It has been almost 21 years since Pope John Paul II visited Egypt, Jordan, and the Holy Land, where the frail and failing pope solemnly asked forgiveness for the Church’s sins against those it had persecuted in times past — Jews, Muslims, and other Christians. In Israel, at the shrine dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, John Paul specifically acknowledged the Church’s complicity in anti-Semitism. Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Iraq, a country still torn by conflict and sectarianism, differs. He went as a peace-maker, extending the hand of friendship to Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Mandaean-Sabaeans, Yazidis, other religious minorities, as well as the various Christian denominations from Ur in the south, near Basra, to Mosul and Qaraqosh in the north, where the people still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus would have used. Francis accorded it special importance in his itinerary. Ur, near Basra, the birthplace of Abraham, the Father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was also a site of special interest to the pope.
I accompanied a delegation of Dominican sisters and supporters to these ancient places in 2001 and twice more in the years that followed in the wake of the war launched against Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait and during the “Insurgency.” I visited ancient churches, monasteries, and mosques, and met wonderful, generous people. That was before ISIS invaded the country, demolishing churches and even mosques wherever they could. The so-called Caliphate was first announced in Mosul, which had been the site of Dominican missions in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and again from the nineteenth century to the present. The devastation of these ancient places was appalling.
Still riven by factionalism and violence, Iraq has been slowly and painfully rebuilding. The number of Christians has been more than halved. The significance of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage is therefore hard to miss. Even though he was cautioned not to go, he insisted. And, appropriately in this season of preparation for great Easter celebrations, we have witnessed in his words and actions signs of the love and reconciliation that sum up the whole meaning of Lent.
Today’s readings begin with Moses, and specifically with the Ten Commandments, the moral code that will forever be associated with
his name. It’s especially important to see the importance that is attached to the Sabbath rest. It’s always so easy to get sucked into the whirlpool of a profit economy and forget that workers need a day off as well as a livable wage. In Egypt, the Hebrews never were allowed to rest, so God made sure that everyone was given a break, not least of all so they could worship God. What was so revolutionary about the Ancient Covenant was that everyone was entitled to that freedom — women, children, political refugees, even slaves and farm animals. And it’s certainly not possible for the rich to worship God well when grinding the poor into the dirt. Envy and jealousy don’t dispose any of us to receive and share God’s blessings.
Of course that isn’t good business sense. But God’s ways always seem foolish to those who idolize money. And that isn’t the only scandal.
Paul, a Jew reared as a Pharisee, a citizen of the Roman Empire, was painfully aware that the message he preached, the Good News taught by Jesus, and the meaning of Jesus himself, was scandalous and foolish to the religiously sensitive Jews and the philosophically trained Greeks. How could the Messiah of God have been executed like a common criminal? What possible message could this itinerant rabbi from the hills of Galilee have to teach the great thinkers of Athens and Alexandria?
Paul simply reminds us that God’s ways and our ways often seem entirely contradictory. It’s especially tempting to start cutting corners, whittling away those merciful parts of religious observance, the parts that give people holidays from work and school and even from commerce and industry, the ones that allow us to catch our breath and even have a little fun.
I think that is why Jesus became so angry when he arrived at the Temple and found it full of money changers and hucksters selling animals for sacrifice. The outer court had become nothing more than a huge religious bazaar, a marketplace for religious merchandise. And making a tidy profit by gouging the poor was no doubt a big part of what was going on.
John’s gospel places this scene at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The other evangelists thought it happened near the end. One way or another, it was a major turning point in Jesus’ life, one from which there was no retreat. He had positioned himself in opposition to the religious authorities and, as he pointed out, for the honor of God. From that moment, he was a marked man.
Corruption and the need for reform is woven into the fabric of most if not all human institutions. The love of money, even more than of power, is often the root cause, and it was his recognition of this failure that sparked Jesus’ outrage in the temple. That reform takes root is itself a miracle of resurrection. Where it is lacking, desolation follows. Christianity is hardly immune.
Repentance, metanoia, means changing our way of thinking, our whole way of life to the extent that it wars against the spirit. If we are going to grow closer to what God intends for us, for all human beings, we have to leave the sins and mistakes of the past behind, acknowledged but not belabored, and strike out fresh and new. This, surely is prominent in the mission and ministry of Pope Francis this weekend.
Wherever sinfulness has bound people — in our homes, our communities, our workplaces — we need to break free, to make peace through love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is never easy, and sometimes it hardly seems possible. Factionalism and tribalism, and the inevitable demonization of those with whom we differ religiously, ethnically, or politically because they represent a different way of doing things is not just foolish and self-defeating. It strikes at the root of both our democratic form of government and our faith.
So while there’s time, let us pray that God will give us the wisdom and strength to rekindle the warmth of charity, to forgive, to reconcile ourselves with our brothers and sisters here and throughout the world so that we may be called and may truly be children of Abraham and Abraham’s God.