The Third Sunday in Lent, 4 March 2018

March 4, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 20:1 – 17 Psalm 19 1 Corinthian 1:18 – 25 John 2:13 – 22

Discussion of the Texts: The location of Mount Sinai has been hotly debated for the past century and a half, if not longer still.  Though it seems that it is most certainly situated within the so-called Sinai Peninsula, there are numerous mountains therein.  Some scholars (e.g. geologist, scripture scholars, archaeologists, etc.) have gone so far as to suggest that Mount Sinai is likely to be a volcano, given the description of God descending to the mountain (Exodus 19:18).

This brings us to the readings for today, wherein we begin with an encounter of the Israelite people in the wilderness of Sinai, waiting at the foot of the aforementioned mountain (Exodus 19:17), where God speaks to them in the form of the Decalogue.  The passages proceed from Exodus 19:25, when Moses has descended the mountain to speak with the people, exhorting them to not “break through to [go] up to the LORD” (19:24; cf. 19:21), as he is commanded to do by God.  These words directly from God to the Israelites — wreathed in smoke and darkness, with thunder and lightning — struck the latter with fear, such that they asked Moses to be their mediator (20:18 – 21).

This leads us to the New Testament reading from First Corinthians, a reading which begins by pointing us toward the cross:  “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).  We are reminded of that toward which the whole of the Lenten season is pointing, recalling that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25), leading us to “proclaim Christ crucified” (1:23).  Turning then to the Gospel, we read the Johannine account of Jesus cleansing the temple (cf. Matthew 21:12 – 17, Mark 11:15 – 19, and Luke 19:45 – 48).  Taking into his hands a whip fashioned from cords, Jesus proceeds to cast out those selling sacrificial animals and the money-changers (Jn 2:15).  Perhaps strangest of all to those who witnessed the “zeal” of Jesus (2:17; cf. Ps 69:10) was to hear him declare that he would rebuild the temple (of his body, as the Gospel writer indicates) in three days (Jn 2:18 – 21).

Now, as with the Second Sunday of Lent, the readings for this Third Sunday do differ slightly between the Revised Common and the Catholic Lectionaries:  while they do share the same texts and passages, the Catholic Lectionary allows for the omission of verses from Exodus (specifically, verses 4 – 6 and 9 – 11), the general omission of verses from 1 Corinthians 1 (specifically, verses 18 – 21) as well as the addition of the final three verses of John 2.  The former two, while pointing toward potential theological questions/issues, are less important, given as many priests select the longer form of Exodus, and the issue with 1 Corinthians would require more space to discuss than is available here.

No, the difference within the Gospel reading seems of particular interest, especially the final verse:  “While [Jesus] was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing./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” (Jn 2:23 – 25; emphasis added).  I would suggest that this addition is important inasmuch as it is apropos of a process reading of all four readings for today.

Process Theology and the Texts: I would begin with Psalm 19 (a personal favorite), lest we forget, which provides a grateful (dare I say “grace-filled”?) interlude to the readings from Exodus and First Corinthians.  The first line is particularly powerful and meaningful:  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1).  I am always reminded of Canticle of the Sun when I read Psalm 19, a hymn which was especially popular in the parish of my youth, St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church in Meadville, PA.  I readily confess that it is one of those songs which bring tears to my eyes, especially at the refrain:  “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and all creation is shouting for joy!  Come, dance in the forest, come, play in the field, and sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!”

This hymn, and Psalm 19, speak to a profound truth of process theology:  God is present to and through all things throughout the cosmos.  Indeed, the whole of reality is a theophany.  As Robert B. Mellert puts it, “process thought suggests that God is intimately a part of the world, and that the world is intimately a part of God” (What is Process Theology? 1975, 52; emphasis added).  We and God are united.  But, how is this revelation threaded throughout the readings today?

For Exodus, we ought to consider the backdrop of the Decalogue, the “Great Theophany” of Exodus 19:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of trumpet so loud that all the people who were in camp trembled.  Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.  They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.  As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.  (Ex. 19:16 – 18)

And following the Decalogue, the people were filled with fear at the sights and sounds of the presence of God (20:18).  Within the text, we can say that God is presented as revealing Her- or Himself within the smoke, and the fire, and the thunder and lightning.  Of course, we ought to recall the experience of Elijah from First Kings 19, that God was found not in the wind, or the smoke, or the fire — God was found in the silence (1 Kings 19:11 – 12).

