Scripture: Mark 11: 12 – 21
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
March 5, 2017
During my teenage years, I played a lot of tennis. At sixteen, I prepared for a major tennis tournament in which I had it into the finals. I practiced several hours a day; I ran miles and jump-roped – I did whatever it took to increase my endurance. I met with my tennis coach frequently to discuss various tennis strategies. I ate healthy, took my vitamins, and slept 8 hours a day. I woke-up early on the morning of the finals tournament. I put a 1983 Wimbledon tape into the VCR on Martina Navratilova winning Wimbledon. I played the song, “We are the Champions” by Queen on my cassette deck, singing, “I am the champion, no time for losers because I am the champion.”
I was ready! A few hours later I walked out onto the court and looked my opponent in the eye with confidence and assurance, conveying the message that, “Yes, I am going to win this match.” Needless to say, I was very competitive. During this particular match, a player needed to win 2 out of 3 sets to be the champion. I won the first set, 6 – 4. I lost the second set 2 – 6. I was in the middle of the third set losing 2 – 5. I started getting angry. I am embarrassed to tell you what I did next, but hopefully you won’t judge me too harshly. I started to use all kinds of profane language; I threw my racket against the fence; I picked it up and threw it again; I picked it up and threw it a third time. (There’s my poor mother sitting in the stands probably saying to herself, “Yep…that’s my daughter – the one who wants to be a minister.” Can you imagine? I had heard the call to go into ministry but I sure wasn’t acting like a minister.) After throwing my racket three times in a row, the tournament director came over to me and said, “If you don’t calm down and keep your racket in your hands and stop using such profane language, I am going to have to disqualify you from this tournament.”
The tournament director’s words were enough to catch my attention. I calmed down. I kept my racket in my hand. I concentrated and I won the set 7 – 5 and walked away with a first place trophy.
That day I won the tournament, but I lost myself in the process. A few days later, I confessed to my tennis coach what had happened. He said, “Jill, 99% of people who get angry on the tennis court lose the game. The only person I know who plays better tennis when he gets angry is John McEnroe. And I don’t think you want to model your life after him.”
That was one of my first memorable experiences with anger. Anger had not served me well. And so when I would read in the Bible that anger is one of the seven “deadly” sins, I believed it. In Ephesians, when Paul would say, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger”, I would say “Amen. Preach it, Brother Paul”. Anger can be dangerous, harmful, reckless.
So, you can imagine my surprise, when I first encountered today’s scripture passage years ago. Even Jesus got angry. It seems that there a place for anger, after all. Getting rid of all anger can rob us of a valuable resource. Anger is an emotion that God gave us for a very specific reason. While anger can be destructive in relationships and cause pain and suffering, by its very nature anger is meant to preserve that which is good. It is a protective emotion and can be healthy.
We get angry when something that is good and valuable to us is endangered or injured or threatened. If love is endangered, for example, by betrayal, by infidelity your anger takes a stand to protect the love. “Stop the betrayal!” it screams. “Stop the lying or the cheating or whatever it is that is endangering our love!” It stands up to fight for that which is good. It preserves that which is good. That is also why we get angry when it comes to politics or religion. We feel that which we value is endangered. As one scripture passage says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”
Today in our scripture passage we meet an angry, furious Jesus. This is not the meek, mild, gentle man that we are accustomed to. In fact, this story takes place in all four gospels…Jesus’ anger is that significant to each of the gospel writers that the story is included in each of the gospels. Some people have referred to our passage as Jesus’ temple tantrum. Jesus’ temple tantrum makes my tennis tantrum seem mild in comparison.
