Most of us have probably experienced at least one time in our lives when it seemed like our whole world was turned upside-down. Maybe it was the loss of a job, or the illness or death of a loved one, or any of a host of other issues. It probably felt like the rug was pulled out from under us and that everything we believed in was toppled over. Kind of like the table in front of the altar, like the story we just heard in the Gospel.
You may have heard the interpretation of this rather shocking Gospel story that says that this is proof that Jesus got angry, so we shouldn’t feel bad when we do. That sounds nice, but I am, of course, going to tell you this interpretation is flawed. First of all, there is a big difference between the kind of righteous indignation that Jesus felt over the devastation of sin and death that plagues our world, and the frustration and anger that we all experience over comparatively minor issues from time to time. It might make us feel better to think that Jesus acted out in the same way that we sometimes do, that he felt the same way we do about these things, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
So feeling better for being angry isn’t the theme of this reading, or the intent of today’s Liturgy of the Word. And I do think we have to take all of the readings as a whole in order to discern what we are being invited to experience. Our first reading is extremely familiar to us all. The ten commandments – we’ve heard them so often, violated them on occasion, perhaps we don’t even think they’re relevant any more. But the mere fact that they are read at today’s Mass tells us that the Church says they are. And while every one of them is certainly important, one of them stands out as having top billing. And that one is the very first commandment: “I, the LORD, am your God … you shall not have other gods besides me.”
That one commandment comprises the whole first paragraph of the reading, a total of thirteen lines of text. I think that means we are to pay attention to it! It’s the commandment that seems to make the most sense, that it’s the most foundational. We have to get our relationship with God right and put him first. But this commandment is rather easy to violate, and I think we do it all the time. We all know that there are things we put way ahead of God: our work, our leisure, sports and entertainment, and so many things that may even be darker than that. Don’t we often forget to bring God into our thoughts and plans? Yet if we would do it on a regular basis, God promises to bless us “down to the thousandth generation!”
Saint Paul is urging the Corinthians to put God first, too. He complains that the Jews want signs and the Greeks want some kind of wisdom, but he and the others preach Christ crucified! We are a people who want signs. We almost refuse to take a leap of faith unless we have some overt sign of God’s decision. And we are all about seeking wisdom, mostly in ourselves. If it makes sense to us and it feels right to us, it must be okay to do. But nothing could be further from the truth. We get tripped up in our own wisdom and sign-seeking all the time, then we wander down the wrong path only to end up several years down the road, wondering where it all went wrong.
And then we have the really challenging vignette at the end of the Gospel reading. Jesus knows how long it took to build the temple. But he wasn’t talking about the temple. He was talking about his body. His body is the new Temple, and that was the Temple that would be torn down and in three days raised back up. Because Jesus is the new Temple, none of the money changing and animal selling was necessary. It was all perfectly legitimate commerce for the old temple worship. But worshipping the new Temple – Jesus Christ – would require none of that, and so he turns it all upside-down.
It’s not easy to put God first. It’s not easy to glory in Christ crucified. What a horribly difficult and unpopular message to have to live! But that’s what we are all called to do if we are to be disciples of Jesus, if we are to yearn for life in that kingdom that knows no end. Glorying in Christ crucified, putting God first, that’s going to require that some time or another, we are going to have to take up our own cross too, and let our entire lives be turned upside-down. God only knows where that will lead us: maybe to a new career, maybe to a fuller sense of our vocation, maybe to joy, maybe to pain. But always to grace, because God never leaves the side of those who are willing to have their lives turned upside-down for his glory.
There’s no easy road to glory. You don’t get an Easter without a Good Friday. Jesus didn’t, and we won’t either. Our lives will be turned upside-down and everything we think we know will be scattered like the coins on the money-changers’ tables. But God is always and absolutely present to those who pray those words the disciples recalled:
Zeal for your house will consume me.