Exodus 20:1-17+Psalm 19+1 Corinthians 1:18-25+John 2:13-22
What do you do when you get angry? Maybe more importantly: what is it that makes you really angry? Before you get suspicious of the question and think that I’m going to tell you that you shouldn’t be getting angry at all, that it’s a sin, I assure you that I would need to stand first in line for confession if that were the case. Anger, like any emotion, is neutral. What we do with those emotions can be for good or ill, but the thing itself is neither good nor bad.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Fred Rogers this week and the song he used to sing:
What do you do with the mad that you feel
when you feel so mad you could bite?
And I think that Jesus could have used a little Mr. Rogers in this 2nd chapter of John. Jesus was mad. Really mad. So mad that he grew violent. Our text does not tell us if he nicked anybody with that whip, but I think we can assume that he might have. And whether or not we condone violence of any kind, we certainly have at least this example to tell us that Jesus was, at least this once, angry enough to do harm to someone.
Imagine for just minute what that scene must have looked like. The temple was teeming with pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover. They all had to come to the massive temple to purchase the animals they needed for the sacrifice. The smell of livestock and birds and sweaty bodies plus the shouting and the laughter and the clink of coins – it would have been noisy and chaotic.
These pilgrims had to convert their Roman coins to the temple currency in order to pay for the animal to sacrifice. Given the demand, the cost of the animals was likely inflated and the exchange rate akin to extortion, so Jesus certainly had cause to be angry about that.
But even more so, I think Jesus is angry about who is being extorted, who is being cheated.
The court of the gentiles was the outer part of the temple, just inside the enormous outer walls. This was as far as non-Jews could go. But it wasn’t just for gentiles, it was for those who were ritually unclean. Even though there was a separate, more interior court for women, many women gathered here who would have been ritually impure following childbirth or during menstruation. Even more than this, anyone who was poor, who could not afford the dove or pigeon to sacrifice, or a ritual bath for purification – this would have been as far as they could go. Anyone deemed permanently unclean could have gone no farther. In short, this was where most of the people were. At some point, everyone is ritually unclean.
Jesus’s anger is kindled because to turn this area of the temple into a marketplace is to act as if God is only present in the inner parts. But here, among the poor and the women and the unclean, this is where God is, he seems to say. “Take these things from here! Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” An emporium is the Greek word. God is here. A holy place is no place for you to cheat the poor and the outsiders out of what little they have just so they can keep the festival.
One wonders if Jesus wasn’t in part sympathetic because this was where his parents would have brought him forty days after his birth to be presented in the temple as their firstborn. Luke’s gospel tells us that they were poor because they were permitted to purchase a pair of turtledoves or pigeons instead of the required lamb. It might have been just here that blind, old Simeon who had been waiting for decades to see the messiah spoke the words
Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32 – BCP 120).
God was surely in this place. How dare the moneychangers and merchants defile it?
The cleansing of the temple is found in all four gospels. That is one way we can be assured that it probably happened. But only John ends with this part about Jesus practically taunting the leadership and saying that if the temple is destroyed, he would raise it up in three days. It is poignant to consider that John’s gospel was written well after this colossal temple had been destroyed by Rome, but the community of Jesus followers would have understood: he had been killed and rose again on the third day. There is no need for a temple of stone, because Christ is the now the temple, and where the body of Christ is, that is where God is.
One other difference in the telling of the story is its placement. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this all happens after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when everyone is streaming into Jerusalem for Passover. In John, it comes early. Jesus has gathered his disciples, worked the first sign or miracle by changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana, and then he shows up in Jerusalem for Passover. He is an unknown, but from here to the end, the authorities will have their eye on him. This incident sets the tone for the ongoing conflicts that we hear about repeatedly, Jesus sparring with what John refers to again and again as “the Jews,” when in fact it was anyone who was threatened by the reign of God Jesus proclaimed.
So, I asked at the beginning what it is that makes you really angry. For Jesus, it was injustice against the poor and oppressed and a zeal for the house of God, according to our text (2:17). I’m not saying that we all need to craft whips out of cords, but I wonder if this world might be a more just place if more of us directed our outrage at the oppressors, at racism, sexism, homophobia, white supremacy, poverty, and war-mongering? Maybe we should try that. Jesus provided us a pretty good example, although we might leave out the whip part.