The Temple: Risking Righteous Anger, John 2:13-21
Plymouth First United Methodist, March 8, 2020
2nd Sunday in Lent
Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story.
There is risk in what Jesus does in the Temple that day. The Temple has police. He could have been arrested.
There is risk for us, as well, as we read the stories, consider the context, and ponder the reasons Jesus became so angry.
The first risk for us comes as we discover the placement of this story is very different in the synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—and in the Gospel of John. First, “synoptic” basically means “a general summary” and the first 3 Gospels pretty much summarize the same stories of Jesus, but from the different perspectives of the 3 biblical writers. It’s believed that Matthew and Luke both base their writings on Mark and also have a third resource that we call “Q,” a collection of Jesus’s sayings, that they added to their gospels, along with some of their own materials. The Gospel of John has its own content, style and thought from the other 3 writers.
The different perspectives we read challenge us to listen to each of the stories, and to discover their own truth. I think of it as different ones of us describing an accident. Let’s say, I fall down the stairs this morning. I’ll have my own way of sharing the story of what happened from the ER as they give me a boot to walk around in for a few weeks. Somebody standing at the top of the steps as I fell will have seen it from a different perspective, as will the person who I knocked into on the way down, and the 4th one who was about to head up the stairs but thankfully stopped before all chaos began.
It’s all the same story, but all 4 of us experienced it differently, so our retelling won’t be the same.
In the biblical context, each of the writers are sharing from their perspectives, and what they believe is important for us to hear. Rather than being troubled by their differences, our challenge is to slow down as we read, to take the risk of recognizing the differences, and to listen for the message the writers want us to hear.
Here’s what we know about the setting of the story: To begin with, the Temple complex was enormous. It was the size of 12 soccer fields put end to end. So, if Jesus turns over some tables in one part of the complex, it’s not going to cause everything that’s happening in the place to come to a standstill.
The Temple was being rebuilt—was under construction at the time of Jesus—and had several courts. The inner sanctum, known as the “Holy of Holies” is where the high priest entered, only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to ask for forgiveness for himself and the people. Outside of that was the Court of Priests, then the Court of Israel, the Court of the Women, and then the Court of the Gentiles, who were welcome to worship in the Temple. This Court of Gentiles is where the vendors sold their goods.
The Temple at the time of Jesus, was many things: it was a house of prayer for all nations; it was the site for the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot/Pentecost, and Sukkot/Booths; it was a symbol of Jewish tradition (we might think of Jews of that day looking at the Temple in the same way as we Americans look at the Statue of Liberty); it was the national bank, and it was the only place in the Jewish world where sacrifices could be offered. Therefore, vendors were on site to provide the service of offering unblemished birds and animals for sale to worshipers who would not want to risk bringing an animal from their home far away. It just wasn’t practical.
Despite our first thought, that Jesus’ anger was provoked perhaps because the vendors were overcharging or in some way exploiting pilgrims, that doesn’t seem to be what was happening. Jesus’s anger wasn’t a response to people being cheated.
Knowing that the Temple was a house of prayer, we can’t help but think of our churches today, and imagine it to be a place of quiet, solitude and decorum. Instead, the Temple was more like a tourist attraction, especially during pilgrimage festivals. It was crowded, it was noisy: people were loud and boisterous. And, because it was Passover, people were happy because they were celebrating the Feast of Freedom. It was a rare opportunity for some folks to eat meat instead of fish, it was kind of like vacation with people from all over—friends and relatives that you don’t get to see very often, a time to check out the sites of the big city, and to make connections with fellow
Jews and with God.
This is the setting that Jesus enters.
And he isn’t happy.
In John, Jesus enters the Temple and “cleans it out” at the beginning of his ministry, right after he’s turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Because of its early placement, there are no political overtones to his actions. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the clearing of the temple happens after Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. There are subtle differences in each of these gospels—but the expression of anger is unquestionably present in each of them.
