The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Books fascinated me as a child. They still do today. My mother had an old Victorian-era Bible. Its cover was black leather. And it zipped up around the edges. Nestled in between the delicate onion-skin pages were color plates depicting various biblical stories. In truth, I could have cared less about the words on the pages. I was fascinated by the zipper and the brightly colored pictures. My absolute favorite was Jesus cleansing the temple. There he stood in his white robe, brandishing a whip and surrounded by the chaos of toppled tables, uncaged birds and silver pieces of money falling to the floor. But it was his face that consumed me. Unlike the pictures of Jesus standing calmly beside still waters, surrounded by well-behaved sheep, this Jesus was angry! I loved this picture—finding it utterly fascinating, and far more compelling than the placid pictures of our Savior gracing the walls of my Sunday School classroom. True, it disturbed me, this, after all, was part of its allure—but it made Jesus seem real in a way that the other pictures did not.
After all, I’m a middle child. I knew all about anger. Somehow, this depiction of Jesus was understandable to me. I spent a good deal of time making my parents and siblings angry, so much so that I actually wrote notes of apology and stockpiled them in advance. But that’s another story.
Now, about anger. It’s a difficult emotion. And, while it’s true that we live in angry times, anger in a church is something with which we are decidedly uncomfortable. So, think of today’s sermon as written in praise of anger. A redemption of anger, if you will.
The first, and most obvious question is this: Why was Jesus angry? Let’s reconstruct the scene. It’s Passover, that most important of Jewish feasts. Thousands of pilgrims have made their way to Jerusalem to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices. Wealthier worshipers bring large animals such as oxen. If you were poor you might bring a pigeon or a dove. In addition, a half-shekel is expected as a temple tax. And about this tax—it must be paid in Jewish coin, because Roman coins bear images of emperors (who were considered gods), and are therefore not permitted in a place prohibiting the use of graven images.
As you enter the temple, you are confronted by a throng of people. Some are selling the animals you need for sacrifice, and others are exchanging Roman coins for temple coins. It’s a necessary transaction. No one would argue with that. Why, then would Jesus be angry? Well, because it’s likely that those who are doing the selling and the exchanging are charging exorbitant rates—and this is done in cahoots with the temple authorities.
Here’s how it would work. You might bring an animal from your own flock, or purchase one from your neighbor. Upon your arrival, the priests, would examine the animals for blemishes—bear in mind a blemish would make the animal imperfect, and therefore unacceptable to be sacrificed. This priest might tell you that if you want to make a sacrifice, you need to purchase one of their lambs instead of offering your own. And now, you find yourself in something of a bind. If you want to keep your religious commitment, you are going to have to buy an animal from a merchant inside the temple grounds. Those merchants charge more than what the animal is worth, and likely give the priests a kickback. Same thing with the money changers.
Now, does it make sense that Jesus is angry? Merchants and priests are taking advantage of worshipers, but especially the poor who can least afford it. You go to pray, and suddenly discover that you are required to spend a lot of money in order to do so. This is not the way worship should be conducted! Of course Jesus is angry. He’s so mad he grabs and whip—and, well…you know the rest of the story.
But anger is uncomfortable. Interestingly, in researching today’s sermon I took some time to read what others had written. Some of them, as it turns out, are not so fond of Jesus’ anger as myself. Some wrote that Jesus wasn’t angry—he was sad. Others wrote that he was disappointed –not because people were being taken advantage of—but because the haggling was loud and he just wanted people to pray quietly. To all of this, I issue a resounding “No.” Our Savior was out and out furious, madder than a wet hen and about to blow a gasket. Angry enough to topple tables, throw cages to the floor and send money changers scrabbling about to collect their change.
Here’s the thing. Anger is uncomfortable and disturbing. Yet, when it is motivated by righteousness and love, it’s not as scary. Remember my pre-written letters of apology. You see, I didn’t like to see my parents or siblings angry with me. Those encounters were profoundly uncomfortable and not to be desired. However, one of the blessings of my life was that I grew up being loved unconditionally. I knew that despite any punishments which were coming my way—I was always going to be loved. Deep down, though I would have been loath to admit it at the time, I knew that my parent’s anger, came from a place of expecting better of me, and wanting better for me. The same goes for God. That’s what we call righteous anger. The motivation isn’t simply punishment or merely disappointment—it’s coming from a place of expecting better of us, as the holy people of God, and wanting better for us. It’s anger motivated by love. Ultimately, righteous anger propels us on to a better (more Godly) world.
Here’s what righteous anger can do: It fueled the Abolition movement; it brought about the vote for women, and the changing of laws to allow women to inherit property; it brought about safer working conditions and put an end to child labor; it opened hearts and minds during the Civil Rights Movement; it made cultural shifts in our views of LGBTQ persons; it has highlighted issues of justice in environmental concerns. Anger grabs our attention, it causes us to take notice of injustices which might otherwise go unnoticed. With grace, it enables us to see in our shortcomings the path to a better, more righteous and godly life. It is not so much to be feared as harnessed, and let loosed before bitterness sets in to fester and destroy.
So, Jesus was angry. It got my attention when I was a child. And it got the attention of the authors of the Bible, so much so that this event is recorded in all four of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
As I look upon an increasingly angry world, I find myself also searching for the places where I believe God is righteously angry on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, those sick in heart and mind—and I find myself wondering how I can make this world a better place. Perhaps you wonder about this as well. If you, like me, find yourself disturbed, unsettled, rocked out of your complacency, by the picture of an angry Jesus, consider why this is the case—then look to yourself and the world in which you live, and resolve to do something to make it better. In Jesus’ name. Amen.