HOMILY WEEK 25 03 – Year I
Temple and Second Chance, or Kingdom of God and New Creation?
Memorial of St. Vincent de Paul and World Tourism Day
(Ezra 9:5-9; Tob 13:3-6; Lk 9:1-6)
There is a difference between a honeymoon that is time limited, and intimacy that is a choice over a life-time. A young priest’s task is to move beyond the honeymoon stage of ministry, to achieve and maintain an intimate relationship with Jesus.
In a similar manner, today’s readings invite us to move beyond an Old Testament religion based on temple sacrifice, to living out a new creation building up the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus.
The first reading from Ezra flows out of the Old Testament limited economy of salvation. God established covenant after covenant with the Chosen people, wanting them to be icons of God’s presence here on earth, and walking in an intimate relationship with God.
Unfortunately, their lack of faith and infidelity to that covenant surfaced even during the desert period, beginning with idolatry on Mt. Sinai before receiving the decalogue, then murmuring, complaining, even wanting to return to the “fleshpots of Egypt.” Things continued to deteriorate after they entered the Promised Land, as they lusted after kings, power, possessions, prestige and built temples that focused on a sacrificial cult and meritocracy.
Things got so bad and so corrupt that during the time of Ezekiel, the shekinah or glory of God lifted up and left the temple, leading to the destruction of the temple and exile. What we read today is that Ezra and the exiles had finally returned home to Jerusalem. But their city lay in ruins, and the Temple had been ransacked. Nehemiah had begun to rebuild the walls of the city, but Ezra could see that more than the walls needed reconstruction. God’s people had crumbled; they needed to return to the Lord by renewing their covenant with God. Many had married foreigners, embraced the customs of the surrounding pagan nations, and fallen away from their faith. So, what should have been a joyful reunion felt more like a rescue mission to orphans living amid the rubble.
To his credit, Ezra held fast to the faithfulness of the Lord, who had “brightened our eyes and given us relief.” God was giving them a second chance, a new beginning, not only in Jerusalem, but in their hearts as well. We know, however, that when a second temple was built, the glory of God did not return to it. Nor did things improve – rather, the renewed temple worship eventually became as corrupt as the first temple, with the poor being gouged by the temple merchants, and bloody sacrifice after bloody sacrifice leading only to external observance and no heartfelt transformation. No wonder Jesus felt compelled to cleanse the temple, saying as he did so, “destroy this temple”, and he would raise it up in three days, referring to the temple of his body, according to St. John.
What we see in the gospel is something brand new. Jesus, who came not to focus on the physical building of a temple but to inaugurate the very kingdom of God, shares his own power and authority over evil and to heal with his apostles, the beginnings of his Church, and sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God.
They were to live simply, reject the temptation of over-attaching to possessions, prestige, power and pleasure to which their ancestors succumbed, rely on faith and divine providence, bring the good news to the poor by their lives of hope, joy and trust and bring healing to the poor through forgiveness, compassion, listening and blessing. We have inherited that mission, and must now ask ourselves if we have done much better than the Chosen people of old?
While the early church thrived during the period of persecution, unfortunately after Emperor Constantine made Christianity an official religion of the empire, the initial fervor and heartfelt conviction of faith one would die for, began to diminish in the allure of precisely those same false gods that tempted the people in the desert –possessions, prestige, power and pleasure.
What followed was a great schism of the East from the West, the crusades, the inquisition, cardinals and even popes manning armies, leading up to the Protestant reformation, a second great split within the one church of Christ. More recently, one can lament the divisions in the church, complicity with the European colonial powers over the Indigenous peoples of many lands, financial and sexual abuse scandals, and most recently, the discovery of unrecorded deaths of Indigenous students and the presence of unmarked graves.
Lest we judge others of other times too harshly, we all go through times when we drift away from the Lord or falter in living out his call for us to love as he has loved us. The temple of our own hearts can be broken down, cluttered by sin and in need of renovation. Like Ezra, we might feel overwhelmed by the consequences of our own sins. But just as God did for Ezra and the people of Judah, God wants to “brighten our eyes” also. God wants to give us the grace and strength we need to return, rebuild and renew.
But we have been given much more than Ezra and the people had then. We believe in Jesus who is Risen Lord, who has conquered sin and death, who has given us his Spirit, filled us with the gifts of that Spirit, and given us the Church as His body, to build up the kingdom of God here on earth.
Our building blocks are not brick and mortar. They are faith in Jesus Christ and who he is. We can come to him as the Messiah for forgiveness and healing. We can ponder and pray with his Word and try to live it with the power of that same Spirit – to love God with our whole being, but then to go beyond that Grand Shema of Judaism, to also love others as we love ourselves. More, we are to love others as Jesus himself has loved us – with an unconditional, sacrificial love. And above all, we are challenged and empowered to go beyond the Old Testament (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) to love our enemies, especially by forgiving them from the heart. And we can especially live the Beatitudes that Jesus taught and modelled for us, being humble, merciful, forgiving, peaceful, just, pure of heart, and even enduring persecution for the sake of the gospel.
Someone who did this well was St. Vincent de Paul. In many ways, Vincent was also like Jesus in the gospel, at home with the simple country people, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom, reaching out to the poor and sick, and being a true shepherd to all under his care. His example has spawned the birth of the St Vincent de Paul Society, a lay Catholic organisation that aspires to live the gospel message by serving Christ in the poor with love, respect, justice, hope and joy, and by working to shape a more just and compassionate society.
The Eucharist is actually the fulfillment of the worship of the people of the Old Testament. Our synagogue is the liturgy of the Word, where we proclaim especially the gospels and writings of St. Paul. Our temple is the sacrifice of the mass, only now we offer to God not ineffective animal sacrifice, but the sacrifice of the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – Jesus himself.
Forgiven and healed, and transformed into the body of Christ ourselves, we are then sent out like the first apostles, to proclaim the kingdom of God and to bring the good news of healing and new life to poor.