by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus made a whip of cords and drove sheep and oxen alike out of the temple area, and knocked over the money changers’ tables, spilling their coins. He said to those selling doves: “Get them out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” John 2, 13-25
I trust that, for most of us, this Sunday’s gospel-reading will be a source of consolation. We all know just how powerful anger can be, especially when our anger gets the better of us and we direct it with great hostility at somebody or something that has upset us. We also know that we can misdirect our angry feelings and slam a door or make a hostile remark to the first person we encounter. Anger, however, is just one of a whole range of emotions. It has attracted a bad reputation because of the ways in which we human beings misdirect it. We can use it destructively to cause others grief and pain. But it can also bring out the best in us when we make the effort to use it constructively. In today’s gospel-reading, we encounter a Jesus who is uncharacteristically angry. Moreover, he does direct his anger at vendors and money-changers who have developed the practice of profiteering on the trust of well-intentioned pilgrims who have come to offer sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. He channels his righteous anger into taking vigorous action in order to restore the temple to what it was meant to be: a place of prayer and sacrifice for everyone who came into it. Undoubtedly, those who were the target of Jesus’ rampage would have been quick to cry foul or to protest that what they were doing was accepted practice. John noted that Jesus’ disciples tried to justify what Jesus had done by attributing it to his religious zeal – the kind of action a prophet would take. Their words echo a verse of Psalm 69 with which they would have been familiar: “I have become an outcast to my brothers…because zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me” (Psalm 69, 9-10). Those watching from the sidelines, demanded that Jesus explain where he got the authority to act as he had done. But Jesus did not give them the satisfaction of an explanation. Instead, he diverted their attention by tossing out an enigmatic statement for them to puzzle over: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
It was at this point in the story that John shifted from his role of story-teller to interpreter. With the benefit of hindsight, having witnessed the execution and the resurrection of Jesus, John inserted a categorical, unqualified interpretation of Jesus’ puzzling remark: “Actually, he was talking about the temple of his body. Only after Jesus had been raised from the dead did his disciples recall that he had said this, and come to believe the Scripture and the word he had spoken” (John 2, 21-22). Implicit in this rider to his story, is an invitation from the Gospel writer to engage with the text to make meaning of it for ourselves. Indeed, I suggest that we only make sense of readings from the Bible, and from any other source, to the extent that we engage with the text.
But let’s focus a little more on the anger that drove Jesus to create uproar in the temple precinct. He was so angry with the commercialisation being forced on well-intentioned pilgrims that he took drastic action, thereby forcing those involved and those who were mere bystanders to open their eyes to the hypocrisy of what was going on. This physical intervention by Jesus was an expression of the anger he felt at the way in which religious worship was being used as a business venture by sharp merchants.
This story constitutes an invitation to each of us to pause and reflect on what it is that makes us angry enough to want to change ourselves, our Church and the injustices that pertain in that part of the world to which we belong.
Today’s gospel-reading, I suggest, contains a double challenge for us. One picks up Lent’s focus on conversion of mind and heart: Are we angry enough with ourselves to do something towards changing our rigid, unhealthy attitudes, our harmful prejudices – racial, political, societal – so that we grow to be more compassionate, more understanding of others, more tolerant? The second challenge relates to the criticisms we sometimes have of our Church. Are we angry enough with some aspects of our Church to risk engaging in dialogue with our parish and diocesan leaders? Walking away in protest or disgust at the sins of the past or present achieves nothing productive and is more likely to cultivate bitterness.
Pope Francis has been courageous in speaking the truth in love to the Vatican Curia (cardinals, bishops, priests and lay leaders working in the Vatican). In his address to the Roman Curia & the Body of Christ (that’s us!) in December 2014, he spoke of the spiritual diseases that he detected in Church members within and beyond the Vatican. Immediately in front of him were all the cardinals and bishops of the Vatican. These are some of the “diseases” he urged them to address within and among themselves: mental and spiritual petrification, gossip, grumbling, back-biting, living double lives, idolising superiors to win favours, wearing lugubrious faces, forming closed cliques. He concluded his address, which is still accessible on the Vatican website (www.vatican.va), with the following: “These are diseases that can affect every curia, community, congregation, parish and church movement. They can strike at individual and communal levels” (Pope Francis, Address to the Roman Curia & Body of Christ, December 22, 2014).
