I guess Jesus missed the memo from his “aunt” Elizabeth when she surely must have admonished him, “If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.”
If your Jesus is the world’s number one Mr. Nice Guy then you better read this. In our gospel lesson for this Sunday, March 4, Jesus has entered the temple near Passover and, to put it mildly, “He doesn’t like what he sees.” Seeing the temple being turned into a capitalist marketplace we read this: “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.”
It’s utterly shocking to imagine that the same Jesus who sat around telling stories to children and reminding folks to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies could also have within his body and soul such violent anger. I am, of course, assuming that no one was harmed in this carrying out of divine justice. It appears that the whip was restricted just to the animals and that when the moneychangers tables were overturned he probably tossed them away from the people rather than toward them. But even if no one was harmed there was no doubt that Jesus was as red in the face as any red letter Bible can depict.
I grew up in a home where anger wasn’t allowed and I had that same behavior reinforced in the Presbyterian church that I called home and where I eventually became an Eagle Scout. Both Christian and Boy Scout virtues reinforced that service, kindness, courtesy and being helpful were marks of the highest and most moral character. The highest compliment one could receive, it seemed to me, was, “He is such a nice boy.” Never did I ever hear anything about threatening a public gathering with a whip, tossing pennies and quarters from the offering plates and upturning chairs and tables. It just wasn’t in my Christian, Scout and Heron lexicon.
But there it is. Jesus is as close to throwing a divinely-inspired tantrum as one can get. I don’t know if he snapped as if he had been simmering for years before this explosion or whether it was strategic and premeditated or whether he hadn’t taken his medication that morning. But what I do know is that it shatters any assumptions that we might have that this Jesus thing is about being nice. I do think being nice is a rather nice quality. But don’t tell me that we ought to aspire to ultimate niceness on account of Jesus. He may have been kind, but I don’t think he was always nice.
This text really got me thinking about the place anger plays in our faith and spiritual lives. I don’t think all anger has a spiritual basis. I have seen it enough and shared it enough to know that anger can sometimes erupt in completely unexpected places and at inappropriate times. You know what I am talking about—the type of anger that shows up in kicking the dog because you had a bad day at the office. We are all guilty of that kind of anger.
But there is another kind of anger and I wonder if this is the type that showed up on this day near Passover in the temple. This is the type of anger that we sometimes call righteous anger and often shows up on behalf of someone or something that we love. This is the kind of anger that goes to the defense of someone we love. This is the type of anger that says, “You can’t do that to them!” Or in the case of Jesus where he is aghast at what he sees in the temple and cries out, “You can’t do that in my Father’s house!”
I think that there is a relationship between love and anger—at least healthy anger. When you love something you can’t help but to have a fire lit under your soul when a boundary gets crossed or a person is violated. This is the problem with the Mr. Nice Guy virtue. Those of us who were taught that niceness was next to godliness also sometimes become guilty of apathy. We can’t muster up the anger when it’s needed because we are wedded to niceness as a virtue.
In the last few weeks I have had a few conversations with church leaders who have expressed some frustration at the presbytery and some anger toward the way things have been done. And on more than one occasion I have assured those people, “It’s not frustration and anger that disturbs me; it’s apathy. The church of the future will be built on the passion of people like you.”
I am convinced that love and anger have close but uneasy relationship. The only things that don’t make us angry are the things that we could care less about. What makes us angry is when, like Jesus, we look at someone or something that we love who is being violated and find ourselves suddenly exploding, “You can’t do that to them! You can’t do that in my Father’s house!”
At our best we Presbyterian Christians are a passionate people. Not all forms of passion are healthy, but if I had to make a choice I would take passion over apathy any day.