|Sorry, but We're All Out of Figs Today.
The Eighth Friday of Ordinary Time; or, the Memorial of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Bishop.*
Lessons from the secondary feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I Peter 4: 7-13.
• Psalm 96: 10-13.
• Mark 11: 11-26.
The Third Class Feast of Saint Bede the Venerable, Confessor & Doctor of the Church; and, the Commemoration of Saint John I, Pope & Martyr.**
Lessons from the common, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I Peter 5: 1-4, 10-11.
• Psalm 106: 32, 31.
• Matthew 16: 13-19.
If a Mass for the commemoration is taken, the lessons are the same.
The First Friday of the Apostles Fast; and, the Feast of the Holy Bishop & Martyr Therapont.
Lessons from the pentecostarion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• Romans 5: 17—6: 2.
• Matthew 9: 14-17.
10:01 AM 5/27/2016 — In the course of our thoughts yesterday I had mentioned that the Evangelists don't present the events of our Lord's life with the same detail, or even in the same order, and today's Gospel lesson is a good example of this; for, while Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us the story our how our Lord threw the merchants out of the Temple, Mark curiously frames the story within this mysterious episode of the fig tree.
Regarding our Lord throwing the money changers out of the Temple, we've looked at this before: it's a very popular image of Jesus among those who don't actually practice their faith because it caters to the very Protestant notion that loves our Blessed Lord but hates the institution of organized religion. In this narrow minded perspective, the vendors in the temple area represent to us those who use religion to make a profit, and our Lord driving them out stands for the moral purity of those who love God but hate any kind of religious officialdom, and encourages the idea that true Christianity has nothing to do with the institution of the Church.
The best way to throw cold water on this particular heresy is to take people back to the feast of the Presentation: Mary and Joseph take the Baby Jesus to the Temple because the Law of Moses requires that every first born male be presented to God along with two pigeons or a pair of turtle doves. The whole point of the inclusion of the episode in the Holy Gospel—and the Church's celebration of it—is to show the obedience of the Holy Family, and our Lord, to the requirements of the Law, a lesson that our Lord would reenforce several times in His own preaching throughout his public ministry, particularly when he said, “Do not think that I have come to set aside the law and the prophets; I have not come to set them aside, but to bring them to perfection” (Matt. 5: 17 Knox). It was essential, even to our Lord, Himself, that this law be fulfilled; so, where did Joseph get the two birds for the sacrifice? He bought them from a vendor in the Temple, the same kind of vendor that our Lord drives from the Temple in today's Gospel lesson.
So, the Sunday School interpretation of our Lord's actions, that it's wrong for the Church to make money, simply doesn't pass muster. Of course the Church has to make money, otherwise it couldn't exist in the real world; and, if the Church doesn't exist in the real world, then there are no priests, there is no Mass, there are no sacraments, and Grace is not available to us … unless, of course, you're a Protestant who doesn't believe in the priesthood, the Mass, the sacraments or grace.
Our Lord drives the vendors from the outer court of the Temple not because it's wrong for someone to do that kind of work;—without them, people would not be able to perform their religious duties before God—He drives them out because they're doing it in service to the wrong religion. In Saint Luke's account of this episode, there is a dialog between our Lord and the priests in the Temple, not contained in Mark, who ask Him to justify His actions, and He responds to them by predicting his Passion, declaring that He will die and rise three days later; so, He knows—because He is God—that His death and resurrection will result in the creation of a new religion, one that will complete and fulfill the old one. Mark does not include this conversation, but makes the same point in a somewhat cryptic way by framing this episode within the narrative about the fig tree that will not bear fruit, which is clearly from a much later period in our Lord's public life: the idea being that it isn't enough to know the law, now we're actually going to have to live it.
So, the meaning of our Lord's actions today, and the message of today's Gospel lesson, is not a call to abandon religion in favor of some sort of non-institutional faith that doesn't take up a collection; it's a call to sincerity in our religious practice. We can't buy or bribe our way into heaven, and we all know this; but, sometimes we act as if we think we can: someone who's living an immoral life who tries to make up for it by some kind of philanthropy, or someone living in an invalid union who tries to cancel his sin by engaging in some kind of intense volunteerism. Ted Kennedy, before he died, wrote this impassioned letter to Pope Benedict in which he tried to make the case that his long-standing support for abortion rights was somehow canceled by the fact that he did so much to help the poor, as if helping the poor could possibly make up for millions of dead children. The Holy Father didn't answer the letter; what could he say?
More to the point of our Lord's actions in the Gospel today are those who try to make up for their moral indifference by replacing moral living with devotional practice: someone, for example, who may come to this Shrine and spend an afternoon praying before a statue of our Lord or our Lady, but who's living with a boyfriend or a girlfriend outside of marriage, or married outside the Church; he has misled himself into thinking that buying a bouquet of flowers to place before the Immaculate Heart of Mary cancels the sin of how he's living his life. It doesn't work that way. The only way to cancel the effect of the sin is to confess it, and then stop sinning, or at least make the attempt by means of some purpose of amendment.
And there you have the true meaning of our Lord driving the so-called money changers from the Temple: it's a symbolic act meant to remind us we cannot use a clever manipulation of our religion to try and assuage our consciences so that we don't have to change our lives. It's coupled with the withering of the fig tree to remind us that the rules haven't changed, but that we must now begin to live them. Of course, that doesn't happen overnight; it happens as the result of repeated efforts and failures over the years of one's life; and, while we might prefer to believe that all we need to do is make a decision to change our lives and have it happen immediately, we know it doesn't work that way, which is why our Lord ends today's lesson with the reassuring promise that our prayers will be answered, if we have patience and if we pray in faith, giving us a simple test by which we can know that we're able to do that: “When you stand praying, forgive whatever wrong any man has done you; so that your Father who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions…” (Mark 11: 25 Knox).
* Originally a monk of Mt. Cœlius in Rome, Augustine was sent by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to England to convert the English people to Christianity, and baptized England's first Christian King, Ethelbert of Kent. Consecrated a bishop in 597, he established the Sees of Canterbury, London and Rochester, and received the pallium in 601 as Primate of England.
** Born in Tuscany, Pope St. John I introduced the Alexandrian computation for calculating the date of Easter, and led an embassy to Constantinople to discuss Emperor Justin's policy toward the Arian heretics. While returning to Rome he was kidnapped by the Arian king, Theodoric of Ravenna, and died there, ill and worn out from his travels. His remains were returned to Rome, and the epitaph on his tomb salutes him as a "victim for Christ." He was commemorated in the ordinary form on May 18th.
Saint Bede was commemorated in the ordinary form last Wednesday.