A Holy Anger
“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 money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John 2:15-16
The Reverend Luther Zeigler
3 Lent 2012
I come from German-American stock, and my family life growing up pretty much fit the ethnic stereotype: I was taught the value of order, discipline, and quiet obedience to authority. “Children are meant to be seen and not heard” was a line frequently whispered in our household, and my brother and I were expected do as we were told, without having to be asked twice, and without complaint. And we did, more or less. Indeed, we didn’t think we had any other option. For these reasons, and for better or worse, the Zeigler house was a peaceful place with little to no emotional volatility. I can count on one hand the number of times either of my parents, God rest their souls, raised their voice or otherwise expressed anger. To this day, I confess, I am a bit overly sensitive to outbursts of emotion.
Perhaps because of this upbringing and delicate sensibility, my ears perk up when I hear Jesus getting angry. And for the past two weeks, Jesus has been nothing short of furious. In last week’s gospel text, you will remember, it was Peter who set Jesus off. Peter has his own idea of what a Messiah should look like. Peter wants a “winner”: a wise teacher, a great leader, a powerful ruler, someone who would rise to the top and reclaim Israel’s true destiny in the face of a brutally oppressive Roman Empire. The Messiah Peter yearns for is nothing less than a new and improved King David.
So, when Jesus begins to disclose to his disciples, as he did last week, that his future will be that of a suffering servant who will be humiliated, mocked, and ultimately crucified, Peter cannot believe his ears and openly chastises Jesus. “Get behind me, Satan!,” Jesus blisters in reply, letting Peter have his due in no uncertain terms. Jesus’ anger is provoked by Peter’s complete misapprehension of God’s fundamental character.
Peter thinks that God’s redemption of the world is to be achieved through powerful coercion; Jesus reveals that God redeems through tender vulnerability. Peter thinks that God’s destiny for his Son is glory and kingship; Jesus reveals that God wants his Son’s future to be one of humility and selfless sacrifice. Peter thinks that discipleship will be riding on the coattails of an inevitable coronation; Jesus reveals that our true identity as his followers comes only when we are prepared to take up our cross and die to our selves.
Hence Jesus’ righteous anger. This is not the distorted anger of human sin that lashes out at another for selfish motives, or out of the weakness of insecurity. This is a purifying anger fueled by love. Jesus rebukes because he needs to break open Peter’s fundamental misunderstanding of who God is and what it means to follow God. While anger is more often than not a manifestation of sin, at times it can be an instrument of grace that saves people from their own folly.
In today’s gospel – the famous cleansing of the Temple scene – Jesus’ anger is equal in intensity to last week’s but different in its object. Here, the question that gives rise to Jesus’ ire is how should we faithfully worship God. By overturning the moneychangers’ tables and chasing the animal vendors out of the Temple Court, Jesus leaves no doubt that something is fundamentally amiss. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!,” Jesus shouts. But what precisely is the problem?
It is tempting, but I think ultimately wrong, to conclude that the problem here is merely that some profane lenders and merchants got a little too close to the sacred space of the Temple, defiling its integrity. For the truth is that both the moneylenders and the animal vendors were in fact integral to Temple worship at the time. The reason moneylenders were required is because Roman denarii and Attic drachmas were not an acceptable means by which to pay the required temple tax because of the pagan images they bore. For Jewish pilgrims to pay their appropriate share of financial support to the temple, the imperial coinage first had to be exchanged for legal Tyrian coinage having no graven images. So, moneychangers were necessary to the system.
Likewise, because animal sacrifice was part and parcel of Temple worship at the time, animal merchants were needed. The faithful had traveled long distances to get to Jerusalem for the Passover, so they could not reasonably be expected to carry clean sacrificial animals with them. They needed animal traders near the Temple to make their sacrifices through the Temple priests.
