We tend to view anger as a negative emotion. Anger, mixed with impulse control, can be dangerous … and even deadly. Because of our discomfort with anger, particularly in the church, we tend to read Sunday’s reading of Jesus’ turning the tables in the temple and driving out the money-changers with a similar discomfort. We don’t want Jesus to be angry.
Sunday’s reading: John 2:13-25.
The church, in its social media wisdom, has deflected its discomfort with a humorous meme:
But why was Jesus angry? What’s going on in this familiar story?
After turning water into wine, providing for an abundant wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, Jesus comes up to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. Standing between the people and the temple he finds a gauntlet of money changers and vendors selling animals for sacrifice. This frenetic scene angers him, and he drives them out.
Years ago a new pastor arrived at a church where I worked as youth director. On the first election day of his pastorate he was irate to find political campaign signs posted all over the church property. We were a polling station, but he didn’t care. As soon as he arrived at church that election day morning went out to the church lawn and pulled every single sign out of the ground – Democrat, Republican, Independent, it didn’t matter – bent and tore some in half, and threw all of them into the dumpster. He later received phone calls from local party bosses and the election commission. He didn’t care. “I don’t want these signs on our lawn! We are a church, not a campaign grounds!”
Campaign signs serve a purpose, of course. Polling stations routinely allow election signs to be posted a certain distance from the entrance. Signs remind voters of who is running in the race, and ask for their vote. They are critically important for the local races, especially, where name recognition might be very low.
The money changers and animal vendors also served a purpose. Jewish pilgrims from various parts of the Mediterranean were arriving for the Passover, and they needed to convert their money into the appropriate currency. Furthermore, sacrifices were needed at the temple. Thus, selling animals was actually a useful service.
Still, the selling of goods and services within the temple compound was too much for Jesus. “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business,” he says. The temple is to be a place of worship and prayer, not of commerce. And more, we know from other sources that the commerce related to the temple rituals was often marred by price inflation, charging exorbitant fees to pilgrims who had little choice.
Please note that Jesus does not condemn the whole nature of the temple, nor of the sacrifices that went on there, nor of the need for money changer or animal vendors. He and other voices in the Bible might make such critiques elsewhere (in the Old and New Testaments), but not here. In this story Jesus simply drives the money changers and animal vendors out of the temple. He doesn’t condemn them or the whole religious scheme of the temple. In fact, he seeks to purify, or restore, the temple. By removing the vendors and money changers he removes a barrier, a distraction, a hindrance to God, and restores unfettered access once again to the God of abundant mercy.
Jesus is like the utility worker who restores electricity after a tree has knocked down power lines; or, Jesus is like a road crew that clears debris blocking the road. That is, Jesus here is angered by the barriers that get in the way of people’s access to God – to his Father – and Jesus takes away the barriers and restores our relationship. Jesus takes away the sin of the world, the barrier to a right relationship with God and with each other.
Or, put another way, Jesus here purifies the temple of its commercial clutter and restores it to its holy purpose. So too with us. Jesus purifies us and restores us to our holy purpose of bearing witness to God’s abundant mercy and love.