When Worship Leads to Anger

A couple of years ago a family member gave my oldest daughter, Olia, a Bible. It was a thoughtful gift because each page summed up a Bible story in a few simple sentences; a great for a young reader. However, what bothered me enough to put it on an out-of-reach shelf were the images of Jesus.

John 2:13-25

A couple of years ago a family member gave my oldest daughter, Olia, a Bible. It was a thoughtful gift because each page summed up a Bible story in a few simple sentences; a great for a young reader. However, what bothered me enough to put it on an out-of-reach shelf were the images of Jesus. Though presumably book publishers have access to basic historical information about Biblical times, in this Bible pictures of Jesus looked more like my Norwegian ancestors than they did the messianic Jewish man of Palestinian descent that is Christ.

Images matter; pictures communicate – especially to young, formative minds. I wonder this morning, when you think of Jesus what images come to you mind? Is Christ on the cross, exhausted and bloodied? Or perhaps He is a strong, confident leader at the helm of a boat?

There is a clock over my office door here at Augustana. And rumor has it that years ago Cathy Hendrickson and the pastors moved it to the intern’s office from the nursery because of its creepy picture of Jesus. On the face of the clock a very fair-skinned Jesus stands in a freshly ironed white garb with a smooth, groomed beard, smiling and peacefully walking with equally perfectly manicured and behaved children in a “gardenesque” setting. The clock didn’t get tossed because … well, as Cathy said, you can’t throw something away with Jesus on it.

But in all seriousness, these are the proliferated pictures of Jesus, aren’t they? I mean to the point where someone thinks it a good idea to put them on a clock. We like the happy pictures of Jesus. The serene scenes.

And today’s reading couldn’t give us a more opposite picture. There’s nothing calm and copasetic about this Jesus.

  1. Why Is Jesus So Angry?

 Interestingly, anger is never mentioned in our reading today. In fact, even in the other three Gospels where Jesus overturns tables and drives out money-changers anger isn’t explicitly spoken of. And yet, it’s there. Arguably few stories illustrate Jesus’ humanity like this one; here we get a snapshot of Jesus’ raw, human emotion. Anger. It’s a familiar human response.

However, this anger wasn’t so familiar to the first-century Jews witnessing this act; Jesus’ anger would have taken them by surprise. Large crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover were largely composed of pilgrims who were accustomed to changing money when they arrived (not unlike what we do when we travel internationally). They were used to, even dependent upon, a market system for temple sacrifice. No one traveling a long distance would bring their own sheep or bird to offer as a sacrifice. They were for sale at the temple thanks to the innovative spirit of the High Priest, Caiaphas (yes, the same Caiaphas who advocated Christ’s crucifixion before Pontius Pilate), who first made this possible during the building of the Temple during Jesus’ time.

In fact, you may recall from Luke’s Christmas account that Jesus’ own family purchased two turtledoves at the Jerusalem Temple just weeks after Jesus was born, as was tradition after the birth of one’s firstborn son. Making animal sacrifices at the Temple was standard, no matter one’s socio-economic position, and purchasing them on site was acceptable. So, first century Jews had to be asking themselves, why all the drama Jesus? Why this outburst of anger?

John’s telling of the cleansing of the Temple gives us some clues. First, we’re told that the exchange of goods took place in the Temple itself, with the money changers seated at tables. The merchants and money changers were an actual part of the Temple landscape; therefore, worship necessitated some kind of transaction with these characters. It required participation in an economic system that by all measures was far from just. John himself doesn’t say much about these money men, but the other Gospel writers do, calling them “robbers” and “thieves,” insinuating some kind of unscrupulous economic trade and/or usury (Jeremiah 7:11).

Think with me in modern terms for a moment. It’s one thing for you and I to pay an absurd $8 for a Coke on an ala carte flight, or at a Vikings game. I know that when I’m really thirsty and it’s the only option somehow an $8 Coke is permissible (that is for those of us who can enjoy such venues and privileges in the first place). But surely the Vikings stadium, even on a day like last Sunday, isn’t a place of worship. And coke is far from a sacrifice. And yet, the principle of upping the price applies.

Jesus’ concern has to do with worship. He is angry about the business practices taking place at the temple – both the permanent presence of these merchants and the manner in which they conduct their business — because they fly in the face of worship. This is extortion. Manipulation. Other passages elsewhere in the New Testament suggest that these merchants, and the temple leadership itself, discriminated between peoples according to wealth and stature. And as the object of worship himself, Jesus responds in the most fitting and appropriate way – with anger.

