Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Third Sunday of Lent, 7th of March, 2021
Note: this Reflection contains references to sexual assault.
There has been a great deal of anger in Australia over the past few weeks, most of it felt by women. To name just some of it: there is the anger that women and children are still, in twenty-first century Australia, being sexually assaulted. This is the anger expressed by the young woman, Chanel Contos, who started a petition to have ‘consent’ taught in NSW boys schools because she ‘was sick of constantly hearing my friends’ experience of sexual abuse’. Then there is the further anger that when sexual assault does occur it is so often considered to be a problem for the victims to deal with, as when political staffer Brittany Higgins was made to feel that she had become a political liability by being raped by a colleague, and that she had to choose between reporting it and staying employed. There is also anger that as recently as February this year the Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, told his cadets to avoid becoming the prey of predators by staying away from the ‘“four As”: alcohol, out after midnight, alone and attractive’; anger that despite all the work older generations have done to clarify that no one ‘makes themselves vulnerable,’ young people are still being told that it is their job to protect themselves.
If you want to see an example of the anger currently being expressed throughout Australia against those who commit sexual assault, those who facilitate it, and those who cover it up, you can watch Australian of the Year Grace Tame’s speech at the National Press Club this week.
Anger does not have a good reputation in Christianity. Wrath was considered by the early and medieval church to be one of the seven deadly sins. In the Scriptures God is sometimes described as angry with stubborn, foolish and greedy people, but is also praised as being ‘slow to anger’ (Exodus 34.6; Numbers 14.18; Psalm 86:15) even when we deserve it. The Book of Proverbs proclaims that ‘one who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city’. (Proverbs 16:32) In the Letter to the Ephesians we’re told that if we are angry we’re not to let the sun go down on our wrath (Ephesians 4:26) and to put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander (Ephesians 4:31). The Apostle James writes to his readers, ‘You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.’ The message of the Scriptures is that God may be wrathful, although luckily for us not as much as we deserve, but we humans should not be.
Today, we hear a story of Jesus being profoundly angry, and acting on that anger. The story of the cleansing of the Temple is told in all four gospels, and the version that we hear today comes from the Gospel according to John. It is a much more vivid story than that in the three synoptic gospels. Only in John do we have cattle and sheep in the Temple, as well as doves; and only in John does Jesus make a whip of cords and drive the sheep, the cattle, and their vendors out. It is only in this gospel that the disciples are prompted by Jesus’ violence to remember the words of Psalm 69: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.
In the three synoptic gospels Jesus tells the crowd that they are making the Temple, which should be a house of prayer, into a ‘den of robbers’. There seem to be abuses in the Temple that need to be ended. In the Gospel according to John, however, Jesus tells the crowd ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace’. Jesus’ anger is not about any abuse of the sacrificial system but with the system itself. People were selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; they were offering a service to those pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and had not brought animals with them. The moneychangers were replacing Roman money, with human images on it, with money which was acceptable for paying the Temple tithes. There’s no mention of any abuse of the system here; it’s the system against which Jesus protests.
In the conversation between Jesus and the surrounding crowd we are given an insight into why the old order is changing. The Temple was the dwelling place of God; animals were sacrificed there because it was there that the glory of God was revealed to Israel. But when the crowd asks him for a sign, Jesus answers: ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up’ and John tells us, ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body’. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and the glory of God that was revealed in the Temple is now revealed in the body of Jesus. There is no longer any need to sacrifice animals or pay Temple taxes when God-in-Jesus walks among the people.
Jesus is behaving badly. He disrupts the temple system so that neither sacrifices nor tithes can be offered, and this at Passover. He claims a special relationship with God, referring to him as ‘my Father’. He makes an apparently ludicrous assertion about his ability to rebuild the Temple. In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke the cleansing of the Temple takes place during Passion Week; according to Matthew and Luke Jesus goes to the Temple on the very day that he enters Jerusalem in triumph, according to Mark on the day after, and his behaviour there is one reason that the authorities decide that he must die. It may also partly explain the otherwise inexplicable transformation of the crowd; from singing psalms of praise as Jesus enters the city to shouting, ‘Crucify him’. No one likes someone who challenges their most treasured religious rituals.
No one likes people who challenge the status quo, especially not if they do it with anger. There is truth in the lines of the hymn that we will sing at the end of today’s service, ‘Inspired by love and anger’: ‘Don’t query our position! Don’t criticise our wealth! Don’t mention those exploited by politics and stealth!’
‘Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.’ Jesus expressed anger in a way that would have outraged the media commentators and politicians of his day. In fact, we know that it did outrage them. In Jesus the Church believes we see both the fullness of humanity and the fullness of divinity; he is truly human and truly God. The Scriptures talk about times when the wrath of God is appropriate; in Jesus’ actions in the Temple we see that sometimes human wrath is equally necessary. The Apostle James might tell his readers that ‘your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,’ but that is not true at all times and in all places. Sometimes, when facing the injustice of the world, it is right to be inspired by both love and anger, and it is wrong to condemn those fighting for justice for being angry. I chose the picture book I read today, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s When we say Black Lives Matter, because those marching against racism are often criticised for their anger, or dismissed as a violent mob because some marchers in some places have rioted. To those who condemn the righteously angry Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
This week many people, particularly women, have expressed anger. Before condemning this anger, or dismissing those who are demanding change from Australian institutions as a ‘mob’, let us remember today’s gospel story and Jesus’ outrageous, zealous, righteous anger in the Temple. Amen.