St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. Barbara Hutchinson
3rd Sunday in Lent Year B
March 4, 2018
“Grant us the strength to cry for justice, to be angry for love. Grant us the grace of a strong soul, O God, grant us the grace to be strong.” John Phillip Newell, a contemporary Celtic theologian, offers these words in an evening prayer from his psalter, Sounds of the Eternal.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus reveals the strength to cry for justice, to be angry for love, and “live and move and have his being” as coming from the place of a strong soul. Jesus is focused on overturning that which distracts or inhibits people from fully worshiping God, be it the unjust sacrificial temple tax system that excludes the poor from entering the temple he found in Jerusalem or the many priorities we place in our lives over that of worshiping God. Jesus knows that when we worship God with all our heart, mind, and soul, we can do no else but acknowledge and embrace a holy anger set deep within us that empowers us to right the wrongs, to overturn the imbalance in an oppressive political or religious system, to fight for justice and peace, and to care for the least among us, as Jesus did.
This gospel story, as shocking as it is portraying Jesus’ violent behavior, becomes even more shocking, (or perhaps interesting, or profound,) as we attend to its placement within this particular gospel. A rare event, this story appears in all four of the canonical gospels. However, in the synoptic gospels, (those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke,) the story appears at the very end, immediately after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem when the crowds shouted: “Hosanna in the highest”. Jesus’ deliberate actions in the temple that very same evening are the catalyst for his arrest – the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the religious officials. His words and actions spoke blasphemy and carried with them a threat to the authority and financial stability of the temple authorities. We can understand how Jesus’ violent and aggressive attitude would turn the crowd against him and provoke the crowd’s own violent and aggressive response: “Crucify him!”
In John’s gospel, however, this passage is not at the end of the story, but rather at the beginning, accounting for the second sign by which people began to understand his identity and eagerly follow him. Among the questions this story raises for us is “Why would John change the order of the stories of Jesus?”
As we know, John’s gospel was the last one written, so John clearly knew the storyline of the other gospels and, since the other three all agree on placing this story at the end, we can assume that they were historically correct. So why does John put this story at the beginning?
Perhaps because it is one of the most defining moments in Jesus’ life and John wanted us to understand these actions as the lens through which to view the rest of the story. I know that when I’m asked to introduce myself to a group for the first time, I often begin by identifying myself as an Episcopal priest, for I imagine this descriptor most clearly reflects my essence, my identity, my truth. We can imagine John saw Jesus’ overturning of the tables as the essence of Jesus’ identity and truth, and that which unfurls in his life and ministry. One of the truths of Jesus is that Jesus’ holy anger often leads him to overturn that which is wrong, that which is opposite to God’s desires for God’s people, that which is unjust. We only have to recall the story of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, which got him in so much trouble with the Pharisees, when he overturned the observance of religious law so that this man, lame for years, could get up and walk. We only have to recall Jesus overturning the purity laws of men not talking with women in public and Jews not associating with Samaritans under any circumstances, so that the heart’s desire of the Samaritan woman at the well, her need of taking within her body the living water or the eternal presence of God, could be met. We only have to recall Jesus overturning the system of cruel judgment as he handed the adulterous woman back her dignity and life by calling the accusers to their own truth. This defining moment in Jesus’ life, in which he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple, seems to be a theme in John’s story of Jesus, for Jesus seems to make it very clear that there are some things, some injustices, some practices, some oppressive behavior or skewed priorities, which are worthy of our cry for justice and our holy anger. This particular challenging story of Jesus’ action can be seen as the thesis statement of the long paragraph of John’s narrative of Jesus’ life, the nugget of truth which set the stage for everything else he did, and which was the impetus, not for the crucifixion, but for the healing and transformation he offered to the world, for his life and ministry, and for the ultimate overturning of death into life through his resurrection.
This violent act, – prophetic, tension-filled, and expressive of Jesus’ role in emptying the world of that which distracted people from seeing the new thing God was doing in his personhood – is set also in contrast to Jesus’ preceding act: filling up the water jugs at the wedding in Cana. That act, Jesus’ first sign which pointed to his identity and inspired people to follow him, in contrast, was one of joy, celebration, festivity and abundance. Here we have Jesus meeting the needs of the world, not by giving what was expected, but by offering the best wine, the best of himself, the over-flowing grace which was more than any of them could ever ask for or imagine.