 Biblical Anger

 Now I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a home where anger wasn’t welcome. In fact, I would say I grew up in a family that rarely risked emotional vulnerability. If you had big feelings — like anger — you kept them to yourself. Case in point: I rarely saw my folks argue, but I do remember times where my Mom would leave a conversation in haste to mow the lawn that had been mowed three days prior. Or times when my Dad would drop everything and go for a drive. At a young age I picked up these coping skills, regularly looking to exercise to blow off steam. And then I married a man who grew up in a home where confrontation was welcomed, and bothered to ask me what that long run was really about. At risk of getting too autobiographical, I’ve had to and continue to work hard in my adult life to accept anger as a legitimate emotion. To lean into it when I feel it; to engage it; to explore it. And because I don’t wish to remain living in anger or desire to perpetuate it, anger deserves my attention when it surfaces.

And in trying to pay attention to anger I’m  learning something. Some of the time my anger is warranted. It may seem an odd thing to suggest, especially from the pulpit. But anger can be exactly what we Christians are supposed to feel, because sometimes a heart fixed on worship necessarily leads to anger.

In preparing for this sermon I opted to do a New Testament word study on anger. And I learned that there are about three different definitions or uses of the term. First, anger is depicted as “fits of rage,” always referred to negatively, as in when officials drove Jesus out of the Temple in Luke 4 when he dared to proclaim that his ministry was about bringing Good News to the poor and freedom for the oppressed (a work that was, of course, prophesied in Isaiah hundreds of years prior). Christ’s ministry threatened their status quo and they responded with anger. We don’t need to look long to see examples of this kind of anger at work in our society. Accidentally cut someone off on the interstate or say the politically incorrect thing on a social media thread and you’ll encounter it.

Another form of anger can be described as distress, as to be really bothered by something. The Apostle Paul expresses this form of anger when in Athens. Noticing the worship of Greek gods, we’re told that Paul was distressed to the point of anger. Perhaps you’ve experienced this, when you’ve witnessed something that just wasn’t right, wasn’t just and you felt downright mad about it. This kind of anger is usually directed at a system or a problem, more than a person. And it’s a positive form of anger.

The third type of anger in the New Testament, the kind Jesus manifests in our reading for today, is that of righteous indignation, or wrath. It’s an anger oriented at those who destroy life, those who tear apart what God has created or is creating. This is the anger Jesus has toward the Herodians, or sold-out Jews inextricably bound to Rome, in Mark 3 when they scold Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. The text tells us that Jesus looked upon them with anger, grieved at their hardness of hearts. And in seeing Jesus’ angry response the Herodians conspire to destroy him, ironically demonstrating the first type of anger I just spoke of, rage.

  • Putting our Own Anger to Use

Now to my mind reflecting on examples of anger in the Bible can lead us to one of two things: First, it can lead us to fear God’s anger in our own lives, because we all fall short of the glory of God; we all disobey. And such a fear is biblical. In fact, wisdom literature in the Old Testament suggests that such a fear of the Lord is a prerequisite for real wisdom. And yet, our reading for today doesn’t just incite fear, for Jesus promises that even if the Temple is destroyed, it will be raised up. Love and life always win. And of course, in this respect Jesus is speaking about his body, not the actual physical Temple. With Jesus worship shifts and no longer requires a place or locale, but rather a place for Christ in one’s heart and life.

A second possible way of applying this passage is to focus upon our own righteous anger. What breaks God’s heart ought to break ours. What angers the LORD should indeed anger us. So another important question for us this morning is: are we Christians engaging in practices or endorsing systems that undermine true worship? Are we reflective enough to take notice and are we brave enough to get angry? For remember, it isn’t likely that either those selling turtledoves at the Temple or those buying them were trying to offend God. They were simply participating in a culturally-accepted system. Where might we be doing this same? And how might we be too silent. What tables should we be turning over?

As we look forward to Lent, a liturgical season focused on reflection and repentance, these are good questions to sit with and consider. Rather than responding to our cultural realities with rage, may we seek God’s wisdom in appropriating righteous anger. Rather than shirking from anger altogether, may we allow ourselves to be truly distressed about injustice and the perversion of worship. And may Christ, in all of the messiness of what it means to be human, lead us back to the heart of worship.