Commandments, Not Suggestions: Third Sunday in Lent (Cycle B)

Exodus 20:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:22-25; John 2:13-25

The lectionary has given us a lot to chew on and digest this weekend: first, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, then St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and finally, Jesus clearing the temple. All three are challenging and evocative.

Our first reading, the first seven verses in Exodus, are, of course, the 10 commandments or alternatively, the Decalogue. In Hebrew and Greek, they are called the 10 words. Now, we as Catholics recognize them as 10 commandments and not merely 10 suggestions as many modern Christians seem to believe these days. We are commanded to follow them as basic tenets of our faith, as the Jews were when Moses delivered the commandments to them.

The divisions between the commandments have not always been clear. Jewish and Catholic sources divided them differently, and Protestant and post-Protestant denominations followed the Jewish practice. What’s important, though, is that both lists include the same essential content and can be divided in roughly the same way. The first three address love of God, and the remainder address love of neighbor. In the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, there are another 613 mitzvot or commandments that ancient Jews and Orthodox Jews still try to follow, both out of a sense of obligation and duty but also to express their love for God. But all of the commandments fall under either the commandment to love God or to love neighbor. So we as Christians and those who practice Judaism both in our own ways attempt to honor the two greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. All of our actions as Catholics should be directed toward these two greatest commandments, and we follow them not by following our own whims and preferences but by learning how the Church teaches us to follow the commandments in modern life.

Now it can be a challenge to us in this culture to commit to being guided by the Church’s teachings. Paul’s letter makes it pretty clear that we are no different from the Jews and Gentiles of his time. They also struggled with the message and saw it as foolishness. Jews asked for signs and Gentiles for wisdom: The Jews had had signs aplenty, but they kept asking for more. The Gentiles had wisdom from their own philosophers. The virtues that Pagan philosophers praised were many of the same ones that Jesus preached. But Gentiles sought the novelty. And something about praising weakness and humility didn’t sit right with pagan cultural sensibilities. It seemed unreasonable, contradictory.

This common temptation, ever ancient but ever new, is exemplified in the New Age movement of the last 50 years. People constantly seek some new form of wisdom and ignore the wisdom that is part of their own heritage. The wisdom of their Judeo-Christian culture is foolishness to them. But they are perfectly willing to invent some new Jesus out of whole cloth. They respect, or at least use, the name of Jesus, but completely disregard His person, and they fashion an idol that they then name as their own personal Jesus, to borrow a line from Depeche Mode.

We as Americans really tend toward this consumer mentality about faith. We often don’t look for the truth but instead shop for a comfortable half truth. This happens not only in denominational Christianity, where people gravitate to the church with the best music or the pastor who has those electrifying sermons, but also in our own fold, where we move from parish to parish to find the music we like, or the priest who holds our attention. It’s natural for us to seek what is comfortable, but as Catholics we should always remember that the Eucharist is here just as much as it is in all other parishes across Boise.

Our gospel reading today presents a Jesus that a lot of people would rather didn’t exist, or at very least, they down play this aspect of Jesus: the one who confronts and acts out of righteous anger. There’s a meme that makes its way around social media these days that says, “If you want to know what Jesus would do, keep in mind that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is not out of the question.” Now, it’s a humorous poke at a common and somewhat self-righteous statement people often make to remind others that they’re not being Christ-like, but it does touch on an important fact about Jesus. He was, as Fr. Robert Barron has said in his videos, a deeply unsettling personality. He came and got in the face of the religious authorities of His time and called them out on their hypocrisy. He dared to reveal people’s deepest, darkest secrets to them, as He did to the woman at the well. He called the Pharisees and scribes “white-washed sepulchers.” Jesus didn’t pull punches, and He was not afraid to call people out. He Himself said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Not peace, but a sword.

Now, we see nothing in scripture to suggest that Jesus walked around armed, so we have to assume He meant something else. What He meant was that He came to force people to make a choice. We are either with God, or we are against God. We are either with Jesus, or we are against Jesus. And those are not my words, but His. We cannot deny what He commanded and claim to be on His side. And the Apostles said the same thing in the epistles of the New Testament. We would like to look at the moral teachings in the New Testament—whether it has to do with turning the other cheek, or visiting the imprisoned or sick, or sexual morality—and we try to say that Christ doesn’t judge us on any of those concerns. But I’m here to tell you that that is unmitigated nonsense. Jesus called us to make a choice, and He says very clearly that He didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. We can choose His will or we can choose our own will, and turn our backs to God.

That doesn’t mean that Christ isn’t merciful or that He’s not love. His love and mercy are beyond our comprehension. What we think of as judgment and condemnation may very well be His mercy. After all, His justice is His mercy. He will not force us to choose Him. If we decide not to follow His commandments, He will let us have our way. He doesn’t condemn us, but He will acknowledge our self-condemnation. He has given us free will to choose one path or the other. And His mercy and justice require that He let us walk away from Him if that is what we will to do. We can either say, “Thy will be done,” or He will say, “Thy will be done.”


About dcnbillburns

I am a deacon for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise.
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