What is your primary image of Jesus? When you picture Jesus in your mind, what does he look like and what is he doing?
For example, do you picture Jesus as a gentle teacher, opening his arms and welcoming little children to come and sit on his knee while he tells stories and listens intently to every word they are saying? Do you picture Jesus as a healer, always willing to stop in his travels throughout the Galilean countryside and comfort those who are sick, give hope to those who are despondent, re-embody those who are disabled, and even raise to life those who have died?
Do you picture Jesus primarily as a preacher, inviting crowds of followers and offering to interpret God’s word as he understood it playing out in the lives of people and in the life of the world? Do you imagine Jesus as an agitator, standing outside the circles of power and holding those with privilege and those with traditional authority accountable for the ways in which they treated others…especially the poor and oppressed?
Has your favorite image of Jesus always been the infant Savior born in an idyllic Bethlehem manger? Or when you think about Jesus, do you conceive of him as a teenager sitting down alongside other priests in the temple and reading the Torah on parchment scrolls? Do you picture Jesus at the outset of his ministry standing on the shore calling out across the water to ask fishermen to put down their nets and follow him? Or do you picture Jesus breaking fish and bread into bite sized pieces in order to feed a cast of thousands.
Maybe you have a more Lenten image of Jesus. For example, you envision Jesus sitting in a circle around a table breaking bread and sharing the cup. Or Jesus hanging on the cross and crying out to God in anguish? Or perhaps you identify with the Jesus who appears to the disciples after the resurrection with nail holes in his hands and in his side?
Who is Jesus for you? What does he look like and what is he doing…? If I were to venture a guess, I suspect none of us in this sanctuary hold as our primary image of Jesus the one where he walks into the temple courtyard and flips over the tables of the money changers. In a fit of rage, Jesus lashes out against in a way that seems totally out of character. Jesus who so often kept his temper in check in spite of the myriad human shortcomings he witnessed firsthand. Jesus the peacemaker. Jesus the comforter. Jesus the sympathizer. Jesus the unifier.
It doesn’t fit that Jesus would be the one overturning tables and calling out the merchants and creating such a public disturbance. Who among us can truly identify with that Jesus? Especially in light of the fact that the merchants outside the temple served an important purpose. Ordinary citizens needed to purchase animals from those merchants which they ultimately sacrificed on altars to God as a sign of their obedience and their faithfulness. Ritual, animal sacrifice to God was an integral part of ancient Judaism, prescribed and described over and over in the earliest books of the Old Testament…
An angry Jesus. I think particularly during this Lenten season of the church year, that idea is hard to get our heads wrapped around. In large part because many of us have been conditioned from an early age to believe that Jesus died on the cross as a victim. The Roman authorities feared him. The Jewish religious leaders felt threatened by him. The people didn’t understand him. His followers abandoned him. His dearest friends denied him and betrayed him. Even God didn’t rescue him in his greatest hour of need. The odds were stacked against Jesus and he had no chance to survive in the end.
But to make the claim that Jesus was nothing more than an innocent man condemned on trumped up charges and hung on a cross through no fault of his own is misleading. In truth, Jesus was also executed for acts he intentionally and purposefully committed. Acts that were a direct result of his anger…
Mark’s Gospel account of the death of Jesus begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday for the Passover celebration. Mark assumes that the reading and listening audience knows what Passover means. Passover commemorated God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt. In other words, Passover was more than just a religious festival. It was a freedom festival.
Unfortunately, Israel in the time of Jesus was not free. The Roman Empire was squarely in charge. And the Roman authorities grew especially wary of their opposition during major Jewish holidays. Specifically during the Passover, enormous crowds flocked into Jerusalem and effectively multiplied the city population three or fourfold. And when the city was overcrowded, small outbreaks of lawless behavior occurred on a routine basis. Which the Roman soldiers snuffed out quickly and violently each time before the unruliness escalated.
Knowing the Roman government was on high alert and knowing the Jewish temple priests were on edge, it didn’t make sense to draw attention to oneself during Passover. But what did Jesus do? He paraded into the city gates with crowds alongside him proclaiming him as Israel’s new king. He strolled into the temple and promptly caused a scene by disrupting legitimate commercial business. He characterized any accommodation to the Roman Empire as idolatry. And he accused the temple authorities of exploiting the poor. All while a crowd of witnesses gathered around him and watched. Along with a whole bunch of people in power.
In what way does today’s scene of Jesus outside the temple paint him as an innocent victim? Jesus was angry outside the temple, and that anger boiling over led to his own demise as surely as anything anyone else did on the way to the crucifixion.
The question then is why was Jesus so angry? For if we can begin to understand Jesus’ anger, we can create a more whole, more realistic, more personal, more human image of who Jesus was.
When Jesus entered into the courtyard of the Temple, he saw merchants and moneychangers in the foreground. Just behind he saw the holiest, most sacred religious site in all of Jerusalem in the background. And Jesus could not reconcile the two.
It’s not that Jesus was trying to antagonize the priests who worked in the Temple. Rather, Jesus saw in the money lenders in front of the Temple a symbol of a faith that had lost its way. Instead of distancing themselves from Roman imperial control and establishing themselves as the moral and ethical antithesis of Roman domination, Jesus saw the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious authorities cooperating in commercial activity. Merchants and priests working hand in hand. Money lenders and religious leaders in collusion with each other.
And just as Jesus named aloud, when religious institutions get caught up in power and corrupted by money they lose sight of their calling to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” Moreover, they wind up oblivious to the plight of the poor and the marginalized...
Jesus wasn’t just about individual change. He was also about institutional change. Even if it meant turning over tables and causing a scene in front of his enemies. Even if it meant putting his own well-being in jeopardy. Even if it meant risking scrutiny and arrest and ultimately crucifixion. Just like individuals, institutions are called to work diligently and tirelessly for justice and Jesus refuses to let us off the hook.
Are you and I then, as part of this religious institution we call Wapping Community Church, angry enough to embrace the work of justice? Does it make us angry that so many children are hungry in a nation where there is plenty of food to feed every man, woman, and child? Does it make us angry that some people have to live on streets and in homeless shelters because they have a mental illness, or they’ve served this country with dignity but can’t find work, or they work three jobs and they still can’t make ends meet and it’s finally caught up to them? Does it make us angry that some people can afford high quality health care while others avoid doctors and hospitals because they can’t afford to pay for examinations or prescriptions and they can’t afford to lose even an hour of paid work time? In the name of an angry Jesus, what risks are we willing to take as a community to change the world as we know it and build the world God envisions?
These are not easy questions. Especially in a society where charity is often held up as the highest good while advocating for justice and transformation and systemic change is often discouraged. Noted Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
As Jesus found out over the course of his ministry, living a life of compassion enticed a crowd of followers. Living a life of justice enticed a crowd of enemies. But just as there was for Jesus long ago, there is a place for anger today. Not blind, indiscriminate anger. I’m talking about righteous, faithful anger. The kind of anger that forces us to work for justice and love.
Come then to this communion table to eat bread and drink from the cup with your sisters and brothers. But while you are eating, don’t forget the story of Jesus outside the temple. Our communion table will remain upright throughout our worship this morning. But it’s entirely possible that Jesus will tell us to leave this table and go out into the world to find other tables. Tables we should be ready to flip over. Amen.