Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom: so Saint Paul in today's second reading. It might seem like an early version of something that became popular in the 20th century, a distinction between 'Hebrew' ways of thinking and 'Greek' ways of thinking, the former visual and narrative, the latter rational and abstract. In the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul says, the Jews are given what they demand and the Greeks are given what they are looking for: a sign more powerful than any other sign, a wisdom more penetrating than any other wisdom.
The wisdom of God had already been revealed in the law given to Moses. Here is how you should live, God says to the people, if you want to remain in right relations with me. For you to be in right relations with me will mean success for you as human beings. It will mean your happiness, your flourishing, and your fulfilment. This is what wisdom promises you, knowledge of how to live well, understanding of the kinds of behaviour and relationship in which human fulfilment is found.
The ten commandments are the priorities of this law, the most fundamental things to observe if we want to enter into this happiness. They are not arbitrary rules that could just as easily have been the opposite of what they are. Each of them encapsulates something that needs to be true of our relationships, either with God or with other people, if those relationships are to be genuinely human, genuinely fulfilling. Do not insult both God and yourself by making images to represent Him, since God has created you in his image and likeness and so the human being is the creature that most closely represents God. Remember that God is your creator who rested on the seventh day, and give time of that quality to God and to your neighbour. Honour your parents, something that comes naturally to children but of which adults need to be reminded. And then come the moral precepts that every culture has spontaneously recognised, against killing, lying, adultery and stealing.
Jews demand signs, Paul tells us, and we are given a potent sign in the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus. It evokes the commandments, in particular those concerned with our relationship with God: to worship in a way that is truthful, not to take God's name in vain, to keep holy those times and places that ought to be kept holy. The cleansing of the Temple is a prophetic action by Jesus, speaking of the cleansing of souls, the cleansing of the nation, the cleansing of the world. There are so many distortions of love and justice that require correction. The wisdom of the commandments is not always appreciated and even when we do aspire to what they promise, there are things that hold us back, weigh us down, distract us from our purpose. Jesus' action speaks of the human desire for authenticity, for truth, for justice, for holiness. It confronts us with this question: what will sweep through lives cluttered and distorted by compromise and half-truths except a wind of the Spirit, a breath of the re-creating anger of God, a cleansing sigh from the heart of God's desire.
The Jews demand a sign to justify the sign he has just given. 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up', Jesus says. For the moment that was a piece of mysterious wisdom and only later was it understood that he was referring to the temple of his body. In other words he was referring to the Great Sign of which Paul speaks: Christ crucified, the power and the wisdom of God. Christ crucified is the most powerful sign we will ever be given. Christ crucified is the deepest wisdom we will ever be offered. Thomas Aquinas said that any wisdom he gained was learned in meditating on the cross of Jesus. Edith Stein, Jewish philosopher, and so a seeker of signs and of wisdom, wrote her final work on 'the knowledge of the cross', Scientia Crucis. If you seek wisdom, this philosopher says to us, go to the cross of Jesus. If you insist on having a sign of God's presence and love, this Jewish woman says to us, go to the cross of Jesus.
It is the destination of our Lenten journey - the cross of Jesus, God's wise foolishness, God's powerful weakness.