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Scripture In Depth
Third Sunday of Lent
Year B
March 7, 2021
Reginald H. Fuller

Reading I: Exodus 20:1-17

The short version of the Decalogue is attained by the omission of those parts that have a rather narrow and temporary application, namely, the prohibition of idolatry in the first commandment (according to the Latin-Lutheran enumeration, but the second commandment according to other traditions) and the abbreviation of the third (fourth) commandment. Anglicans are further accustomed to the abbreviation of the ninth-tenth commandments as “Thou shalt not covet,” a procedure that could have been followed here with advantage.

The Decalogue appears in two places of Scripture: here and in Deut 5. The two versions differ mainly over the grounds for the Sabbath commandment. The content of the second table (duty to the neighbor) is paralleled in many primitive legal codes. The first table (duty to God) is unique to Scripture. Both tables also differ from other codes in form. They are apodictic: “You shall.” The other codes are conditional: “If you do so and so, the consequence will be so and so.” Thus, the natural law is taken up and transformed by the insights of Yahwism.

It has been much debated whether, historically, the Decalogue originates from Moses. Contemporary scholarship looks rather more favorably on the traditional ascription. If it is correct, then Moses probably reinterpreted earlier codes in the light of the ethical monotheism for which he stood. Obviously they have undergone at least two later recensions—the one Deuteronomic (Deut 5), the other priestly (Ex 20).

With the exception of the third (fourth) commandment, all of the ten words have a timeless validity. The New Testament quotes the second table in several places and clearly regards it as valid for Christian believers. The Decalogue was a constant element in medieval catechesis and expounded in the Reformation catechisms as the summary of Christian moral obligation. It has been frequently used as a form of self-examination before Communion. In Christian use it has to be understood, of course, in the light of our Lord's teaching as given in the Sermon on the Mount.

Responsorial Psalm: 19:8, 9, 10, 11

A different selection of verses from this psalm is used at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. There its primary reference is naturally to the Eucharist.

Here the focus is on the deliverance of the just person from affliction, recalling the deliverance of Isaac. Note especially the phrase “Thou hast loosed my bonds.” In later Judaism the story of Isaac was called the Akedah, or “binding of Isaac.”

Reading II: 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Paul had a great deal of experience in preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. He found again and again that the Jews wanted a sign, that is to say, a legitimating miracle (as in today's Gospel—Jn 2:18) to authenticate his apostolicity and the truth of his message. 

The Greeks, on the other hand, looked for wisdom, that is to say, they were prepared to accept Christianity if it was presented as “wisdom,” or “gnosis”—that is, if it brought a convincing understanding of the universe and of the place of humanity in it, so that one could thereby be released from the trammels of earthly existence and reunited with one's heavenly origin.

It was wisdom rather than signs that the Corinthians, who were mainly Gentiles, desired at this time. Later on, however, by the time 2 Corinthians was written, they would be impressed by Jewish-Christian preachers who came along offering signs. Paul does not altogether repudiate the religious quest of either the Jew or the Gentile, but he corrects it by the message of the cross. 

The cross is power (dynamis, the word frequently used for “miracle” and corresponding to “sign”) and wisdom. But it is a paradoxical kind of power and wisdom—a foolishness (note the chiastic construction) in human eyes that is wiser than human beings, and a weakness that is stronger than they. Only believers can penetrate the wisdom behind the folly, and the power behind the weakness. For all unbelievers, the message of the cross remains a scandal (for Jews) and folly (for Greeks).

Gospel: John 2:13-25

The Fourth Gospel has a version of the cleansing of the Temple that is parallel to, but independent of, the Synoptic version. John's tradition combines two elements found separately in the Synoptists:

(1) the cleansing of the Temple (Mk 11:15-19); 

(2) the prediction of the Temple's destruction (Mk 14:5-8).

There are other features not paralleled in the Synoptists:

(1) the whips: a greater degree of force used by Jesus (a feature that has been taken up in recent theologies of revolution);

(2) the citation of Ps 69:9: this was a psalm traditionally used in the early church's passion apologetics;

(3) the interesting statement that the incident took place when the Temple had been forty-six years in building—pointing to the date 28 CE. We take it that these features were already present in the Johannine tradition.

The evangelist himself seems to be responsible for the following features:

(1) the shift of the cleansing of the Temple from Holy Week to the beginning of the ministry. (Does that mean that he is also responsible for the remark about the forty-six years? Alternatively, following Raymond Brown, we may suppose that the saying about the destruction of the Temple belonged to this year already before John, and that John has shifted the cleansing to the earlier date and thus combined the originally separate traditions of the cleansing and the prophecy.); 

(2) the statement that Jesus was referring to his body in the saying about the destruction of the Temple.

We will concentrate on the meaning of these two redactional features.

(1) The reason for the shift of the incident to the beginning of the ministry will be a programmatic one. John wants to make Jesus lay out all his cards on the table right at the outset. The destruction of the Temple, that is, the end of the Jewish dispensation and its worship, is the ultimate purpose of Jesus' whole ministry.

(2) Closely connected with this is the second redactional feature. This expresses the positive side of Jesus' program, just as the destruction of the Temple expresses its negative aspect. The old order of worship is to be replaced by a new one—an order focused no longer on the old Temple but on the Body of Christ.

In what sense is “Body of Christ” used here? Does it mean the ecclesial body in the Pauline and Deutero-Pauline sense? Or is it the glorified humanity of Christ? The second sense seems closer to Johannine theology elsewhere (see Jn 1:14), but we cannot altogether rule out overtones of the Pauline meaning.

Reginald H. Fuller
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