The Ten Commandments have been given a bad reputation in modern society, as if they are the classic proof of how negative and repressive religion is. Self-confident non-believers ask: Who wants to listen to some ancient myth about a divine lawgiver dictating his arbitrary rules to us? Who wants to be treated like foolish children, as if we didn’t know enough to reject murder, stealing and lying? We don’t have to be told all that old-fashioned stuff. We have outgrown it and we can decide for ourselves what is good. However, if we look at the evidence all around us, we can see that a society that abandons the Ten Commandments does not get better, happier and freer. We may say that we “live by the values” expressed by the Commandments, but we find ourselves in a society swamped with violence, immorality and corruption.
The Gospel gives us an image of what happens when we disregard God’s law: we make a filthy mess out of what God has made beautiful and holy. We turn our Father’s house into a marketplace. We act as if God’s creation were our own – as if it were not for his glory but for our own personal profit and pleasure. The temple that certainly needs to be purified is the human heart! This is one of the central themes of this holy season of Lent: our need for repentance and our hope for forgiveness.
Jesus’ actions in the Jerusalem temple – what we usually refer to as the “cleansing of the temple” – are good and necessary. When something is dirty and defiled, we normally want it to be cleaned up and restored, and we are happy when the difficult job is completed. So it is wrong to place a negative interpretation on Jesus, as if he lost his temper in a violent fit of rage. The disciples understand what he is doing in light of a scripture passage that comes to their minds: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (cf. Ps 69:9). Jesus is not overcome with anger; he is consumed with holy zeal. He is being constructive, not destructive. He is cleansing for the sake of restoring.
But what about that “whip of cords”? Some religious paintings make it look as if Jesus was whipping the poor traders. In fact, he was taking authority over the livestock in the way any shepherd or farmer might do. The cord is for the animals, not the people! Pope Francis, pondering on this passage in this week’s Spiritual Reflection, interprets Jesus’ actions as symbolic of his efforts to cleanse the temple of our own soul: “Do you know what kind of whip Jesus uses to cleanse our soul? Mercy. Open your heart to Jesus’ mercy! Say: ‘Jesus, look how much filth! Come, cleanse. Cleanse with Your mercy, with your tender words, cleanse with Your caresses’” (p.98).
This way of pondering the “cleansing of the temple” is appropriate for the Lenten journey. The Gospel recounts a historical event that also reveals what Jesus is doing in our own lives. He does not need anyone to “testify about human nature.” He understands well what is happening in us. As he enters the temple of our hearts, he can see what is filling up the space that is reserved for God alone. There are things that he wants to drive out, spill and overturn. There are thoughts, actions and attachments about which he is saying to us, “Take these out of here!”
The Ten Commandments help us identify what these are. We ask ourselves: What are the ‘other gods’ that we have erected in the temple of our hearts? Empty ideologies, fancy gadgets, noisy distractions? Have we honored God’s name and his holy day? How have we killed others with our tongues or let envy fill our hearts?
Lent is a grace-filled time for this kind of reflection and the interior cleansing that we need. It is the Lord who does the cleansing, but we must cooperate with the process. We make no progress at all if we arrogantly oppose the Lord, demanding “signs” or “human wisdom.” The power that cleanses us is that of Christ crucified, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” At times, the ways of God, especially when he is purifying us, appear negative to us. His actions seem like a stumbling block, his ways like pure foolishness. But it is we who are foolish if we do not welcome him and his cleansing power. St. Paul teaches us the truth which is behind every surprising and challenging action of God: “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
In what ways do I disregard God’s law? When do I see his creation as a means to personal profit and pleasure? Do I invite the Lord to cleanse me so he may restore me to his life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.