Third Sunday of Lent

Reflection: Re-evaluate your religious identity


When you ask someone what their religion is, the chance that they will say “none” has increased dramatically in the past few decades.

Religiosity used to be a defining characteristic of U.S. culture. Protestants were known for the word and avoiding statues; Catholics attended Sunday Mass and abstained from meat on Fridays; Jewish people were notable for their faithful observance of the Sabbath.

Today, Exodus recounts God’s self-description: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt.” This tells us that Israel’s God gets involved in human history by calling on people like Moses to carry out divine plans. Then we hear God’s commandments, which were not really very extraordinary; most mirrored the ethics of civilizations of their time: No society condoned lying, stealing or abandoning the elderly.

But Israel’s Sabbath was unique. Imitating their God, Israelites consecrated one of every seven days for worship, family celebrations and leisure. The Sabbath affirmed that people are more important than work, that strong relationships with God and others outvalue any accomplishment and that everyone needs time for re-creation, for recentering themselves in relation to everything else. Sabbath became an approach to life sacramentalizing the people’s time and leisure. The Sabbath enhanced the people’s relationship with God and also intensified their shared identity. The attitude of Sabbath honed Israel’s appreciation of the sacredness that surrounded them and highlighted places and practices that sharpened their awareness of the presence of God and the meaning of their life.

While the God of Israel could appear anywhere, the temple functioned as a focal point for prayer and other expressions of the peoples’ relationship with God. It was a holy place. The day Jesus entered the temple he observed not faith, but sacrilege. This place of worship, the religious center for all God’s people, looked like a bazaar — one in which distinctions between male and female, clergy and laity, wealthy and poor were on display and reinforced. 

Rather than being an inducement to prayer, sacrifice had become a business, supporting the money changers and merchants who made fortunes by selling supposed access to God. Operating as the opposite of what it was intended to be, the temple could impede people’s experience of a merciful, loving God. In Jesus’ eyes, the temple had become a blasphemy, the anti-reign of God.

After evicting the religious retailers, Jesus made the famous statement, “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up again.” John explains that “this temple” referred to Jesus himself, not an architectural wonder. As in his conversation with a woman at a well, that phrase taught that God’s presence cannot be captured in structures — be they buildings, tabernacles or even particular practices. We discover God’s presence like Moses did. He experienced a mystery that called him to an impossible vocation, a vocation that came to fruition through the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus claimed that he definitively replaced the temple and sacrifice. He sacramentalized the presence of God through his loving relationships and all that flowed from them.

When we say that God is love, we assert that God’s presence is mediated in relationships. Institutions may facilitate our awareness of God’s presence, but we encounter God in prayer and in the love among us that makes God’s own love palpable in our world.

When we say that we are Christians, we claim with St. Paul that we believe that God’s greatest self-revelation came to us in Christ whose cross revealed that the foolish vulnerability of divine love expresses the greatest power in creation. The power of divine love is neither controlling nor coercive. God’s love attracts and woos us. 

Jesus’ vehemence in the temple sprang from the fact that people had distorted their faith and desecrated God’s house. They offered a counterfeit relationship with God based on sacrifice over love. If the desecrators of the temple had been asked what their religion was, one honest answer would have been, “profit,” and another would have been “power.” The most cynical and honest might have said, “none.”

Contemplating Jesus’ fury in the temple calls us to take account of ourselves. What religion do we proclaim in our worship and our daily actions? Do we take advantage of holy times for re-creation that can permeate our week or have our Sabbaths slipped away, taking second (or third) place to work, profit, sports or any other activity that distracts us from taking the time to create ever-deeper relationships with God and neighbor? 

This third week of Lent calls us to re-evaluate our religious identity. If we ask not what we call our denomination, but what our behavior reveals about our real beliefs, what’s the honest answer? How do we want to answer? 

First Reading

(Exodus 20: 1-17)

In those days, God delivered all these commandments:
“I, the LORD, am your God, 
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.
You shall not have other gods besides me.
You shall not carve idols for yourselves 
in the shape of anything in the sky above 
or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; 
you shall not bow down before them or worship them.
For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, 
inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness 
on the children of those who hate me, 
down to the third and fourth generation; 
but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation 
on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.
For the LORD will not leave unpunished 
the one who takes his name in vain.

“Remember to keep holy the sabbath day.
Six days you may labor and do all your work, 
but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God.
No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, 
or your male or female slave, or your beast, 
or by the alien who lives with you.
In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, 
the sea and all that is in them; 
but on the seventh day he rested.
That is why the LORD has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.

“Honor your father and your mother, 
that you may have a long life in the land 
which the LORD, your God, is giving you.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, 
nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, 
nor anything else that belongs to him.”

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 19: 8, 9, 10, 11)

Second Reading

(I Corinthians 1: 22-25)

Brothers and sisters:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 
but we proclaim Christ crucified, 
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, 
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, 
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.


(John 2: 13-25)

Since the Passover of the Jews was near,
Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, 
as well as the money-changers seated there.
He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, 
and spilled the coins of the money changers
and overturned their tables, 
and to those who sold doves he said,
“Take these out of here, 
and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, 
Zeal for your house will consume me.
At this the Jews answered and said to him,
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered and said to them, 
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said, 
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, 
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, 
his disciples remembered that he had said this, 
and they came to believe the Scripture 
and the word Jesus had spoken.

While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, 
many began to believe in his name 
when they saw the signs he was doing.
But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, 
and did not need anyone to testify about human nature.
He himself understood it well.