When I stub my toe on the corner of my desk, the object of my anger is my desk. Likewise, when my roommate doesn’t clean up after himself, he is the object of my anger. These are both relatively low forms of anger. Being mad doesn’t make my foot feel better or take care of the garbage and crumbs strewn about.
On the other hand, when we see the educational opportunities that children in impoverished communities miss out on, and it makes us mad, we are experiencing a different kind of anger. When we are outraged by the fact that human beings enslave and abuse other human beings, the object of our anger has changed. In those situations, our anger is directed at injustice and wrongdoing.
When we feel enraged by the injustices present in the world and in our communities, we have something called righteous anger. This is exactly the kind of anger Jesus feels when he sees the merchants and money changers in the Temple. These business men and opportunists are taking advantage of the Law set down by Moses, so that they can make a little profit. Each Jewish family had to offer an animal for sacrifice, but many didn’t own livestock, so they had to buy them. And if the merchants charge a little extra, what’s wrong with that?
The other Gospel writers quote Jesus in reference to the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah:
“Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’? But you have made it a den of thieves.” - (Mk 11:17)
From this perspective, it is easy to recognize that the anger Jesus expresses is a righteous anger. He will not stand by and let injustice flourish. We ought to follow his example, and work to rid the world of evil.
This all seems fine until Jesus makes a pretty bold claim.
Let’s pause for a minute to look at this from a literary standpoint, where we can really appreciate the narrative prowess of the Evangelist. John writes using a literary device called a chiastic structure* that directs his readers’ attention to what he considers to be the climax of the section. Right there in the middle of this passage, John writes:
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’” (Jn 2:19)
This confused the crowds immensely, for they thought he was talking about the actual physical temple, but of course, we know Jesus was talking about his own body, and its resurrection from the dead.**
But . . . if Jesus calls his body a temple . . . what about our bodies? And . . . if a temple should be “a house of prayer” . . . doesn’t that apply to us?
Indeed, St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians says as much:
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” – (1 Cor 6:19)
The knock-out punch of the Gospel is that it calls us to take a hard look at our own lives. When we honestly examine ourselves, the bitter truth becomes clear: I make mistakes. I often turn away from God’s love. I rarely act as though I am a home for the Holy Spirit. I have skeletons in my closet. I have proverbial dragons consumed with greed for proverbial gold. I’ve got junk and baggage and sin weighing me down. I am far from perfect.
There is a light at the end of this paralyzing dark tunnel; a silver lining to this threatening storm cloud. Jesus died for my sins, and rose from the dead so that I can be free from all the stuff that enslaves me. Every moment, he is asking me to let him into my life, so that he can start to cleanse and transform me. All I have to do is say “Yes.”
The Lenten season of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving is a great time to ask ourselves the hard questions. To let the Lord into our hearts for a deep clean. As we move deeper into this season, let us reflect on the questions raised by the Gospel:
What areas in my life have I allowed to be taken over by ‘dens of thieves’ that I need to let Jesus cleanse?
What is holding me back from accepting the Grace and Love of God, which will convert my heart ever more deeply?
How can I allow God to transform me into a more perfect temple of the Holy Spirit and house of prayer?
*For more information on the use of chiasm in John’s gospel, talk to Michael Schreiner. I’m sure he would talk about it indefatigably
**You should also ask Michael about something called Johannine Irony