sabato 3 marzo 2018

«Quod signum ostendis nobis?»

This year we are reading the gospel of Mark; but, according to an ancient tradition, during Lent and Eastertide, the Church prefers to read the gospel of John. So, on these mid-Lent Sundays we will hear three passages from John’s gospel about Christ’s coming glorification through his cross and resurrection. We start today with the account of the cleansing of the temple. The synoptic gospels put this episode at the end of Jesus’ life, soon after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his passion. John instead places it at the beginning of his public ministry, on the occasion of the first Passover spent by Jesus in Jerusalem. 

It is possible to put different interpretations of this incident. We could understand it in a moralistic way: Jesus does not allow the temple—his “Father’s house”—to become a marketplace. This is the interpretation of the disciples, who recall the verse of a Psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” And this is also the interpretation of the synoptic gospels, for which the temple is a “house of prayer.” Admittedly, the presence of merchants and money changers in the temple was fully justified: oxen, sheep and doves were intended for sacrifice; money changers were necessary because pilgrims were coming from different countries. Even around catholic shrines we find nowadays shops of religious articles; and we are not scandalized at that. But we know that Jesus was intransigent on these things: the temple is the house of God, and cannot be converted into a marketplace.

Some have gone so far as to use this episode to justify violence. Since Jesus armed himself with a whip to drive the merchants out of the temple, some theologians—the so-called “theologians of liberation”—supported an armed revolt of the oppressed against injustice. But this would seem a strained interpretation. 

John, for his part, presents the episode in a different way: for him, the cleansing of the temple becomes a prediction of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. The Jews ask Jesus, “What sign can you show us (quod signum ostendis nobis) for doing this?” Jesus gives them a cryptic answer, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews take these words literally. If you remember, during the trial before the Sanhedrin there will be some who will use these words distorted to accuse him, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands’” (Mk 14:58). John clarifies the symbolic meaning of Jesus’ saying, “He was speaking about the temple of his body.” As if to say, “Kill me, and after three days I will rise again.”

But the comparison of Jesus’ body with the temple is not a mere figure of speech. Jesus is identifying himself with the temple. The temple was the place of the presence and manifestation of God in the midst of his people. From now on that role will be played by Jesus himself: he will be the place where God makes himself present among men and men can encounter him. Jesus is the true temple of God; he replaces the old temple of Jerusalem. 

This is the only sign Jesus gives, so that people may believe in him. In Matthew’s gospel he calls it the sign of Jonah, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Mt 12:39-40). Saint Paul, in the second reading, says the same, “Jews demand signs … but we proclaim Christ crucified.” Jesus, the living Crucified, is the only sign given to us, on whom we can ground our faith and in whom we can find salvation.