From now to Palm Sunday, our gospel readings will be taken from John, with texts that move us closer to Jesus’ final days. John will interpret Christ’s death as the beginning of his ‘glorification’ and more than the other three gospels offers insight into understanding its full meaning.
The ‘Ten Commandments’ have been honoured by both Jews and Christians as a basis for moral living. This reading has some expansion on their background. The historical setting presents Moses as explaining them to the assembled people in the Sinai desert after he had been on the mountain top listening to God’s revelation and carving the words on stone. These Ten show their origin in a patriarchal and pastoral people; one is addressed only to men, and coveting another’s ox or donkey is not so likely to apply to most in our present society.
There are in the Bible many other commandments written down as coming from God. They are more in the Five Books of Moses (the first of the Old Testament) and the prophets often dealt with moral issues, especially care for the needy and oppressed. Matthew has two chapters of moral guidance (5-6) and the various Letters of the New Testament have many verses on how a Christian should behave.
The Jewish rabbis later numbered the binding commands as 613. Jesus reduced them to two (Mark 12:28-31) wholehearted love of God and loving the neighbour ‘as yourself’. From these two demands, all the others can be derived, showing the basis is right relationship with God and with other people.
The commands are often taken as ‘negative’ – ‘thou shalt not’ of the older translations has gone into everyday speech. A more positive explanation is that of John Kavanagh, S.J.:
Each of the commandments, it can be said, is not some external and irrational fiat from an alien God. Rather, each is an expression of the truth God has made in us. If we worship idols or worship our work, if we covet persons or property, if we dishonour those who have given us life, we not only reject the law of God, we destroy what we are.
A number of the Psalms are meditations on the Law or the Commandments, and this is a good example of how they were taken as something to be desired and enjoyed, rather than a burden or restraint.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
This reading looks forward to the death of Jesus and considers how strange the idea of death as redemptive is. In contrasting the Christian view from the Jewish and Greek, Paul paradoxically says that while neither worldly wisdom nor a display of miraculous power (like the taunts made to Jesus ‘come down from the cross’) were what Christ brings – in a deeper sense, Jesus is the true wisdom, and a greater kind of power than human strength or actions in the world would come through his death on cross.
The account of Jesus driving commerce out of the Temple precincts appears in all four gospels with variations. In the other three, this takes place with the only trip to Jerusalem they mention, shortly before Jesus’ arrest. (These accounts are read in the liturgy for Palm Sunday.) Since adult Jews wanted to go to the Holy City for the big feasts, especially Passover, John’s placement early in the ministry is more likely historical. It shows the course Jesus life in Jerusalem will take, acting with a new kind of authority and meeting with opposition.
Money changers were useful for pilgrims because foreign coins with the faces of gods or the Roman god-emperor were forbidden to be used in the temple to pay the tax. People would at times offer animal sacrifices and merchants thought this a convenient place to purchase an animal. Some profit would of course be expected by the sellers and changers, and maybe even some extortionate amounts might have been practiced. What seems to have angered Jesus is that these dealings have crept into the house meant for worship of God; there is a play in words in the Greek missing in our translation: ‘my Father’s house’ turned into ‘a market house’.
The quotation ‘zeal for your house’ is taken from Psalm 69, and is in indication of how the early Christians looked into the Old Testament to help them understand Jesus in his ministry, as well as his death and resurrection.
When challenged, Jesus gives them a mysterious sign which they misunderstand as meaning the physical Temple in which they all are standing. In John, a misunderstanding is often an opening for Jesus to explain a more spiritual meaning than the obvious one that the other speaker thinks of, but here that does not happen. It is left to the evangelist to explain that it was only later that the disciples could make the connection that the temple Jesus means is he himself. For John, Jesus will be the true ‘place’ or focus of worship after his resurrection.
The Temple will indeed be destroyed later by the Romans and never ‘raised’ to this day. Although John indicates that the traditional place of worship will be replaced by Jesus, this reading emphasises the reverence that Christ had for the place where the Jewish people went to meet God, in all his mysteriousness in the ‘Holy of Holies’. It is the only time in the Gospels that he is shown in anything like a physical attack on what he finds wrong. He will not even act to defend himself against arrest and crucifixion. That shows the depth of his feeling about ‘my Father’s house’.