Jesus’ Premeditated Rage
This is such a fascinating Gospel story.
I think the reason many of us find it intriguing is because it cuts across our customary image of Jesus.
Jesus is so gentle and loving in many of the stories about him, taking children in his arms and blessing them, washing the disciples’ feet and so forth, that we run the risk of domesticating him, making him one dimensional.
Jesus as our Good Shepherd is tender and gentle, but he is so much more than that.
Jesus was a person, a man, and he experienced the full range of complex emotions that humanity has to offer.
Jesus is so intense in this story of driving the moneychangers from the temple. It’s almost embarrassing to think about it, especially for us extremely polite Anglicans.
The last thing we would ever think of doing is creating a shouting ruckus in church, which is essentially what Jesus does here.
He descends on the Temple like a furious storm, sweeping through with incandescent rage and leaving wreckage behind him.
The difference, of course, is that instead of a harvest of death, the storm that Jesus unleashes on the Temple is in the service of life.
Rather than the people dying, Jesus offers his own life as the price of the sin and evil in the world being destroyed.
This event of Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple is described in all four gospels, which lends it an extra force of realism.
Everybody who was writing about Jesus agreed that this happened, and that it was important to remember it.
One verse jumped out at me as I studied the story this time around, actually just a few words in verse fifteen. “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.”
Did you hear that?
“Making a whip of cords.”
That one short phrase reveals something key to our understanding of the story: this was a premeditated action.
Jesus didn’t just show up at the Temple for Passover worship and suddenly fly off the handle and start overturning tables.
He showed up at the Temple, observed what was happening, and then went away and took the time to find the materials to construct a whip.
Only then did he return and unleash his wrath, after he planned out what he would do.
That’s pretty intense.
But what does it mean?
At first this story makes Jesus seem like an overwrought adolescent, throwing a temper tantrum and utterly controlled by fleeting emotions of anger and jealousy.
But seeing that he went apart and created this tool to drive out the uncleanness in the Temple paints a very different picture.
It is a Jesus who is controlled and deliberate, a Jesus whose rage is honed to a fine point and aimed with precision to accomplish a specific goal.
The disciples understand what is happening, and words of Psalm 69 immediately leap to their minds, “Zeal for your house consumes me.”
And that is the key to this entire incident.
Jesus witnessed many injustices and prejudices throughout his ministry. Think of the tax collectors, the Samaritans, the woman accused of adultery, the woman at the well.
In each of those situations, Jesus handled the injustice and bigotry with calm efficiency.
This is the one moment that he allows that careful control to slip and fully expresses his anger.
I think the reason has to do with what is at stake.
Jesus goes over the edge because his people’s connection to God is threatened.
The Temple is the seat of worship, the literal and physical home of God for the Jewish people.
When it is profaned and its purpose diluted by commerce and shady deals, restricting access to God to those who can pay for it, Jesus will not tolerate it.
He will sweep away any and every stumbling block that stands between the people and their place to worship and encounter God.
So ask yourself, who are the moneychangers in your Temple, the temple of your heart?
How is your true and honest communion with God at risk of being corrupted or blocked?
It is so easy to place stumbling blocks in our own way, and there are a thousand things that we give honor and time to before God.
Material goods, destructive habits, our jobs, our bank accounts, our retirement plans, even our social justice causes and our own good ministries.
The best of the blessings the world has to offer us and we have to offer the world are worthless if we don’t remember who needs to dwell at the heart of them all: God.
The goodness of our relationships and our ministries exists through the grace and gift of God, and that goodness can only be fully expressed if we are grounded and rooted in God.
The Temple is only really and fully the Temple if God is at the center.
And of course the next question we must ask is if we are profaning anyone else’s Temple.
Are we standing in the way of someone else’s path to God?
There are many ways to do this as well, from assuming that someone doesn’t love God because he or she is on the opposite side of the political spectrum from us to simply never asking the people in our lives what their faith means to them.
This story of Jesus cleansing the Temple comes during Lent for a reason. Lent is the season of self-examination and repentance, a spring cleaning of our own hearts and minds.
And speaking of the political spectrum, this story is on one important level about power, political power.
As scholar Marylin Salmon points out,
“The temple was a complex institution in the first century. The temple priests evoked resentment because of their inherited status, their connection to Roman authorities, and their distance from those who suffered under imperial powers. The temple priests were not in any sense religious leaders of the people. Under Roman rule the priests were not autonomous in their authority even over religious matters. Roman officials appointed the chief priest and he served their interests. Roman coffers benefited from the marketplace that supported sacrificial rites. A disruption at the marketplace at one of the temple courts during a festival season like Passover affected Rome’s revenues. During the Roman occupation, they controlled the temple. Jesus could not have been unaware that [his actions] would get the attention of Roman authorities. A reasonable speculation is that his anger was related to the complicity of Roman bureaucracy and temple authorities.”
Jesus anger is not at the people, it is on behalf of the people.
Rather than being afraid of Jesus’ anger, it should be comforting to us.
It is the anger of the mother protecting her children, the fierceness that underlies and backs up deep compassion and tender care.
Jesus will do anything to protect our communion with God.
Absolutely anything that it takes, from provoking and confronting the Roman authorities to giving his own life for us.
He knows it is coming, he says so right in this story.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
That is the promise and that is the basis of the trust that we place in Jesus.
Because this story is also about trust.
It is easy to relate to Jesus when he is gentle and mild.
But do we trust him enough to be present with him when he is angry?
When he is calling us to greater holiness and sometimes painful change?
Because Jesus is taking more than one type of risk himself in this story.
In addition to the risks of taking on and defying the Roman empire and the Temple authorities, he is risking his own perfect image with us.
He lets the mask of control and perfection slip to show us who he really is and what he really feels.
We see the fullness of Jesus, what he is like when he lets his emotions free.
That is a very vulnerable place for him to be, and an enormous act of trust on his part, to show us the truth of his anger and pain, hiding nothing.
Do we trust him in return?
Do we trust Jesus enough to be our real selves in front of him?
We do trust him because he comes through on his promise.
We have each had moments when our lives seem in ruins, whether it be through losing everything to a natural disaster or seeing the most important relationships and people in our lives laid waste to disease and brokenness and death.
When there is nothing left, nothing left to trust, nothing left to believe in, seemingly no way to rebuild all that has been destroyed, we reach rock bottom. And what is rock bottom?
It is Jesus Christ, the foundation and the corner stone, our Rock and our Redeemer.
When you’ve gone so far down there is nowhere to go but up, you are in a very good place, because you are with him.
And as he shows today, he’ll take on anything and everything to protect us.
He’ll defy the whole world for us.
Can we not defy our own fear and sin and doubt, for him?
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