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Victor Cancino, S.J.February 28, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

The readings of the past two Sundays have highlighted vivid covenantal scenes that inspire reflection about ideas like renewal and commitment. In this Sunday’s readings, several shifts occur. The first reading comes from Exodus, not Genesis, and the Gospel comes from John instead of Mark. Instead of a narrative from Israel’s history, the first reading and psalm focus on the relationship between divine law and personal character. In a shift from landscapes in biblical theology, the Gospel of John considers the link between Jesus’ character and his final passion.

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. (Ps 19:10)

Liturgical day
Third Sunday of Lent
Readings
Ex 20:1-17, Ps 19, 1 Cor 1:22-25, Jn 2:13-25
Prayer

When was the last time you felt a deep reverence for sacred things?

When was the last time you felt a deep reverence for the stranger in your midst?

How is your Lenten experience going three weeks into the journey?

 

God speaks in this Sunday’s first reading and provides the well-known moral code called the Ten Commandments. “In those days,” reads Exodus, “God delivered all these commandments” (Ex 20:1). An alternative name for the Ten Commandments is the “Decalogue” or “ten words,” a term that appears  in Dt 4:13 and 10:4. A more faithful translation of the opening line of this Sunday’s first reading might be, “Then God spoke all these words.” Nowhere in this Sunday’s first reading does the term “law” appear. Instead, the terms designated are “commandments” and “words” which is meant to refer to the body of decrees that form one part of the wider array of biblical law. 

In Scripture, the term “law” is rich in meaning. Sometimes this loaded term is used as a stand-in for torah, which is best understood as personal “instructions” to navigate life. The word “Law” may refer to the Torah as the first five books of the Old Testament, the definitive texts given to Moses as a pillar of Israel’s faith. At other times, Torah may refer to all sacred writings of ancient Israel, including the books of Moses, the writings of the prophets and other writings like the Psalms and wisdom literature. When torah is referred to in the plural it means the same as commandments or decrees. These, however, may also include both the written and oral tradition that forms “the law of the Lord” in its entirety. The meaning of the term “law” is thus dependent on context and the perspective of the interpreter.

“The law of the Lord is perfect,” writes the psalmist, “refreshing the soul” (Ps 19:8). Today’s psalm provides five alternative phrases for law that may be interchangeable: the decree of the Lord; the precepts of the Lord; the command of the Lord; the statutes of the Lord; and finally, the fear of the Lord (Ps 19:8-10). Each of these is said to be “more desirable than gold” and “sweeter than the drippings from the honeycomb” (Ps 19:11). Remarkably, torah as “instructions” in this psalm is not limited to something external, as a decree to follow or a command from some moral code. The word also refers to a specific attitude that one internalizes as part of one’s character. The word torah refers to God’s instructions for building one’s character. 

This appears to be the case with another phrase that appears in this Sunday’s readings, the “fear of the Lord.” The phrase appears throughout the Scriptures and often appears with the word “wholeness.” The pairing suggests the phrase is something critical to discipleship. The “fear of the Lord” refers to a special kind of reverence or attitude towards sacred things, and ultimately for God. The fact that Psalm 19 uses it as a substitute for or pairing with the word torah suggests that following God’s “instructions” also requires an internal transformation or an upright character. Living God’s law does not mean one follows some moral code slavishly, but that one’s love of God leads to a reverence for God. 

The link in this Sunday’s readings between “the law of the Lord” and “fear of the Lord” helps illuminate the Gospel reading. In it, Jesus provides “instructions” about “reverence” for his father’s house. The instructions are both performative and verbal: Jesus turns over the money-changers’ tables in the Temple area in a fit of passion during Israel’s high holy days, and he says, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (Jn 2:16). When his disciples witness this scene they remember the words of Scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Jn 2:17, Ps 69:10). Jesus’ act of zeal reveals his inner “fear of the Lord,” the internal attitude of loving reverence that helps him understand Israel’s ancient Law and apply it to the circumstances of everyday life. 

Jesus’ zeal and a reverence for sacred things will lead to his own passion and death on the cross. Although his actions could have provided his followers a justification for further violent protest, his disciples did not follow this line of thinking. In their eyes, this incident revealed the depth of Jesus’ obedience and love for God. As we prayerfully read this week’s Gospel, may it inspire a deepening of our own  “fear of the Lord” and commitment to the Lenten journey.

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