Super heroes are a thing. When we were (much) younger, my brother was into body building and his end all be all was The Hulk. In case you don’t know who The Hulk is, well, he’s green, he’s way feet tall, and he’s bulging with pounds and pounds of muscle. He’s the Incredible Hulk, hands down one of the coolest comic book heroes ever created. You don’t want to make him mad, because as he often warns, “The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets!” His anger and strength have entered the common lexicon of today in the phrase “Hulk out.” According to The Urban Dictionary, to hulk out means “To become enraged; to lose one’s temper, clothing and power of coherent speech before embarking on a spree of violence and wanton destruction.
In today’s Gospel, we read of a time when Jesus sort of kinda hulked out: Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me. (John 2:13-17)
Well now. This little bit of Scripture is problematic for a lot of folks because we have been taught that Jesus was this meek and mild-mannered little guy who preached love and patience and turning the other cheek and instructs us to be slow to anger. I can assure you that Jesus did, in fact, teach us those things, but I can also assure you that Jesus was far, FAR from being “this meek mild mannered little guy,” and we should not confuse “meek” with “weak.”
We are inundated from all sides by ads and commercials urging us to get more physically fit, to build muscle on top of muscle, to be perfect specimens of humanity. I figure that Jesus pretty much fit that physical description. Jesus as a hunk?, you ask? Well… yeah. Think about it for a minute. Here was a man of great stamina who walked everywhere between the villages of the Holy Land in his ministry of salvation, and there is no record in the New Testament that he ever rode a horse, a camel, or a carriage, (though he did once enter Jerusalem on a donkey, but that’s a sermon for another time.) He regularly traveled over hills and climbed mountains. We know that Jesus was either a carpenter or a stone mason, and there were, at that time, no power tools, so He was surely lean and muscular. We have further evidence of Jesus’s physical fitness from reading of His passion. The torture that he underwent killed many men.
Another reason that this particular bit of Scripture is problematic is that we imagine Jesus to be angry, and remember He was all about the “preaching love and patience and turning the other cheek and instructing us to be slow to anger.” An angry Jesus??? Isn’t anger a sin??? People look at this episode and say, “Shame, shame. Jesus ignored His own teachings by getting angry and not forgiving those moneychangers. He really lost his cool, didn’t He?”
At the same time other people view this episode as proof that it’s okay for us to get angry, and even take violent action if necessary, in doing God’s will.
So, who is right? And the answer to that stunning question is, NEITHER.
Anger is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and St. Paul clearly teaches in his letter to the Galatians that “outbursts of fury” are the result of our sinful nature. So what’s the deal here? Did Jesus give in to the sinful nature when He got angry in the Temple, or what?
First, we have to understand that Jesus did not have a sinful nature. There have only been three sinless people in history: Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and my mother. (OK, OK, my momma wasn’t perfect. Give a guy a break, tho.)
There is a very fine line between “righteous anger” and “self-righteous anger.” Jesus’ anger was completely righteous. Those merchants were making a mockery of God’s holy temple. They were taking advantage of the average person’s sincere faith. Motivated by greed, they forced the believers to pay obscene sums in order to have their worship rituals labeled as “proper.”
You wonder what Jesus’ reaction might be if He appeared today and observed the behavior of Wall Street bankers and Washington politicians. Just sayin’.
Jesus is the only person in history completely controlled by the Spirit. He never gave in to the sinful human nature. The rest of us should avoid anger because we don’t have our sinful human nature under control like Jesus did.
The Gospel reading of Jesus clearing the Temple really should have a disclaimer. In big bold letters the Bible should say: “Jesus is a professional. Do not try this at home.” When people cite this episode as justification for getting angry, often they truly have a righteous goal in mind. But it doesn’t take long for that righteousness to slide into self-righteousness. The next thing you know, some looney toon is bursting into an abortion clinic with a rifle, sincerely convinced that God wants him to kill people to prevent people from being killed, or participating in insurrection at the nation’s capitol to impede the government, or blowing up gay bars, all in Jesus’s name.
And all the while Satan is howling with glee. He just loves to see us get so worked up over a righteous cause that we become consumed with self-righteous anger. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “The devil would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer.” In a way, anger, especially self-righteous anger is cancer. It’s spiritual cancer. For those of us who have not yet reached Jesus’s level of spirituality (which means ALL of us), we are susceptible to this disease. Only Jesus can handle anger without contracting the spiritual cancer of self-righteousness.
We mere mortals do not yet share in Jesus’ spiritual perfection. As such, we are not capable of handling anger properly. Good intentions quickly become evil. When our anger is out of control we can say and do things that hurt others. Anger in the hands of we sinful people, to paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, is like whiskey and car keys in the hands of teenage boys. It’s just too dangerous.
So what then, do we do when we are angry? In our daily lives, for most of us those times where anger would be justified are likely pretty rare. As with all things, follow the Spirit. Paul, in Galatians 5:20-21, instructed “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” In 1 Corinthians 13, we are directed that love is patient and kind and does not dishonor others and is not easily angered. It can be reasoned that anger is contrary to charity, if it is spontaneously meant to dishonor our neighbor. Proverbs 15:18 tells us a “hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel.”
The Bible seems to place anger as the last response to the circumstances of life. We as Christians are to be peacemakers and find a solution before allowing an incident or conflict to escalate. Breathe. Pray. Act in love. And remember, we are, none of us, The Hulk. Amen.