The Heart of the Law: The 3rd Sunday of Lent, Cycle B

Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25

At first, today’s readings might not present themselves as a unified whole: Moses receives the Ten Commandments; St. Paul speaks of the cross; our Lord cleanses the Temple. But if we look a little below the surface, a theme does emerge.

First, the Ten Commandments. As significant as they are on their own, these are only the first of a series of commands that God used to define the terms of his covenant with the Hebrews. The agreement was this: If the people obeyed God’s law, they would not only be his treasured possession but God would have a sanctuary built and dwell among them. This was truly momentous, for God hadn’t dwelled among people since the Garden of Eden (recall him walking in the Garden in Chapter 3 of Genesis).

This is why several chapters of Exodus then go into great detail about the sanctuary’s construction. Much of it symbolizes the Garden of Eden, that first sanctuary of God, including the tree in the center of the Garden – the tree of life. And that explains why, down to the time of Jesus and beyond, the Temple held such pride of place among the Jews: The Temple was an icon of the universe, including paradise, and its center, the holy of holies, the place where God Most High dwelled among his people. It was as if God was re-creating Eden and restoring his people to their place near the tree of life.

The only thing more incredible than all this was how little time it took the Hebrews to break the covenant. Just weeks after agreeing to have no other gods they melted jewelry to make a golden calf. But then we shouldn’t be too hard on them; it’s human nature to want our own way, to determine for ourselves what is good, and then, after we’ve sinned, to rationalize or minimize it.

We see that in the gospel story. Jewish law did stipulate a census tax and the securing of an animal for sacrifice, but neither of those things had to be done on Temple grounds and there is little doubt that at least some profiteering went on. But come on, what’s the harm? People paid the tax and sacrificed their animal. We see it in our own time as well. For example, the Catechism teaches that it’s a sin against the 2nd Commandment to say God’s name when we’re not praying. God’s name is holy, and we are to speak it only to bless, praise, and glorify him (CCC §2143). Still, we’re tempted to think, “No way. Everybody says, ‘OMG’ when they talk. I can’t believe God really cares about that!”

But we forget the ancient principle of law that says that the seriousness of an offense is determined not by the person who commits the crime, but by the dignity of the victim. For example, in civil law, if a man assaults someone he might be arrested or fined, but if he assaults the President of the United States he will definitely go to prison for a very long time. Why? Because of the dignity our society bestows on the office of President.

So with God’s law; when we sin God is offended, and because God’s dignity is infinite, every offense against him is infinite. From that perspective, think how arrogant it is for us to tell God when he should or should not be offended, or demanding that God explain himself to us. That’s exactly backward. Only God gets to say when he is offended and, as Christ implied in the Temple, only God is in a position to demand anything.

This at last brings us to the cross. For God does demand something – justice – but in his infinite mercy demands that it be satisfied once and for all through the sacrifice of his only Son. As much as the commandments mean, as much as the Temple ever meant, infinitely more was given to us by this gift. For as he implied in today’s gospel, Jesus is the Temple, and only in his cross do we find the true tree of life, the highest expression of what we are called to be, how we are are called to love.

In these remaining days of Lent, make time to contemplate the cross. If you do not pray the Stations of the Cross, consider doing that. Regardless, pray the words we begin with – the Act of Contrition: “O my God,” (said in prayer!) “I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”

This prayer helps us remember what God wants most: That his law be written on our hearts; that from our heart we are sorry for offending his infinite dignity; and that we are committed to avoiding the situations or places that have helped lead us into sin. All this strengthens within us the Holy Spirit’s gift of fear of the Lord, through which we come to love God so much, to respect his dignity so deeply that we never want to do anything to offend him; to say as little St. Joan of Arc said at her trial, “I would rather die than do a thing which I know to be a sin or against the will of God.”

That is the heart of Christ, whose love is the heart of the law.

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