Turning the Tables John 2:13-22
“Ira furor brevis est. (Anger is a short madness.)”
“The Passover of the Jews was at hand,” the evangelist John tells us, and Jesus, upon entering the temple, “found those selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
It didn’t change anything, of course. You can be sure that the next morning they were at it again. The animals were penned up again and the tables neatly piled with silver coins, ready for business as usual. If they gave it any thought at all, most of those who were present for the purification of the temple surely regarded it as nothing more than hooliganism pure and simple. But to Jesus’ disciples it was something else–an event of deepest significance. It defined who he was. After his death and resurrection Jesus’ followers remembered the day he “went postal” as a prediction of the Day of the Lord, a time when, according to the prophet Zechariah, there “will no longer be traders in the house of the Lord” (14:21). It was a messianic housecleaning. It was a foreshadowing—“prolepsis” is the fancy word—of the scouring of the world, for which you and I, together with all those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” are anxiously waiting.
But to everyone else it was and still is patently absurd. A senseless act of vandalism. No wonder the Jewish authorities angrily demanded to know by whose authority Jesus had made this terrible mess—and got an answer that must surely have seemed as absurd as the act itself—“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Apart from a belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord of All, his purification of the temple makes no more sense than the good news of his cross and resurrection.
After all, those sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers had a prefect right to be there that day. They were simply performing services demanded by ritual practice of the time—in the expectation of a reasonable profit, of course. So why the explosion. This story has always been source of an embarrassment to those who feel the need to sanitize and sentimentalize the person of Jesus. Those who want to turn him into a divine Lone Ranger, a proponent of law and order, like to explain away his “short madness” in the temple by suggesting that Jesus was outraged by the corruption he found there. Of course, there is always a certain amount of “funny business” going on wherever business as usual is conducted, but there is no evidence that an unacceptable level of dishonesty was present. The purveyors of sacrificial animals were just obeying the old law of supply and demand. And if they were charging whatever the traffic would bear, what of it? That’s just capitalism. What’s wrong with that?
When you are in business you have to make hay while the sun shines. And the sun was indeed shining on business during that week of Passover. Contemporary witnesses tell us that during that Feast of Feasts Jews flocked to Jerusalem from the furthest corners of the then-known world. The city was glutted with pilgrims, and when they arrived they found everything arranged for their convenience. Merchants were on hand to provide an acceptable offering, and priests were there to help them kill their sacrifice in the prescribed manner. Just business as usual.
The only difference was the scale on which it was being practiced, which was stupendous. During Passover the temple was transformed into a slaughterhouse. When Jesus and his disciples appeared on the Day of Preparation they would have been deafened by the bleating and bawling of the thousands of frightened beasts. The air would have been thick and heavy with the stench of blood, and the gutters would have been running deep with it. It required a torrent of blood to wash away a myriad of sins, both trivial and horrendous, and renew the ritual holiness of Israel.
Pledges and temple tithes also needed to be paid, and the money changers were there in the temple courts to sanctify the coinage. Pagan coins bearing the image of the divine emperor and the pagan gods of Rome needed to be changed into sacred shekels—clean money for the tax. It was a necessary arrangement, strictly regulated by the temple authorities and all pretty much on the up and square. Just business as usual–as ordinary as a Monday night pot roast at the diner.
But when the elements of ordinary human behavior—our conventional indifference, our institutionalized greed and our horrendous bad taste–come into direct contact with the all-consuming purity of the living God—there will be—if the right catalyst is present–a violent explosion. That catalyst is Jesus, and the reverberations of what happened that day in the temple can still felt in the moral and spiritual lives of those who want to follow him.
The Purification of the Temple is one of the very few incidents in the life of Jesus recorded in all four of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it at the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before his arrest and trial. For them Jesus’ attack upon the profit motive being applied to holy things was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final act of defiance that the pushed Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities to the sticking point. After that, as Mark’s gospel puts it, the chief priests and the scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18). The evangelist John, however, places this story at the very beginning of his gospel, using it to set the stage for the sort of life Jesus would live, a life of absolute integrity that defied pretention and turned the tables on conventionalized evil. It was a life lived by the light of those words of the psalmist, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus burned. He not only told the truth—he was truth itself. And you and I, beloved, are called and enabled by the power of his Spirit to share with the same fire. The story of the Purification of the Temple teaches us as much about the nature of our discipleship as the Sermon on the Mount.
