The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2018
When I was a child I had a small leather bound bible in the Authorized translation, a “red letter” bible, the ones that had the words of Jesus printed in red while the rest of the typeface was in black. I don’t recall if this bible was a gift or one that I purloined from my parents’ bookshelf, but however it came to pass, the red-letter King James edition of the bible made its way to my bookshelf in my room. I remember how tissue-thin the pages were, how hard they were to separate sometimes, and how bold and exciting that red typeface was against the black and white of the page. And I remember that, throughout the book, there were stitched in a several sets of pages printed in color, on thicker stock--illustrations of the stories and scenes described in the biblical text itself. Necessarily, because of the printing technology, they were grouped together and would sometimes be distant from the texts they depicted. And so you could get a very brief synopsis of the highlights of the biblical narrative by just flipping through these sections, these illustrations, which I did.
There were images of the plagues in Egypt, of Sampson and Delilah, of Noah’s ark, and the tower of Babel. But the only image I recall from the gospels is the one depicted in today’s reading, Jesus casting the moneychangers out of the temple. Or, as it’s sometimes called, the cleansing of the temple.
There was Jesus, very white with long flowing brown hair, in a clean white spotless flowing robe, sandals on his feet, and a whip of cords over his head, looking rather fierce, charging the tables of the money changers, throwing them over with one hand, while whipping the air with the cords in the other. Animals were scattering, people were running, and the whip was going to town. Jesus looked quite mad. (If you don’t believe me, go and check out the picture by El Greco in the National Gallery. In this 16th C rendering, Jesus is actually whipping the people around him, and in this case he looks quite calm about it.)
This image of Jesus as angry and attacking was a bit troubling to my young mind; my grandmother was the one in our family that got angry, and you didn’t want to be the object of her anger! The rest of us tried to be nice. Anger surely wasn’t a good thing. But the exegetical work of the adults around me assured me that Jesus was just exhibiting “righteous anger,” an anger directed towards an injustice or a wrong, which made it all okay to be angry. The moneychangers were cheating people by charging an unfair exchange rate. They had taken the focus away from God in the temple by focusing on the mechanisms, the things that needed to be bought, in order to offer right worship to God. So Jesus was rightly angry. He was wiping away the corruption that had seized the temple and putting things right again. His anger was righteous. It was holy.
Now, most of these things are probably true. Whenever you get a bunch of folks selling something, at least some of them are going to do it dishonestly. Indeed, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus calls the temple a “den of robbers.” (Matt 21.13, Mk 11.18, Lk 19.46) And when we put the way we pray, the method and mechanics of our prayer, above our relationship with God, we’ve gotten things backwards, rather than letting these things be tools we use to relate to God. So these may be reasonable explanations of why Jesus is concerned about the selling of animals and the money changers in the temple and so on. But what about this righteous anger? I still wasn’t so sure about angry Jesus.
But righteous anger could be a seductive sort of thought right now, especially when our society is so fraught with anger. We can’t seem to actually hear one another. Our political and social discourse is peppered with ad hominem attacks. Everything is black and white, either-or; there’s no middle ground or, it seems, even a middle way forward. And it’s no wonder our emotional levels are at a fever pitch, that our civility is strained. For the issues we are facing as a society--poverty, racism, sexual violence, gun violence--all of these are life and death issues, and we are not wrong to turn our full attention towards them, to take note of these ways in which great evil is moving in our land, in our relationships, in our lives. More than once I’ve heard rallying cries for righteous anger: if you’re not angry, you’re not listening. If you care about xyz issue, you should be outraged. Our anger is a performative requirement for showing that we are engaged, we are aware, we care about those around us. To be engaged in the issues of our day is to be angry. Or so the conventional wisdom seems to say.
And here, in this passage, we have a model for righteous anger, don’t we?
Or do we?
I want to suggest that, at least in the gospel of John, I’m not sure that “righteous anger” is really the focus. Perhaps more controversially, I’m not even sure “righteous anger” is a thing in John.
Let’s look at the text for a few clues that, for me, unravel this concept.
It’s true that, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus drives out everyone that’s selling something in the Temple. John is the only gospel, however, where Jesus takes the time to make a whip of cords. Artistic representations aside, he’s not acting in a fit of rage; it must have taken a few minutes to knot and tie all the ropes together. And John is pretty clear, El Greco’s picture not withstanding, that the whip is to move all the animals out, the sheep and the cows. If you’ve ever been around livestock, you’ll realize that the sheep each weigh more than you do, and the cows are just tremendous, over half a ton in weight. These aren’t pet livestock or even breeding stock that have been handled; they’re the livestock that’s been raised specifically for sacrifice, for slaughter, so they’re not particularly disposed to go where you want them to. They can hold their own; they may need a little tap to get their attention, to get them moving, to get them out of the temple. But nowhere in John does Jesus use the whip against the people doing the selling. Just the sheep and the cattle.
