When I was a child, with a beginner’s mind, I loved today’s gospel story. The Cleansing of the Temple we call it. What’s not to love? The drama appealed to my seven year old mind. The illustrations in our Sunday school papers — 19th century paintings? — further sparked my imagination. I knew that Jesus was good and the money changers were bad. Yay, Jesus! I also knew that Jesus loved me, which I accepted, with a beginner’s mind.
As a teenager I thought more deeply about my relationship to Jesus. Did Jesus love me? In my evangelical leaning Reformed Church, my congregation often invited guest preachers for the nights in Holy Week. These preachers always gave an altar call and I almost always went forward. On one occasion, I was the only one, which was embarrassing. I understood, then, that I was one of the bad guys. The money changers were me. And that Jesus still loved me.
Today, I’m a retired chaplain and sometime preacher, Covid constrained and restless, who wanted to contribute to this blog, because it is a wonderful conversation about the things of God. I wanted to write about this particular story because it is one of today’s lections. Oy vey! Where’s the love?
In the Synoptic gospels this act takes place at the climax of Jesus’ ministry, in the Passion story, and it’s the efficient cause of Jesus’ arrest. We have already walked with Jesus a long way. We have witnessed the healings and felt his compassion. There is a narrative context for his anger. We are told that Jesus is angered by the exploitation of the poor who must buy an animal to fulfill their religious obligation. This exploitation is obscuring their vision of what God is like. You know, that one who is merciful and just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
In John’s gospel we have to confront Jesus’ anger right off the bat. It takes place during an earlier Passover, at the beginning of his ministry, right after the miracle at the Wedding of Cana. We are immediately confronted with Jesus as judge.
We don’t want to be judged. We are uncomfortable with anger. Unchecked, it leads to violence, hatred and war. Commentators, whether liberal or conservative, squirm at Jesus’ anger in the temple. I’ve watched videos online in which the preachers go to great lengths, with temple diagrams and sociological analyses, to show why Jesus had to get angry, because the evil was so great, so exceptional. It’s as if they want to make sure we understand that this was righteous, Godly anger, of a sort unattainable by mere mortals.
Other interpreters cannot allow Jesus any anger at all and must almost dismiss the story, along with any of his judgmental sayings, because it does not fit with their conception of a loving God. The Jesus who drives out the money changers compares unfavorably with Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi.
Anger is dangerous. But the truth is that anger is natural and necessary. Anger is the energy that fuels a response to injustice. It is natural to us and natural to God in whose image we are made. Let Jesus be angry. In fact, Jesus’ anger moves him from despair, weeping over Jerusalem, to action, and he calls us to do the same.
John often pushes me away with his irritatingly ethereal Jesus. As many have pointed out, John’s is a philosophical biography, profound and mysterious. Jesus’ divinity nearly obscures his humanity. In John, Jesus responds to his critics for driving out the money changers and their animals with a saying they do not understand: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. Could you say a little more, Jesus? Help us out here!
Yet John’s is not a gnostic gospel. There is an historical thread that is tied to the other gospels. John lifts up this story, which is very earthy indeed. In fact, only in John are we given the detail that he makes a whip of cords in driving all of them out of the temple.
I must thank my sister Renee, who is sharing these Lenten reflections with me, for finding the 18th century Dutch scripture tile, with its stout Jesus driving out the bewildered merchants. She also found the amazing image from Russian painter Alexander Smirnov. Can you see the whips, almost comically fragile? No people were hurt here.
Jesus’ judgement is always an invitation to turn around and walk with him in God’s way.
Holy Spirit of Jesus, walk with me in the way. Let me not only see injustice, but also act to change it, so that my neighbors can know your love. Amen.