Are there times when God’s anger is good news?
I realise that this is a dangerous question. More than one person at our virtual service this morning grew up in a religiously abusive environment. In such a context there is very little good news about an angry God. Here is the god who looks at you and, like a drunken and abusive dad home from a bender, finds you perpetually wanting and screams your inadequacies at you. And I realise as well that, just floating around in our culture, there is a picture of God’s anger in which God is always ready to rain lightning strikes down on people who have failed to love him enough.
So, let me be clear: that isn’t what God is like. 1John is right when it tells us that God is love. God loves you beyond limit and beyond measure. And, more than that, that isn’t what I mean by the anger of God.
What I mean by God’s anger is what we witness today as we watch Jesus in the temple.
As Jesus makes a whip and chases people around, as he flips over tables, is this good news? Or, if we prefer, because this is the Gospel – in English, good news – and I reckon that our ancestors got that name right, how is Jesus’ anger good news? How is it good news for the people visiting the temple? And, maybe this second question is harder, how is it good news for the merchants selling doves and sheep and for the moneychangers?
How is Jesus’ anger evidence that God is love?
I’m going to invite you to cast your mind back – maybe to your childhood, maybe to a more recent time – and see if you can remember an occasion in which someone became angry on your behalf. Maybe you got ripped off by a neighbourhood kid or by a neighbourhood merchant. Maybe a teacher was cruel to you. Maybe you were the victim of a still more serious injustice. And someone who loved you and wanted the best for you blew their stack. They got red in the face, maybe even spit flew out of their mouths (this was before masks and physical distancing made that sort of thing impossible) and they told the person who had hurt you a thing or two.
What was that like? What did that feel like?
There are a lot of ways that a loving parent tells us that they love us. And one of them is this kind of anger. When you witness this anger you say, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain.
And that’s what Jesus does on behalf of the poor people coming to the temple today. He blows his stack at the folks who are getting rich by selling stuff to them at a criminal markup.
Now, I need to stop here and inert a kind of footnote. There is a long and disastrous history of reading this story through the lens of antisemitism, so that this story and ones like it are, somehow, Jesus versus the Jews. No! No, Jesus is Jewish, the people getting ripped off are Jewish, the people doing the ripping off are Jewish. This is an argument within a family. If it’s helpful, imagine Jesus as a faithful and committed Episcopalian, someone who has no intention of leaving the Episcopal church now or ever, let alone starting a new religions. And Jesus runs amok in an Episcopal church gift shop that has been ripping off other Episcopalians. (I don’t know if that analogy totally works, but it’s the best that I’ve got.)
If the poor people in Jesus’ time were anything like the poor people of today, they were ripped off all the time. In a funny way, they were almost used to being ripped off. I knew a guy in Spokane who was being treated in a totally unfair way by his landlord. And he said: My landlord is rich, I’m not. My landlord has a lawyer, I don’t. There’s nothing I can do.
And maybe the poor folks coming to the temple say the same thing. Maybe they say: We’re going to get hosed trading money. We’re going to get hosed even more buying our sacrifice for the temple. There’s nothing we can do.
But then Jesus loses his temper on their behalf. And maybe they feel something similar to what you felt in that memory that I invited you to examine a minute ago. Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when someone hurts me it is like Jesus is hurt. My pain is his pain.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper on their behalf is God.
This is good news.
But what about the merchants? What about the money changers? Surely this is nothing but bad news for them – they were having a good day, a god week, a good fiscal quarter. And suddenly their coins and running in the gutters and some dude is sending their tables airborne.
Again, I’ll invite you to cast your mind back. See if you can remember a time when someone loved you so much that they lost their temper with you. Maybe this was a teacher who knew that you were not trying anywhere near your best. Maybe this was a neighbour who discovered you stealing something. Maybe this was a friend or a partner who named your selfishness in unvarnished terms.
What was that like?
Well, if you are anything like me, it was no fun at all. If you are anything like me, you may have resented that anger. Maybe you sulked, maybe you retreated into silence, maybe you became angry yourself.
It is only with time that you came to say, Gosh, I really needed to hear that. It’s because of that anger that I started trying and I got into college; it’s because of that anger that my conscience grew a couple of sizes larger; it’s because of that anger that I realised that I was being selfish and that I wanted to do better.
And maybe with time you said, Oh. Someone loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like they are hurt. My pain is their pain. The love me enough to blow my stack.
Because when we make a mistake, when we fall short of the mark, when we sin, what is frequently the behaviour of someone who doesn’t love us? Sometimes they will get angry. But as often as not, they will shrug. I was just listening to a popular song, the words of which contain ancient wisdom, wisdom that Jesus new:
The opposite of love is indifference.
Now, like you and me, I suspect that the merchants and the money changers don’t experience this moment as love, especially if Jesus’ whip gets anywhere near their behinds. But maybe, after a while, they too will say, You know what? That was the day that changed my life. That was the day that I understood that I wanted to be someone else. Someone kinder and more loving.
And they will remember and say Oh. Jesus loves me so much that when I make a mistake it is like he is hurt. My pain is his pain. Jesus loves me enough to blow his stack.
Later on, they will come to realise that the one who lost his temper with them is God.
This is good news.
So. When you suffer injustice, know that Jesus is angry on your behalf. That Jesus will flip over tables for you. And when you hurt another person or hurt the world, know that Jesus loves you so much that Jesus will get red in the face and tell you the unvarnished truth. In both cases, Jesus’ love for you is fierce and abiding and huge. It is a love that will lead you into life.
This is good news.