For the Gospel, we could look to Jesus as the Theophany of theophanies, given that John’s Gospel is possesses the highest Christology of the four canonical Gospels.  From a process perspective, however, we would do better to say that Jesus exemplifies the presence of God in his actions:  he is releasing the sacrificial animals, recalling that “reverence for the neighbor becomes reverence for all creatures” as possessing inherent value (John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition 1976, 77).  Lest we stretch analysis to the breaking point, consider then the final verses of the chapter, as presented in the Catholic Lectionary, especially in lieu of parallel passages from the Hebrew Bible:  “He himself understood it well” (Jn 2:25; cf. 1 Kgs 8:39, Ps 33:15, Ps 94:11; Sirach 42:18; Jeremiah 17:10; Jer 20:12).  What the parallel texts point us to is that God knows human nature; and the process perspective tells us that this is because God is revealed through the human person.

Finally, First Corinthians suggests to us as process theologians that God is to be found, not only in the good and the beautiful — albeit most certainly those — but also in the darker aspects of our experience.  Indeed, God is present to us even in the darkness because God is present and brought to bear within all moments:  “The good cannot be had without the possibility of the bad” (Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology, 73).  But, God is constantly calling (vocare) — luring — the cosmos forth “to newer and greater things…as the ‘poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by vision of truth, beauty and goodness’” (Mellert, What is Process Theology, 46 – 7; see Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality 1969, 408).

Preaching the Texts: There are myriad themes which one could focus on for a sermon or homily (the latter being Catholic) from the perspective of process theology.  For example, we could begin with the Decalogue itself.  Of course, we are all familiar with these particular words spoken by God:  “you shall have no other gods before me” (20:3); “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God” (20:7); “You shall not murder” (20:13); and more.  For all who hear or read these words today, they have no doubt left an indelible mark since childhood.  Yet, how often have we stopped to consider the Decalogue to be an invitation to enter more fully into the divine life?  Quite often we may think of the “Ten Commandments” to be the ten “Thou shalt nots” — but, what if they are invitations to “rend [our] hearts and not [our] clothing” (Joel 2:13)?  Let us not forget the words of the Psalmist (purportedly David, after Nathan’s reproach):

Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities.  A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit.  Do not drive me from before your face […] For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept.  My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.  (Ps 51:11 – 13a, 18 – 19)

Nor especially the words of the prophet Hosea:  “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6; cf. 1 Samuel 15:22, Isaiah 1:11 – 20, Amos 5:22 – 27, Micah 6:6 – 16, Ecclesiastes 4:17, Mt 9:9 – 13, Mt 12:1 – 8).

Psalm 19, being the second reading for the day, seems to be the most obvious for us.  Indeed, does it not remind us of the words of William Blake:  “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour” (“Auguries of Innocence”).  While it is a cliché, how often do we stop to smell the proverbial roses?  How often do we stop to smell actual roses?  Personally, I made it a point to do so during my time as a graduate student at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, WA, to revel in the beauty of the flowers I would witness as I daily walked to and from campus — even the smallest of dandelions.  God manifests to us even in the smallest of realities; do we appreciate it?  Do we share it?

From the Gospel, how do we make sense of John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple?  Whether we approach from the perspective of the Johannine high Christology or the typically “low” Christology of process theology, there seem to be problems:  given the former, the process theologian may find this episode to be problematic when s/he considers God to be creative-responsive love (cf. Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology, 41 – 62) — the actions of Jesus (as the Second Person for a high Christology) seem to be obviously coercive, rather than persuasive; and for the latter, Jesus seems to have lost his typical connection with God as creative-responsive love, as being persuasive rather than coercive.  In either case, the solution which seems to readily present itself is that Jesus was fully human, either as one aspect of the hypostatic union or solely per se; as such, Jesus “himself understood [human nature] well” (Jn 2:25).  Where in our daily lives do we find the “temple of God” being profaned and mocked?  Are we being called to do what we can to call others to a better understanding of what it is to live in the “glory of God” (Ps 19:1)?

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.