Oh, yes, I can almost hear what’s going on in your head, beloved. You’re thinking—I could never do anything like that—making a whip of cords to chase the sheep and oxen out of the temple and overturning the tables of the moneychangers and scattering their coins. I’m much too nice, too well-brought-up, too agreeable a person for that. And I would reply that that is just exactly the problem with us, beloved—because I would certainly include myself in this–we are much too nice. That is good part of the reason the world is such an awful place, because decent people are too nice—too polite, too tame–to call evil and its best buddy stupidity by their right names and do something—even something ineffectual–in protest against the things we know in our hearts to be wronged-headed or just plain wrong.
And if I were to follow the example of Jesus, would that alter things? The day after he purified the temple, the sellers of animals were no doubt back to doing business as usual, and the money-changers had righted their tables. Would my telling the truth and acting on the truth have any tangible effect on the deeply ingrained evils of this world? That’s not the right question to ask, beloved. The question we need to ask of ourselves is this: How am I personally called to be the truth in a world of compromises? Living with the integrity of Jesus does not always change matters—at least not in any apparent way–but it is still necessary for us to live as if it did. That’s what it means to follow the Master.
Of course, it is always easier not to do that. Who could pretend otherwise? In a poem called “The Second Coming,” the Irish poet W. B. Yeats wrote prophetically about the moral and spiritual lethargy of our time:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
We need hardly look beyond the morning paper for evidence that in our world and in our nation the “worst are full of passionate intensity.” The vulgarity of our manners, the loss of any standard of decency in the arts, the arrogance and corruption of the political class—you know it all as well I do. You can see the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor as well as I can, beloved. Speaking of his employees, I heard one wealthy businessman saying to another—“I don’t know how they live on what I pay them.” The only moral response to such a statement is outrage. The church also seems to be in the hands of those who know nothing but how to compromise with the prevailing culture.
But outrage is a dangerous emotion. It can get you into all kinds of trouble–if we need proof of that, we have the example of Jesus on the cross always hanging before us. But the outrage of good people is also the symbol of God’s judgment, as the outrage of Jesus was, and expressing the anger that his Spirit stirs up in us is the duty of those who follow him.
The problem is that anger—even the most justifiable anger—needs some rehabilitation. “Be angry,” the psalmist says, “and do not sin” (4:4). That means stilling our instinct for revenge and refusing to hold a grudge. Anger can indeed be a sin if takes root as hatred. But outrage is the just and right response to injustice, callousness and cruelty, and you and I need to acknowledge and express it openly, as Jesus showed us how.
Anger is an energy like any other. Recall your high school physics. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy on an isolated system remains constant and is conserved over time. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but it can and will change form. So the energy present in a certain combination of chemicals can be converted into kinetic energy by the explosion of a stick of dynamite. BANG! And the anger that you and I feel, confronted by nasty human business as usual, has to go somewhere. The danger is that within the closed system of our hearts and minds, we transform our justifiable anger into guilt, self-loathing and what used to be called melancholia. The modern word for that condition is depression, and it is a disease both of the soul and of the body.
It is always a mistake to generalize from one’s own particular experience. Every person is a separate universe. And when you get to be sixty-five years old it’s certainly time to stop blaming your parents for your problems. But I know that like a lot of people of my own generation I was brought up believe that anger is always an inappropriate and shameful feeling. I learned a number of bad lessons early on, both implicitly and explicitly, about anger management. My parents were good people, but they were themselves highly controlled. They taught me that anger is inappropriate to nice people and a feeling that always needs to be suppressed. So rather than express it openly, you need to look instead for something inside yourself upon which to blame your feelings.
