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MARCH 11, 2012: THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Exodus 20:1-17
I Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-15

Unless we understand the biblical concept of "covenant" we'll only skim the surface of today's readings.

A covenant is an agreement - a formal contract - between at least two parties. Each party has specific responsibilities; each has rewards. It's a classic "quid pro quo:" you give me something; I'll give you something. People freely enter into covenants because they believe such agreements will create a better life for them. (Probably the most frequently entered covenant today is marriage.)

Today's first reading provides us with the basic covenant responsibilities of the ancient Jews. In return for following through on these obligations, they become Yahweh's special people and receive all the "goodies" such a relationship guarantees.

Most of us probably learned these ten responsibilities long before we knew the definition of adultery. We often see them posted in our churches. In an abbreviated form, they're framed and displayed in one Catholic school cafeteria in which 1 teaches. Though it's good to keep them, there's just one problem: they're someone else's covenant, not ours! Why would any of you want to hang a framed copy of my college teaching contract on your living room wall? It's my agreement with my employers, not yours.

The very introduction to these ten "words" tells us this covenant wasn't made with us: "I, Yahweh, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery." My ancestors came out of Germany and Belgium, not Egypt. Besides, except for Seventh Day Adventists, Christians haven't kept the "Sabbath" regulation for the last nineteen centuries. And most followers of Jesus have expanded the sixth commandment to encompass much more than just adultery.

As we hear in I Corinthians 11, we Christians are committed to adhere not to the 613 Sinai regulations, but to the responsibilities of the special covenant Jesus made with Yahweh; a covenant which we ratify every time we drink from the Eucharistic cup. We're committed to carry on Jesus' ministry.

In the first chapter of I Corinthians, Paul bemoans the fact that many of the people he attempts to evangelize - both Jews and Gentiles - reject that "new" covenant. They specifically object to its obligation to die with Jesus. "Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom," the Apostle writes, "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."

John presents us with one aspect of dying with Jesus in today's gospel pericope. The earliest followers of Jesus eventually were forced to choose between their imitation of him and their dedication to "organized religion." Though institutions, like the Jerusalem temple, offered security and unified Jews all over the world, Jewish Christians no longer put them at the center of their lives of faith. Jesus' encounter with the temple's animal dealers and money changers is a classic gospel demonstration of how even well-intentioned religious institutions can be corrupted.

In John's theology, Jesus takes the place of the temple: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. He was speaking of the temple of his body." When the evangelist talks about believing "in his name, "he's basically saying that people are committing themselves to doing the things he did.

I suspect the reason some Christians still insist on displaying the Ten Commandments revolves around the dying responsibility that's at the heart of Jesus' covenant. It's far easier to commit oneself to keeping just ten regulations than to accept the obligation to constantly give oneself to and for others.