Pope Francis has been intent on overturning metaphorical temple-tables that have found their way into the Church. For example, there is an edge of detectable anger in his response to a question from a Jesuit about avoiding clericalism in the process of formation for priestly ministry: “Clericalism is a real perversion in the Church. The shepherd has the ability to go in front of the flock to show the way, stay in the middle of the flock to see what happens within, and also be at the rear of the flock to make sure no one is left behind. Clericalism, on the other hand, demands that the shepherd always stays ahead, sets a course, and punishes with excommunication those who stray from the flock. In short, the very opposite of what Jesus did. Clericalism condemns, separates, beats and despises the people of God…Clericalism has a direct consequence in rigidity. Have you never seen young priests all stiff in black cassocks, and hats in the shape of the planet Saturn on their heads? Behind all the rigid clericalism there are serious problems…One dimension of clericalism is the exclusive moral fixation on the sixth commandment. We focus on sex and then do not give weight to social injustice, slander, gossip and lies. The Church today needs a profound conversion in this area.” (Pope Francis at a meeting with Jesuits in Mozambique, 5th September 2019)
These comments echo his words to leaders of religious orders in 2013, when he cautioned them about ensuring the health of the seminary formation they provided: “Seminary formation must be a work of art, not a police action where seminarians grit their teeth, try not to make mistakes, follow the rules smiling a lot, just waiting for the day when they are told: ‘Good, you have finished formation.’…Formation must form their hearts. Otherwise, we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mould the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps.” (Pope Francis, Address to 120 superiors of religious orders, Rome, 29th November 2013)
The Pope’s reference to our being fixated on the sixth commandment is a good segue into a brief reflection on today’s first reading from Exodus which lists the Ten Commandments, a code for living which God gave to the Chosen People to breathe life into the way in which they might relate to God and to one another. The Ten Commandments and codes of conduct for those who practice professions or work with people are meant to breathe freedom and energy into those for whom they are formulated. Such codes are not intended to restrict or stifle the conduct of those for whom they are designed. They articulate the behavioural standards expected of those to whom they apply so that they preserve their own dignity and the human dignity of all those with whom they live, work and engage. (cf Foreword of Integrity in Ministry: A Document of Principles and Standards for Catholic Clergy & Religious in Australia)
The Ten Commandments set out for us the parameters within which to live ourselves in the freedom of the children of God. They guide us towards understanding what it means to respect our own dignity and the dignity of everyone with whom we engage, acutely aware of the fact that we and they are temples within whom God’s Spirit abides.
The vendors in the temple whose tables Jesus overturned might have argued that what they were doing was legitimised by custom, practice and the approval of religious leaders. Vatican II pointed to the fact that God’s Spirit needed to be allowed to breathe new life into a Church that had in many ways lost its way and its connection with those for whom Jesus came. Custom and tradition are valuable to the extent to which they preserve and promote the Gospel of Jesus. I therefore conclude with a quote from a fairly unlikely source and a prayer from an African American church:
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” Gustav Mahler
And the prayer: “Jesus, we fear that to allow for anger is to become less like you. Let us meet the God of the prophets. For you tell the truth. You hold fury at injustice. You, in embodied anger, flipped the temple tables. Would you please help us to become faithful discerners of when to calm and when to rouse? Rejecting that anger that leads to bitterness or hatred of another, yet tapping into a righteous rage when that which you’ve created is under abuse and neglect. The dignity of creation demands our emotions. Make ours a beautiful rage.” (Cole Arthur Riley, @blackliturgies, 29th July, 2020)