In my middle years I suffered from clinical depression, and for a while even took medication to control it. And these days suppressed anger is almost certainly a contributing factor in the high blood pressure—controlled but very real–from which I suffer. If I had learned early on to deal more constructively with my anger maybe I would not have to take those bitter white pills I swallow every morning. Or maybe not. Who knows? High blood pressure is congenital in my family. (Big surprise there!) In any case, the pills now seem to be necessary. High blood pressure is a fact of my life. But it is possible—and better late than never—to do something better with your anger rather than swallowing it whole like one of those bitter white pills. You can express it honestly, and better still you can do something about it instead of turning it in on yourself.
Unfortunately in my own case—and in the case of a lot of other people who were brought up to be too nice for their own good–in dealing with their anger the church and its ministers have been part of the problem rather than of the solution. I once heard a sermon—I could tell you exactly where and when if I wanted to because it was one of the most memorably bad sermons I have ever heard—wicked as well as stupid–in which the preacher said in so many words that depression is a choice. People who struggle with feelings of sadness and anxiety and helplessness are indulging those feelings in themselves. They enjoy being depressed, that’s why they are that way. If you are depressed it is your own fault. So get over it. If you want to, you can be a picker and a grinner like me, the preacher said–though not, of course, in those exact words. What utterly misguided foolishness! People who suffer from depression are trying harder than anyone can imagine to be good.
But that struggle is not good at all—for anyone.
That’s why I have taken the trouble to write this to you and to myself, by the way, beloved. The worst possible thing we can do in our misguided attempt to be “nice” or “Christian” or God knows what, is to try to manage our anger by absorbing it and blaming the resulting depression we feel on ourselves. Rather than saying and being the truth like Jesus, we try to be nicer, sweeter, politer than we really are. But unexpressed anger is a corrosive. It eats away at our bodies and souls like acid eats at our stomach lining. And furthermore managing our anger that kind of self-destructive way robs us of the energy we need to really be disciples of the Lord who purified the temple with a whip of cords. We need to hear and take to heart the words of the hymn we have so often sung–“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”
Some Christians have been forced by their righteous outrage in the face of injustice to commit acts of violence, and they have suffered terribly for them. Acts like his purification of the temple are what inevitably brought Jesus to the cross–the gospels make that perfectly clear. But our problem—yours in mine–is not that we are liable to do something violent that will get us into trouble—our problem that when confronted with corporate injustice and individual cruelty we are liable do nothing at all. And then by an evil alchemy the energy of our outrage at injustice should give us is converted into regret, sadness and self-loathing.
So what should we do? Well, something, beloved. Something rather than suffering in bitter silence. I would recommend what I would call “measured outrage.” Say what you really think in language everyone will understand. Then do something. Scare the powers that be a little. Shake things up. The damage done by overturning a few tables and a chasing some animals out of the temple is in the end far less destructive the swallowing your anger and letting the nasty business go on as usual. As much as possible we need to direct our anger at the abuse and not at people who practice it, at the tables. We are all sinners in need of grace. Don’t indulge your bitterness. Don’t let dead cats sit on your porch, as my father used to say. Let your anger out and then let it go. Still your instinct for revenge, but nourish your hunger for righteousness. The author D.H. Lawrence, who had a tendency to express everything in terms of sex, wrote: “The profoundest of all sensualities is the sense of truth and the next deepest sensual experience is the sense of justice.”
And the poet was on the right track. Lawrence was a virulent critic of conventional niceness. He faulted the Christianity of the churches because it kept people from living passionately, spontaneously, acting on their deepest emotions, expressing love and anger openly. Now I wouldn’t want to get any of you in trouble, beloved, but a bit of trouble is not the worst thing that can happen to any of us. The worst thing that can happen already has. Jesus died on the cross so that you and I might be set free to be kind of people he was—albeit in miniature. What we could be if we truly followed his example is always something yet to be determined. The possibilities of discipleship are infinite and largely unexplored. But this much is most certainly true, Jesus did not die on the cross to make us nice.
Anger isn’t nice—not one bit–but that’s my whole point, beloved. Anger isn’t nice, but it can be righteous nevertheless. It can be the mirror of the justice of God. And even when it is gets nasty, it is always infinitely better than sitting around and stewing in our own juices.