A Fair Deal?
Third Sunday of Lent. Fr Lawrence Lew warns against seeing salvation as a bargain.
Many people would have discovered internet shopping in the past year or, even if one were to go out to the supermarket in person, goods can be obtained without any exchange of cash or words – just the click of buttons or the tap of a card, and the transaction is complete. But this impersonal manner of shopping would have been foreign to my grandmother. As a child I would go with her to the wet market near our home in Kuala Lumpur, and I watched her interrogate the stall holders about their produce and their prices. She would choose the vegetables she wanted, inspecting each item for optimal freshness; select the chicken she wanted, which would be prepared in front of us; and she would haggle over the price before she handed over the notes and coins. The market, therefore, was a place where I clearly saw things being exchanged, and you were expected to bargain for the best price, engaging in the ‘art of the deal’.
The people who came to the Temple in Jerusalem had come from near and far, so when they arrived they needed to purchase animals to offer in sacrifice as prescribed by the Law of Moses. Hence the stall holders offered a necessary service. Likewise the money-changers, for the Temple tax had to be paid in Tyrian shekels so any unacceptable currencies would need to be exchanged for shekels.
The problem, though, with all this commercial activity and bartering happening around the Temple is that one can slip into an attitude concerning religion that can still plague us today: we can all too easily think of our relationship with God as an exchange of goods and services. So, for example, one can exchange prayers for divine favours; or buy divine graces with Masses and sacramentals; or earn salvation in exchange for doing good and obeying the commandments. Hence the law of wisdom revealed by God, given to his people as a sign of divine predilection and Fatherly love, can all too often be viewed as the rules we must follow in exchange for the rewards of heaven – keeping the commandments or saying our prayers can thus become the currency we use to buy salvation and eternal life.
Jesus thus overturns all this. ‘Stop turning my Father’s house into a market’, he says. In other words, our Faith, true religion, authentic prayer cannot be about an exchange. If you’ve ever bartered with God about your Lenten penances, or tried to strike a deal with him then beware that you’re not turning your Father’s house into a market. For each of us who have been baptised into Christ have become the Father’s house, temples of the Holy Spirit, and we have been reborn into a new living relationship with God through Christ. This is not the result of any exchange of commodities, but rather, like our first birth from our mother’s womb, is pure gift. So, too, is salvation in Christ which comes from friendship with him. And, as we know, true friends can’t be bought.
However, in the Christian religion there is one fundamental exchange that does take place and which makes our friendship with God possible – indeed, it enables God to be our Father. For in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, an admirabile commercium, a marvellous exchange, has taken place: ‘We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity’ (cf CCC 526). This is the only exchange necessary, and Christ has paid it for us. What follows from this marvellous exchange, we receive freely, and we do so by following Jesus Christ who is the ‘wisdom of God’.
This wisdom, the folly of divine love, is demonstrated on the Cross. Hence Jesus warns us that if we follow him we will be led there too. Is this a fair deal? Many have quailed at the idea of sacrificing so much, even in exchange for eternal happiness. There must be easier, less costly ways, and so many are the pedlars of cheap grace and auto-salvation. Yet, all who have followed Jesus to the end have done so not because they seek a bargain, nor because they ‘saw the signs that he gave’, as St John says, but because of love.
We follow him because we love him. Why? Because he has first loved us, and made his home in us. For we Christians have been raised up as the Father’s house, and here, in the sanctuary of the human heart, God the Blessed Trinity has chosen to dwell. As St Augustine said: ‘Lo, you were within’! So, this Lent, we need not even go out – and perhaps you can’t under the current circumstances – but in silence and prayer we will realise anew that the Father who loves us has delivered himself into our lives, and we receive his love and grace without any exchange needed at all. Rather, as our relationship with Christ deepens and as we freely receive the Sacraments, we shall be changed into him.