“Getting Indignant” Colchester Federated Church, March 4, 2018, (John 2:13-22) Third Sunday in Lent

At one time, the phrase What Would Jesus Do or WWJD for short, was all the rage.  People wore WWJD stretchy plastic bracelets and t-shirts inscribed with the letters.  Driving around, one might have seen a bumper sticker on cars asking WWJD?  For Christians, it’s not a bad mindset—wondering what Jesus would do in given situations.  Though just like sometimes people say, “I’ll pray for you” in a passive aggressive way, that sometimes happened with “what would Jesus do?”  The phrase sometimes became judgmental.  So it’s pretty funny to look at internet memes of WWJD.  We could easily find a picture of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple and the caption reads, “If anyone ever asks you ‘what would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility.”

And it’s true.  Jesus really did this.  Jesus thought that the Temple sacrificial system in Jerusalem was unjust and exploiting the poor, so he wanted to send a message.  The animals that were present for sacrifice had to be unblemished and pure.  Foreign currencies had to be exchanged for the official half-shekel of the Temple tax.  Jesus didn’t like some of these practices.  So he drove the sheep and the cattle away with a whip of cords.  He poured out all the coins that the moneychangers had collected from this enterprise.  Jesus then overturned the tables on which they would conduct their business, and he tells the people who were selling doves (the only animal the poorest of the poor could afford), “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”[1]

Now in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), this episode takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry.  This was the event that sealed Jesus’ fate.  And how it’s presented in the Synoptics is probably the most historically accurate representation of what happened and when.  Jesus had this dramatic upheaval of the Temple sacrificial system right around Passover.  When Jews (including himself and his disciples) would travel from all over the countryside to Jerusalem to observe this holy festival.

Passover was a week-long festival in the spring, where people celebrated the Exodus from Egypt and the harvest of barley.  It was a celebration that expressed the themes of liberation from oppression and divine salvation.[2]  People would gather in Jerusalem, and the city would have been bustling with people and activity.  There would have probably been extra Roman soldiers on hand to keep the peace.  If there’s one thing the Romans hated more than anything, it was rabble rousers who disturbed the Pax Romana (the peace of the Roman Empire.)  And this Jewish festival that celebrated themes of liberation from oppression would have made the Roman soldiers a bit on guard since they were foreigners occupying this nation after all.

So here comes Jesus into this charged religious and political atmosphere, going into the Temple complex and causing a scene.  Overturning tables, releasing sacrificial animals, using a whip, yelling at those taking advantage of the poor—“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  It’s no wonder that this was the event that led to his crucifixion because those in power couldn’t overlook the message that Jesus was sending here.  This dramatic display of disapproving economic exploitation of the least of these made the Romans and Jewish leadership realize just how troublesome Jesus of Nazareth really was.  And for them, Jesus had to go.

But in the Gospel according to John, John uses this story to set the tone for the remaining Gospel.  This event happens in Chapter 2 of John’s Gospel, to put us all on alert for the signs to come.  It’s a little weird to be preaching this Lectionary text on the Third Sunday in Lent.  Yet that’s when it appears this year so we’re talking about it early.  Though it’s so interesting because in John, this story is Jesus’ big first-time public appearance and happens right after the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.  It foreshadows the destruction of the elite of society’s center of power, Jerusalem itself.  The Romans will sack the city in 70 C.E. and destroy the Temple that had taken so many years to build.[3]  Overturning the tables early in the Gospel makes us all pay attention—we are going to see some pretty amazing signs of Jesus’ power in the pages to come.  Jesus is going to face opposition from those in power right away who do not appreciate him and what he represents.  What will seal Jesus’ fate in the Gospel of John isn’t this Temple episode—it’s raising Lazarus from the dead.  Resurrection and new life may be more frightening to some than disturbing the peace.

