· Vatican City ·

Third Sunday of Lent: 3 March

Consumed by zeal for God

 Consumed by zeal for God  ING-009
01 March 2024

When the disciples witnessed how Jesus drove out those who made the Father’s house into a marketplace, they recalled the words of the psalmist, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Ps 69:9). For the Benedictine monk, the word zeal immediately brings his mind to the last chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict on the good zeal of monks: Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life (RB 72:1-2). Here, Benedict is encouraging his brothers to cast out a wicked and bitter zeal referred in the letter of James as full of jealousy, selfish ambition, earthly, unspiritual and demonic (Jas 3:14-15). This prepares space in the heart of the monk to embrace the good zeal which James equates to wisdom and exudes purity, peace, gentleness, obedience, mercy, fidelity, sincerity and life (Jas 3:17). The good zeal leads the monk to God and everlasting life.

The zeal of Jesus moved him to purify the temple and re-establish it as a meeting place with God. This act of Jesus has a direct spiritual significance and explains why he declared to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Those who heard these words did not fully grasp their meaning until Jesus was raised from the dead. The zeal of Jesus was accomplished in his death and resurrection and brings all believers to God and everlasting life.

It sometimes happens that in the process of conversion, we only focus on the secondary part of the spiritual exercise: the filling our lives with spiritual things such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. There are at least two issues with this approach.

The first is that we ignore the basic foundation of wisdom that demands the avoidance of evil before doing good. This dictum is repeated in various ways, but its form always remains the same: turn away from evil and do good (Ps 37:27; 34:15); cease doing evil and learn to do good (Is 1:16); and do to others what you would have them do to you (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31).

The second issue is that our good works risk being contaminated by a heart that is not completely pure. When James wrote against the bitter zeal, he addressed the kind of false fervour of those who, convinced of their personal perfection, always see defects in others, lament about it, become impatient and attack others under the pretence of a rigorous and faithful spiritual observance. To these, James admonished, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts you backsliders!” (Jas 4:8).

Purify first the heart, then offer our sacrifice of good works after. To do the latter without the former is like a runner going full speed in the wrong direction. Jesus cleansing the temple before rededicating it to be a place of communion with the Father reminds us of the first and necessary task of naming our sins and begging for pardon. Having reconciled ourselves with each other, our good works will become acceptable to God (Mt 5:23-24). Let us prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to everlasting life (RB 72:11-12).

*  Abbot of St. Martin Abbey, Lacey

By Fr Marion Nguyen, osb *