Sunday Scripture

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Third Sunday of Lent, Year B

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17; Response: Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; Gospel: John 2:13-25

Exodus 20 (our first reading) contains the Ten Commandments of the law given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. The preceding chapters of Exodus record the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt – due to the powerful actions of the Lord God, who forces the Pharaoh of Egypt to let the Israelites go. But starting in Exodus 15:22, the Israelites begin to grumble against God and against Moses. Although God provides for their needs, the Israelites continue to grumble through Exodus 16 and 17, as they travel through the desert at the direction of Moses and God. 

In Exodus 19, they arrive at Mount Sinai, where God tells Moses to announce this to all the Israelites: “You have seen how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me completely and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples ... You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). Thus God announces his intention to enter into a covenantal relationship with the people of Israel. 

This is the context in which God gives the Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai in the desert. The Ten Commandments are a well-known portion of the “Law of Moses.” In our reading, notice how God first announces his identity: “I, the LORD, am your God.” This is followed by a reminder to the Israelites that they were freed from Egypt by the Lord’s power. God has redeemed them, so they must keep God’s commandments in return. Thus both sides will be committed to this covenantal relationship.

The Ten Commandments are spoken directly from God to the Israelites. This contrasts with previous messages of God given through Moses. This experience frightens the Israelites so much that afterward, they beg Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die” (Exodus 20:19).

“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day” is particularly unique to the Israelite relationship with God. The explanation (20:11) for the sabbath commandment directly connects it with the six days of creation, followed by God’s rest on the seventh day – first described in Genesis 2:2-3. Keeping the sabbath is the third commandment by Roman Catholic numbering (there is disagreement on numbering). The first and second commandments likewise concern the relationship between the Israelites and the Lord God – “You shall have no gods before me” and “You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.” The remaining commandments concern justice between individuals within the family and community. These laws foster a just society (“You shall not kill, steal,” etc.).  

Our second reading is taken from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians – directly after Paul reprimands the Corinthians for divisions and rivalries among them (1:10-17). This leads into verse 18: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul presents Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross as the exact opposite of the Corinthians’ selfish fighting over earthly honor and status (1:12: “I belong to Paul” (or Cephas, etc).

These verses precede today’s reading, in which Paul boldly states: “We proclaim Christ crucified!” Paul recognizes that Christ’s crucifixion is a direct rebuke of human wisdom and human strength. Paul emphasizes that Christ’s crucifixion is the embodiment of God’s wisdom and God’s power.

Paul observes that both Jews and Greeks have difficulty accepting this message (Greeks are one type of Gentile). The Greeks had a long tradition of seeking wisdom (sophia). This is called “Greek philosophy,” which continues to be influential today. 

In contrast with the “human wisdom” of Greek philosophy, Paul presents the cross as “foolishness to Gentiles.” Similarly for Jews, the cross is “a stumbling block” because they “demand signs” from God. But Christ’s crucifixion is not the type of sign that they were expecting from the God who had freed their people from slavery in Egypt by his works of power (see Exodus). Despite the difficulty of many Jews and Gentiles in accepting the message of Christ’s cross, Paul asserts that “those who are called” – both Jews and Greeks – recognize Christ crucified as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul proclaims this message.

Today’s Gospel (John 2) is known as “the purification of the Temple.” Jesus’ actions recall the prophecy of Zechariah 14:21b: “No longer will there be merchants in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.” These are the final words of Zechariah’s prophetic text – well-known at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. For Zechariah, “on that day” is an oft-repeated reference to the day of the Lord God’s salvation of his people. When Jesus drives the merchants out of the Temple, his action announces that “the day of the Lord” has arrived – although many failed to recognize this. Jesus decisively inaugurates God’s kingdom.

Jesus is asked: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus’ response confuses and alarms the people who don’t understand Jesus’ prophetic words: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The gospel narrator hastens to explain that Jesus is talking about “the temple of his body,” and that Jesus’ disciples realized this meaning later – after his resurrection. The Temple in Jerusalem was recognized as the place of God’s presence among his chosen people. When Jesus describes his own body as a temple, this emphasizes that Jesus is the powerful presence of God among humanity. We call this “the Incarnation” – that the son of God has become fully human, including his human body. Thus God has chosen to dwell among us – and Jesus’ body is the temple of God’s presence. John’s Gospel describes this earlier: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son” (John 1:14).