So whenever this may have happened, Jesus’ actions bring up a larger question of the merits of righteous indignation.  Aristotle of all people once said, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”  Though we can use the term righteous indignation instead of anger or even righteous anger because it seems more accurate.  Indignation is a specific kind of anger—it’s anger that’s provoked by unfair treatment.  When others are denied dignity and respect, indignation is a justified response.  We’re supposed to love God, love ourselves, and love our neighbors.  Witnessing people’s dignity denied must affect us.

There are traditions of righteous indignation that Jesus was drawing upon when he made his public display in the Temple.  If we keep in mind that Jesus was rooted in the Jewish prophetic tradition, we can see similarities with other prophetic figures.  Moses got so mad at the Golden Calf mishap that he smashed the tablets that contained the Ten Commandments on the ground and had to go back up the mountain to receive them again.  John the Baptist used to call people “broods of vipers”—vipers are venomous snakes that eat each other, not exactly a nice sentiment.[4]  Prophets would get indignant when they saw injustice in the world, and they weren’t afraid to call it out.

We do a real disservice to Jesus’ actions in the Temple if we don’t put him in line with the prophetic tradition.  He wasn’t just going in and having a hissy fit, telling people that he didn’t like what he was seeing.  After all, Jesus probably traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples every year for Passover.  This event (if we are to believe the Synoptic Gospels anyway) could have happened at the end of his third year of ministry.  This display of righteous indignation was purposeful and deliberate.  Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in standing up for those who got taken advantage of by people in power.

Frankly, we could argue that Jesus was in line with Aristotle’s definition of appropriate anger.  Jesus was angry with the right people and to the right degree, he was angry at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way.  He wanted to send a message and take a stand.  Jesus ultimately paid with his life to show us the ways of compassion and justice, that exploiting people isn’t okay and not how God intends us to live.  Not when Jesus taught us kingdom values that the first will be last and the last will be first.  And we are called as his followers to question and do something about unjust societal practices.  That witness was costly then and can be costly now.

So what makes us indignant?  When we look around at our families, communities, nation, and world—what are the issues that cause us to feel angry because of unfair treatment people are experiencing?  They won’t be the same for every person.  Though if anyone ever says that you’re a Christian and you need to chill about social justice issues—we can look to the example of Jesus who got indignant about people being economically exploited by those in power and literally poured money on the ground, overturned tables, and drove animals away using a whip.  Getting indignant to stand up for others is part of our Christian faith.  We’re supposed to look out for the lost and lonely, those who are hurting and need a helping hand.

Getting indignant and standing up for people doesn’t always have to be dramatic either.  Bullying is a big problem in our society.  Given technology and social media, there’s cyber bullying.  Technology isn’t all bad, but it’s not like people only experience being demeaned in person anymore.  Some things that people wouldn’t say to one another face to face they’ll put in a text, an email, a tweet, or on social media in general.  Words said with bad intentions can be hurtful and stay with us.

A simple way that elementary schools use to combat bullying these days is called a buddy bench.  If kids are out playing during recess and find that there’s no one to play with they can sit on the bench.  And it’s a sign to the other kids to invite them to come play.  I believe there are buddy benches at Colchester Elementary and that some of the Kindness Rocks are permanently displayed underneath as a further invitation to be kind.  It’s a simple way to think about the needs of others and to prioritize compassion.  We can’t assume that these are values kids automatically know—to reach out to the person who sits alone at lunch or look to the bench to see someone who may want to play.  Adults don’t even always do a great job of welcoming one another.  Maybe adults need buddy benches just as much as children actually.

In the end, we need reminders.  We need to remember that we are called to reach out in love to others.  We’re allowed to be indignant when dignity is denied to our fellow children of God.  Maybe we’re even called to get indignant.  That call doesn’t have to be in the form of flipping over tables like Jesus did in the Temple.  It can be in the form of simply reaching out a hand.  May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] John 2:16, NRSV.
[2] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 161.
[3] Warren Carter, “Constructions of Violence and Identities in Matthew’s Gospel,” in Violence in the New Testament, 99.
[4] Exodus 32:19 and Luke 3:7.

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.