One thing is for certain: the disciples hadn’t seen Jesus like this before!
Oh, they’d seen that look of fierce determination in his eyes; those times when he’d been teaching or going head to head with the Pharisees over matters of theology, when his jaw was so set you had the feeling that whatever anyone said or did, neither his mind nor heart would ever be changed. They’d seen how unrelenting Jesus could be when it came to his Father in heaven and they’d long recognized his passion for the kingdom… but this; this was different.
To begin with, his body language had totally shifted; here they were in the temple, this sacred space that prompted a stance of humility amongst those who were present; and yet here’s Jesus, standing tall and looking as though he was determined to take on the world! And that’s pretty much what he did, “making a whip of cords,” wildly swinging it throughout the temple, driving out not only the sheep and cattle that were herded there, but also the merchants and moneychangers along with them, overturning their tables and dumping their sacks of coins out on the ground. It was clearly an act of passion, and you could hear it even in tone of his voice; ordinarily so kind and gentle and persuasive, but now sharp, and forceful, and just seemed to emanate from the very depths of his being!
Simply put, Jesus was angry – very angry (!) – and as they watched the scene unfold there in the temple, his disciples were both dismayed and, truth be told, perhaps even a little embarrassed! And who could blame them? After all, this was the Messiah, he who was the one who was to bring forth the kingdom of God and return Israel to its former glory; but now he’s in the midst of some loud and angry tirade, one that’s, dare I say, bordering on violent behavior, and it’s right on Temple grounds? That’s most assuredly not the kind of behavior one expects from a Messiah!
And it’s certainly not what you and I expect from Jesus.
This is one story that just seems to run headlong against our preferred image of Christ, isn’t it? I mean, here in the church we love to sing songs like “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “O Jesus, Sweet and Mild,” “Jesus, Friend, Kind and Gentle.” From the time we were in Sunday School, we heard Bible stories of how Jesus healed the sick and the lame, how he fed the 4,000 and blessed the little children; and when we speak of his teachings, we hold fast to how Jesus said to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and to forgive “seventy times seven.” These are the images that have resonated in our hearts for a lifetime, and for good reason; and yet, right there in the second chapter of John (in all four of the gospels, actually), we’ve got this vision of an angry Jesus, one that even given our modern-day, desensitized sensibilities, is jarring and more than a little bit unsettling! And it tempts us to ask the question, “Is this the same Jesus we know and love?”
And the answer is… yes… understanding that as one who was fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus had a heart that was full of emotion, including anger!
You see, contrary to the way we often tend to view him, it is important for us to understand that Jesus Christ was, in fact, an emotional man! And lest you think I’m just theorizing here, it’s all right there in the gospels: G. Walter Hansen, New Testament professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, says that “the gospel writers paint their portraits of Jesus using a kaleidoscope of brilliant ‘emotion’ colors. Jesus felt compassion; he was angry, indignant, and consumed with zeal; depressed, deeply moved, and grieved; he sighed; he wept and sobbed; he groaned; he was in agony; he was surprised and amazed; he rejoiced very greatly and was full of joy; he greatly desired, and he loved.”
Hansen goes on to say that in following Jesus, you and I often tend to overlook his emotions. That’s unfortunate, he says, because “Jesus reveals what it means to be fully human and made in the image of God. His emotions reflect the image of God without any deficiency or distortion.” In other words, not only is it true that Jesus was indeed capable of all these emotions, just like you and me; but also that in this myriad of emotion that Jesus and you and I regularly experience are all the colors and hues and shadings of God’s distinct image for humanity, which is made real and perfect in the person of the Christ.
Just think about that for a moment! What this tells us is that emotion (all emotion, not just the easy ones like joy and love, but also and including more difficult emotions like anger!) is God given, part of who we are as God’s creation, and as such is good. That in and of itself runs smack into everything we so often try to work against in this life! Seriously; how often in this life have we been told not to be emotional, that letting our emotions show is somehow a sign of weakness, or worse, evidence of a sinful heart? How many adults of this and past generations were told as children not to cry… ever; and to always deal with everything in a logical, detached and unemotional fashion? And how many people do we know – for that matter, how many of us – have struggled through things because over the years we’ve been led to believe that we can’t ever risk showing what we feel? Also, how many people end up losing all control of their emotions because they never ever learned to deal with them in the first place?
Well, the good news is that none of that has to be; and that’s because today in scripture we see Jesus – whose heart was emotional, and who did show anger – but who, by his own anger, shows us the proper way to express our emotions and to be the fully passionate, integrated and purposeful people that God intends us to be.
