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Third Sunday of Lent: The throne of God

Today’s readings: Exodus 20, 1-17; 1 Corinthians 1, 22-25; John 2, 13-25.

Lent is about encountering God, a time when the Scriptures softly and gradually highlight for us what can be in the way to make this encounter happen. Of course, there is a reason for today’s gospel account of Jesus’ outburst against the profanation of the temple. In our understanding of religion, it should be clear that it is the heart that first and foremost should serve as the throne of God and the space from where God’s glory shines.

Idolatry is the opposite of all this. Idolatry is when religion stops on the outside, when it doesn’t even touch the heart. This has always been a major concern since the Old Testament prophetic critique of religious exteriority at the expense of an authentic interior life. With the Decalogue as presented in Exodus today, which extends far beyond the confines of Judaism to other world and ancient religions, this concern with idolatry is carved in stone: “You shall have no gods except me and you shall not bow down to carved images or serve them”.

This is frankly quite an issue even for us today. Our visual imagining of God, of Jesus Christ and of the saints finds so many artistic expressions which throughout the history of Christianity have been ground for controversies. There have been periodic outbursts of such open conflict as during the eighth and ninth century iconoclastic controversy or at the time of the Reformation.

In today’s gospel account from John the outburst of Jesus is a case in point of how religion can effectively degenerate and how easily the temple can stop being the sanctuary of encounter with God. Instead of creating the sacred space where the encounter with God becomes possible, religion can simply become an end in itself. The law as given in today’s Exodus reading highlights the fine line of demarcation between faith and idolatry. One can easily be religious and at the same time missing the whole point as to what religion should point to.

There is involved here a process of liberation and personal growth. Jesus in the gospel is completely free from the conditionings of the temple and of all the false visual imagining of God. John says this happened “just before the Jewish Passover”. For the Jews, the Passover had degenerated into a simple festival, a celebration that was more cultural than spirit-filling. Jesus, driving all out of the temple, is starting afresh with a people so seasoned in religious practice and yet so distant from the heart of spirituality.

Jesus, among other roles, was a pedagogue, seeking to educate and liberate the consciences of people from misconceived imaginings of the divine. In this case, he was not being an iconoclast, even if actually he was desacralising the temple and the people’s religion. As long as religion is not liberating, it ceases to point to the divine, it becomes idolatrous, and it may start serving as our own throne, not God’s.

We still give so much weight to the temple caste, as if the closer one is to the temple, automatically the closer one is to God. I am not advocating in any way that church-going is futile. Yet it is high time we review our perspective as to include those whom Pope Francis calls the existential peripheries – people who may be on the fringes of church life, yet are seriously committed to an authentic and coherent life.

In the second reading, St Paul speaks of the crucified Christ as a manifestation of the power of God. Like the Jews and the Greeks in his time we may remain stuck in demanding miracles or simply seeking explanations. The faith we profess loses ground and our religion becomes less credible when the crucified Jesus cannot be powerfully proclaimed in our churches.

Instead it becomes more manifest in the darkness of Good Friday as lived in embattled Syria, or as experienced in millions of Christians and people of other faiths still persecuted in many parts of the world, or in the myriad forms of poverty still generated by our own affluence.

When our churches become comfort zones where the crucifix or our visual imaginings of the divine become just museum pieces, we would do better to demolish them. I believe this is the message of Jesus today.

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