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Third Sunday of Lent: True worship and the cleansing of the Temple

On the Readings for Sunday, March 5, 2021, the Third Sunday of Lent

"Christ Cleansing the Temple" (17th century) by Luca Giordano (


• Ex 20:1-17
• Psa 19:8, 9, 10, 11
• 1 Cor 1:22-25
• Jn. 2:13-25

Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (2007), explained that Jesus Christ is the new Torah and the new Temple. “Jesus understands himself as the Torah—as the word of God in person”, wrote Benedict.

And then, a bit later: “The issue of Jesus’ claim to be Temple and Torah in person also has implications for the question of Israel—the issue of the living community of the people in whom God’s word is actualized.”

This understanding is not unique to Benedict. For example, Dr. Matthew Levering developed it in his book, Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), emphasizing the insights of St. Thomas Aquinas. But, you ask, what does such high-minded theology have to do with living a Christian life, especially during Lent? Today’s readings, which focus on the Torah and the Temple, provide an opportunity to reflect on that question.

Let’s begin by asking: what was the purpose of the Torah?

The Ten Commandments (and 603 other commandments) were given within the context of two key events: the Exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mount Sinai. The Exodus was aimed at two things, the first obvious, the second less so: land and worship. We all know of the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but we often overlook God’s words to Pharaoh, given by Moses: “Let my people go to serve me in the wilderness” and “We must go a three days’ journey in the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord, our God, as he commands us” (Ex 7:16; 8:23). Freedom from slavery meant freedom to openly worship God.

Finally free, the people went to the base of Mount Sinai, where Moses eventually received the Torah. As Joseph Ratzinger notes in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), the covenant established there united “the three aspects of worship, law, and ethics”—that is, how to relate to God and to others, in both public and private relationships. The Torah was meant to lead to the fullness of life, which included entering the promised land. Rather than giving blind submission to an unknown, capricious deity, the people were to respond with love to the mercy and goodness of the Lord (see CCC 2062).

The Torah, then, was not legalistic or based in anger, but came from a rather stunning expression of divine, personal love. Just as God had created everything out of love, he also created a people of his own out of love and with a distinct purpose. Jewish scholar Maurice Samuel, in his introduction to Solomon Goldman’s commentary, The Ten Commandments (University of Chicago, 1963), wrote, “Just as Genesis is an explosive denial of the randomness of the physical universe, so the Revelation at Sinai is a repudiation of the meaninglessness of history.”

That repudiation culminated in the Incarnation. And Jesus Christ, by his life, death, and resurrection established a new and everlasting covenant that perfectly fulfilled the Torah (cf., CCC 2052-2055). Through him, we have life and purpose, for in him we share in the very life of God.

The Temple in Jerusalem was, of course, a place of worship; it was God’s dwelling place among his chosen people. Sacrifices were offered there for the atonement of sins, but it had increasingly become the home for a lucrative system of money changing and price gouging. The house of God had become, in many ways, a supermarket and a “den of robbers” (Jer 7:11). Rather than a sacred place where man be reconciled to God, the Temple was becoming a place of corrupt commodity.

Just as the covenant at Sinai established man’s right relationship with God, the cleansing of the Temple drew a line in the sand—not to repress, but to redeem. If God is not given proper honor and worship, love begins to die and relationships are perverted. We begin by loving God and accepting Christ’s mercy, grace, and life. All else follows.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 11, 2012, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

1 Comment

  1. How’s business? A common greeting within the Delancey Street NY Jewish community adopted by the rest of us New Yorkers when making cash. Apparently business as usual was inadmissible [similar to Francis’ dual meaning] to Jesus that day. But it was okay, admissible on other days. Joseph and Mary offered two doves they likely purchased on the premises of the Temple for her Purification. Torah, the written Law is according to Benedict’s [XVI] insight is actually personified in Jesus the Word. Saint John of the Cross comes to mind when speaking of the unfathomable riches contained in the Word, written and esoterically revealed. Christ is as aptly quoted by Olson both Torah and Temple, the Body of Christ, God’s chosen race and royal priesthood. Riches abound here. Torah, the Law was embedded in the heart of Man by God the Decalogue more a reminder than revelation. So here’s the point [unlike a Biden robber deal]. At Paris the Archbishop began an inquisition at the University Aquinas and others involved regarding lectures that placed greater efficacy on Man’s salvation in fulfilling the Natural Law [written on the hearts of men]. That changed dramatically with the appearance of Christ. Nothing can be found in human nature that can meet the demand of incorporation into the Mystical Body. A demand to exceed Natural Law and imitate Christ, making emphatic the necessary gift of saving grace. The Fall required the Way of the Cross. So it seems to this writer that business as usual [the Purification of Man mysteriously signified earlier by Joseph and Mary] did not suffice. Christ’s unusual violence that day was the portend. Divine love infinitely surpasses the Humankind, we in turn must love beyond ourselves.

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