Getting Angry with Jesus (a sermon on John 2:14-16)

“In the temple [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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. 16He 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)

This was not the reading I expected to be confronted with this week. I know we’ve left behind the Christmas story and, more recently, Epiphany (the story of the wise men from the East who came to worship Jesus as a child). I appreciate, indeed, that we’re in Lent now, and hence have been wandering with Jesus through the desert. I just didn’t expect Jesus to be tearing up the temple just yet! It’s a disturbing change of pace, and it depicts Jesus in a way that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I don’t know how many of us have seen the movie, Talladega Nights. It’s one of my favourite Will Ferrell comedies (which is saying a lot, as I’m a big fan of his comedy). What stands out for me in that particular movie though are the extensive prayers given by Ferrell’s character (racing car driver, Ricky Bobby) who always directs his prayers to the baby Jesus, beginning with “dear baby infant Jesus”.

During his saying of grace at a meal, his wife interrupts him and points out that Jesus did grow up, to which Ferrel responds by saying that it’s his grace and that when it’s her turn she can pray to whichever Jesus she wants to. She can pray to teenage Jesus, to bearded Jesus or to grownup Jesus. He just prefers Christmas Jesus!

I think a lot of us prefer the Christmas Jesus, and certainly we prefer Christmas Jesus to the Jesus we come across in this scene – namely, angry Jesus.

Angry Jesus is probably not the Jesus we direct our prayers to. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, yes, but angry Jesus, no. I expect most of us don’t see anger as a good thing. Perhaps we struggle with our own anger. Not many of us, at any rate would see anger as something we want to nurture and develop within ourselves, and few of us, I suspect, are comfortable with seeing anger as one of God’s divine attributes!

Yet, clearly, Jesus was angry, and in this scene in the Gospel according to St John, Jesus acts violently. Christian pacifists are quick to point out that Jesus doesn’t actually kill anybody, and that He probably only used His whip on the animals and not on the people He was turning out. Even so, we see aggression from Jesus here that is highly discomforting, and we see anger. Jesus gets angry!

I get angry. I get angry when I think about Syria. I appreciate that not everybody is as emotionally connected with what is happening in Syria as I am. Even so, I suspect that nobody has been able to avoid the latest news broadcasts reporting the hellish assaults on the civilians of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian army and its allies.

Once again, we are being told that unfortunate civilians are trapped in what the United Nations has referred to as a ‘hell on earth’, with latest reports putting civilian casualties at 520, with thousands wounded, under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces, supported by Russian air strikes.

I wouldn’t want to deny for a second that the situation in Eastern Ghouta is horrible. Even so, what these latest media reports leaves out is that the reason the Syrian Army is engaged in Eastern Ghouta is because the entire area is under siege by foreign-backed extremist groups, such as the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front.

The area has been under siege for nearly six years now, and for all that time these people have been raining down mortar shells and sending suicide car bombs into the densely-populated centre of Damascus, which is only a few kilometres to the West!

I was in Damascus when two of those mortar shells landed in the carpark of the hotel we were staying in. It killed one of the hotel security guards and blew the leg off his friend. I was having a shower when I heard these enormous explosions. By the time I got downstairs though, the bodies had been taken away – one to the hospital and the other to the morgue – and life had returned to normal. It was such a daily occurrence in Damascus that few people were still talking about it half an hour later.

The civilians of Damascus who have been killed or injured by these militants based in Eastern Ghouta now number in the tens of thousands. I don’t doubt that the terrorists themselves are now having a hard time of it, and I don’t doubt that innocent civilians are being caught up in the crossfire as the Syrian Army finally routes these people from their well-established bases. Even so, the selective outrage of Western powers and their media outlets at the moment makes me very angry.

Lies emanating from centres of power are always disturbing, but it is not the lies as such that enrage me. It’s the needless loss of human life that these lies mask and, more so, the prospect of further loss of life that these lies potentially foreshadow.

Why are these lies being manufactured now, with ISIS having been beaten and most of Syria has come back under the control of the government? The only answer I can come up (and it’s one that I wish I could avoid coming up with) with is that this is a propaganda offensive, preparing the ground for an overt campaign of violence against Syria by the US and associated powers (that could well include Australia).

This prospect makes me sick to the stomach. After all the Syrian people have suffered, to suggest that we are waiting in the wings, ready inflict a whole new wave of suffering upon these people, makes me sick, and it makes me angry – very angry.

I get angry about Manus Island too.

I look back on my trip there and my time in the detention centre, which was more than three months ago now, and it all seems a little surreal! Arriving in the camp in the middle of the night was a little like being dropped into a warzone – a very intense environment, where all the stable parameters that mark out normal human life as we experience it are gone, replaced by darkness, desperation and human struggle.

I must confess that when I walk into situations like this I often have at the back of my mind that now, having uncovered this terrible tragedy, we – the good guys – will be able to do something about it. In the case of Manus, I have to remind myself that, no, this is a tragedy we have deliberately created! Moreover (at a government level at least) this is not only something we created. it’s a tragedy where we are actively trying to prevent others (such as the New Zealanders) from resolving!

