Why is Jesus Angry? SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 3
1) Mark has been our main guide this year, and we’ll come back to Mark on Palm Sunday - but as we follow the lectionary over the next three weeks, we’ll explore stories from the Gospel of John. The Season of Lent is a time of mysteries and shadows, and John’s perspective will give us another lantern to help light the way.
2) John organizes his Gospel around six miraculous “signs” Jesus performs over the course of his public ministry. These function like signposts along the path, pointing toward primary themes John wants to emphasize about who Jesus is and what his mission is all about. The first of these signs is when Jesus, encouraged by his mother, surreptitiously turns water into wine during a wedding in Galilee. Today’s passage comes immediately on the heels of this wedding story, as if John is saying: Look, something new and wondrous has come into the world, a new day is dawning - and to get a sense of what's really at stake, listen to this story of Jesus and the Temple in Jerusalem.
3) Near the end of their respective gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke also include a story of Jesus angrily clearing out the temple, condemning the corruption and iniquity symbolized by the traders’ activity (“you have made it a den of robbers” (e.g., Mark 11:17; cf. Jeremiah 7:11)). John’s version puts the story in a somewhat different light, however, not only because it happens at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry rather than at its end, but also because Jesus calls the place not a “den of robbers” but simply “a marketplace.” What’s going on here? Is Jesus against marketplaces? Well, no - Jesus doesn’t go around Galilee and Jerusalem denouncing local markets, and after all, the temple had to include a marketplace (with vendors selling animals, currency exchanges, etc.) in order to make the longstanding sacrificial system run smoothly. And that’s precisely the point: Jesus’ anger seems to be focused not on corruption or iniquity in general, but rather on the sacrificial system itself. His actions seem to say: It’s high time for that system to end, and for a new era to begin.
4) Speaking of new eras, this week’s passage from Exodus is the story of another step in the covenantal journey we’ve been tracing over the last few weeks, beginning with the universal covenant in the time of Noah, then the particular covenant in the time of Abraham and Sarah - and now with the covenantal law in the time of Moses, iconically represented by the Ten Commandments (literally “ten words”; see Ex 34:28). Conceiving this law as covenantal - that is, in terms of Israel’s relationship with God - transforms how we hear it: these commandments aren’t arbitrary prohibitions, but rather loving limits that guide human beings toward living with justice, grace, and dignity. Even more, they mark out a way of relating and listening to God in and through the twists and turns of everyday life. This is yet another development or unfolding of what covenant means for Israel: with the gift of the law at Sinai, Israel's relationship with God becomes a tangible, everyday, ongoing form of listening (the root of the word “obedience” is the Latin audire, “to listen”). The covenantal law transforms "doing what is right" into a calling, a vocation, something done not only for its own sake but also as an act of intimacy and devotion to God.
1) Passover is near, the Jewish festival of deliverance from bondage - and at the same time deliverance into the intimate obedience to God represented by the Ten Commandments. There are three Passovers in John, the last one coinciding with Jesus' crucifixion; thus his public ministry begins approximately two years prior to his death. Jesus' first "sign" at the wedding at Cana has just happened, though only his disciples, mother, and a few servants are aware of it. And so now Jesus truly “goes public” in a big way with a bold, provocative drama in the most prestigious Jewish space of all, the Temple in Jerusalem, at the most prestigious Jewish time of all, the days just before Passover. No weapons are allowed in the temple, so Jesus improvises a whip out of cords and drives out the merchants, animals, and money changers, turning over their tables with righteous indignation: “Stop making God’s house a marketplace!”
2) The temple’s sacrificial system depended on that marketplace, both to supply the animals suitable for sacrifice - cattle and sheep and doves - and the coins permitted in the temple. To do away with this market, then, was to strike at the heart of the sacrificial system itself. In the background here is the ancient prophet Zechariah, the same visionary whose words will be enacted in three weeks on Palm Sunday (“Lo, your king comes to you...humble and riding on a donkey” (Zech 9:9)). Zechariah also speaks of a new age to come when the holiness associated with the temple will pervade the whole world, and “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day” (Zech 14:21). The idea seems to be that the traders are part of a layer of separation between God and Israel that will one day be overcome. Thus Jesus driving the traders out of the temple, like his eventual arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey, is a kind of street theater declaring through action that the long-awaited new epoch has begun. Holiness will overflow conventional bounds, and the-temple-as-we-know-it will give way to a more widespread and direct mode of encountering God.
