Commentary on the Gospel of
Jesus’ outburst in anger has always tripped me up in this Gospel story. Jesus is never angry in the rest of the Gospels. He is celebrating, or troubled, or tired, or moved with pity. He weeps for people, he heals people, he feeds people, and he is present to people. He calmly answers the Pharisees when he knows they are trying to goad him. Even at the prospect of death, when he prays so fervently that he sweats blood, he is not described as being angry; in fact, he begs forgiveness for those who hurt him. This display of frustration and anger, even righteous anger, disrupts my image of Christ just as he literally disrupts the tables. Probably, that is exactly the point: I am not allowed to be complacent in my image of Christ, just as the people there that day were not allowed to be complacent in their understanding of the law.
Jesus seems particularly human to me because of this story. Perhaps this is ironic since, in the Old Testament, righteous anger seemed to be God’s normal mood. It is especially interesting to consider in light of the second reading’s reflection on the crucifixion, that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” God overturns my expectations of what wisdom and strength look like. I continue to ponder whether the righteous anger of God is somehow more peaceful than human peace, or perhaps more peaceful than human complacency. What is God telling me about the nature of divinity and humanity here?
I think Jesus reveals the reason for his anger in the analogy between the temple building and his body. The space that was meant to be reserved for being with God, for encountering God, had been repurposed for carrying out the letter of the law (through sacrifice). God gave the Law to help the people grow closer to God through practicing it. The Law was a gift, as the psalm says, more precious than a heap of purest gold and sweeter than honey from the comb. But in the Gospel story, the people were caught up in material, even the material they used to worship God, rather than being caught up in God. Jesus refers to his own body as the temple. I can assume that, in Christ’s image, my body is also a temple for God. We the Church, the Body of Christ, are collectively a temple for God. What is God telling me about how important it is to keep my “inner room” free to encounter God? What is God telling me through this story about how deeply God desires that space for encounter?
One of the songs we use at St. John’s during Lent, “O Beauty Ever Ancient,” is based on St. Augustine’s Confessions. One line says, “This created world is glorious, yet I could not see within, see your loveliness behind all, find the Giver in the gift.”I think Augustine hits upon the reason behind our Lenten fast and upon Jesus’ desire for the people in the temple: to remember that the gifts we receive are meant to draw us closer to God, both individually and communally, and not to get caught up in the gifts themselves.