The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, Jesus drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables. Jesus told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making God’s house a marketplace!”
The disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The temple authorities then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. After Jesus was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Now here is an interesting portrait of Jesus: overturning tables with one hand, wielding a whip with the other. Indiana (Jerusalem?) Jones perhaps; not so much the Prince of Peace. If you had the kind of Sunday School upbringing that I did, chances are that you were led to believe that Jesus was shocked and appalled by what he found in the temple that day, that the sight of money changers and animals was a scandal.
What Jesus walked into could not have been unexpected; it was perfectly legitimate temple activity. Moneychangers were necessary, so that pilgrims from Greece and Rome could pay their temple taxes at Passover with local coins. Animals – sheep and cattle for the rich, doves for the poor – were for sale on site to assure that they met the requirements for sacrifice. All of this normal commerce took place in the enormous outer court of the temple, and as a regular visitor to Jerusalem (according to John’s gospel), Jesus would have seen it all many times. So why was he so angry?
Perhaps to move the plot along. The author of John’s Gospel places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, within a series of transformation stories, immediately following the story of the miracle at the wedding at Cana. The other gospel writers place the story just prior to the Passion, this disruptive temple behavior becoming the seal on Jesus’ fate (in John, the raising of Lazarus fills that pivotal slot).
Perhaps to show us Jesus, fully human, and struggling with emotions and feelings out of control. But in my Sunday School class, and for many Christians for the past two millennia, this story was a seductive invitation to reject Jewish teaching, worship and practice, to set up (good) holy Christian piety against the (evil) commerce represented by the doves and the coins. Reading John’s gospel requires vigilance to recognize the anti-Semitic prejudices of the author’s voice, and will only get more challenging when we get to John’s Passion narrative.
Exegesis and history aside, I have loved the idea of an angry Jesus since the first time I heard this story. Aha! He gets mad just like I do!
Several years ago I had the privilege of attending a nine-day community organizing training by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF); the same kind of training made famous by Barack Obama’s early political experiences in Chicago. The most important thing I learned was that our anger can be holy, that it needs to be valued and respected. But only if it is rooted in our memories of injustice, in relationship with others, and leads to compassion and empathy. The trick is to take our “hot” impulses and cool them into a tool that moves us to action. To allow ourselves to deeply feel loss and grief. Cold anger leads to hope, not to despair. Every bit of Jesus’ anger was rooted in love for the outcast, for the invisible, the overlooked; his anger was with the high priest and the financial institution which was complicit with Rome’s oppression of the poor.
At the inauguration in January, our friend Bishop Gene Robinson prayed: O God of many understandings, we pray that you will….Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
This Lent, I am angry that people that I love have to worry about losing their health insurance if they lose their jobs. That the vast majority of those being targeted by federal immigration authorities are not criminals, but hardworking waitresses and nannies and gardeners. That marriages so joyously celebrated during our great season of justice here in California are in limbo. That so many young people are living on the streets of Pasadena. I want to overturn the tables of violence and poverty and drive out the purveyors of fear and scarcity. Jesus, bless us with anger.
During the Week
Take time to reflect upon your personal anger, to understand its sources. Are you able to “cool” it down, to draw on it as fuel for action? Are you able to differentiate useful, cold anger, from the kind of anger that comes from resentment, that leads to hurtful actions and becomes uncontrollable?
One measure of healthy anger is that it is leads to empathy and to enlightenment. Reflect on your life story through the lens of the lessons and learnings you have received from your anger.
Reading suggestion: The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. My Lenten companion these past three years, widely available and very helpful – the chapter on “Monday” discusses Jesus and the money changers in detail.