Why So Upset?
The Gospel for this Third Sunday of Lent gives us a shocking picture of Jesus. Our gentle savior has turned violent. He erupts as he sees merchants vend oxen, sheep and doves in the temple, sees money-changers doing base commerce in God’s house.
Not only is this unlike the Jesus we know, but doesn’t it violate the holy temple? These trades-people were selling animals because living creatures were needed for burnt offerings. People had to buy them somewhere. And they had to get their money changed, since so many of them came from lands with different currencies. Sounds quite reasonable doesn’t it?
Not to Jesus. He yells, “you are desecrating my Father’s temple!” He grabs some dividing cords, yanking them into a knot, and whips the vendors. Whips them! Quite a terrible sight. He heaves the carefully sorted coins into an unholy mess on the floor and finishes up by hurtling the tables into this chaos he has created.
How in the world does such fury coincide with the quiet, humble Jesus we will see in Holy Week? There he will barely say a word, even though his enemies will be violating the Father’s holiest temple of all, Jesus’ very self.
What is going on here?
Some external reasons for his vehemence are evident.
Vendors were allowed only in the courtyard of the temple, not inside where they now had established themselves. And perhaps the dishonest practices of outdoor market-places had stolen their way into the temple. The thumb on the scale, the inflated prices, all of that.
There is another, internal reason which is much more important. Jesus knew with blessed certainty what human beings were created to be. We are made to be filled with God’s presence, to be beloved by God personally and to love God in return. We are most ourselves when we are not entrapped by riches honor and pride. We are designed to “let go and let God.” Jesus must have been overwhelmed when he saw merchants winking at these Godly values, preferring cold cash and cheating for it at the dead center of sacred space.
Everything was upside down.
Why did he react so very differently during Holy Week? Why was he silent then? Because by then Jesus had come to understand the depths of his mission: not just to do social action—that’s what the temple scene was—not just to cure the people miraculously, not to preach from the hillsides. He saw that he must become one with our death as well as our life, must unite with us in the terrible hurts we get from each other. Only then could he show how very close God is.
Wrath for sure can be an understandable and just reaction to selfishness and greed. The merchants were seeking short-term profit at the expense of freedom, holiness, truth, and completion of the human spirit. Worse, they were foisting all this upon the people Jesus had come to save.
No wonder he hurled himself against these blind money grubbers. His emotion was real and quite impressive. But by contrast, on the cross he would empty himself out. He would surrender everything, including his fury, a surrender that would cancel out the grubbing of the money changers.
Fr. John Foley, SJ
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