We read in Matthew and Mark as well as John that Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers; in Matthew and Mark he even overturns the seats of those who are selling doves for sacrifice. But in John he just tells the dove merchants to pack up and get out: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2.16)
And that seems to be the point--the disruption of the focus of religious activity, of the object of worship--a refocusing on God God’s own self--on the kingdom of God--on right relationship with God, which, after all, was the entire point of the Temple sacrifice. We hear in Mark (11.16) that, after Jesus has driven all the merchants out of the Temple, that no one is able to carry anything through it. Instead, Jesus disrupts the Temple economy--the entire way that people were praying--and instead enters into a teaching relationship with them. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus has been teaching, giving good news, hope, healing--imparting the wisdom of the Kingdom of God to the people he encounters. Now he engages questions of authority--by whose authority he teaches and heals. In John, towards the end of our passage, the scribes and Pharisees ask for a sign, and Jesus gives them himself as a sign: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2.19)
Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians that “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (Cor 1, 1.22-24) Jesus becomes both the sign and the wisdom that the Jewish and Greek traditions seek, and yet the message of the cross is disruptive to our conventional wisdom; it’s foolish, even, as Saint Paul says. We’d not be wrong to expect a warrior king to use his power and set things right, to mow down injustice and oppression. This is the sort of Messiah we might seek. But our Messiah dies, crucified on the cross. We might seek an ethical teacher that wows us with his philosophical discourse, that shows us how to be our best selves, to live our best lives, to engage life to the fullest and live for ourselves. But instead we encounter a human being, fully divine, who shows us how to love others, who pours himself out and dies. Who invites us to pour ourselves out in love for him and for one another.
The angry, powerful Jesus that turns over the tables in the temple, that wields his whip, is an attractive idea. The idea of our own agency, our own righteous anger, righting the wrongs of the world, is a tempting corollary. But that’s not really the Jesus we meet in John. Ultimately the Jesus we meet loves the world around him. Loves all the people around him. Loves them so much that he submits to an execution and death. And he rises again to be with them--with us--forever.
That’s our sign and our wisdom. That’s who Jesus is. And that’s the life he invites us into--that self-offering love, that self-offering life that can stand in the face of any suffering and death the world deals, that life, that love, that ultimately prevails.
So what does that mean about our own anger at the evil that surrounds us, the evil that we endure, the evil that we visit on others? Can our anger be righteous? Or asked another way, is it wrong to be angry?
As best I can figure, anger is morally neutral. It’s a part of our lives. It’s a human response. We certainly see anger in Jesus, after all. He is at the very least annoyed with these dove-and-sheep-and-cattle-sellers, with the Thomas Cooke agents, the merchants there in the Temple. There are other instances when Jesus could be angry; he seems annoyed by the Syrophoenician woman who just wants healing for her daughter. He seems annoyed--or at least startled--by the woman with a hemorrhage who grabs his garment in the crowd. But he heals them. The kingdom of God has come near.
Should we be angry? I’m not sure “should” is the right word. Perhaps the question might be, “Am I angry,” and “Why am I angry?” Perhaps we could be attentive to what our anger is about, and what it’s doing. Does it motivate us to do something, to have an awareness, to take action, against the injustice that surrounds us? Then perhaps it’s righteous--that is to say, perhaps it’s helping us be in right relationship with God and with one another. Or is it debilitating? Does it fill us with fear, paralyze us, keep us from action? Does it separate us from God? Does it separate us from one another? Then perhaps it is not helpful. Perhaps it’s damaging. And perhaps, and in truth, we have less control than we’d like over our emotions, and instead we could focus on our actions. If we are angry, what do we do about it? And when we find ourselves overwhelmed by evil, overcome by anger, can’t we take that anger and lay it at the foot of the cross?
It’s no accident that, when Jesus is asked to point out the most important part of the law, he summarizes it by saying to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Everything else, all the ways we are to be in the world, come from this way of loving. When we can stop to love God, love others, love ourselves, then our whole way of being is changed. When we recognize how we ourselves have been loved, everything is changed.
As we examine our lives this Lent, as we examine our sins--as we attend to those things that separate us from God--let’s also be attentive to how we are separated from one another. Does anger separate us--even when rooted in a sense of injustice? Can we turn towards love, even in the midst of working for justice?
The image of running in with a whip, righting wrongs, turning over tables, is a seductive one. But ultimately the Jesus we meet is the Jesus that tells Peter to put his sword away. He isn’t turning over tables in the Temple to punish folks, or to right some liturgical wrongs. He’s doing these things to dramatically change the narrative. In Luke, just after driving out the money changers, Jesus teaches. In Matthew he invites people into the temple and heals them. He behaves as though the values of the kingdom of God were already ruling the world, for, when Jesus comes near, they are.
And that’s what we’re invited to do. In the face of great injustice, to love like Jesus. To teach his foolish wisdom. To join in his healing ministry to the world. For it is only the love of Christ that can heal the world. It’s only the love of Christ that can right wrongs, heal injustice, and heal broken hearts. It’s not the anger of the whip or the power of the sword, but the vulnerability of love that upends the whole system.
As we walk this way of Lent, I invite us all to examine how we deal with our own anger. To strive in all things to love God and God’s creation first. For everything else will follow.