3rd Sunday of Lent B: A warning 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 older generations and in many still around the world. During my six years in the Philippines I experienced very interesting and personal shopping experiencing.  We the other seminarians and I would be sent to go shopping in the large open markets one would have to haggle with sellers about their products and their prices. I was always given the line, “special price for you!”  That meant an increased price for me since they could see I was an American. I quickly learned to let the Filipino seminarians do the shopping and I would just watch. Such markets were 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 Jewish 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: 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 favors; or buy divine graces with Masses and Sacramentals; or earn salvation in exchange for doing good deeds and obeying the commandments. So for some Catholics their Faith could be reduced to rules that they follow in exchange for the rewards of heaven – keeping the commandments or saying our prayers can easily be viewed as 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 Catholic Faith, true religion, authentic prayer cannot be about an exchange. If you catch yourself bartering with God in trying to strike a deal with Him, beware that you’re not turning your Father’s house into a market. Your “deal” should not be something external to yourself, but rather must include a sincere change within your heart and mind; a change in your sinful lifestyle or an end to the sinful choices that you have made.

Each one of us who have been baptized into Christ, have become the Father’s house, temples of the Holy Spirit, and we have been reborn into a new living relationship with our Heavenly Father through His Son. 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 Jesus which comes from His indwelling within our minds and hearts. True friends can’t be bought.

Through in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, a marvelous exchange, has taken place as the Catechism says: “We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to share in our humanity” (CCC 526). This is really the only exchange necessary, and Christ has paid it for us.  We just need to be one with Jesus to share in this marvelous exchange.

However, Jesus warns us that if we follow Him, we will be led to the Cross in various ways during our lives. 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 peddlers of cheap grace and auto-salvation. Yet, all who have followed Jesus to the end have done so not because they seek a bargain. Rather, as their relationship with Jesus deepened, and as they joyfully and eagerly received the Sacraments, they became one with Him.

Fr. Tom