3) Perhaps recognizing the audacious claim embedded in Jesus' actions, the religious authorities demand a sign that would justify his authority. In veiled and layered language, Jesus proposes a sign the authorities mistakenly take at face value: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They think he’s referring to brick and mortar, but in fact, as John explains, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Thus Jesus does at least three things at once with his proposal: (1) He opposes and aggravates the religious authorities; (2) he cryptically predicts his death and resurrection, something his disciples realize only later, “after he was raised from the dead;” and (3) he casts a revolutionary vision for worship in the new era. His body is the temple. Those who “abide in him” (one of John’s favorite themes; see 15:4) thereby abide in "the house of the LORD." This theme will surface again in Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman about worshiping God not in any specific site but rather “in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-23). In other words, for John, Jesus’ arrival signals the dawn of a new age, a new intimacy with God, a new conception of “the temple” not as a building but as a person in spirit and truth, Jesus himself, God’s Word made flesh. The old sacrificial system must end; there's no need for animals and blood and money changers; in fact, the old system only stands as an impediment to the new day. Drive out the traders! Zechariah’s vision is fulfilled! Fashion a whip out of cords, let a thousand doves arise and scatter into the air - for the hour has come!
4) It’s worth remembering that the Gospel of John was written after the Roman armies had destroyed the Jerusalem temple, a period when both Jews and early Christians were struggling to make sense of the world without what they had considered its sacred axis. Rabbinic Judaism eventually refigured “the temple” in the home, and early Christians refigured "the temple" as the body of Jesus, which is also the body of the church.
5) A similar emphasis on more intimate and direct relationship with God can be discerned in the Exodus passage. God gives Israel the law as a mode of ongoing covenantal interaction, an opportunity for Israel to listen to God and live out that listening every day. And once these “commandments” are heard in this loving, relational way, they become less a list of imperatives and more a collection of indicatives, descriptions of what graceful, dignified human life looks like. In this way, the famous refrain “you shall not” no longer rings like an imperious injunction; rather, it becomes an illustration, a portrayal of human integrity and beauty, as if God is saying: When you walk with me in humility and love, you shall not murder, or lie, or steal...
1) Why is Jesus angry? It’s the ancient anger of the prophets, a sacred zeal that moves against and beyond the sacrificial system of dead animals and toward an intimate simplicity of prayer, spirit, and truth, unbound by any particular building or economic system. And it’s an ancient passion, too, for the coming of God’s Jubilee, a new exodus from all bondage, a new freedom to abide in God, as God abides in us, in a world saturated with divine glory and presence. These ideas are shot through the prophets: think of Jeremiah’s “temple sermon” (Jeremiah 7), or indeed his prophesied “new covenant” in which God’s law is written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). Think of the devastating critique of sacrifice in Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos (Isa 1:11; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:22), or the famous verse in Micah, contrasting justice, kindness, and humility to animal sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8). In his own way, Jesus picks up this prophetic mantle - and fashions his whip out of cords. In brief, he is angry about any system or structure that creates an apparent barrier between God and God’s people. At its heart, his mission is about dismantling those barriers, exposing them as illusory. In that sense, his mission is about reconciliation, mutual indwelling (“Abide in me, as I abide in you” (John 15:4)), and the just, kind, humble life that flows from such intimacy.
2) The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann once warned that the quickest way to desecrate a landscape was to build a church - since the supposed “holy ground” would instantly imply that everything outside its doors is profane (and sure enough, the word “profane” comes from the Latin for “outside the temple”). Like the prophets before him, Jesus can be understood in this week’s passage as challenging our tendency to domesticate God into a temple or a church or a sacred system. In fact, all of creation shimmers with divine glory. When we go to church, we don’t step into God’s presence; rather, we step into a community that, at its best, will help call our attention to the fact that God is present everywhere, that the body of Jesus and the movement of the Spirit are boundless, and so that the temple’s architecture must extend all the way out - all the way to the expanding edges of the cosmos!
3) This basic idea isn’t unique to Jesus; rather, he stands in a lineage we can discern in the prophets - and also in Exodus. At Sinai, God could have given the Israelites a temple and a fortress, but instead God gave them a law, an ethical code that would saturate their lives as they wandered in the wilderness, investing virtually every moment with the possibility of holiness and beauty, dignity and devotion. At its best, a law is a pathway for living, an immersive form of listening to a call. It’s a way of abiding with each other in intimate companionship - doing right, yes, but also living together: “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Any barrier to that abundant life, to that joy and gladness - makes Jesus angry. Angry enough to move decisively toward taking that barrier down, once and for all.