I can’t help but think back to what we read from the Sermon on the Mount just a couple of weeks ago, when Jesus taught, “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire”(Matthew 5:22). Remembering this, we can’t help but wonder—is the anger Jesus expresses in the Temple contradictory to this earlier teaching? Is what he’s doing wrong? Is he saying one thing and doing another? And then, taking it to the next step—is it inappropriate for a Christ-follower to be angry, or to express anger and outrage as Jesus is doing?
So, let’s talk a bit about anger. I’d say there are different kinds of anger, and different ways of expressing anger that would identify whether or not the anger is a sin. If we were to look at the 7 deadly sins, anger isn’t one of them, but “wrath” is. Anger is a normal human emotion, but “wrath” can grow out of anger and is temper/anger that is out of control, that rages, that perhaps involves hate and the desire for revenge. As we look back at Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, he’s speaking of anger against another person, which ultimately can lead to separation—not only between the two people, but between the angry person and God.
But there’s another kind of anger that can motivate us to act and that can lead to restoration. Righteous anger or holy anger is anger that rises up in the face of injustice, oppression, institutional sin, inequality, poverty, hunger, and a whole host of other sicknesses in our world. If we do not become angry when we see images of suffering children, if we do not feel some sort of rage when preventable tragedies occur, if we do not feel compelled to act, then something has gone terribly wrong in us.
As we try to understand what triggered Jesus’s anger that day as he came into the Temple, we have to navigate our way through the cultural and time differences of then and now.
First thought, is the issue of vendors selling animals large and small to incoming pilgrims what Jesus is angry about, by making a function of the Temple a marketplace? And yet, wasn’t that done as a service to people who really have no other way of securing a sacrifice once they enter the city and the temple?
Second thought, was it the money-lenders who irked Jesus? And yet, lending was a common practice in the medieval church, even though charging interest was considered “unnatural” because it was believed that money shouldn’t “beget” money…
There are those who focus on the money-changers as inciting Jesus’ anger—those who exchanged temple coins for coins with Caesar’s image on it, coins that weren’t to be present in Israel’s pockets, and certainly not in Israel’s Temple. The Caesar who sat on the throne of Rome was considered a Roman god, a god who Jews were expected to worship but refused to do so. He was a god (small “g”) who ruled over Israel, who occupied Israel, who showed little concern for Israel’s faith and culture…all of these feeding the tension of this particular Passover as Jesus becomes even more visible and known…
Was it all of these together that Jesus called the “den of thieves”? Was it the business-orientation of what was happening in the Temple rather than the focus on worship?
Or did Jesus see the whole thing as a heart-breaking failure…of what God intended the Temple to be: a place of worship, a place of gathering, a center for community, a house of prayer for all nations. To which he announces at the end of our reading today from John’s gospel, that if the temple were destroyed, he would raise it up in 3 days.
From our perspective, we know Jesus has changed the subject from bricks and mortar to flesh and bone, from the building of a structure that would eventually fall, to his body, the church, the One in whom we find our salvation. But of course, at this point, on that day, those words would be puzzling…
Let us turn back now, to the disciple who looks on…uncertain… He’s afraid. He sees all that is wrong. Perhaps he’s ashamed to realize that these things that Jesus has pointed out have become regular practice, and he’s just gotten used to them, even though they’re not a good thing. But what can he do? What can Jesus do? Will Jesus’ anger make things worse? Or could his anger lead them to something new…something better?
Here are some questions for us to consider:
What parts of our church life help us live into being “A House of Prayer for All Nations?”
Are we as welcoming as we think we are or as we would like to be?
Do the reasons Jesus disrupts the comfort of people in the Temple disrupt us, too?
What things should anger us that don’t—because we’ve just grown accustomed to the way things are?
How can our anger motivate us toward positive action?
What are we communicating about the role of money in our lives and in the church by the way we practice the giving of our offerings?
Would a visitor to our church understand what we’re doing and why?
When might my anger be problematic or sinful?
How can we turn our anger into actions that don’t hurt, but help?
What is a situation happening in the world that makes you angry by disturbing your moral conscience?
How might you respond to that situation? Are you willing to take the risk of doing that?
I wonder what would anger Jesus today? About our nation…our Church...our congregation…our lives?