Signs come in many different shapes, sizes, colors, and they all have different meanings. Traffic signs, for example, direct us to do something in order to avoid danger or harm to ourselves and others. Merchant signs tell us the name of the shop and what a person might expect to find for purchase in various stores. In the realm of religion we encounter similar signs – commands to do or not do something, church signs indicating the particular faith tradition expressed therein. However, we also use the term ‘sign’ to refer to an event, person, or object that represents something else or someone else. Such a sign points to a deeper reality than itself. In today’s readings we encounter all these types of signs.
The first reading relates the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the people of Israel. These commandments are just a part of the larger law God gave to the people. The law for Israel was a sign in two respects. First, the commandments were a sign that gave them a direction in how to live their lives as the chosen people of God. The law marked them out as a special people called to live in a way that was different than other nations. The people had a unique identity because of this law. However, the law was also a sign of God’s love for this particular people. Even today the Jewish liturgy of synagogue has as its climax the procession of the Torah scroll among the people, and the people venerate the Torah with a kiss. The law remains the unique gift of God to the people of Israel and a sign of his love for them.
Paul uses the term sign in the sense of identifying for us the unique position of Jesus in salvation history and the cross as the fundamental sign of Christian faith. In preaching the cross of Jesus, Paul notes that it is a scandal to the Jewish people and a stumbling block for the Greeks. In Jewish theology, the humiliation of crucifixion could only mean that God did not favor that person, that the person suffering such humiliation could only be considered a great sinner. To suggest, as Christians do, that Jesus and his cross is the fundamental victory over sin and death is scandalous to the Jewish mind. At the same time, the Greek world exalted the strong man, the warrior as the paradigm of virtue. Virtue consisted in strength and domination over others. The cross as a symbol of faith was unprecedented for a pagan mind that saw the warrior as the example of virtue. The cross represents for them weakness, defeat, and shame. How could such things represent authentic spirituality and theology?
Jesus, however, provides the answer to these riddles in the account of the cleansing of the Temple. All four gospels recount this event, but only John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry to make the point that opposition to Jesus began in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; it did not appear suddenly at the end. This statement of Jesus has many important dimensions. First, it represents a defense of justice in calling attention to the scandalous theft of the poor that moneychangers often undertook in the Temple precinct itself. To cause such a ruckus was a shock to many. Second, the gospel writer points to the fact that the Temple was the symbol within Judaism of God’s presence among his people. Now that Jesus is present, God among us, the symbol of the Temple no longer serves a valid function. Jesus has come to replace the Temple and to fulfill its original meaning and purpose.
The rejection of Jesus by many people during his lifetime and thereafter is not that surprising. People constantly confuse the symbol with the reality that the symbol signifies. The people of Israel clung to the Temple as the symbol of God’s presence, overlooking the actual presence of Emmanuel, God with us, in the person of Jesus. Many people flock to see alleged appearances of Mary in far off places or on breakfast pastries in U.S. diners. If those events lead to real faith, it is only because the person recognized the deeper reality underneath the sign. Sadly, many people do not see the deeper reality of God among us in these events, and so they cling to the event and symbol while neglecting the presence of God right in their midst.
During Lent we seek to overcome the sin that blinds us to the reality of God among us, the sin that has us idolizing the symbol while neglecting the real presence of God in the world. As we seek repentance and look for true sight to see what we ought, we pray: “Let us pray to the Father and ask him to form a new heart within us. God of all compassion, Father of all goodness, to heal the wounds our sins and selfishness bring upon us you bid us turn to fasting, prayer, and sharing with our brothers. We acknowledge our sinfulness, our guilt is ever before us: when our weakness causes discouragement, let your compassion fill us with hope and lead us through a Lent of repentance to the beauty of Easter joy. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Jude Huntz is director of the human rights office and chancery chief of staff for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.
Daily Scripture Readings
For complete daily Scripture texts, click here.
Monday, March 12
2 Kings 5:1-15ab
Psalms 42:2, 3; 43:3, 4
Tuesday, March 13
Daniel 3:25, 34-43
Psalms 25:4-5ab, 6 and 7bc, 8-9
Wednesday, March 14
Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-9
Psalms 147:12-13, 15-16, 19-20
Thursday, March 15
Psalms 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Friday, March 16
Psalms 81:6c-8a, 8bc-9, 10-11ab, 14 and 17
Saturday, March 17
Psalms 51:3-4, 18-19, 20-21ab
Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 18
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Psalms 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
The full text of the Scripture readings for this week and next week can be found here: http://www.usccb.org/
Click on the “Readings” tab at the top of the page.