Saturday, March 14, 2009

True worship

Our Deacon is preaching this weekend, so I did not prepare a homily. Here is a homily for your reflection this weekend:

Like the desert (Lent week 1) and the mountain (week 2), the Temple is a place of special encounter with God. But today we are not going to see the glorious face of Jesus; we are going to see his angry face. Jesus is not happy with what he sees precisely because the way the Temple worship has been organised no longer reflects God’s original idea of a worshipping community. Two reasons can be given for this, namely, (a) the religious leaders had put rituals over morality, and (b) they had put particularity over universality.

The religious administrators of the Temple worship took pains to see that worshippers were duly supplied with high quality cattle, sheep and doves for sacrifice. They even made sure that the “dirty” money people brought with them could be exchanged for the “holy” Temple money.

At the same time, however, they were plotting against Jesus. If they took all that trouble to please God in worship, why couldn’t they take the trouble to investigate the claims of Jesus rather than condemn him so readily? For them pleasing God had become something you do in the rituals of the Temple and not in your relationship with people. This kind of religiosity makes Jesus really angry.

The story is told of a priest who was coming back to his parish house one evening in the dark only to be accosted by a robber who pulled a gun at him and demanded, “Your money or your life!” As the priest reached his hand into his coat pocket the robber saw his Roman collar and said, “So you are a priest? Then you can go.” The priest was rather surprised at this unexpected show of piety and so tried to reciprocate by offering the robber his packet of cigarettes, to which the robber replied, “No, Father, I don’t smoke during Lent.” You can see how this robber is trying to keep the pious observance of not smoking during Lent while forgetting the more fundamental commandment of God, “Thou shalt not steal.”

The second reason why Jesus was mad with the Temple priests was their practice of religious particularity over against universality, of exclusiveness over inclusiveness. Some knowledge of the design of the Temple will help us here. The Temple had five sections or courts: (1) holy of holies (2) court of priests (3) court of Israel (4) court of women (5) court of Gentiles. Though these were seen as five concentric circles of sanctity, the design made room for everybody in the house of God. It was a universal house of God “for all the nations” where every man or woman on earth would find a place in which to pray. But the Temple priests forgot that and thought that it was meant for Jews alone. So they decided to turn the court of the Gentiles into a “holy” market place for selling the animals required for sacrifice and for exchanging money. You could bring Roman money as far as the court of the Gentiles but not into the other four courts. The court of Gentiles was no longer regarded as part and parcel of the house of God, it had become a market place, pure and simple. Now it was this court of Gentiles that Jesus cleansed. In so doing he was making the point that the Gentile section was just as holy as the Jewish sections. God is God of all and not God of a select group. Like the Jews of the time of Jesus, some Christians today still think that God belongs to them alone and not to others as well.

A certain man died and went to heaven and St Peter was showing him round. St Peter pointed to different mansions: “Here are the Jews, here the Buddhists, here the Moslems, etc.” Then they came to a large compound surrounded by a high wall and inside they could hear singing and laughter. “Who are those?” asked the new arrival. And St Peter hushed him, “Hush! They’re the Christians – but they think they’re the only ones here.” Believers like these need a Temple court experience to awaken them to the universal love of God and bring them back to true worship.


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