Business and religion have always gone together. They did in the time of Jesus and they do so now—with a slight difference: In Jesus’ time, they brought business to the temple; now, we bring the temple to business centers (malls, banks, government offices, etc.). Fund-raising activities are a usual occurrence in most parishes. Attached to most churches are stores selling religious articles. Clerks in parish offices are busy collecting all sorts of fees; and collection boxes are strategically located in our churches.
Jesus, though “meek and humble of heart,” got quite angry when he saw the vendors and money changers in the temple of Jerusalem. He threw them all out, as we read in today’s gospel. Those people, bible scholars tell us, were doing a legitimate service to worshippers by providing the unblemished animals needed for the sacrifice (Ex. 12:5), and the shekel coins used to pay the temple tax (Ex. 30:13; Mt. 17:24). Perhaps it was their overpricing and exploitation that irked Jesus.
We read today the gospel passage about the cleansing of the Temple in connection with the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. For over 300 years Christians had no churches; they met in private homes and in the catacombs. When emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he made it the official religion of the State and donated to the Church the palace he had acquired from the Laterani family. Said palace was transformed into a basilica—the official residence of the Pope. Thus, the Lateran Basilica is considered the Mother of all Christian Churches.
All religions have places of prayer and worship (churches, mosques, synagogues, ashrams, etc.) where God is believed to be present, or where God’s presence is more intensely felt. Sometimes they are referred to as the “house of God.” In today’s gospel, Jesus calls the Temple “my Father’s house.”
We know that God dwells in the whole wide universe. He cannot be confined in any physical structure, in any temple, no matter how ornate and how large it may be: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7:48). Jesus promised his presence, not to any physical structure, but to the community gathered in his name: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20).
It was Jesus himself who introduced a new concept of temple. When the Jews, after the cleansing of the temple, asked him for a sign, Jesus pointed to his own body as the temple where God dwells: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). In today’s second reading, St. Paul says: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?” God then dwells in people, not in buildings. Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus never built any church or chapel but rather spent his time feeding the hungry and healing the sick—God’s temples.
The pastoral implications are clear: Important as it may be to have a beautiful church building, it is by far more important to have a beautiful community. The church building should be the mirror of the community using it. It is incongruous to have a beautiful church while the parish community is rocked by intrigue and division. People won’t like to go to a church that houses a broken community. In most parishes, the largest bulk of the budget goes to construction and repairs of the church and convent. If we really believe that people are God’s living temple, then we have to re-assess our pastoral priorities and invest more on people and less on structures.