Homily for March 11, III Sunday of Lent, year B-II
Our first reading probably brings back memories for many of us of our days in Sunday school, or religion class in grammar school. At some point, we all probably had to memorize the Ten Commandments. But, with time, our memory of that list can get fuzzy. After high school, I went to a very small, very Catholic college, and all the freshmen had to take a course on the catechism. At that point, I realized I no longer remembered the exact list of the Ten Commandments.
I don’t think I admitted that to anyone, because I was embarrassed. After all, calling myself a Christian, and yet not knowing the Ten Commandments, was kind of like saying I knew English without being able to recite the letters of the alphabet. The Commandments are not the essence of our faith, any more than the letters are the essence of English, but they are a part of the basic knowledge we need in order to understand the rest. When the rich young man in Matthew chapter 19 asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, the first thing Jesus says is, “keep the Commandments”, and He proceeds to rattle off half of the decalogue. So, needless to say, when I realized I didn’t remember the exact list, I set about memorizing it right away. Nowadays I keep the list fairly fresh in my mind because I often help people to go through the Commandments in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Of course, it’s not enough just to know the Ten Commandments. We have to live them, in their letter and their spirit. Elsewhere, Jesus says that the summary of the Law is to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourself. And Jesus says, to the rich young man mentioned before, that to be perfect, we have to go beyond the Commandments to the point of complete self-giving, sacrificing ourselves to help those most in need and putting the love and service of God before all worldly considerations.
In the Gospel reading today, we see an example of failure to live this ideal. The Temple area was filled with people selling animals for sacrifices, and with moneychangers to help pilgrims who came from afar to make their purchases. On the surface, this was not such a bad idea. It was not easy for pilgrims to bring animals with them on their journey, so they needed to buy what they needed to sacrifice when they arrived. But Jesus was probably objecting to two aspects of the way it was done.
First of all, these financial transactions were happening right in the Temple, in an area that was supposed to be for prayer. That meant that people were focusing more on the formal religious obligations of the Jewish law than on God, the giver of that Law. God Himself said through the prophets that He was more interested in a contrite heart and in works of mercy than in sacrifices of bulls and rams. Secondly, in the other Gospels, Jesus says that they have made the Temple into “a den of thieves”. The merchants and moneychangers must have been taking advantage of the pilgrims’ situation to charge unfair prices, with at least implicit consent of the religious leaders who allowed them into the Temple.
So, were they breaking one of the Ten Commandments? I’d say, yes. They were putting money and the letter of the Law regarding sacrifices in the place of the true worship of God, which breaks the first commandment about worshiping God alone. With the way they were doing business, Jesus accuses them of stealing, and thus breaking the seventh commandment too. They were not violating the strict letter of the law, but certainly the spirit.
Lent is a good time for us to ask ourselves if we are living the Commandments in letter and spirit. They form part of the ABC’s of our faith, an important element in the greater picture of how God saves us from sin and death and invites us to become new creatures in Christ, partaking in His resurrection and the joys of eternal life.