"He himself understood it well": Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 2:13–25:

Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me. At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.

While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.

How well do we know ourselves and our own natures? As it turns out, not terribly well at all. A study released earlier this week demonstrated that people aren’t even adept enough at understanding their own nature and that of others to know when to end a conversation. In 932 conversations scrutinized by researchers, only two percent of them ended at a mutually acceptable point by both parties. Either one person wanted to talk longer, or wished that the conversation ended long before it did. Only thirty percent of conversations ended in a satisfactory time for even one of the participants. Almost half of the time, both parties wanted to end before it did, while only in 10% of the cases did both parties want it to last longer.

The broader takeaway is that we don’t know each other very well, and we don’t know ourselves very well either. One conclusion reached by the researchers is that we overestimate our abilities to read social cues, which in terms of human interaction is a rather big problem. It leads us to make assumptions based on error, and then compound the error and multiply the social irritation those errors produce.

It reminds us, as do the Gospels and the scriptures, that we are not omnipotent. In fact, we are often not even competent. Human nature lends itself to self-absorption, egotism, and arrogance. Those traits accompany the entire arc of salvation in the scriptures, starting with Adam and Eve’s arrogance in presuming they could make themselves the equal of God.

Thus we have John’s dryly humorous comment in our Gospel reading today about human nature. This comes after one of the most remarkable episodes in Jesus’ ministry, the one that put Him irrevocably on the path to His Passion — Jesus’ direct challenge to the temple authorities. They had taken something which had been established as a gesture acknowledging God’s power and authority and warped it into an exploitation for the benefit of the elites. Just as in Jeremiah’s time, the leadership used the temple as an idol, grasping it to promote themselves. In response, Jesus reminds them of what and whom the temple serves, and just as in Jeremiah’s time, hints that the Lord finds the building much less consequential than they do.

As the Word of God, Jesus already knew human nature, but small wonder He “understood it well” after living with us in the flesh for three years. He had spent that time trying to warn people to repent of that nature and to put away sin, only to find that most people don’t really want to release their grip on that nature. That’s as true today as it was in Jesus’ time, and it was as true then as it was in Moses’ time as well.

However, God comes to rescue us from our own selfish natures even in our blindness to it. Our first reading today recalls the establishment of the Ten Commandments, which the Lord gave to Moses on the mountain after He led the Israelites out of Egypt. By that time, the multitude had already grown disenchanted with their new freedom, and some had begun advocating for a return to slavery. In the middle of this, the Israelites would make The Golden Calf and celebrate it as a god.

What does the Lord do? He hands Moses ten laws by which His people must abide, which become the basis for most if not all human law. But what do these laws all have in common? Thou shalt not act as though thee are Me. Do not make gods to worship, because you are not gods who can beget gods. Do not take My name in vain, because I made you and not the other way around. I made you through your mother and father, so honor them to honor me. Keep one day of the week to contemplate the right relationship between yourself and Me, recalling that I made everything long before you showed up on the scene. And don’t steal property, honor, spouses, or lives from others, because I made all that and you didn’t.

Every single one of these commandments provide practical advice for living life, in large part because they cut against our human nature. Each of them also underscores God’s supremacy, demands that we accept, and in so doing allow ourselves to transcend our own incompetence to live in peace and happiness.

Of course, the Israelites turned out to not be terribly competent at that either, so Moses had to create over 600 laws spelling out how to abide by these ten. Have we done much better since at following the Decalogue? The Lord does indeed understand human nature well.

But that, of course, is why He sent Jesus to us. He gave us the Word made flesh to dwell among us so that we could see perfected human nature, and give us an opportunity to conform our wills to it. God loved us so much that Christ came to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, giving us the grace and strength to enter into our own conversations with the Father to seek Him out in our imperfect and stumbling ways. That is the purpose of prayer — entering into a conversation with the Lord, and attaining our salvation through it.

How long does He want us to have that conversation? Eternally, and we can have that if we desire it enough to form ourselves to it. In that conversation, none who choose it will ever want it to end either.


The front page is a detail from “Jesus Cleansing the Temple” by Carl Bloch, 1874. Via WikiArt

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.