The Outraged Jesus

Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

(Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

It is an unsettling image, isn’t it?  I am speaking of the image of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple, turning over the tables, and chasing out the moneychangers. Here is how Scripture describes it:

In the temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple…and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

Throughout my years of ministry, whenever people, particularly men, have approached this moment in Scripture, they have often seen it as the one time in the Bible when Jesus became a real “man’s man.” I call it the (Sylvester) Stallonification of Jesus. I once heard a man put it this way in a Bible study:

If I saw this kind of Jesus more often in the Bible—you know, the kind of Jesus who roughs up his enemies instead of telling us to love them all the time—I’d find it a whole lot easier to follow him.

The danger in this sort of thinking, of course, is that it can lead a person to use a Scripture like this to justify his own oafishness and his own bad manners. “Look, Jesus got angry! So can I! Jesus turned over the tables in God’s house, so why can’t I throw the ottoman through the window in MY house!”

What a dreadful thing it is to reduce a Scripture like this to nothing more than a justification of unhealthy anger or a validation of distorted masculinity. Jesus, after all, did not need this moment of dynamic anger to validate his personhood. His wholehearted identity as a man was already fully on display throughout his life and ministry. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he willingly suffers and dies on a cross for the sake of a fallen world; or when he tenderly weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus; or when he desperately cries over the city of Jerusalem and its sin. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he welcomes the children to come to him; or when he speaks words of life to a spiritually hurting Samaritan woman beside a water well on a hot afternoon; or when he wraps a towel around his waist and washes his disciples feet as a tangible demonstration of the fact that a new kingdom was in place—a kingdom in which servanthood is valued over power and where humility is valued over advancement.

Jesus’ anger in the temple is not a validation of Jesus’ status as a tough guy. It is rather an indication that some of the accepted rhythms of temple life inspired outrage in the very heart of God—a heart that Jesus represented and incarnated.

At what accepted rhythms was Jesus so angry?

The overarching sin to which Jesus seems to be responding in the temple is not the sin of buying and selling per se. Rather, Jesus seems to be angry about a much bigger issue: specifically, the ease with which people of faith conform to the principles and priorities that govern all the other parts of our fallen world. What does Jesus find when he walks into the temple? He finds business as usual. He finds a superficial (and, presumably, corruptly dehumanizing) commerce between merchant and customer, masking itself as service but fueled by the same kind of interplay that one could find just as easily in the marketplace.

Jesus’ anger reveals his demand that our temples and sanctuaries—both the literal temple of one’s place of worship and the metaphorical temple of the human heart—be transformed through sanctification, in order that they might become settings in which people practice a way of life and community that is unlike anything else the world has to offer. In the sanctified temple, sharing and sacrificial generosity take priority over buying and selling; repentance and forgiveness eclipse manipulation and exploitation; and the shared penchant for profit and pecking order begins to give way to an agapic and Christocentric communion.

Perhaps Jesus’ anger is grounded in his heartbreak over his realization of how frequently God’s people resist the call to function by a different economy, a different set of practices, and a different arrangement of priorities. In the “house of prayer” that God desires and that Jesus came to incarnate, people relate to one another, not as potential buyers and sellers (customers and merchants), but as redeemed spiritual siblings who have been liberated from social and economic hierarchies in order to be able to experience a new and often countercultural engagement (in Greek, “koinonia”).

I am inspired to personalize Jesus’ anger. What about the temple of my heart disheartens Jesus when he walks into it? What about the temple of my life inspires righteous anger in Jesus when he sees how frequently I have settled for attitudes, priorities, and patterns of behavior that dehumanize the very people he loves?

It is not a hateful anger that Jesus practices. It is an anger emerging from his heart of indefatigable love for this fallen world and its misguided people. It is an anger over the very things that should make me angry.

The question is, will I allow Jesus’ righteous anger to inspire manipulative denial or authentic repentance and redirection?

A Prayerful Litany About a Good Shepherd

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While preparing to preach on the 23rd Psalm in recent days, I was inspired to create this litany.  Even when praying through the litany on my own in solitude, it helps me to become more deeply available to the beautiful nuances of the Psalmist’s proclamation about the goodness of our Shepherding God.

A Prayer of Centering (based upon Psalm 23)

Leader:  The Lord is my Shepherd.

People:  No, wait!  “Shepherd” is no longer an image that works for us!  It is an outdated reference to a bygone vocation.

Leader:  The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.

People:  We don’t want to hear about shepherding.  We are proud and self-sufficient people, not pathetic and needy sheep.

Leader:  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures and leadeth me beside still waters.

PeoplePerhaps we are too arrogantly fixated on our own agendas to be led and fed by One who dares to claim the authority of a Shepherd over us.

Leader:  He restoreth my soul.

People:  Now you’re getting personal! Our souls are broken, weary, stained, and scarred.  We long for a restoration that we, on our own, cannot generate.

Leader:  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

People:  Hold on!  We much prefer the smoothly paved roads of convenience to the often-rugged and dauntingly-demanding paths of righteousness.

Leader:  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.

People:  The shadow of death is all around us.  We cannot seem to escape it.  The shadow makes its presence known in the evening news, in shattered lives, and in our private lamentations.  Bring to us a renewed sense of conviction that, because of your steadfast presence, the evil of this shadow will never hold dominion over us, nor will it ever be given the final word to speak.

Leader:  Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

PeopleAlthough we desperately attempt to perpetuate the illusion of self-sufficiency, in our heart of hearts, we know that we are entirely dependent upon the sturdy rod of your guidance and the protective staff of your holistic grace.

Leader:  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.

People:  This is too much for us!  We like to define ourselves by the enemies that we make and keep.  We want you to destroy our enemies, not entertain their presence. Equip us with new eyes, so that even our enemies will begin to look different to us.

Leader:  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

People:  We have grown weary of living under the anointing of the various oils that we have endeavored to place upon our own heads.  The oil of upward mobility.  The oil of personal achievement.  The oil of self-righteousness.  In these moments of stillness and worship, bring us under the anointing of your Holy Spirit, that the cup of our
life might overflow with the joy of being in right relationship with you.

Leader:  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

PeopleOur life depends upon your goodness.  Our hope depends upon your mercy. Overcome us now, and occupy us inwardly by your Spirit, that our entire life might become your home—a home in which we joyfully and abundantly dwell.

Zestfully Clean!

What do we find in Acts 11:1-18? Many things. An Apostle named Peter. A bitter division between portions of humanity. An unsettling vision of animals, deemed “unclean” by long-obeyed laws, gathered together in a sheet coming down from the sky. Then a voice from heaven, articulating the unthinkable: “Go ahead and embrace these animals. For what I have created to be clean you must not call unclean.”

As I spend time with Peter’s vision, it has never been clearer to me that it is less a vision about animals than it is about people. Divided people. Hurting and broken people. People who have come to believe that they are “unclean” or “unseen” or “untouchable” or “unloved.” The vision is God’s way of announcing to Peter, to the church, and to us, that Jesus has transformed the human network of relationships and reconfigured the “clean/unclean” dynamic so that we are now free to look upon every single person we encounter as a precious and beloved image-bearer of the divine heart whom God created to be (zestfully) clean, whether the person is honoring that cleanness or not.

It is a vision that gives me hope for my life, for a fractured world, and for a divided church. When I am most tempted to demonize, disparage, or dismiss the person on the other side of the issue or argument, or when I am closest to consciously or subconsciously categorizing someone as unworthy of my compassion or attention, Jesus invites me to make the redemptive journey back to Peter’s revolutionary vision and its new way of conceptualizing the world and its people: “What I have created to be clean you must not call unclean.”

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