Today and the next two Sundays the Church presents to us two possible sets of readings, one of which is read in the normal course of the liturgy and the other of which can be substituted in the case that candidates for baptism are present at mass. If a pastor chooses to read the texts that are intended to accompany catechumens preparing for baptism then we hear about the Israelites complaining to God on account of their thirst in the desert (Exo 17:3-7), followed by the beautiful account from John’s gospel of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus encounters at the well in Sychar (John 4:5-42). As moving as these passages are with their lesson about God being the one who satisfies all our needs—both our bodily and spiritual thirst—most folks participating in mass this weekend will hear the other set of readings which begins with the giving of the ten commandments to Moses and concludes with our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, narrated by Saint John, so I will turn my thoughts to them.
Starting where the readings end, we find the startling words of the evangelist John, speaking of those who followed after Jesus: “But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well” (John 2:24-25). What is surprising about these words is that they are spoken about some of Jesus’ followers, not his enemies. The Lord seemed to know that in spite of their eagerness to hear his words and see the signs he worked these very same people were capable of betraying him, and indeed some of them later did just that.
That Jesus understood “human nature” and exercised caution lest he fall prey to it should be deeply thought-provoking for us, even troubling. Here we find ourselves sounding the depths of what it is to be human—standing in awe of God’s very image and likeness in which He fashioned us—and ruing the manner in which we have twisted it through our freely choosing to sin. We think that we are fundamentally good, and this is absolutely true, yet we are also burdened by our tendency to rebel against the goodness for which God has destined us.
Since this corruption of the human nature that God made and desired is a result of our freedom we see that every person’s exercise of freedom needs to be trained, as one trains a child to make good choices. The Decalogue revealed through Moses in today’s reading from Exodus is a beginning in this regard; these commandments and prohibitions are intended, not to be the entirety of the Jewish or Christian moral life, but rather to guide and instruct us (the Hebrew word Torah means “instruction”) as to the fundamental moral commitments a follower of the Lord must make. This in turn helps us to apply these principles to the complex situations we encounter in life and to begin the process of being healed of the wounds of sin that mar our human nature.
When Jesus overthrew the tables of the vendors and money changers in the Temple, he was both denouncing the corruption of legalism and announcing a new way of following God’s law and thus being brought back to the original goodness of our humanity. In this Lenten season, through our fidelity to the law of Christ may our human dignity be restored to its glory as God intended it, and indeed raised to a new sharing “in the divinity of him who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, El Greco