3rd Sunday of Lent (B)
March 8, 2015


Let us begin with an assertion as blunt and as clear as that one of St. Paul: “We proclaim Christ crucified!” There, too, is an assertion apparently as clear as the foregoing, found in the first reading from Exodus 20: “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.” Now the Gospel passage has one more: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

Taken apart by themselves, and taken out of context, they sure are good sound bites for anyone with an agenda. The first in the list above could make a case for those who believe that Christian life ought to be one that is meant to be sour and dour, and one in which there is no room for joy and gladness and anything that is patently “worldly.” The second is the classical passage of those who endlessly berate Catholics for “worshipping images.” The third, of course, is the favorite of those who are against any form of perceived “commercialization” of the place of worship.

This is the classical problem of mistaking the meaning of isolated passages as against the meaning of Scripture as a whole. This is the age-old issue of hermeneutics, which as a matter of principle, is actually clear to academics and scholars, except for those who narrowly and mistakenly think that the rules of interpretation are something that they can decide unilaterally on their own, like the Bible-thumping fundamentalists do.

So what do we make of the three readings presented to us today? What is it that they, essentially proclaim?

The first reading essentially proclaims the utter uniqueness of God. It has nothing to do with images per se, but of the prohibition for us to have other gods, as shown by cheap representations and substitutions. In short, God does not prohibit images, per se, but idolatry, that is the worship of false gods. Worship of false gods means to have gods other than the revealed true God. The fact that this very same God told Moses to make an image of the serpent on a pole to be looked up to by those bitten by serpents in the desert shows that images, per se, are not forbidden, but the use of those images in place of the true God.

The second assertion from Paul is actually a proclamation of the true meaning of the Cross. It does not glorify something that is basically a sign of a cruel and excruciating death, but glorified Him who subjected Himself to that for a greater, higher reason, and that reason is what we read elsewhere in the gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” In short, it is not the material cross that is glorified, but the Cross that was made glorious by His death, by the very reason why He died, as a means and tool to effect our salvation. The meaning of the Cross, therefore, has changed. When before, it was a symbol of a shameful and painful death, it is now a glorious sign of salvation. What was (and still is), a stumbling block to non-believers is now what we gloriously proclaim to the world.

Christ’s assertion about the physical temple is the third in our list today. Again, the isolated line needs to be put back in its total context. And the context is full of meaning, not just lines that speak of a very literal understanding. The Lord used the context of a material temple, filled with commerce, in order to drive home a lesson that went beyond the materiality of the physical temple, but of a range of other meanings that can only come out in the total context.

And that range of meanings is quite vast. It points to the sacredness and holiness of God, and by extension and association, the place of encounter with the divine – the temple. But it points also refers to a prophetic declaration about his own physical body that will soon be destroyed, but will rise again after three days in a veiled reference to the resurrection.

The meaning of Scripture cuts across literal and more than literal levels. The meaning of Scripture comes from the totality, for in the first place, the books (all of them) was written over a long period with different historical and cultural contexts, with different human authors all inspired by the same God. The fact that they were written in different geographical, cultural and temporal contexts, only means that we, who interpret them now, ought to make a leap in time, in mentality and in geography.  The fact, too, that God is ultimately the author of Scripture, together with the human authors, means that the interpretation does not depend on each and everyone of us, but on the community of believers convoked by no other than God Himself.

But I digress too much. Scripture offers us big lessons in broad strokes that pose no obstacles to proper interpretation. Certain big ticket items are clear and they all jut out from every book in the Bible.

And one of those big ticket items that the three readings now point to is simply this … “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” Another is this … There is only one God, and one should have no other gods besides him. A third is this … The Cross, once a sign and symbol of shame and infamy, has now been transformed to a glorious sign of victory, for God has scored absolute victory over death in and through the life, suffering, and death of Christ His Son.

This is what we proclaim!