Loving zeal
Rev. Steven G. Oetjen

Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.

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 has 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.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, driving out the vendors and money changers, his disciples recalled the words of Scripture, "Zeal for your house will consume me."

That one word, "zeal," helps us to understand what Our Lord is doing when he cleanses the temple.  Making a whip out of cords and driving people out seems like a harsh way of acting, and we normally think of harshness as a bad thing.  But if we investigate the meaning of this "zeal," we will see that Christ is acting here with perfect love, as he always does.

What is zeal?  Zeal has an interesting connection to jealousy, and you can see this in the striking resemblance between the words "zealous" and "jealous."  Etymologically, they are the  same word - the Latin word "zelus" means both zeal and jealousy.  This gets confusing for us because today, we use the word "jealousy" as basically synonymous with envy, and therefore, we see it as a bad thing.  But historically, jealousy has had a different connotation. While envy is sadness at the fact that someone else has something good, jealousy is a kind of protectiveness over what one already has, a guarding against something being taken away wrongfully by someone else.  Envy is always wrong and can even be a very destructive force.  But to be "jealous," in this sense, is to love ardently what belongs to you, to protect it from whatever might threaten to steal it away.

It is in his sense that our first reading today says, "For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God." (Ex 20:5)  This statement comes right after the First Commandment, the commandment against idolatry: "I am the Lord, your God.  You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them." (Ex 20:2-5)  To say that God is jealous of his people means that he is protective of them and does not want them to be stolen away by idols. If we think of jealousy in romantic relationships today, we normally associate it with an emotional possessiveness rooted in a deep-seated insecurity.  Not so with God's jealousy. He is not jealous of his people because he is emotionally insecure.  He is jealous of his people because he loves them and wants only what is good for them.  Our salvation is found in God; our perdition is found in idols.  God is jealous of us because he loves us and does not want us to wander away from him to our own destruction.

To be zealous, then, is to be jealous on behalf of another, to want to protect what belongs to another.  Think of the prophet Elijah when he says, "With zeal I have been zealous for the Lord of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken they covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain they prophets with the sword."  (1 Ki 1;9:14)  Elijah's zeal is essentially a desire to protect what rightfully belongs to God - to prevent God's people from being stolen away by false gods.  Now that we know what it means when the first reading says that God is a "jealous God," we can also understand what it means when the Gospel says that Christ is consumed by zeal for his Father's house.  He wants to protect what rightfully belongs to his Father.  He wants to keep the temple from being a marketplace or a den of thieves.  The temple belongs to his Father, so nothing impure should enter.  Jesus will drive out whatever doesn't belong.

Jesus' zeal for his Father's house is also a zeal for souls.  Jesus looks at each and every one of our souls and sees his Father' house.  With love beyond our comprehension, Jesus is at work within us, seeking to drive out our vices and to flip over the tables of our sin.  This is what he is about, especially during Lent.  Are we cooperating with him?

Christ loves us more than we love ourselves.  We belong to his Father, and he is fighting fiercely for us - to win us over, to break us free from those idols to which we keep returning.  His first disciples saw his zeal when he cleansed the temple in Jerusalem.  May we see his zeal for souls more deeply this Lent, and may we join in his work.