“In the temple, [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!'” John 2:14-16 (NRSV)
We don’t often think of Jesus as being angry. Normally, we see him as patient, kind, gentle, and infinitely unflappable – not so in this passage from John, chapter 2. Jesus saw his mission in life as teaching and maybe even reforming the teachings of the temple leaders so they would not be so “stuck” on law and following the rules that they missed teaching about the grace of God. It would seem that they had a rather self-righteous attitude about their position and power. Clearly, not all the Pharisees and Sadducees were devious and power-hungry; however, this passage about Jesus clearing out the temple and trying to set things right tells us that something was awry in the temple.
What the passage doesn’t tell us is that the temple leaders were behind the sales and often received kick-backs. In addition, the people were required to offer sacrifices, and only the purest of animals would do, so those being sold in the temple would be acceptable to the priests. The money changers were there to exchange Roman currency for Jewish currency, and there would have been a charge to make the exchange, just like we have when we exchange U.S. dollars for foreign money. It seemed to be a pretty big racket, and, as I mentioned above, the temple leaders were benefitting monetarily from the sales.
As is evident, Jesus recognized exploitation and mis-use of the sacrificial animals, and he recognized the false or two-faced greed of those leaders involved in the sales of the animals, the changing of the money, and the ways in which they used their position to become wealthy while most of the population remained poor and continued to be bilked out of what little money they had. Jesus’ behavior called for justice and restoration of the temple to its original purpose: to worship God. Was his anger justified? I think so. Was it a temper tantrum? I don’t believe it was. I think it was a carefully thought out and prayerfully carried out event that certainly got the attention of those involved. If it had happened today, Jesus would have been arrested, and the media would have swarmed all over the place to get interviews from everyone who would speak on camera.
I have often wondered if they all went back to selling and changing money after Jesus was there. Interestingly, too, the gospel of John places this particular story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, so it almost makes sense that he started out by “ticking off” the temple leaders at the outset. They looked for ways to arrest him. He had, after all, totally embarrassed them in public. Who did he think he was, anyway?
When is anger justifed? How do we know it’s something we should be angry about? How do we know it’s of God? Maybe there are words that would help: exploitation, abuse, lying, cheating, jealousy, stealing, adultery, causing divisions, hurting others intentionally, or any number of possibilities (see Galatians 5:19-21 for more ideas). Listening to our hearts, prayer, reading the scriptures, learning about and from Jesus’ life, and talking with others who are people of faith help us to gain understanding of what justified anger is. Most of the time, the anger stems from what someone has done to another person that has hurt or demeaned or harmed them in some way.
On the other hand, a temper tantrum doesn’t really accomplish much. Jesus got the attention of the temple leaders and merchants because it doesn’t appear that he normally wasn’t angry about things and acted out in a definitive way. When we act to speak out about injustices or to help someone else, do they benefit from it? It takes courage to behave so that we make a difference for others in the world. There are SO many situations from which to choose, too! One of the gifts God has given us as a human race is different capabilities and talents. When we use those talents to help, thousands of us will reach out in thousands of different directions, so we can pick the one that is our passion, the one that gets us in the deepest part of our hearts, the one that tells us God is pointing us that direction.
God calls us to make a difference. How will we do that? In what direction is God calling you and me?