Thus, Jesus’ wrath is not about the presence of moneychangers and merchants per se, but to the whole Temple system of worship, which had lost its bearings and had become corrupt and corrupting. What began in Solomonic times as a holy attempt to create a sacred space in Jerusalem within which faithful Jews could encounter, praise, and be transformed by their God, had by this time degenerated into something very different. What had once been a relationship was now an exchange; what had once been authentic prayer was now a negotiation; what had once been a gathered community of the faithful was now a highly stratified bureaucracy of priests, scribes, and others coopted by imperial authority. These distortions in the religious life of the Temple were the real focus of Jesus’ outburst.
Another tempting, but I think equally misguided, interpretation of this text is to view it as a story about the triumph of Christian over Jewish worship, as if Jesus’ anger reflects a criticism of Jewish institutions and practices that Christians have somehow moved beyond. The truth, of course, is that these very same critiques can and often do apply with equal force to Christian church life. The Protestant Reformation was just one historical chapter in that ongoing and never-ending renewal of authentic human worship. Jesus did not come to replace the Temple with other buildings, as if swapping out a bema for an altar or a menorah for a cross would do the trick. As our gospel text today teaches, Jesus’ aim is to instill, what Catholic writer Gary Wills calls, “a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father.” (emphasis added).
Jesus’ willingness to confront the abuses of institutionalized religion is, of course, a big part of the reason he ends up getting killed. And to some extent, institutionalized religion keeps trying to kill him. As the great American preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick used to quip, people have for thousands of years been trying to get rid of Jesus. First, they crucified him. And when that didn't work, they started worshipping him. Worship can be just another form of crucifixion when we use it to get ourselves off the hook of answering the real question Jesus poses. For the truth of the matter is that Jesus asks not so much to be worshipped, as he asks to be followed.
There is a danger, though, in taking this last point too far. Some read Jesus’ critiques of Temple worship, and his stand-offs with hypocritical religious leaders, as an invitation to chuck institutionalized religion altogether. Often in my life I have heard friends say: “Yes, I try to follow Jesus, but I really don’t need the Church to do that.” Indeed, there have even been times in my own life when I’ve felt that pull, and that sense of disappointment with the church.
But as messy and imperfect and hypocritical as the Church sometimes can be, we musn’t forget that it was Jesus himself who first gathered his twelve followers into a community, who prayed and sang psalms with them, who instituted the common meal we now know as our Lord’s Supper, and who allowed himself to be baptized into the community he created. And it was Jesus himself who commissioned his followers at the end of his earthly ministry to build more communities just like that first one. So, it would be a mistake, I submit, to read too much into Jesus’ righteous anger in cleansing the Temple. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
Lent is a purifying time. It is a time of honest self-examination, when we inventory our own spiritual lives to clear out the debris so that we keep only that which matters. We read this gospel text this third Sunday in Lent because this should be a purifying time for the Church as well. Jesus’ righteous anger should catch us up short, should take our breath away, and should prompt us to ask whether what we are doing every Sunday in Church is ultimately faithful to His life and teachings. Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? When Church becomes empty ritual or just another comfortable space or just some pretty music, we are in trouble.
Today’s gospel invites us to take a hard look at everything we do here in church and to ask whether it is an authentic expression of our devotion to Christ such that when we leave this place we are strengthened in our commitment to follow Jesus and do His work in the world. The genius of Anglicanism, I would submit, is that over the centuries we have developed a liturgy whose elements of prayer, word, sacrament, music, and beautiful space, work together to draw us into a deeper and fuller relationship with Christ. But there is an ever-present danger in our common worship of becoming so caught up in its beauty that we neglect its aim. The risk is one of complacency, of allowing ourselves to become so comfortable and content in our time together, that we forget that the ultimate purpose of this time with Christ is for it to change us so that we might follow and do Christ’s work in the world.
Let us take this moment, then, to hear anew the holy anger in Christ’s voice so that our worship today, and every day, may be purified of all hypocrisy and cleansed of all self-satisfaction. In the beautiful words of one of our Eucharistic Prayers: “Deliver us, Lord Christ, from the presumption of coming to your Holy Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of your Holy Communion make us one body and one spirit, so that we may worthily serve the world in your name. Amen.”