Over 20 years ago I was giving a series of Scripture workshops in South Africa during the worst period of apartheid (shortly after the murder of Steve Biko). Yet the hope and joy of an oppressed people shone forth in every liturgy and during every occasion when we shared insights on Scripture. On my last day, after Sunday Mass in Johannesburg, I struck up a conversation with a lively young couple who had just returned from the United States. After initial pleasantries, they asked me what I honestly thought of South Africa. I mentioned the natural beauty and the vigor of all the people, but finally said that I was appalled by the racism and enforced living conditions of the African peoples. They then became a bit defensive and mentioned, accurately, that in the United States "black people" had harsh living conditions and were also doing mainly menial work. I simply said, "We don’t have better hearts, but we do have better laws."
The readings today remind us initially of the importance of law to bring about respect for God and neighbor, and likewise warn us about the dangers that arise when commercial concerns are intertwined with religious devotion. Exodus lists the "Ten Commandments" near the solemn conclusion of the Sinai covenant. Observing these commands is a response to the liberating love of God, "who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery" (Ex. 20:1). They unfold in two panels, one concerned with wholehearted love of God and rejection of idolatry, the other with relations of justice and care between neighbors. Even today these provide a foundation for human dignity and human rights, especially since Jesus redefines the neighbor as the stranger in need (Lk. 10:25-37).
Today’s Gospel is one of the few narratives about Jesus that appear in all four Gospels, though in John it is placed at the beginning rather than at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Even skeptical scholars admit it has a historical foundation, but they debate its significance. Was it a symbolic prediction of the Temple’s destruction, a prophetic attack cleansing the Temple from mercantile misuse or an abortive attempt at an armed takeover of 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. Other Jewish groups at the time of Jesus also criticized abuses by the Temple establishment. Yet, as so often in John, the issue quickly becomes not what Jesus did but who he is. "The Jews" ask what sign (authentication) can he give for doing this, and Jesus challenges them to destroy the Temple, and he will rebuild it in three days. Following the usual Johannine technique of misunderstanding, the narrator notes that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body, which the disciples understood only after the resurrection.
The Gospel contains other challenges. Since two Sunday Gospel readings and the daily readings from now on in Lent come from John and focus on the growing opposition between Jesus and "the Jews," the anti-Semitic potential of the readings heightens. The expression "the Jews" in John stands primarily for Jewish leaders of the author’s time, during the split between the emerging Christian church and the synagogue near the end of the first century. The center of the dispute is the proclamation of the divinity of Jesus, which is a hallmark of John’s theology. Since theological dispute rarely makes for charitable tolerance, the Jews and aspects of Judaism are literally demonized in John (8:44, "You are of your father the devil"). Today, after the horrors of the Holocaust and following the constant teaching of Pope John Paul II, preachers and teachers have an obligation to explain the historical setting of John’s statements and to counter misuse of the Bible to foment hatred between peoples.
The three readings have been selected with a view to the Lenten schooling of catechumens preparing for baptism: the fundamental demands of Christian life embodied in the Decalogue; the "preaching of Christ crucified," (2 Cor. 1:22) and the hope of resurrection. But they have enduring value for all members of the pilgrim church. In a culture of autonomy and personal fulfillment, it is crucial that the deepest social values we share be translated into law. At times this can involve a form of "crucifixion," as people struggle against such evils as racism and the various assaults on life. The Gospel also reminds us of the cost of prophetic criticism of the abuse of religious institutions. The late Raymond E. Brown, S.S., observed that if Jesus were to reappear with similar challenges today, those most likely to reject him would identify themselves as Christians and think of Jesus as an impostor (Death of the Messiah, p. 393). Lent in this year of the Great Jubilee is a time not only to rejoice, but also to repent of those evils that can lie close to the very heart of religious devotion.