Ps 19 R/. Lord, you have the words of eternal life.
1 Cor 1:18, 22-25
Mosaic in the Cathedral Basilica of Santa Maria Nuova di Monreale, Sicily. 12th century.
Many people in our world today find this Gospel passage rather disturbing. This scene of Jesus ‘getting angry’ and ‘violently’ chasing the merchants out of the Temple doesn’t sit easy with them. How can Jesus, God’s love incarnate, get angry and violent, how can these actions be compatible with love, they ask?
There are two common solutions to this problem. One: simply ignore this passage, and never talk about it; pretend it’s not in the Bible, because is doesn’t fit our understanding of who Jesus is. Or, two: attribute this ‘outburst’ to Jesus’ humanity, and see it as an example of weakness just as if one of us did it.
I’m sure you’re not surprised –– I hope you’re not surprised… ––, but what a bunch of nonsense!
We can’t ignore a passage of Scripture because we don’t like it; if we did that, the Bible would be empty. If we think it doesn’t fit our understanding of God, then either we don’t understand God, or we don’t understand the passage. And if we think that Jesus’ humanity lead Him into an outburst of anger, a tantrum, which would be a sin, then we haven’t paid enough attention to the doctrine that Jesus was without sin (cf. Heb 4:15).
So then, I guess it would seem that if we’re confused by this passage, then we just haven’t understood it… and that’s ok! There’s nothing wrong with not understanding, only with not wanting to understand.
Yes, Jesus got angry, no one denies that. But John doesn’t use the word ‘anger’, he speaks of ‘zeal’ — enthusiasm in pursuit of something. Now this is important because, contrary to what many people today think, anger isn’t always sinful. Injustice, deception, falsehood, or any other form of scandal, should make us angry, because we recognise in our heart of hearts that such things are evil and that they cause us (and others) grief. The presence of sin and evil should stir in our hearts the desire to get rid of it, to fix it, to bring back goodness and proper order. That was part of the lesson of the Ten Commandments in the first reading: God’s people are called to live a life of order, one ordered to the greatest good of all, God Himself (cf. Ex 20:3-5).
This anger against evil is called ‘righteous anger’, and not only is it not a sin, it’s actually a gift of the Spirit, because it’s the Holy Spirit that stirs within us this outrage in the sight of evil (cf. Neh 5:6; Ps 69:9; Ps 139:19-22). And this is what John means here by ‘zeal’: that Jesus, stirred by the Spirit, was outraged at the way the Temple was being disrespected and misused as a place of commerce and cheating. It was a violation of the sacredness of the Temple.
You see, the Temple merchants were renown for cheating. Jews came from all around the known world to worship and offer sacrifice in the Temple. The merchants offered them money-changing services, but frequently ripped them off. So in chasing them out, Jesus was purging the Temple of wickedness and evil to restore its sacredness. He was chasing out sin.
But notice how John also makes a point of telling us that Jesus also added a deeper meaning to His actions. John says that Jesus also spoke about the Temple of His Body (Jn 2:21). You see the Temple was a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of Israel, and Jesus is God among us. He is the true Temple.
With this, Jesus and John are trying to tell us something about us. You see, because of Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we, too — you and I, and all the baptised —, have become temples of the Holy Spirit. And like the Temple of Israel, we, too, need to be properly ordered to the pure worship of God. Like the Temple, we need to be cleansed of our idols and sins. This is why the Church gives us this reading in the Lenten Season. We need to chase sin out of our lives with the same zeal and force Jesus had in cleansing the Temple. This is the role of grace!
Grace and sin cannot co-exist. Either sin takes over and destroys grace, or grace purges sin. So we need to open our hearts to Jesus and ask Him to cleanse the temple of our souls; we need to ask Him to chase out our sins and idols from the depths of our hearts. And so, this passage of the Gospel is essentially an invitation to repentance and purification. This Lenten Season, may we allow Jesus to restore the sacred order in our hearts. Amen.