So the first and second signs telling us the best of Jesus include an “angry-for-love” voice, a “cry-for justice” passion, and prophetic action focused on ridding the world of that which has gone terribly wrong, that which has discarded God’s priorities for God’s people, that which prohibits people from living the abundant life Jesus is now calling them into. Jesus is angry because the world has lost her way and has become so entrenched in an oppressive political and religious system that she fails to see the newness he is offering us. In this almost scary story, Jesus is giving the strong message, right up front, that some things need to be torn down for Jesus to be known to the world. Deep within this story is the truth that Jesus’ very body has become the new location, the new temple, the new embodiment of the presence of God. From now on, it would be his body and blood that we take within us, that would show us the abundant life desired for all, and which would give us the strong soul from which might cry for justice and be angry for love, so we can continue the healing and transformation of our world.
My question for you today is “When have you been angry for love, when have you had the strength to cry out for justice? What have you felt compelled to overturn so that God’s abundant love can be for all? “
If you have no answer, I invite you to ponder these questions. I imagine there is something deep within your heart that you care immensely about, that you want everyone to have the opportunity for, for you know that is God’s desire. When we share in God’s desire, we share in Jesus’ commitment to work toward that being so.
This gospel passage can feel scary to us because Jesus is really angry and we’re not always comfortable with Jesus’ anger… or ours. We often don’t know what to do with it. We can get out from under it in this story if we point our fingers and imagine his anger was only against a particular group of Jews of the time who didn’t get it right, but that’s not fair. Rather it is more instructive for us to believe Jesus’ anger is holy, in that it reveals God to us and God’s determination for change in our world’s priorities. Of course, the problem with that is that it puts it right in our laps, instructing us that there needs to be something we care deeply enough about to be angry for love.
Now it might seem strange to you to hear me promoting the emotion of anger, for sometimes our world seems filled to the brim and beyond with angry voices, voices that refuse to hear the opposing point of view; voices that shut down conversation, rather than engage it; voices that tear down the hearts of others, rather than work toward reconciliation; angry voices that divides rather than bring people into communion. I’m not talking about this hurtful, myopic blast of negativity often hurled at others. That’s not holy anger. That’s not born from God’s sense of justice.
I’m talking about that feeling in your gut you get when something’s wrong and you need to fix it. I’m talking about what keeps you up at night, when your heart can’t rest, because of the unfair treatment you witnessed today in Walmart of someone with a particular skin color or economic class. I’m talking about the pain in your heart you feel when you put your hands on someone for prayer at the community meal, knowing that what they need, in addition to prayer, is health care they will never afford. This is holy anger, rooted in the justice of God.
Part of following Jesus letting his commitments to justice shape our commitments to justice, to allow his concerns for the access of all people to the abundant life to become our concerns, to embrace what he got worked up about and allow it to be what we get worked up about. If we keep reading through John’s gospel, there are more stories of Jesus’ defining moments, what he cared about and wanted to change, and our work in following Jesus is letting that define us to.
In John’s gospel, it’s basically Jesus’ love for the world that got him killed. That means when we follow Jesus, when we resolve to be committed to that which Jesus was, we are at risk. It costs us a lot to follow Jesus; it costs the world a lot more if we don’t.
A journey with Jesus will always contain both abundance and challenge, the overflowing jars of the best wine and the overturning of the tables, blessing and change, joy and anger because we who follow Jesus will meet God in him and we will see what God sees: how beautiful and beloved we are, – the reason for our joy – but also how broken and mean we can be, how entrenched we have become in systems that deny people the abundant life God wants for them and for us, which become our reasons for anger.
The questions before us is: “As we look back out on our lives, will our standout memories, our defining moments reflect any of the joy of Jesus, when grace offered to us exceeds what we could ever ask for or imagine, or the righteous anger of Jesus, more than what we could ever ask for or imagine? Does what moved Jesus move us too?”