The ‘Anger’ of Jesus: Cleansing the Temple

John 2:13-22

As I sit with the familiar scene before us now, it occurs to me that maybe my first instinct is to ‘over-humanize’ Jesus — that perhaps I am attributing too much of what I see in you and me to him. And yet, at least in my experience, this is precisely what many have often done. For you see, I cannot count the number of times in my life that someone has said in an attempt to justify their own reaction to something or someone, “Well, even Jesus got angry,” referring to this exchange between Jesus and the money changers.  In fact, I have heard this so early and so often that I have always assumed that Jesus was, in fact, angry. For that matter, I have never seen a depiction of this scene which would suggest otherwise.

And so I began there today, presuming that Jesus was angry. Even so, for all of its extra detail, John’s Gospel is the least precise in giving us a reason for Jesus’ violent response to what he witnessed in the temple. In the other Gospels we are led to believe that those exchanging money and selling unblemished animals for sacrifice are somehow cheating the poor people who have little choice but to do business with them. Surely this would be ample cause for the sort of anger which would result in overturning tables and scattering coins and sacrificial animals. Not so in John’s telling. And yet, once Jesus has made a whip of cords and used it. Once the money changers are grasping for their coins and dodging overturned tables and once the sheep and cattle are making a run for freedom, one can only imagine that Jesus would have had to raise his voice to be heard. One might rightly interpret this as anger. Although, maybe not…

For you see, a while back I was in conversation with my long time coach when I spoke to her of my anger at someone or something. She asked me then, “What are you afraid of?” She told me next that anger is rooted in fear. It was a fair and important question and one I return to time and time again when I find anger or even annoyance bubbling up inside of me. Only, as I have learned since. she was only partly right. While anger may well be rooted in fear, it might also find its origins in guilt. It might also rise out of grief.

Indeed, I saw this close at hand in just these last days. One of our precious elders is suddenly, irretrievably ill. Her children brought her home on hospice care.  When I stopped by the other day, his son told me he had been awakened at 4 am to Dad’s shouts of anger. This grieving husband of 70 years sheepishly looked at me later and told me he had been arguing with God. All of his fear. All of his grief. All of it found an outlet in anger. And who can blame him?

And yet, the passage we read this week does not exactly describe Jesus as angry. At least not in so many words. Nor do the accounts in Matthew, Mark or Luke. In fact, no actual emotion is attributed to him whatsoever. Rather, the writers of all four Gospels simply describe what he does and the response of those who witness it — the disciples and the ‘Jews’ in John’s account.

And so it is that part of what strikes me now that in John’s rendering of the story, ‘the Jews’ do seem to respond to Jesus in a fairly calm way asking simply, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” This would not seem to be how one would normally respond to one who is angry enough to overturn tables and toss the money changers out. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if maybe those looking on somehow recognized what Jesus also knew  — that his response, however violent, was deeply rooted in his grief at all the ways God’s intent for life and hope and joy among us had not taken hold — not even in what was to be the ‘holiest’ of places, the temple at Jerusalem. Maybe it was expressed in a way that those who witnessed it could see beyond the anger.

And so it is I find myself wondering now how similar Jesus’ grief might be to that of an old man alongside whom I am walking these days. For you see, in this instance here in DeKalb, these two dear people have given their lives to one another their whole life long. He simply cannot imagine his life without her by his side. And his grief is expressed in tears, yes. But also in anger.

In a much more perfect way, God has given God’s self to us since the start of time. In the story before us now and in so many other stories in the time of Jesus and today, it is not death which has betrayed God, but our choosing ‘death’ over life in so very many ways. Jesus reacts to that betrayal today in the temple: a holy place which had been reduced to so very much less than that for which it was intended.

And so for you and me, surely it is ours to look at ourselves and wonder…

  • How are we like those money changers in the temple? How have we in our homes, in our communities, in our places of worship, in our lives together, cheapened the precious gifts of God? And as a result, where and why and how does  God grieve?
  • Does it make a difference to be able to see beyond the anger we first see in the whip of cords and the flying coins and the fleeing sheep and cattle? Does it make a difference to see all of that as rooted deeply in Jesus’ grief at what has become of a precious, holy place?
  • Am I ‘over-humanizing’ Jesus in my thoughts? Or does approaching this in this way give us an entrance into the story in a way that we can understand it more deeply? What do you think?





  1. Robert Morphis says:

    It has long struck me that he is driving everybody out, overturning tables, and then when he comes to the caged doves, he stops and tells the sellers to pack up and get out, in Matthew and Mark he overturns the seats of those selling doves.

    Angry? Quite possibly, but totally in control, not willing to potentially do real harm to the innocent.

    I am thinking that making a scourge is not a quick job, and suggests deliberate action, which is reflected in the response of the Jews asking for justification, not calling for the guards to restrain him.

    If I had to make a stab at why, I would point out that the money-changers and animal sellers allowed worshipers who lived many days travel away to travel lighter, to provide a sacrifice that wasn’t dusty and dirty with travel… perhaps following the letter of The Law had become more important than following the spirit. Perhaps he was saying, the building is not important, worshiping God is.

  2. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this analysis. I’ve long grappled with the way this story is portrayed. I’ve recently written on it myself. After studying this story in the context of the life of Christ and the loving nature of God I read it much differently now.

    I’ve spent many years reading, searching, and praying to find reconciliation between the God of the Old Testament and the one we see in the New. God is unchangeable, so what can account for the changes? It is us. God made us in his imagine, and then we have ever since tried to make him in ours.

    Now, I meditate on his nature and come to know him personally in my own life. In all my rebellions and in all my right-doing one thing remains constant, and that is God’s love.

    Encountering this story in the temple again, and the way it’s used to justify all sorts of human emotions, led me to search for others who have tried to find a constant Christ. Which in turn led me to your article. So, thank you for looking deeper here and publishing what you’ve pondered. We may not agree completely in our interpretation, but the spirit and unity of searching for Christ is there, and I deeply appreciate your willingness to share. 😊

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