In the beginning

Column: Sunday’s Gospel prepares us for Jesus’ passion

by Father Mike Stubbs

When Pope Benedict visited the United States in April 2008, he prayed at New York’s ground zero, asking God to bring direction to people “consumed with hatred.”

Some people attribute the current economic crisis to a society “consumed by greed.”

Kenzie, an eight-months-pregnant woman, was shot to death last month. Her fiancee’s 11-year-old son is charged with her murder. Reports say that the boy was “consumed with jealousy.”

We often use the term “consumed” in a metaphorical sense, to mean “obsessed by a strong emotion.” We might suppose that this is the case in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 2:13-25. That reading offers an account of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, in which he overturns the tables of the money-changers and drives out the sellers of sacrificial animals. The other Gospels provide parallel accounts (Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-17; and Lk 19:45- 46). At the same time, John’s Gospel supplies an observation lacking in Matthew, Mark and Luke: “His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” This verse quotes Ps 69:9.

Because zeal is such a strong emotion, we might imagine that once again the term “consumed” is intended in a metaphorical sense. In that case, we could rephrase the quotation to read: “Zeal for your house will overwhelm me.” Zeal for God’s house would drive Jesus to violent action, to overturn tables and chase vendors away.

But such does not appear to be the case. The Greek word translated as “consumed” literally means “eaten up, devoured.” It is not the equivalent of the modern English idiom, meaning psychological obsession. Instead, it means “destroyed.” In that case, we could rephrase the saying to read: “Zeal for your house will lead to my destruction.”

Later events in Jesus’ life confirm that prediction. When Jesus stands on trial before the Sanhedrin, his opponents testify against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands” (Mk 14:58).

Mark’s Gospel characterizes that testimony as false. At the same time, the Gospels report that Jesus’ teachings included criticism of the temple. For example, in Mk 13:1-2, we hear: “As he was making his way out of the temple area one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, teacher, what stones and what buildings!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.’”

The authorities heard that criticism as a threat. They respond to that criticism by having Jesus put to death. Zeal for the house of God leads to Jesus’ death. But it also leads to his resurrection.

Zeal for the temple explains, at least in part, Jesus’ death and resurrection on an earthly level. It also prepares us for the next metaphor in John’s Gospel. The temple stands for Jesus’ body. Through his death and resurrection, we will focus upon him as our place of worship, the point where we encounter God:

“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. . . . But he was speaking about the temple of his body.’”

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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