By Father John P. Cush, STD
“ZEAL FOR YOUR house consumes me.” In the Gospel that we read today from the Evangelist John, we are faced with a very different view of the Lord Jesus.
For many, the kind and gentle Jesus – teller of parables and worker of miracles, the loving and accepting Christ who is Lord – appeals to us. We are used to a Jesus who is meek and humble of heart. When confronted by a Jesus like we meet in today’s Gospel, we can be a bit confused, and even put off.
A Tougher Side
This is a Jesus who makes a whip of cords and physically drives out the money-changers and merchants from the Temple, His Father’s House. They have made the Holy of Holies a den of thieves. Filled not with sinful anger, but righteous indignation, the Lord Jesus can appear a bit tougher than we are used to seeing. By His actions and attitudes, the Christian soul who longs to encounter the gentle Jesus can be left disturbed and confused.
Perhaps we can examine this whole experience of the Lord Jesus in two ways. First, how can we understand the cleansing of the Temple? Where does it fit into the greater picture of the Lord Jesus’ life, both in the Gospel of John and in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke?
Second, how are we to interpret Jesus’ actions and attitudes in the Gospel? What can this say about the place of warranted anger and righteous indignation in our lives?
The Gospel of John places the cleansing of the Temple in a rather unusual spot if you think about it. The Evangelist puts this key event at the very start of the ministry of Jesus, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, who all locate the cleansing of the Temple after Palm Sunday with the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
Perhaps St. John tells the story a differently than the other Evangelists because he wants to demonstrate at the very start of his Gospel that Jesus is greater than the Temple, which for the Jews, was the personification of their religion. The Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets, the last and greatest of whom attested to Him, namely St. John the Baptist.
The Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, which we hear about in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. By putting this key event, which really is an act of public insurrection – one that would ultimately seal Jesus’ fate, making Him a persona non grata in the eyes of not only the Jewish religious leaders, but also the Roman rulers – at the beginning of His public ministry, the readers of this Gospel would be able to understand what the Evangelist was getting at: Jesus is the Messiah and the Lawgiver.
Second, how can we interpret the Lord’s anger? It is not sinful anger, but rather righteous indignation. Jesus is patient and kind. He is not seeking revenge or to hurt anyone. We recall here who Jesus is: one Divine Person, fully God and fully man, like us in all things but sin. What is anger but a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure and rage? What Jesus displays is righteousness indignation – a demonstration of umbrage at what is clearly unjust. Jesus sees the place designated for the worship of God in spirit and truth transformed into something it should not be – a market.
However, we must remember that anger, in and of itself, for us as humans is not evil; it’s just an emotion. What we do with the emotion makes the difference between virtue and vice.
Anger can be transformed and used virtuously, if we do not give into sinful rage or egotistic fury. Allowing anger to become a passion for justice is essential in Christian life and can be virtuous. St. John Chrysostom, one of the Fathers of the Church, wrote: “He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices” (Homily 11). The Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, stated: “Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason” (Summa Theologiae II, IIae 158.8). If some things, some injustices that we encounter in our lives, do not make us angry and spur us on to want to work for change, then we are not really attuned to what is good and just in the world.
Seeking Retribution or Love
A question for us, then, is this: Do we act in anger, searching for retribution? Or do we act in righteous indignation, allowing our anger to transform us to act out of love? There is plenty to be angry about in daily life and in the course of world events. When we are angry and act unthinkingly, we want to strike out. The difference in righteous indignation is that we want to set the scales right, not only for ourselves, but also for others. It is the difference between justice (righteous indignation) and vengeance (anger). Righteous indignation is an act of love.
Do we let emotions, which we all experience, control us? Or do we control our emotions, channeling anger into a thirst for justice through righteous indignation, born of love and mercy for those who are being hurt? Let’s reflect on this in our Lenten journey this week.
Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20: 1-17 or
Exodus 20: 1-3, 7-8, 12-17
Psalm 19: 8, 9, 10, 11
1 Corinthians 1: 22-25
John 2: 13-25
Father Cush, a priest of the Brooklyn Diocese, serves as an academic dean and formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State, and as an associate professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church history.