The event in today’s Gospel reading is probably as shocking and baffling to modern readers as is the first reading from last Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word. You might remember that, last Sunday, we read about Abraham acting as if he was willing to engage in the loathsome practice of child sacrifice. Today, we read about Jesus apparently having a fit of rage while visiting the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ use of a whip to drive people out of the Temple might be disconcerting to us, but it would have been easily understood by Jesus’ contemporaries. Central to Judaism are the beliefs that the People of Israel were specially chosen by God (Deut. 7:6), and that God promised the Israelites a land of their own. (Deut. 6:10-19)
God’s promise of election and a homeland were conditionally founded on the Israelites remaining faithful to God. Israel’s inheritance of the Land of Promise could be revoked by God if the People fell away from faith. During Jesus’ lifetime, the People were reminded on a daily basis that their homeland was greatly reduced in size and occupied by a foreign power, as the result of the faithlessness of previous generations.
When the residents of Jerusalem saw Jesus drive the vendors and money-changers out of the Temple, they would have thought immediately of their own tenuous hold on the Land of Promise. The Temple, in this context, stood as a symbol for whole land of Canaan. Jesus’ actions were a stark reminder that the People could be driven from the Land again.
Jesus’ apparently violent actions in today’s Gospel reading were a dramatic representation of the substance of his preaching, namely, that God was calling God’s People to a renewed fidelity to the terms of the Covenant enumerated in today’s first reading. (Ex. 20:1-17) His actions were also a warning about the consequences of faithlessness: lack of fidelity to the Covenant could result in the loss of God’s favor and the loss of the Land of Promise.
The Gospel author reinterpreted this prophetic action in light of Jesus’ crucifixion and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Jesus’ prophetic call to a renewed fidelity to the Sinai Covenant became a warning about the consequences of lack of faith in Jesus’ teaching. Despite the cultural and historical distance between us and ancient Jerusalem, there is good reason for us to take Jesus’ warning seriously.
For more than sixty years, church attendance has been falling steadily in the United States. According to statistics compiled by our Diocesan Chancery, the number of Baptisms performed annually in the Diocese has fallen by about 25% in the past twenty years, the number of first Communions has fallen by about 15%, and the number of church weddings has fallen by almost 60%.
The general population in the five counties that comprise the Diocese of St. Petersburg has increased by about 30% in the past twenty years, while Mass attendance has fallen by more than 30% during the same period of time. Twenty years ago, a few of the parishes in the diocese struggled financially; today, at least half struggle to meet their financial obligations. We live in an area of the country with a growing population, but the sizes of our Sunday congregations continue to shrink.
After his resurrection, Jesus commanded the Eleven apostles to “make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19) It cannot be God’s will, therefore, for the Church to lose members, to lose congregations, and to lose the efficacy of its preaching of the Gospel. The on-going decline in the vitality of the Church can only be the result of our own faithlessness.
There is a consistent theme in the teachings of Jesus, namely, that God’s favor rests on the faithful, but can be lost by those who break faith with God. I see every indication that we live in a time in which the Church has lost Divine favor. I am certain that God has not abandoned the Church, but I’m not so certain about the motivations of many in the Church.
I’d like to suggest that the current trend toward decline can be reversed. There is an aphorism that is often and wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein; it says, “The definition of insanity is to repeat the same actions while expecting a new and different result.” This, of course, is not how the social sciences define insanity, but it is very poignant social commentary. If we want to reverse the trend of decline in the Church, our first course of action must be to stop doing the things that contribute to the decline.
In keeping with today’s Gospel, I suggest that the first thing to do in order to reverse the on-going decline in the health of the Church is to stop treating God’s house as a marketplace. (Jn. 2:16) By this, I mean that it is long past the time when we should have ceased to treat God, Grace, the Sacraments, redemption, and the resurrection of the dead as possessions to acquire.
The Scriptures, the Creeds, and the prayers at Liturgy tell us that we come to church on Sunday to give thanks to God for God’s goodness; we tell ourselves that we come to church to get stuff from God. Treating God’s blessings as things to get, rather than as things for which to be grateful, is an act of utter faithlessness.
I am certain that God has not abandoned the Church, but I’m not so certain that many Church members haven’t abandoned God in order to serve their own consumer desires. A consumer’s attitude toward religion is a conscious rejection of the faith that Jesus preached.
If you go to church because you want to get graces, or Sacraments, or blessings, or mercy, or heaven, or anything else, you are part of the cause of the decline in Church attendance. This might sound shocking and disconcerting, but it is the substance of Jesus’ preaching. If you go to church in order to get stuff, you’ve made yourself into the most important person in church; the Scriptures, the Creeds, and Church teaching say that the most important person in church is God.
The Gospel says that Jesus was consumed by zeal for God’s house. (Jn. 2:17) Jesus’ zeal was not for what he could get from God’s house; rather, it was zeal for being obedient to God’s will as described in the first reading. (Ex. 20:1-17) Can the same thing be said about us? Are we consumed with zeal for following God’s will, or are we consumed with desire for following our own will? The former guarantees God’s favor; the latter guarantees the loss of Divine favor.