Of course, that begins in understanding what Jesus’ anger was not: it was not cruel, nor was it vengeful; it was not wild, out of control rage; nor was it an excuse for willfully lashing out and purposely hurting other people. To put it another way, Jesus’ anger was never self-serving: you know, over the years I’ve heard this passage used as a justification for just about every garden-variety “hissy-fit” you can name! From the all-too common incidents of road rage and “on-hold” temper tantrums to far more serious episodes of verbal and physical abuse, there are those who would excuse it all away by claiming that even Jesus got mad at the money changers in the temple, so it must be alright! We need to be clear; this kind of anger has nothing to do with Jesus: when Jesus shows anger, it is measured and controlled; it’s always focused and directed; and more often than not, it is mingled with grief and sorrow.
When Jesus shows anger, it is true righteous indignation toward evil and injustice; in this instance, an evil that had been revealed in this tragic reality that the temple – the very house of God (!) – had been allowed to become… a flea market! Jesus was angry, and deeply hurt, that this sacred place of worship and prayer had so easily been transformed into something that brought dishonor to God!
I hasten to add that we’re not talking here about 1st century versions of yard sales and holiday fairs (!), but rather the concerted effort by the religious leadership of the time to make huge profits by fleecing the faithful during Passover. You see, at the Passover every Jew, young or old, rich or poor, was required to come to temple and make their offering; a ritual that the temple leadership was glad to facilitate by selling sacrificial animals at a hefty price, or else by changing money brought by those coming to Jerusalem into proper temple coinage (at a sizeable exchange rate, of course!). This practice quite literally grieves Jesus, and so he confronts the situation and those who would dishonor the temple and God in such a way! How dare you, he says. “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a marketplace!” It also turns out to be a prophetic act, fulfilling what the Psalms had said regarding the Messiah: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
What we have here is zeal, not rage; and it’s important that we know the difference. This is what theologian Stephanie Nagley means when she refers to “the creative anger of Jesus” that again and again “turns hearts and minds.” While he expresses anger, Nagley writes, Jesus “will not return evil for evil… he will draw a boundary, as when he turns the tables over at the temple.” This is how Jesus always reacts: “he will go the way of the cross, the way of love, rather than destroy and be destroyed by anger.” That, says Nagley, is truly an art.
Contrast this “creative anger” to the reaction of the Pharisees, who are none too pleased at what had just transpired. But while Jesus’ anger was fueled by zeal for God’s house, all the Pharisees could do is rage over how Jesus might have undermined their power: notice that their reaction isn’t “What are you doing?” or “Why have you done this?” It’s “Who gave you the right?” “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
And to this, Jesus replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” a response that the Pharisees heard as babbling nonsense, not realizing that Jesus wasn’t talking about a building, but rather his own body, and the resurrection to come. That was all lost on the Pharisees, because as far as they were concerned, this man Jesus was nothing more than a short-tempered rabble-rouser, and one that needed to be dealt with in short order.
But there were those who saw this anger for what it truly was. It’s interesting to note that this story ends pretty much the same way in all four gospels, with people coming to Jesus, seeing “the miraculous signs he was doing,” and believing in his name. I would suggest to you this morning that one reason this happened was because Jesus risked the anger to confront God’s truth in the midst of such dishonor; such, friends, is the heart of Jesus. And it should be our heart as well.
One thing that we can take from the gospel today is that it is alright to get angry – in fact, given the level of injustice and evil in this world, I dare say that it’s wrong for us not to get angry (!) – but what we find in the heart of Jesus is that our anger must always befor the right reasons and in the right ways. When we who are children of God show our anger, it needs to be righteous anger. It needs to be controlled, and focused, and ever and always channeled into acts that are healing and helping, not set on destroying others or in “getting our way.” How we are to behave in moments of anger and conflict is how he acted in such moments; with emotion that speaks God’s truth (as opposed to our own), and with emotion that is protective of others and which honors God in the process.
Is that going to be easy? Oh, no… hardly ever.
But it’s worth the effort; for in letting our anger become “Christ-centered,” we’re letting Jesus lead us is toward both a spiritual and emotional maturity in which we honor God with everything we are and everything we feel in this life. To quote G. Walter Hansen one last time, “When we compare our own emotional lives to [that of Jesus], we become aware of our need for a transformation of our emotion so that we can be fully human, like he is.”
So might it be: thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry