Biblical Words 
Preparation for the Lord’s passion includes
hearing God’s Commandments—also, revisiting God’s
Today’s readings present God’s requirements of God’s
people, first in the revelation at Sinai (Ten Commandments), then in hymnic
praise (Psalm) and as opposed to human wisdom (Epistle).
The readings climax by transferring what God requires
from a temple establishment to a suffering but exalted Lord.
In the sequence of covenants during this Lenten
season, the Torah
reading presents the supreme moment of
Jewish faith, the covenant between God and
Concerning a many-faceted text, we offer only a few
Ten Commandments are addressed to each person individually. Every one
of the “you” and “your” pronouns in the Hebrew and the Greek are singular. God says, “I brought you (personally) out of
wording of each requirement is not in
the form of ordinary commands. The imperative form is not used. It does not say, “Do not murder”; it says
“You will not murder.” The statements
are in the indicative mode (indicated in Hebrew by the type of negative used
with the verb). Grammarians long ago
created a special “solemn” type of usage to account for these “commandments” in
the indicative mode, but in a normal context they would read simply as statements
of fact, not strictly commands. You
were brought out of slavery; you will not have other gods… The ethos (and rhetoric) of the Ten
Commandments is that of an elect people:
(Being who we are,) we do not murder, we do not steal, etc. The conduct of an elect people can simply be
stated; it does not need exhortation.
(The two positive commands, Keep the Sabbath [verse 8] and Honor parents
[verse 12], are also not in the imperative mode. They use what grammarians call the infinitive
absolute, a kind of verbal noun, giving something like, “[There will be]
keeping of the Sabbath…”)
some earlier form, the Decalogue probably consisted of ten simple statements,
which could be ticked off on one’s fingers.
With the passage of time and shifts in emphasis, certain requirements
needed reinforcement and elaboration. The requirements so elaborated
are the second, you will make no idol, three verses long (verses 4-6); the
fourth, you will keep the Sabbath, four verses long (verses 8-11); and the
tenth, you will not covet your neighbor’s household, one longish verse
(17). Brief motive clauses—reasons for
observing the rule—also expand the requirements concerning the use of God’s
name (verse 7) and honoring the parents (verse 12). In later centuries, the two requirements with
the fullest elaboration, avoiding Idolatry and Sabbath observance, became the
most critical public touchstones for being faithful to the God of Israel. For those two commandments, Judean people
often suffered persecution and even death.
The Psalm reading includes at its center a strong praise
of God’s torah, the content of the Sinai
The whole psalm begins with a marvelous praise of
God manifested on the visible heavenly vault. The sights of the heavens are acclaimed as
speaking praise of God. Special delight
is taken in the sun, who runs his daily course, observing all on the earth.
Old Babylonian tradition, centuries before Israelite
times, associated the sun god with the giving of law (for
example, in the graphic at the top of Hammurabi’s famous stele).
This psalm makes a similar transition from the sun, from whom nothing is
hid, to an elaborate praise of the torah of the Lord. The middle section of the psalm (verses 7-10)
uses six synonyms for law or torah, each of which is praised in terms of its
life-enhancing qualities, a remarkable hymn to torah-devotion.
But the psalm moves on to a third section (verses
11-14), in which a deeper mystery of personal existence is
acknowledged. Keeping the law is good,
but who can fathom the real depths of the self, its “errors,” its “hidden
faults”? The conclusion leads the psalmist
to a fervent prayer that God will deliver the speaker from such deep powers, so
that one may be blameless and innocent.
May the speaker’s words and meditations be acceptable in God’s
This single psalm has an astonishing sweep: from God’s glory sung in the heavens, through
the richness and life of God’s law, to the human depths where transcendent
It is a blessing to receive the law, yet dangerous
to fall guilty under it!
I Corinthians 1:18-25.
The Epistle reading is concerned with God’s wisdom
rather than the covenantal law directly, but it carries the dilemma of human
inadequacy before God’s requirement, before God’s Command, to its final
extreme. Because of the utterly
incurable failure of humans before God’s requirement, God, in God’s own
wisdom, has provided an astonishing means of deliverance and acceptance.
Paul insists that human wisdom is not only
inadequate, it is wrong-headed. It is
utterly misdirected. What looks like
wisdom to humans is foolishness, at least when what we need is salvation from
sin. God’s true wisdom, brought to
humans in the crucifixion of Jesus, looks like a scandal to Judeans and
foolishness to Greeks.
The real meaning of Jesus’ Passion is simply not
sensible, not reasonable, not intelligible to folks of any education. Thus Paul finds that he must preach Christ
only, and that means Christ crucified (see 2:1-2).
. John 2:13-22
For several weeks in Lent and during Holy Week, the Gospel
readings are taken from the Gospel according to John. This
Sunday’s reading presents an episode that in the other Gospels occurs in the
last week of Jesus’ activity in
Besides the Ten Commandments, at Sinai God gave
How was God’s sanctuary doing, since Sinai?
Not well at all, according to the account in John’s
Gospel. John’s account of the action,
with Jesus making a whip, overturning the money tables, and chasing out the
bird dealers, is more graphic than is this episode in the other Gospels. There is emphasis on Jesus’ prophetic zeal,
the messenger of God’s will driven to violence by the scandalous conditions in
the holy house. The prophetic reformer
is breaking forth at the center of the religious establishment!
Reform, however, the passage recognizes, will not
effect a lasting solution. “Zeal for
your house will consume me,” the disciples later remembered from one of the
psalms (Psalm 69:9, quoted here in verse 17,
The passage carries further, in an astonishing way,
the ramifications of Jesus’ role in God’s salvation. Being challenged by the officials, Jesus
declares, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (verse
19). This opens up, of course, a
post-resurrection perspective. Jesus has
switched from talking about the physical temple built by Herod the Great
(destroyed in 70 CE, before this Gospel was written) to talking of his own body
of Jesus will become the true temple by which
God is present. To this temple may come
those who continue to need the release from sin that the temple used to
For this Gospel, the requirements of God have been
simplified to this: one is called to
believe in Jesus and let the Spirit lead each one into a corporate life that is
the new Tabernacle of God. This will
prove to be a spontaneous and charismatic life (the spirit moves like the wind, John 3:8!), filled with statements of fact
rather than imperatives.