Paul tells the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” People in the first group want signs that one is right with God, signs that a person’s words are true. Those in the other group want wisdom to know the right path of life. The signs and the wisdom are at the core of their deepest longings.
What demand or desire is at the deepest core of your being right now? If Paul were observing your life these days, what would he think you are seeking in life? If Paul were observing your parish’s life together, what would he think your parish is seeking?
I met an accountant once who was working with a group of sisters. At their first meeting the group’s leader presented the accountant with their financial books and a mission statement. “This is what we are about,” she said. “Thank you Sister,” answered the accountant, “but all I need is your books. They will tell me what you are about.” If your life is an open book, what do people think you are about?
What is life in our modern North American society about? I think the accountant would tell us to check out the world of advertising. The marketing business is all about convincing us of what it believes our life should be about. To do this they must appeal to our deepest longings. Ads, billboards and TV commercials tell us we should be seeking several things. The first among them is stuff: the more, the better and the newer, the better. Another is the attention and approval of others. You’ll be more popular if you look right, smell right, drink the right brand of beer, and drive the right car. And much advertising energy is put into selling us strategies for protecting ourselves and our stuff. After all, once we have accumulated these status symbols, we have to protect them. At a certain point our possessions begin to possess us. Life comes to be about them.
According to Paul, people who are possessed by their possessions see the Christian way of life as foolishness. And rightly so. If we live according to the beatitudes and other gospel values, we must look foolish to those who have been lured into the traps laid out in the world of marketing madness. Poverty, meekness, social justice, and mercy have no role in a life centred on ourselves and our possessions. And there is certainly no role there for the cross. In the eyes of society, if living for the life of the world is at the centre of our being, Christians are baptized into an upside-down way of life.
You might well ask at this point, “What does all this have to do with Jesus’ actions and teaching in the temple?” Well, those who challenged Jesus’ actions asked him for a sign proving that his actions — overturning the money tables and chasing out the money lenders — were OK with God, a sign they should pay attention to him. Now, unlike the other gospel writers, John places this action at the very beginning of Jesus’ public life. It’s kind of a declaration: “If you want signs, I’ll give you plenty of them. Just watch me!”
Jesus overturned the money tables in the temple as a sign that someone had lost sight of what the temple is about. From this point on, John’s Gospel follows Jesus as he keeps the promise of signs aplenty. In fact, Jesus does not just give signs, he is a sign. He is THE sign. And he hinted at this in his answer to his opponents. He is God’s message to the world concerning the way humans are made to live in this world — a life of justice, mercy, love and peace. For Jesus, this is what being human is about.
We, the baptized who live in the 21st century, hear this story proclaimed in the middle of Lent. Lent is when we, the baptized, are preparing to make new again our baptismal promises at Easter, in solidarity with those who will make them for the first time when they are baptized at the great Easter Vigil. This story reminds us today that we, who are baptized into Christ, are baptized to be signs as he was. In this story we are called to take a close look at ourselves to examine the extent to which poverty, meekness, social justice, love and mercy have a place in our lives. Are they among our deepest longings and desires?
We are baptized to turn the values of the world upside-down, by turning our own values upside-down. Our lenten observance of prayer, fasting and almsgiving help us to grow into the person we were meant to be from our baptism. If we “do” Lent as a community, Lent will help our parish to grow as a sign of God’s love to all the community, rather than just people who gather in a building round the corner every Sunday morning.
Bick is a happily retired elementary school teacher who lives in Toronto. She is a liturgist with a master’s degree in liturgy from the University of Notre Dame and is a human rights advocate working for prisoners who have experienced prolonged solitary confinement.