This is another well-known story, often brought up as an example of Jesus displaying anger. Just a couple weeks ago, there was a lengthy discussion at worldmagblog over whether anger is a sin, and this incident naturally came up repeatedly in the conversation. To my surprise, one person kept arguing (actually quoting the arguments of another person, someone I had never heard of named Roy Masters) that Jesus did not in fact feel the emotion of anger, but rather that he acted in judgment without feeling anger.
At one time that teaching would have greatly appealed to me. I grew up in a home where emotions were often out of control. My father could fly into a rage over what seemed like minor things. My mother’s anger was less violent but more frequent, and her bouts of crying (and complaining that no one loved her) were as hard to take as my father’s temper. I grew up convinced that a stoic approach to life was preferable to one ruled by emotion. It was only when I was an adult that I learned that one could benefit from emotions but not be ruled by them.
I don’t think there’s any way to determine conclusively from the passages (Matt. 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-18) what Jesus felt or didn’t feel, since it doesn’t say. One reads it in light of one’s own beliefs about the nature of human emotions. I now consider emotions to be neither good nor bad in themselves, but rather indicators – rather like the lights and gauges on your dashboard – alerting us to aspects of a situation that we need to respond to. Whether we respond appropriately or not determines whether we sin or not.
When the Bible speaks of God’s anger, it is of course not identical to ours. Our emotions are linked to our physical bodies (which is why various chemicals can heighten or dampen emotions, or even make us feel emotions with no basis except the chemical stimuli), which God does not have. But as the Bible also says we are made in God’s image, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think our capacity for emotions is patterned in some way on God.
Jesus did have a physical body, and unless there is an a priori reason to think that emotions are sinful, I think it makes perfect sense to assume he did feel the emotions familiar to us – yet without sinning in how he responded to them. I found what I consider a pretty good discussion of Jesus, emotions, and how to deal with them appropriately. It’s part of a book, Biblical EQ, (EQ = emotional intelligence), which can be read online or purchased in paperback. I’ve only read the one chapter (online), but I’m making a note of the URL so I can go back and read the rest of it.
All this is interesting, and important to understanding the proper place of emotions in the Christian life – but it is not the primary point of this passage. This is about the right use of the Temple, not the right use of emotions. My first thought is to wonder what ways we might sometimes be guilty of turning what should be a house of prayer into a “den of thieves.” I have to admit that nothing comes immediately to mind. I don’t think that the exchange of goods for money on church property is necessarily wrong (our church has a pop machine, sometimes has Bibles or Bible study books available to purchase, and allows special speakers to sell CDs or other materials from a table outside the auditorium).
I know there are those who do think it is wrong, that the church building should be used only for worship, study, and fellowship, and not for anything that is “secular” in nature (recreation, social gatherings, entertainment, fundraisers, classes that do not have a “spiritual” purpose) or that includes a business transaction (i.e. exchange of money). I put “secular” and “sacred” in quotes because I believe it is a false dichotomy to try to divide life up into those two areas. Everything we do is to glorify God, whether it’s corporate worship or personal prayer or peeling potatoes.
There are some who go even further, who think that even activities done outside of church, but including communication of a Christian message, are creating a “den of thieves” if money is charged. Christian books, speakers, singers – perhaps even pastors – should be giving their message freely, according to this viewpoint. Didn’t Jesus say, “Freely you have received, freely give”?
It could be that Christians do open themselves to greater temptation regarding pride and greed when they distribute their words or music to a wider audience rather than just to those they can minister to personally. And there is probably a greater temptation to individual Christians to act as consumers rather than being in a relationship of mutual edification. But it is a big step to go from that to saying that those who receive pay for their ministry are in need of cleansing as the moneychangers were in the Temple. (I think Adrian Plass does a good job of discussing the opportunities and temptations involved in such ministry, in the book I read and commented on a week or so ago.)
Then there are some interpretations that have Jesus not just rejecting business transactions mixed up with religion, but the entire Jewish temple system with its sacrifices for sins. In this view, Jesus is replacing the old system of animal sacrifices and limited access to God through the priests, with the Christian understanding of Jesus as the one true sacrifice for sin, and all believers priests with direct access to God. As a Christian I do believe that is the gift Jesus gave us, but I question the idea that his cleansing of the temple was intended as a signal of this. His words and actions seem to indicate that he is getting rid of corruption to restore the Temple to its rightful purpose, not to entirely change its nature.
So I’m left wondering, what application does this have to our lives and our churches? One web page (not sure I can find it again – I’ve looked at so many now) states out that the phrase “den of thieves” is a reference not to where they do their “business” but to their hideout. According to this view, it’s not the business transactions themselves that upset Jesus (after all, there was a need for pilgrims from foreign lands to purchase animals for sacrifices) so much as the covetousness and injustice getting protection from (and even being abetted by) the religious leaders. I don’t know if this interpretation has any basis in the Greek words or is based only on the English text, but it fits with Jesus’ other rebukes of the religious leaders’ hypocrisy.
So I try to widen the application. What do we do – or fail to do – that places obstacles to our church being a house of prayer? Or – since as Christians we are told that we are ourselves the temple of the Holy Spirit, and “house of prayer” probably refers to our relationship with God more broadly than just “prayer” as in talking to God – what in our lives blocks or distorts our relationship with God? Or puts a stumbling block in the way of someone else coming to God?
Of course, now I’ve broadened it so much that it encompasses just about everything. I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering that we are supposed to do everythingto the glory of God. Seen that way, this acts more as a warning of Jesus’ anger at activities we could easier excuse or consider minor matters, than a warning against improper activities in church. Of course, they fit in the category of “everything” too…