can we find the strength, the motivation to turn back to God? To allow the Lord to cleanse the Temple of our hearts and our lives from the influence of false gods, and to reclaim us for himself? Destroy this sanctuary, Jesus tells his opponents, and in three days I will raise it up. A reference to his own Dying and Rising. His self-sacrifice on the Cross. It is here that we find the secret of his power. It is here that we find the authority we need to turn our hearts and lives over to God. For as the second reading reminds us, we preach a crucified Christ, who is the power and the wisdom of God. The power by which we can once more be reclaimed as a sacred space reserved for God alone.
Isn’t this what this great season of Lent is really about? Not so much a time for us to cleanse ourselves. We have neither the strength nor the authority to do this on our own. But rather, a time for us to allow God to reclaim us. By constantly recalling and reflecting upon the great love and mercy shown to us in the crucified Christ. That divine foolishness that is so much wiser than human wisdom. That divine weakness that is so much stronger than human strength. That great Mystery which we are gathered here this morning to celebrate at this Mass.
My dear friends, if a humble packet of tissues can have the power to reserve a precious space in a crowded foodcourt, perhaps it’s not so incredible to believe that Christ’s loving sacrifice on the Cross has the power to reclaim our hearts and our lives for God alone.
What must we do to draw ever more deeply and ever more effectively from this amazing power today?