Continuing the discourse on the four challenges to Jesus as a model for human behaviour, today’s post examines the cleansing of the temple – a common story used to describe Jesus’ anger. The story is that Jesus entered the temple and found people buying and selling. He made a whip and drove them away from there.
First and foremost, one must delineate the term ‘anger’ because there are several synonyms with subtle differences. ‘Anger’ is the general term for a strong feeling of displeasure towards something. However, it doesn’t often convey the cause or intensity of this displeasure. ‘Ire’ entails an intense anger with an evident display of feeling. ‘Rage’ and ‘fury’ connote loss of self-control from the violence of emotion. ‘Indignation’ emphasises righteous anger at what one considers unfair, mean, or shameful. ‘Wrath’ suggests a desire to punish or get revenge. The above distinction is from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Therefore, the first point is that the right word to describe Jesus’ action in the temple is indignation, not anger. This is because he reacted to something unfair and shameful. He said to the sellers: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matt 21:13), and to the pigeon sellers: “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16). These statements also respond to the second question about the rightness of Jesus’ action.
Third, we sometimes use this passage to justify destructive action in response to anger. Yet, Jesus was not destructive because he calculated his measures to prevent causing irrevocable loss. The scriptures read:
“And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Matt 21:12). “And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through” (Mark 11:15-16). “In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:14-16).
A close study of the above shows Jesus’ gentleness. First, Jesus drove the sheep and oxen out of the temple. Driving these animals will not cause irrevocable damage because the herders would recover them immediately. Second, Jesus poured out the money changers’ coins and overturned their tables. The money changers will still pick up their coins. Third, Jesus did not release the pigeons but overturned the seat of the pigeon sellers, telling them to take the birds away. This was instructive because if he had released the pigeons, they would have flown away, not to return. Falcons or eagles could have also attacked the pigeons. This confirms Jesus’ words: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will” (Matt 10:29).
Fourth, John’s account says: “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple.” Did the use of the whip undermine Jesus’ gentleness? A whip is a sign of authority. As students, we saw our teachers and prefects carrying whips, representing their authority. The whip moved everyone to action even without them using it. Moreover, since animals don’t hear, the best way to move them (as seen among shepherds and herders) was to use the whip. With the whip, Jesus moved the sheep and oxen; of course, their owners followed them when they moved. Jesus also overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of pigeon sellers. There is no doubt that a whip does not overturn seats and tables. In all, one sees that there was no need to whip humans and doing so would have been violent.
As people who exercise ecclesiastical authority, how do we react when in conflict with a parishioner? Do we go to the pulpit to call them out or try to sort it out peacefully? As Jesus did not cause irrevocable loss to any of the sellers, do we realise that we cause irrevocable damage once we preach or talk negatively about a parishioner from the altar? Do we realise that while only a few may know about the conflict, altar announcement informs the entire parishioners? Do we realise that such altar pronouncements could be a blackmail? Would we be happy if one blackmails us?
I intentionally used ‘conflict’ rather than ‘those who offend us’. Chinasa Ugwuanyi defines conflict as “a state of tension that exists when one party perceives that its goals, needs, desires, or expectations are being blocked by another party.” Before we justify our stand, have we asked ourselves why we don’t really like that parishioner? If the person challenges our authority, is it because we are acting illegally or trying to lord it over everyone? Is the person the lone voice crying caution about money matters in the parish? Did the person refuse to be a sycophant or support funding projects or donations that promote only the priest’s ego while undermining the parish’s financial status?
Do we weaponise the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, against communities that do not accept our excessive use of power or do not share our views about raising or spending Church money? Here, I point out that one can separate the administration of ecclesiastical institutions from administering sacraments. A parish may not have a parish priest, but masses and confessions are done there.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC, 1131).
This means that neither we, the ministers, nor the Church owns the sacraments. We are only caretakers. Hence, the Church only regulates the sacraments through canon law to safeguard them from abuse. Of course, the law is explicit on impediments to receiving a sacrament and when one can deny a capable person from receiving it.
Yet, even canon law allows exceptions, especially in periculo mortis. Few people are not enough to deny a community the sacrament. Salvation, though wrought for all, is never communal but personal. St Paul says: “Work out your OWN salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Consider this canon: “An infant of catholic parents, indeed even of non-catholic parents, may in danger of death be baptised even if the parents are opposed to it” (Canon 868 §2).
Jesus once again shows us an example when he preached in his hometown. The scripture reads:
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:3-5).
Yes, while the people rejected Jesus, some believed, and Jesus ensured these got their blessings.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