They arrived at Jerusalem. Immediately on entering the Temple Jesus started throwing out everyone who had set up shop there, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of the bankers and the stalls of the pigeon merchants.
He didn't let anyone even carry a basket through the Temple.
And then he taught them, quoting this text: My house was designated a house of prayer for the nations; You've turned it into a hangout for thieves.
The high priests and religion scholars heard what was going on and plotted how they might get rid of him. They panicked, for the entire crowd was carried away by his teaching.
Mark 11: 15-18 The Message
One of the more curious incidents in all of the Gospels happens when Jesus enters the temple at Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly life. The temple had been turned into a sort of farmer’s market, and it had lost its place as being one wholly devoted to worship. Jesus started flipping over all the tables containing items for sale. Some people were selling doves, and other sacrificial animals, as such things were needed for proper sacrifices at the temple at that time. I wonder if others were selling their pottery, or jewelry, or rugs and other household items? The scripture is not completely clear about all that was being sold, but I wonder if the items for sale had expanded beyond just animals for sacrifice. After all, the temple would have been the perfect high traffic location to display all their wares, since people went there daily.
Jesus occasionally spoke harshly to people, when they deserved such harsh speech. But this is perhaps the only time where Jesus acts in anger. He had been frustrated at various times throughout his ministry, but this was different. He was beyond frustrated. He was angry, but he acted without sinning. This is a prime example of “righteous anger!”
What lessons might we learn from this incident in Jesus’ life? One might be that there is a time for everything, even anger. A parishioner once told me that Jesus never got angry. I brought up this story, and asked her if it sounded like Jesus was angry at that moment. She had to admit that Jesus did show his anger in the temple. Perhaps that conversation helped her to consider the truth that there is a time when anger is appropriate. What makes anger truly righteous? First, there is a difference between anger and rage. Jesus showed anger over one specific thing, and He focused upon something which was truly wrong. In most of the gospel stories, other people are angry at Jesus, and Jesus is calm! There is a reason why Jesus is called “The Prince of Peace.” He was generally peaceful, and not moved to anger. Frustration yes, but not anger. Even when He was crucified unjustly on the cross, He was forgiving, rather than angry.
So, what made Jesus so angry in the temple that day? He saw that some business-minded people had realized that the temple was a place where they could easily turn a profit. The Jews were required by the law to offer these particular sacrifices at certain times. People knew they could “pick up a dove at the temple”, like we think of picking up some milk and bread at the grocery store.
Later that week, Jesus himself would become the ultimate sacrifice, and doves and goats would no longer be needed. When Jesus arrived, he saw how far the temple had drifted from its original intent. What had started as a house of prayer had become just another house of business.
This can happen to any place, any group, any individual, and even any church over a long period of time. The original mission can be forgotten over time. This had happened at the temple, which had lost sight of its true mission. I suspect it didn’t happen overnight. One worshipper may have realized they needed a dove. Then someone else said, “hey, let’s sell some doves here”. I suspect it grew from there. The same thing can happen with each of us and within a church: things can slowly begin to move away from the original mission. This phenomena of gradually losing one’s original focus even has a name: “Mission drift.”
In Jesus’ mind, a gentle speech alone would not be enough to correct the “mission drift” in the temple. No! Action was needed. As we know, actions speak louder than words. Thus, Jesus took bold and decisive action. He flipped over tables. He probably let some animals free. Money spilled all over the floor… Jesus created chaos in the temple that day!
As you might imagine, this didn’t go unnoticed. As merchants watched their businesses being tossed, some religious leaders began to plot to kill Jesus. After all, He was literally bad for business! They were beginning to be afraid that His message was becoming too popular with the people. They wanted to stop the spread of His message, and the easiest way to do so, they thought, would be to kill him. (Little did they know that later that same week, the world would learn that even death would not silence Jesus!)
How should we react to this passage? It certainly isn’t a permission slip to be angry whenever something upsets us. If we are honest, we all feel anger occasionally. Yet it is how we choose to respond to that anger which makes the difference in our lives, and the lives of others. Jesus had a history with the temple, and He was saddened and angered at what had become. He did not go on and on for that entire week, yelling and complaining about that incident. No, he expressed His anger, and then moved on. His mission was not to teach through anger, but through example.
In our churches, and in our lives, when things have turned away from their original mission, Jesus wants us to see the detour we have taken. Then, he wants us to correct our course, and to move back to the original mission. Jesus got mad, and needed to point out what was happening, in order to get their attention. Sometimes, the only way to get things back on track is to show some emotion to get the attention of others. Ultimately, we need to move back to the cross, the mission, and the love that Jesus wants us to show towards others.
What is our true mission, and are we still heading in that direction? Are we willing to take a stand, like Jesus did, knowing that it could upset others, or make them uncomfortable? It can be so much easier to just go along with the flow. However, we are called by Jesus’s example to speak up, to take a stand, and to rattle some cages, if necessary.
In the 1960s, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was frustrated by many white pastors, and their message to black people. The ministers told Rev. King to quit rocking the boat. “Just be more patient”, they said. Things would eventually change. Rev. King disagreed, and that is one of the major themes of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Like Jesus in the temple that day, he believed the situation warranted immediate action. Our Gospel story tells us that sometimes, immediate action is needed. Jesus was a patient man, but He was impatient with those who derailed God’s mission, using it to their own advantage. The temple was meant to be a house of prayer. May each of our homes be homes of prayer. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33
God in heaven,
Help us to be angered by the things which make you angry. Guide all of our actions, and help us to follow Your example. On those rare occasions when we are called to take a stand, may we do so with a desire to seek Your will, above our own. We pray this prayer in the name who once flipped tables in order to defend prayer, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.