29 Mar 2015
“‘“My house shall be a house of prayer,” but you are making it a den of thieves.’”(Mt. 21:13) +
This morning’s Gospel picks-up where this morning’s liturgy left off. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a very public manner, and then according to Matthew He immediately proceeds to the Temple and in a fit of righteous anger overturns the tables of the money changers shouting: “‘“My house shall be a house of prayer,” but you are making it a den of thieves.’” (Matt. 21:13) Matthew and Luke tell us this happened on Palm Sunday. Mark says it was the day after. And John thinks it was a full two years earlier. There’s obvious confusion among the Evangelists about when it happened, but it sure seems like everyone remembers that it did happen. And I think one of the reasons why everyone remembers the cleansing of the Temple is because it is so out of character for Jesus. One of the most common images of Jesus is as a peaceable man. So when He marches into the Temple precincts and a righteous anger takes over, well, people remembered.
Even today when many believers are unfamiliar with the biblical text, the story of the cleansing of the Temple is a familiar one. It’s not easy to ignore the image of an angry Jesus. But I think some people like this story because they think it justifies their own righteous anger. Not long ago, you may remember, a man walked into a doctor’s office at Mass General Hospital in Boston and shot a doctor. He felt justified in doing so because a righteous anger convinced him that this man had caused his mother’s death. The cover story of this month’s Atlantic Magazine is titled “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” (http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/03/is-it-time-for-the-jews-to-leave-europe/386279/) It was written in response to the increasing anti-Semitism on the Continent and some of it is inspired by Christians venting a righteous anger against “Christ killers.” We need to remember that it wasn’t the Jews who crucified Jesus. It was the Roman authorities. Jesus was Jewish and He was executed because Pilate thought all the talk of Jesus as the “King of the Jews” was a threat to Rome’s power. Jesus of Nazareth would be ashamed of anyone threatening or killing Jews in His name. Or again, I’m afraid of what more we are going to discover about the motive of the German Wings co-pilot who intentionally slammed his aircraft into the side of a mountain killing 149 other people. In our world filled with a righteous anger that shows no deference to the innocent, would we be surprised to hear that the co-pilot thought his motive righteous and the other lives worthless?
Christians in India, Pakistan, throughout the Middle East and in parts of Africa are targeted by non-Christian majorities. They are intimidated, attacked and even murdered all because of righteous anger. Israelis attack Palestinians. Muslim fundamentalists praise the Holocaust. ISIS beheaded Coptic Christians in Libya only because they were Christians. Sunni and Shiite Muslims are bombing each others mosques. Righteous anger is everywhere today. It is so common we’re not surprised by it anymore. And that’s the difference! When Jesus acted with righteous anger, it was so out of character that it made a lasting impression. It was the exception, not the rule.
One of the details of Jesus’ Passion account is often overlooked. It’s the story of the anointing at Bethany, a village just outside of Jerusalem. This is the account where a woman comes to Jesus and anoints Him with a very costly perfume. Jesus’ disciples complain about the extravagance, and this event may have induced Judas to betray Jesus. But what is often ignored is where all of this takes place. It’s in the house of Simon the leper. This takes place only days prior to the Passover, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar. Jesus was in Jerusalem to participate in the Passover celebration just as thousands of other Jewish pilgrims were there from all over the Roman Empire. After investing so much time and energy to get to Jerusalem for the Passover, these pilgrims would have been extremely vigilant to make sure that they remained ritually clean so that they could participate in the Temple liturgy. What does Jesus do? He dines in the home of a man with leprosy. He becomes ritually unclean at that moment. While everyone around Him is worried about being excluded, Jesus only thinks about the excluded. Jesus doesn’t see religion as the reason for us versus them, of separation. Jesus sees faith as the power to bring people together.
This is the final account in Jesus’ story before the Last Supper, the arrest in Gethsemane and the crucifixion. It sets the table for these events. The cleansing of the Temple and its righteous anger is an anomaly in Jesus’ life and that’s why it’s remembered. But as we gather this Holy Week and remember again through our liturgies Jesus’ last fearful days on earth, let’s also remember that He invited Judas His betrayer to stay at the table when He said “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Let us remember that from the cross He pleaded with God to forgive even the ones who had put nails through His body praying, “‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’” (Luke 23:34) Let us remember that when He lies dead in the tomb He lies there not as a Jew or a Christian, but as a human being like all the rest of us.
Our moral responsibility is to take from Palm Sunday’s cleansing of the Temple and all of the sacred events we will remember here during Holy Week the example not so much of Jesus’ righteous anger, but that His anger was the exception not the rule. And the time that He did grow angry was because people violated the promise that “‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.’” (Isa. 56:7) Let us pray as people spiritually born of Holy Week that we don’t tolerate righteous anger as an excuse just for anger, or prejudice or close-mindedness. Instead let us remember a Saviour who went to the cross not spitting out curses, but who went out of an unbelievable, unfailing righteous love for all people. May Holy Week help us to be like this Jesus because there are far too many nuts enthralled with righteous anger. In His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo