March 4, 2018 – Third Sunday of Lent – The Cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-25)
Homily delivered at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, IN:
How many times did we hear this gospel in religion classes as we were growing up? It was read to us anytime we were studying the humanity of Jesus. “He had all of the same feelings and emotions that we do,” the teacher would say. “Jesus had friends. He hugged his mother. He cried. He was joyful. And…Jesus got angry.”
We would gasp at this revelation. What?! Jesus got mad?
Then the teacher would read the story of the cleansing of the temple we heard today: Jesus made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’
My teacher explained that Jesus didn’t get angry like we get angry. She called it “righteous indignation.”
It brought to mind the times I chased my little brother and his friends out of my room with a plastic sword, and those times I flipped over a board game I was playing with my sister because I didn’t like the outcome.
I know it was anger that caused those behaviors. I also know that if I tried to tell my parents that I had done it out of “zeal for my house” or “righteous indignation” my punishment would have been even worse.
This familiar Gospel story raises questions for our consideration:
- Why was Jesus so angry?
- Why were His actions not sinful?
- Is it ever OK for us to get angry?
To begin, why was Jesus so angry? Let’s look first at what the temple was intended to be, then visualize what it had become.
The temple, for the Jewish people, was the very dwelling place of God on earth, the place where heaven and earth met. It was the place where harmony between divinity and humanity was achieved, where the one true God was honored and worshipped. It was a sacred house of prayer, especially during the time of Passover, the height of the Jewish year.
Keeping that in mind, Jesus encountered not a house of prayer, not a sacred place, but a marketplace. Listen to this historical description of what Jesus would have seen and heard in the temple: There was a roaring trade in sacrificial animals in the great courtyard of the temple. The demand for pure, sacrificial animals was huge, so at the temple, one would have heard a symphony of animals braying, birds screeching, the stench of living and dying animals, the carnage from the slaughtered sacrifices, and the reverberating sound of animal traders and money changers hawking their wares. (Source for this passage noted below)
What Jesus encountered was not coffee and donuts in the narthex. It was sacrilegious chaos. It was not only physically dirty; it was spiritually and ethically dirty. The temple was in need of cleansing. That’s why Jesus was angry.
Listen again to how He acted on His anger: He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple…spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
Which brings us to question #2: Why were His actions not sinful? If we find truth in our Church documents, we know Jesus did not sin.
In the Vatican document, Gaudium et Specs (translated Joy and Hope), we read: The Son of God worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.
…like us in all things except sin.
If we accept Jesus was without sin, we must look at His actions in the temple that day through a different lens. We must look at His motivation and intent. Perhaps it is easiest to go back to the simple explanation of the religion teacher I mentioned earlier, who told us Jesus didn’t get angry like we get angry; His anger was “righteous indignation.”
Let’s compare our anger to that of Jesus. We generally get angry when someone offends us or keeps us from doing something we want to do. We get angry when we want something for ourselves, but don’t get it. In other words, our anger is most often centered on ourselves and our desires.
In comparison, Jesus was angry because the actions of those in the temple offended God. He was angry because the merchants were treating God’s house with contempt. They were cheating the people who came to worship, manipulating sacrificial law to benefit themselves. Instead of a selfish anger, Jesus acted out of a righteous anger. The anger of Jesus wasn’t self-directed; he defended the holiness of his Father’s temple.
That speaks to motivation, what about intent? For Jesus, intent was clear: Right the wrong and send a message. By cleansing the temple, He restored its sacred purpose. He also sent a powerful message for all to hear: Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.
Our intent is much less noble. We generally operate on payback. Someone hurt me or offended me, so I will do the same in return. Our anger is prideful. Our anger is centered on self. As a matter of fact, we are more likely to get angry over a minor inconvenience to ourselves than a grievous injustice done to others. Such anger is sinful.
This leads us to our final question: Is it ever OK for us to get angry?
The short answer is, “Yes, absolutely!” As a matter of fact, Catholic social teaching calls us to anger – when we see God’s kingdom under attack, when we see the dignity of life disregarded, when we see those most vulnerable enduring neglect and abuse, when grave sin is flaunted before us, when we witness evil that profanes God’s holiness. Absolutely we should be angry, and we should act on that anger.
This anger should be a righteous anger focused on what offends God. It should be an anger governed by love, directed not at people, but at the actions that are offensive. We are not perfect – our actions offend God at times too – so peace and compassion must be a part of our righteous anger.
Channel the anger into something productive. Sometimes righteous anger translates into fashioning whips out of cords and turning over tables – but not always. Sometimes it is praying for those whose actions have offended God. Sometimes it is pulling aside a family member or friend who is on the wrong path and offering guidance and encouragement. Sometimes it is writing a letter to government officials that have the power to change how things are done. Sometimes it is holding a sign outside of Planned Parenthood. Sometimes it is handing a sandwich to someone that is hungry.
Jesus was like us in all things but sin, which means we have the ability to be like Him in all things. Many temples in our world need cleansed. Why aren’t we angry? And if we are angry, why are we not acting on that anger?