Scripture: Mark 11:15-19
Last week we began our observation of Holy-Week-throughout-Lent with the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for his final Passover. We learned about how it was less a triumphant entrance and more an intentional political statement: that while the Romans marched into the city from the west on their fancy horses with their pristine uniforms and state-of-the-art weapons, anticipating trouble on this Jewish holiday of liberation, Jesus staged his own parade, and rode into the city on a donkey with a ragtag band of followers shouting Hosanna.
Though we didn’t get into it last week, at the end of this Palm Sunday account, Mark includes one detail that I find very intriguing. As Jesus and his parade near town, Mark tells us, “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.”
I love that – Jesus enters the city, goes into the Temple, just kind of looks around for a minute, and then leaves. He goes back to Bethany, two miles outside Jerusalem, where he and his disciples are staying for Passover – after all, there are a lot of pilgrims in Jerusalem this week, and the lodging’s cheaper a couple miles out. But he’ll be back.
The next morning, Jesus is on his way back into Jerusalem when he comes upon a fig tree. He’s hungry, so he goes over to see if there are any figs. But it’s too early in the season for figs. The tree is not bearing fruit. Jesus curses it, and goes on his way. We already know, at this point in the story, that it’s going to be that kind of day. Remember the fig tree, though. It’s more than just a fig tree.
Jesus keeps going, into Jerusalem and into the Temple: the place where, as a boy, he once sat and verbally sparred with the elders, at least according to Luke – the place he called his Father’s house, he place that had once felt more like home than anywhere else; he enters the outer courtyard, resolutely this time, and he rolls up his sleeves, and he heads up to an unsuspecting guy at a currency exchange booth and in one swift motion he knocks the table on its side, coins spilling everywhere. And before the stunned crowd even has time to react, he does the same thing to the next table, and the next, and he throws the chairs of the pigeon sellers to the side as they scramble to get out of his way, and he yells at people gathering up their wares to move out of his way.
Not exactly the gentle Savior, meek and mild, we learn about in Sunday School, right?
He quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah as he stands in the middle of the Temple courtyard, eyes flashing fire, and bellows that this place which was supposed to be a haven of prayer has become a hideout for robbers. The elders and the chief priests rush out at the commotion, and when they see who is in the middle of it, they purse their lips knowingly, and at that time, they vow to destroy him.
But maybe let’s step back for a minute to ask this question: why was Jesus angry?
It’s more than just the fact that people are buying and selling things in the Temple. Jesus doesn’t hate youth group bake sales – as far as I know. He’s not turning the tables at the church spaghetti dinner. The moneychangers and dove sellers were legit. Pilgrims were arriving in Jerusalem for Passover from all over the known world, and they were bringing Roman money, because that’s what they used. But you couldn’t pay your temple tax with Roman money, because it had Caesar’s picture on it, and that was idolatry. Moneychangers, at your service. And of course you’d need to make your Passover sacrifice, but you weren’t going to travel to Jerusalem from Asia Minor dragging an unblemished goat and carrying a cage full of pigeons. You’d have to acquire those there.
It could have been that the moneychangers and the dove sellers were engaging in some good old-fashioned price gouging – after all, demand was high, and the pilgrims were pretty much a captive market. Maybe those businesspeople made it particularly hard especially for the poor among the pilgrims to fulfill their religious obligations.
Or maybe it was that while it was fine for people to provide these services, the business aspect of things had overwhelmed that Temple courtyard, so it was no longer a place for people to come and pray and find a connection to God. It was no longer “a house of prayer for all peoples,” as Jesus and Isaiah put it.
A couple sources I found suggested that it wasn’t really about the moneychangers at all. It was the whole big picture of the Temple and how it was run, and the fact that the chief priests and elders were at this point in history little more than Roman puppets, clamoring for power and selling out their people in the name of God.
Personally I’m inclined to think that it couldn’t have helped matters that Jesus never did get breakfast that morning. Remember the fig tree? It’s possible that if Jesus had just eaten a granola bar, took a deep breath, and counted to 10, that maybe he could have just had a rational, gentle conversation with the moneychangers and dove sellers, or the Temple leadership, or whoever he was truly mad at. Maybe he could have won them over with kindness or at least engaged in a little nonviolent direct action.
If so, then it may be that what we are seeing in this passage is a truly human side of Jesus: that he lost his temper sometimes, that he spoke too soon, that once in a while – and especially during Holy Week – he had a serious case of the Mondays. Maybe it’s comforting to think of Jesus like that, because he sounds so very much like us. Or maybe it’s really discomfiting – because he sounds so very much like us.
If it’s true that this story shows the human side of Jesus in his anger, then at the very least what that says to us is that anger is a God-given human emotion, not sinful in itself but part of the makeup of who we are. Obviously, this doesn’t mean God wants us to follow our anger wherever it takes us. You are not Jesus (neither am I) and if I hear that you got mad and knocked a bunch of stuff over in public – or let’s face it, even at home – I will accompany you to court, but I will not make excuses for you. We do have to remember that out of all the stories we have about Jesus, while this is not the only one in which he gets angry, it is the only one in which he does anything arguably destructive. When we talk about following in the footsteps of Jesus, it’s probably good for our focus to be on peace and forgiveness.
