I don't particularly like to preach on the Gospel passage for the third Sunday of Lent (John 2:13-25), about Jesus cleansing the temple.
It is not that I don't appreciate what the Scripture scholars teach us about this seemingly out-of-character action by Jesus; I understand that this action, like the Cana miracle that preceded it, is prophetic.
Jesus is proclaiming the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into this existence. Jesus is preparing for the beginning of the end time, when worship of the true God - as outlined in the first reading (Exodus 20:1-17) - will be pure; an end time of fulfillment, when the vision inherent in Genesis' story of Eden's garden would come to pass.
All of this I understand about the cleansing of the temple. My problem with the temple scene is on a more personal, visceral level: The image of Jesus in anger, violently overturning stalls and tables, scattering coins and sending pigeons and doves into free flight, seems so out of character for Jesus.
What is this supposed to mean to me? What does it mean to us? Like everything that Jesus did, it cannot be just a snapshot in time, a one-time event with significance only to those who witnessed the cleansing and were the object of it.
Everything Jesus said and did has to say something to us, personally and as a community of faith. In some way, we replicate the life of Jesus in our own life. That is the meaning of being baptized into His life.
Jesus' entire public ministry was one of love and compassion, of healing and forgiveness. Jesus understood human nature well. He wanted God's kingdom to be understood as a life where, through forgiveness and compassionate service, the gap would be lessened between a world made imperfect by sin and a world as God created it to be. He wanted to lessen the gap between our own imperfections and the image of God we are called to be.
Against this background, we consider the cleansing of the temple. All faith is rooted in truth, and truth involves being honest with ourselves, as individuals and as a believing community. The cleansing of the temple was an exercise in truth.
We have all heard the term "tough love": when we have to confront something or someone in order to help a person bent on some sort of self-destruction or change a situation that will lead to disaster.
Parents know about tough love almost instinctively. What Jesus did in the temple precincts was an act of tough love.
Perhaps some self-imposed tough love - personal temple-cleansing - is needed to rid ourselves of things that stop us from reflecting the forgiving and compassionate service of God's kingdom.
After all, people will be attracted to our faith community more by members of our community who reflect Jesus' way of life than by programs and institutional initiatives. Programs are necessary, but they are secondary to people - the reflection of Christ in the lives of those who participate in programs.
Do we have to be perfect before we invite others to share what we have? No, but we do have to be seen as persons who are trying, persons on pilgrimage to the perfection of the kingdom of God.
Self-reflection - measuring ourselves against the Gospel - is not an exercise in self-hatred nor a devaluation of everything good about ourselves. To do that would be to deny God's goodness to us.
Rather, the cleansing of our personal temple is a deep, loving look into what we believe and why we believe. It involves listening to God's Word and asking ourselves: "Where do I stand in this Word?"
Sometimes it will be an uncomfortable exercise, like the cleansing of the temple - a sort of self tough love. To be honest, I find it not too comfortable at times. Yet, we are engaged in the truth - the truth about ourselves for the sake of those whom we want to invite to become part of our journey with and to Christ.
St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that self-examination has to be done in light of God's great love for us. In the first reading, God says to the Israelites, "I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery."
In other words, before giving them the tablets with the Ten Commandments, God reminds the people of how much He loves them; how He traveled with them even when they were unfaithful to Him.
In John's Gospel, just before Jesus cleans out the temple precincts, He turns water into wine as a compassionate gesture for a newly-married couple who are embarrassed at the hospitality gaffe of not having prepared enough for their guests.
It is in the light of the loving and compassionate nature of God's kingdom that we look at our lives and the life of our believing community. This is all to accomplish what Jesus accomplished: to call people to Himself and to the Good News - that is, to evangelize all persons and all of life itself.
To face the truth about ourselves or our faith community is not an invitation to fear God, but an invitation to respond to God's great love for us in Christ. Unlike how we operate at times, God invites us to conversion through love, not coercion.
Why? As Paul says in Sunday's second reading (I Corinthians 1:22-25), "The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom." In another place, Paul writes, "God's ways are not our ways."
Love motivates change and conversion. Fear paralyzes us. Love frees us.
We have this Eucharist as a pledge of the Father's love. The Eucharist is where we encounter the Body and Blood of Christ, where God's promise to love us without condition calls forth the change and conversion that makes us and our faith community images of God.
The Christ we share at this table, we offer to others. Paul calls Him "Christ, the power and the wisdom of God."
(Father Farano is vicar general of the Albany Diocese and pastor of St. Pius X parish in Loudonville.)