In Matthew 21, a brief account of Jesus clearing the temple is recorded. While other gospels mention this event, the basics are the same. So what was going on and why did Jesus respond as he did? The normally calm and peaceful Christ responded with anger and violence. How does this relate to the world today and does it mean that it’s okay for me to respond with anger and violence? All are valid questions and worth examining.
First, what was going on? By the first century, Jerusalem had become a cosmopolitan city and as a result of the Jewish Diaspora, many would come from all over the ancient world to both worship in the temple and pay the temple tax. The temple tax could only be paid in one form and thus the need for money changers, who would exchange whatever currency was brought them for the proper form for a fee. Thus, they were profiting off pilgrims who were simply trying to meet the basics of their faith. In truth, this is something that should have been done as a courtesy rather than a business model. Secondly, a sacrifice had to be performed using the right animal without blemish. A priest had to certify that the animal was correct and without blemish. In this same area, stalls were set up with animals that had been “pre-certified” by the priest. Just in case your animal didn’t meet the cut or you hadn’t brought one (especially after traveling a long distance), you could exchange / purchase such an animal again for a marked up fee. The issue was the same people were being taken advantage of and prevented from worship. Thirdly, this was taking place in the outer court. This was the only place Gentiles could come and “worship” if they chose, and all others had to pass through. This meant there was a constant din of noise as money was exchanged and animals crowded the stalls. So Jesus, who is also fully God, became indignant as these people were profiting off the crowds and impeding their ability to worship. He turned over tables, fashioned a whip, and drove out the money changers. This was one of the actions that led the High Priest, Pharisees, and Sadducee to decide something must be done to this troublemaker.
Jesus responded with what we might call “Righteous Anger.” It was born out of people who were supposed to be encouraging and assisting in worship actively preventing and profiting off it. It was other-centered and not self-centered. While Jesus did have harsh words at times for religious leaders such as the Priest and Pharisees, this is the only time when violence was recorded. Notice he would also around this same time encourage people to pay their taxes to the Roman Empire. Jesus was no anarchist, nor even a socialist. In fact, when confronted with arrest (for which he had committed no crime), a sham trial, and even a chance to plead mercy from the Roman Governor, what did Jesus do? Nothing. He was for the most part silent. He didn’t rail against the system or the Romans. He took his beating quite literally, all the insults, and died on a cross. With his last breath (a very prescient thought in this moment) he called for the forgiveness of his persecutors. Later, Stephen would emulate Christ when he was stoned by an angry mob.
So what do we learn from this and how do we apply it to our lives today? First, anger is an okay emotion and response to injustice. Remember though, Jesus’ anger was directed at the perpetrators and not an entire class or group of people. He took them as individuals, not as collectives. It was also not in response to a personal affront, but on injury to others. While at times a level of violence may be warranted, again it must be limited and proportional. Jesus flipped over tables and used a whip to drive people out. He didn’t take any of the money or the animals. So wholesale violence against a collective of people, wanton destruction, and theft are not on the table.
In most instances, our Anger is never as righteous as that of Jesus. Why? Because we are usually at least in part motivated by selfish urges or personal affronts. We often seek revenge, and remember that is the province of God, not us. By launching wholesale assaults on groups or society and seeking to disrupt everything, we sow more chaos, breed anger and resentment instead of calls for peace and justice. Unlike God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive, we are quick to anger and slow to forgive. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be upset when we see injustice before us. Become upset, or even angry at times. This is indeed an okay response. But check yourself first. Were you attacked, assaulted, or injured or was it someone else who is otherwise defenseless? Are you seeking justice or vengeance? Are you getting, or planning to get, something out of your response? Are you directing your anger toward a group as a whole, or only those who have acted inappropriately?
As protests fill our land, it is good and right that we let the powers that be know we are not happy, that we are upset and will not long suffer such injustice or indignity toward our neighbors. It is good to let them know they are not alone in their moment of difficulty and offer aide and comfort toward them. At the same time, we must not let anger and hate so fill our hearts that there is no room for love and forgiveness. Violence is not the answer to set an example and impact change. Jesus had many opportunities to use force and power to demonstrate who he was and to bring about the change for which he came. At every turn he rejected this and used love instead. If one is looking for an example of Christ to follow, perhaps the myriad of times he forgave and loved even the most unloving would be better than the one time he responded with anger and violence.
In short, yes there are times when such a response is warranted, but those instances are few. Jesus was almost killed by the people in his hometown; he ignored them. John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded; Jesus did not attempt to free him nor lead any real response to the act. James and John wanted to bring down fire upon the Samaritans for spurning Christ; he rejected this. I already mentioned his arrest, scourging, trial, and execution. In fact, the closest one reads of a riot in the New Testament is when the people of Ephesus rose up because Paul’s message was hurting the trade of the silversmiths. Remember God is a God of love and order. If what you are seeing is not of Love and full of disorder and chaos, then chances are it is not from God, but rather from the Enemy. Bear this in mind when as you choose whom to support and whom to denounce.
Remember it is never okay to be mean, violent, cruel, or nasty for Jesus, or act as such in His name.