And at the same time, we don’t need to be ashamed of feeling anger. We don’t need to run from it. We don’t need to deny it so people will think better of us. We don’t need to suppress it so that it festers inside us. We are human and we get angry sometimes. Even Jesus knows the feeling.
But what if that’s not the takeaway this story has for us? What if we didn’t just catch Jesus on a particularly human day here? What if his anger in this scene isn’t just a raw depiction of his humanity, but a reflection of his divinity? What if anger can be holy?
I tend to stay away from talking too much about the wrath of God. You can go down all sorts of rabbit holes talking about the wrath of God, and in the end, I think God wants all of us to come to God out of love, and not out of fear. That said, the “wrathful” God of the Old Testament is the same as the “loving” God of the New Testament, and if you know your Old Testament Bible stories, it’s clear that even our patient and ever-faithful God gets angry sometimes.
And it’s not my most cherished, comforting image of God, but on the other hand, when you look at everything going on in the world these days (and, let’s face it, probably since the beginning of time), what good is a God who doesn’t get angry at some of it?
That Monday of Holy Week when Jesus enters the Temple, what he sees is a holy space profaned by leaders who claim to worship God but in reality only worship power. What he sees are people who sing songs about God’s holiness and majesty but are ready to sell out the poor and vulnerable at a moment’s notice. What he sees is a place where we claim to put God first but in reality we only come to justify ourselves.
You know what makes Jesus angry? Not the sin of humble, repentant people. What makes Jesus angry is the hypocrisy of religious leaders. That’s a fact that certainly gives me some pause.
But if Jesus’ anger can be holy, maybe it’s possible that ours can be too.
I know when we think of great leaders, people who really change the world for the better, we often think specifically of people like Nelson Mandela, who famously refused to be angry and bitter despite the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner. But I recently listened to a TED Talk by a Nobel Peace Prize winner named Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights activist who fought the caste system and rescued thousands of children from slavery. This is what he said:
“Today, I am going to talk about anger. When I was 11, seeing some of my friends leaving the school because their parents could not afford textbooks made me angry. When I was 27, hearing the plight of a desperate slave father whose daughter was about to be sold to a brothel made me angry. At the age of 50, lying on the street, in a pool of blood, along with my own son, made me angry.
“Dear friends, for centuries we were taught anger is bad. Our parents, teachers, priests –everyone taught us how to control and suppress our anger. But I ask why? Why can’t we convert our anger for the larger good of society? Why can’t we use our anger to challenge and change the evils of the world?
His first career was as an electrical engineer, and he said he “learned how the energy of burning fire, coal, the nuclear blast inside the chambers, raging river currents, fierce winds, could be converted into the light and lives of millions. I also learned how the most uncontrollable form of energy could be harnessed for good and making society better.”
“So dear friends, sisters and brothers, again, as a Nobel Laureate, I am urging you to become angry.”
I’ll step back again here – speaking as myself again – to once again emphasize that not all anger is created equal, and not all anger is holy. Anger that is selfish is not holy. Anger that is about justifying ourselves is not holy. Anger that is jealous or abusive is not holy. Anger that festers until it explodes is not holy. Anger that someone is taking too long with your bagel at Panera is not holy (not that I am preaching to myself, this morning.) As Kailash Satyarthi put it, “if we are confined in the narrow shells of egos, and the circles of selfishness, then the anger will turn out to be hatred, violence, revenge, destruction. But if we are able to break the circles, then the same anger could turn into a great power. We can break the circles by using our inherent compassion and connect with the world through compassion to make this world better.”
Have you listened, in the past week and a half, to the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida as they’ve taken on the politicians who they see as offering empty thoughts and prayers in the wake of this latest mass shooting, who so far have done nothing to prevent this from happening the next time? Have you heard them say, “We call BS?” That, I think, is a holy kind of anger. And what’s more, I believe that these teenagers may just be the ones to turn some tables in this country.
So I think it’s worth asking: what, in this terribly broken world, makes you angry?
And I think it’s worth asking: How might you channel that God-given emotion to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth?
On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet, and remind them that the world will know them by their love for each other. He will be arrested, given up by the friend who betrayed him, and he will not resist. According to Matthew, he will tell his disciples to put their weapons away. On Friday he will refuse to lash out at the people who want him dead, and by Luke’s account he will even plead with God for forgiveness for those who know not what they do. All of these moments, all of these instances of choosing peace where someone else might not have, all of them make Holy Week holy.
But first, on Monday, Jesus is going to turn some tables. And Monday is a holy day, too.
Oh, remember the fig tree? When Jesus and the disciples head back into Jerusalem from Bethany the next day, the fig tree has withered.
It seems that sometimes things need to be knocked down so that with God’s help and our willing hands, something bearing fruit can grow up in their place.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 39-41