In the Gospel of Mark, this story is sandwiched by the cursing of the fig tree. On Monday of the last week of Jesus’ life, hungry Jesus sees a fig tree, and not finding any figs on it pronounces a curse on the tree. It seems strange that Jesus would curse a tree especially given that “it was not the season for figs.” The next morning the fig tree that Jesus had cursed was withered. A church member asked, “Why did Jesus curse a fig tree? What did the poor fig tree do? Is Jesus just having a really bad day – he curses the fig tree first and then curses the temple.” I do not believe that Jesus is just having a bad day – Mark is using a literary advice. It is most important to note that the story of the fig tree sandwiches the story of the cleansing of the temple. This fig tree story is not to be taken literally, but symbolically as a metaphor for the temple which lacks “fruitfulness.” He shuts down the fig tree, so to speak, and then he shuts down the temple.
After cursing the fig tree, Jesus comes into the temple with whip in hand, kicking over the tables, setting loose squawking birds, slinging their coins, driving oxen out of the court. In modern terms, imagine Jesus pounding on our sanctuary doors. Everyone falls into stunned silence. The ushers try to restrain him, but they can’t. Imagine Jesus dumping the offering plates on the floor and kicking the money up and down the aisles. Maybe tearing the banners off the wall and ripping the bulletins into shreds. And if you can imagine Jesus doing this on Easter Sunday, we would have a good idea of how the priests felt that Passover when Jesus shut down the temple just as the fig tree was “shutdown” from producing figs. He believes that neither are producing fruit. It is the maddest, angriest anyone has ever seen Jesus, before or since.
Why in the world is Jesus so upset? What exactly was wrong with the temple? It is important to note that the Temple was not just a religious site. It was the center of government for the Sanhedrin council of the ruling Sadducee party. It was also the site of the national treasury where economic exploitation took place. Moreover, Herod had placed a large golden eagle, symbol of Rome and its supreme divinity, Jupiter, atop one of its gates to appease Rome (Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, p. 42). The temple was at the center of the local domination system.
Jesus says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” It was not a few moneychangers or dove sellers that were the target of Jesus anger, but the thieves and robbers at the top levels of society who perpetuated a system of economic injustice, who robbed people of their land, their wealth, and their livelihoods. He is not just overturning the tables in the temple courts; he is overturning the domination system of the day. His actions challenged the entire establishment which was built for the elite on the backs of the most vulnerable.
Jesus is using his anger to protect the vulnerable. Remember anger is a protective emotion. Jesus is using his anger to protect the vulnerable, the oppressed, the marginalized. He is using his anger to speak out against betrayal, injustice, corruption, oppression. And Jesus is not alone. Throughout scripture, God insists on justice, even on justice over worship. God repeatedly said, “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice” (Borg & Crossan, The Last Week, p. 44, referring to Jeremiah 7:5-11, Amos 5: 21-24, and Hos 6:6). Ideally, we are compelled by our worship to do justice, but worship without justice is deplorable. This morning, I choir sang, “What Does The Lord Require” based on Micah 6:8 and at the top of this list was “Do justice”. Undoubtedly, we are called to do justice.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Our Lenten sermon theme is “The Last Week”. The last week of Jesus’ life was his most significant of all – and it is certainly a week of extraordinary importance for those of the Christian faith. Each Sunday of Lent we will follow Jesus through the final days of his last week. And it is this day, which I call ‘Manic Monday’, that sets everything before us in motion.
As we follow Jesus on the way to justice, we will need sustenance. The work of social justice is hard, exhausting work and so we come this morning to this table to receive spiritual nourishment. As you come forward, you are invited to dip the bread into one or more of five elements: honey, salt, water, grape juice, and olive oil. In Proverbs, we read, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb. Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (16:24). Honey represents healing. In Matthew, Jesus proclaims, “You are the salt of the earth” (5:13). Salt represents value and worth. In John, Jesus says, “Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again. Indeed, the water I give will be a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14). Water represents new life and transformation. In 1 Corinthians, we hear these words, “Take, drink, this is the cup of the new covenant poured out for you” (11:25). The grape of the vine, grape juice, represents love. Finally, we read how kings were anointed with olive oil. Olive oil represents joy and celebration.
Dip the piece of bread into one or more of these elements to sustain you for the Lenten journey ahead. We remember that during the last week of Jesus life, Jesus took bread…