What was Jesus so mad about? He had just been at a joyful wedding with his disciples, spent some down time with his family, and now he’s in the temple courtyard turning over tables, driving out animals with a whip, and berating the merchants, “Get this stuff out of here!” This story, part of our lectionary readings for last Sunday, (John 2: 13-17) raises some hard questions.
What was going on? It certainly wasn’t inappropriate to sell or barter for the animals necessary for the functioning of the temple. Some biblical scholars surmise that the religious leaders had a monopoly on this activity, exploiting poor people who had no choice except to pay exorbitant prices. Luke’s Gospel indicates this by having Jesus refer to the market as a “den of robbers (Luke 19:45).”
When are displays of anger appropriate? How would you respond if you saw someone acting like Jesus did in the temple courtyard? Does he need to get help with anger management? Some have suggested that Jesus was performing a kind of street theatre to make a point. Perhaps he wasn’t really angry. No, that’s a little too easy. It encourages us to deny our emotions.
It’s impossible to resolve a conflict when we deny our anger, “What me? No, I’m not angry!” We need to acknowledge our anger and bring the conflict out into the open before we can even begin to address it. My guess is that this is what Jesus was doing when he confronted those buying and selling animals in the temple. An ugly conflict was already there but people were pretending it didn’t exist.
Anger is an emotion and, like every other emotion, part of God’s good creation. In their book on pastoral care, Kenneth Michael and Herbert Anderson write, “Anger, especially as a part of grief, is not contrary to faith or faithfulness, but an inescapable response to loss. Even so, because anger is such an embarrassing emotion, and so often unwelcome, we seldom allow ourselves to experience it cleanly or to aim it at its true object. Instead, we kick the dog for something the boss said; we pummel a racquetball because we failed an assignment; or we turn our anger inward upon ourselves” (All Our Losses: All Our Griefs, 79).
Like every other thing in life, anger can be and is often abused. Some of us use our anger to manipulate people and make them fear us. Others of us turn our anger inward on ourselves. Vietnamese Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has good advice. We should not look at our anger as something foreign that we have to fight. Instead, “I know that anger is me, and I am anger. . . I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence. . . If we annihilate anger, we annihilate ourselves” (Being Peace, 40).
A good spiritual exercise is to recognize and greet our anger with a smile. Anger is my friend who tells me something is wrong. By recognizing and listening to my anger, I can turn its potential negative energy into positive energy. It can feel like a long walk on an overcast, snowy day, but my anger can help me recognize matters that need attention and enable me to find alternatives.