This reflection on the Sunday readings for March 7, 2021 (the Third Sunday in Lent) was written by Fr. Daniel J. Merz, SLD. Fr. Dan is a priest of the Jefferson City diocese and currently serves as the pastor of the St. Thomas More Newman Center at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. He also serves as the vicar for the diaconate for his diocese. — ML
Growing up, I remember so many times when my sainted mother would say something like, “Don’t eat that now, it’ll spoil your dinner.” Or, “You can have your dessert, but first you have to eat your brussels sprouts.” (You know, I kind of enjoy spinach and asparagus now, but I still haven’t developed much of a taste for brussels sprouts!) Or sometimes, we’d be watching TV, and suddenly mom or dad would get up and change the channel. Or at the end of the evening, they’d say, “Okay, it’s bedtime.” And the TV would get turned off and we’d be sent up to our rooms.
As a young kid, it seemed at times like they were just making up rules for whatever arbitrary reason. When I think back on that now, I see that Mom and Dad didn’t make up any rules. Eating a balanced diet is a good thing, not being exposed to certain images or language is a good thing, getting enough sleep is a good thing—not because somebody arbitrarily decided so, but because that’s how our bodies and minds are hard-wired—how we were created.
In the first reading today from Exodus, we hear about how God gave the ten commandments to all of us. In American society we can sometimes really get hung up on rules. Rules often seem to us like an imposition. If you’ve ever gotten a ticket for speeding or some other minor traffic violation, you might agree with that—especially when we get slapped with negative consequences for what seems like an arbitrary imposition. But God’s not arbitrary. Let me say that again: God is never arbitrary.
Maybe it would help us to think of these ten commandments not so much as rules or commands, but as an “instruction book” for how God created us. He created us for joy, and for communion, and for freedom. The ten pages of our instruction book (supplemented, perhaps, by the Beatitudes) are recipes for true freedom in this life—the freedom to fulfill our nature truly and joyfully.
Joy comes in honoring God above all as the greatest source of our strength. Turn away from that strength, and he won’t necessarily smite us, but we’ll be cut off from our strength! Being able to love and honor our fathers and mothers brings us peace. Just talk with anyone who wasn’t able to reconcile with an estranged parent before they died, and they will almost inevitably mention regret that the relationship wasn’t different. Whether the reasons for the break rest with the parent, the child, or both, the desire for a good and healthy relationship—and the regret of not having that—is always there. We could make similar reflections for all ten pages of our little book. Those ten commandments—ten pages of our little book—are an outline, of sorts, of our spiritual DNA.
Some would argue that there is no such thing as “human nature.” They’d suggest we’re conceived as a blank slate morally, which means that we can write our own instruction book or playbook. In that case, these ten commandments really would be arbitrary, and we could make up whatever morality seems to work the best. I just don’t think that’s true. The Church doesn’t think that’s true. The Scriptures testify that it’s not true. Because God is never arbitrary. It would be a beautiful and meaningful exercise for a family to sit down together and look at each of the ten commandments.
Perhaps you could talk as a family about what the positive purpose of each commandment is. Ask each other, “How does this commandment fit into our instruction book, into the playbook that God has created in us?”
The Gospel today echoes one part of that playbook, namely, that we are made for communion with God: My house shall be a house of prayer! It’s part of our spiritual DNA that we need communion with God.
There are three points that I would like to highlight briefly regarding the Gospel. First, why did Jesus do something as dramatic and consequential as overturning the money tables and chasing out the animals to be sacrificed? Those activities were not bad in themselves. They were actually necessary. The problem was that they were selling the animals in the one place on the Temple mount where non-Jews could come and pray to God. Jesus understood that the Jewish people were the chosen people, not for themselves, but as a way of bringing all people to God. Here in the one place where Gentiles could come and pray to God, there was a marketplace. This showed disdain for the very reason they were the chosen people. Jesus wants to save not just the Jewish people, but all people.
Secondly, he says that he will destroy the Temple and raise it up in three days. What Jesus is saying is that he, himself, is going to replace the Temple. Jesus is indicating that the sacrifice of himself on the Cross is going to replace all those animal sacrifices. That’s perhaps the main reason why he did what he did in today’s Gospel.
Finally, what does Jesus’ action in today’s Gospel teach us?
First, ask yourself: are there distractions to your relationship with God that you need to drive out from your soul? Are there beasts that are unfit that you are entertaining and need to drive out? Are financial concerns interfering with your ability to deepen or even find communion with God?
Jesus is the new Temple, the new place of sacrifice, because he sacrificed himself on the altar of the Cross. At the Mass, the priest at the altar lifts up our offerings and intentions to Christ and prays for them to be united to him, and from the Temple of Christ’s body, he gives us back the Communion banquet of his Body and Blood. What we give is transformed and given back to us. Don’t ever forget to make your offering at Mass. Don’t forget to surrender it into the priest’s hands, and he will unite it to Christ, and Christ will bless it and give it back transformed. That’s the kind of prayer and offering that taps into our spiritual DNA. It’s how God created our hearts and souls. It’s how he redeems us. It’s how he touches our lives.
There’s nothing arbitrary about it. It’s how we were created. It’s in our spiritual DNA.
Image: Adobe Stock.