I try to maintain some level of contact each day through reading the Twitter feed from men I met there – people like journalist, Behrouz Boochani, and Abdul Aziz Adam.

A few days ago Behrous wrote (February 22nd) “A refugee in East Lorengau camp tried to commit suicide this morning. He cut his neck seriously but his friends helped him and sent him to hospital. Just now they brought him back. There are no psychological facilities in Manus.”

A few days earlier, Aziz wrote (February 16th) “The 3 refugees are back from the hospital to the camp they have blue scars on their faces. One of them said we were just walking & 10 Navy guys with big muscles attacked & start beating us. They were so scared, traumatized by this horrible incident & similar to Good Friday shutting.”

These are not particularly sensational tweets, but they do give you a feel for the daily struggle experienced by the men of the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre – a processing centre that many of the inmates felt never seemed to process anybody!

It makes me angry, and one of the most infuriating aspects of the tragedy, of course, is the obsequious humanitarian gloss that the defenders of offshore detention use to justify their policy. They never speak of their desire to punish asylum seekers and to make an example of them to the rest of the world. Instead, they speak of ‘turning back the boats’ to prevent more unnecessary deaths at sea, as if they really cared.

It’s similar with Syria, of course. No one suggests defending Al Qaeda from the Syrian army. We speak of protecting the civilians of Eastern Ghouta. I don’t doubt for a second too that there was a similarly hypocritical moral gloss on temple operations!

These merchants and money-changers – they weren’t there to make money, but to help people in worship. After all, the system of worship required animal sacrifice, and if you were travelling to Jerusalem from out of town, nobody could expect you to drag your animals across endless miles of open countryside, so the system, whereby animals were sold to worshippers, was a service to the community.

The money-changers, likewise, were just there to help. You couldn’t expect God’s house of prayer to accept payment in the currency of the godless occupying army! The money-changers did you a great service by relieving you of your filthy Roman lucre and exchanging it for the shekels you needed to buy your sacrifice.

Somebody had to do it. If prayers were to be given and sacrifices were to be made, and if the community of the faithful were to be able to remain faithful in their religious observances then these mechanisms were as necessary as their buildings and alters and their clergy and Parish Councils. Selling animals and changing money, might not be the most glorious aspect of worship, but they were vital components in the greater worshipping life of the community. And Jesus bought into none of this! Instead …

“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. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:15-16)

Jesus saw clearly what was going on. It wasn’t about worship. It was about making money, and it made Jesus angry!

My guess is that everybody in Jesus’ day knew that the temple system was a rort and that their leaders were milking them, just as everybody today knows deep down that we are being lied to about Syria and Manus Island and so many other things.

I did wonder whether taking a whip of cords to the Australian Parliament would do any good? I suspect it would only get me arrested. At the same time, we might ask how much good Jesus accomplished through His actions?

My guess is that Jesus’ disruption of the temple’s business, from the point of view of its financiers, was a very minor glitch in overall operations. The merchants and money-changers were probably back at their tables the following day, if not the same day! The losses would have been quickly compensated for, the animals returned to their stalls, and all the money all gathered up and put back into circulation.

Does this mean Jesus’ actions were a waste of time? Perhaps Jesus wasn’t trying to reform the temple system – at least, not in the short term. Perhaps He was trying to send a message to the broader worshipping community, telling them that they didn’t have to put up with all this, or perhaps He was sending a message to the people in power – letting them know that their corruption would not be tolerated forever?

I recently wrote a letter of support for a young woman who is a friend of many in our church community – Poppy Danis – who, last November, climbed the Sydney Opera house and tried to drop a large banner, drawing attention to the situation on Manus Island. She didn’t quite succeed but was instead arrested and (despite my appeal for clemency) was later fined $5,000 – an amount that she really can’t afford to pay.

I can appreciate that Poppy does question whether her efforts were worthwhile. My exhortation to her was that she should not doubt the value of what she did, despite the fact that she didn’t fully succeed in her aims. You can never know the ripple effect of your actions, and the bottom line is that when you’ve got the anger of Jesus inside of you, you’ve got to do something!

We need to pray that God will give us the anger of Jesus. This is not something we are likely to feel immediately comfortable with. Praying for the heart of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the eyes of Jesus (who sees the value of every human being) – this probably comes naturally to us, and yet we need to pray too for His anger – for the wrath of God which (as Emil Brunner put it) is the ‘hot instrument of His love’.

We need to take deep into our hearts the hostility of Jesus towards all forms of corruption, and towards all forms of institutionalised violence and oppression, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us feel, and somehow, of course, we need to do all this without letting go of gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

It may not be immediately obvious how we do that, and yet this is the reality we have to come to terms with – that the Christmas Jesus and the Jesus who clears the temple are in fact the same Jesus.

Mind you, as we journey through Lent, we know full well that we are on our way to meet with a Jesus who is even more difficult to come to terms with than the one we meet in John chapter two – namely, the crucified Jesus, with whom our Gospel stories climax. If we have trouble identifying with Jesus in His anger, we are likely to have an even greater struggle, meeting Him in His agony?

Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday, March 4th, 2018

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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