Whenever the Gospel scene of Jesus cleansing the Temple comes up in conversation, is it always entertaining to see people try to rationalize or explain away the anger that our Lord displayed. There are those who will say that this is a demonstration of Jesus’ humanity, but such an explanation always seems to have an accompanying tinge of “perfect divinity, imperfect humanity.” After all, when we say of someone, “He is only human,” we are usually doing so to justify an imperfect action or reaction, as if to say, “He is human, and therefore not perfect.” Such an accusation of Jesus is misleading at best. Yes, Jesus is human, fully human, in fact, as well as fully divine. However, Jesus is perfect in his humanity. Therefore, any reaction he gives is the perfect reaction to the situation that stands before him. This is good news for the rest of us, for it demonstrates that humanity in both its core and destiny is fundamentally good, that imperfections found within all of us are the result of sin (both original and personal), and not the result of being human as such. Therefore, the perfection that Jesus possesses in being fully human is a perfection that awaits us, God willing, in our glorified state.
What then, should we make of the anger demonstrated by Jesus in his cleansing of the Temple? The first conclusion we can draw is that there is a place for a righteous anger in dealing with the problem of sin. Of course, we should not mistake this kind of anger for the irrational, impatient, and reactionary kind that we so often demonstrate in our lives. But Jesus is hardly a pacifist. To get a better sense of righteous anger, it helps to consider a few examples. The first we will take from the life of Jesus, the second from the archangel Michael, and the third from that master of myth, J.R.R. Tolkien.
First, consider the scene where Peter questions whether Jesus must actually undergo suffering and death. From the Gospel of Matthew 16:21-23:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus’ response is jarring. After all, was not Peter only looking out for the well-being of his teacher and friend? Jesus the pacifist pop-psychologist would have sat Peter down and calmly explained, “Now, Peter, you are not understanding the importance of what I have said. I know this is hard for you, but in due time you will come to understand. For now, let’s have a beer, and join me in a verse of Kumbaya.” But such was not Jesus’ reaction. Instead, he jarred Peter and the other disciples out of their foolishness, emphasizing the importance of his pending death and resurrection and the providence of the Father. If this were a film, one could almost see the camera pan in for a close up of Jesus, the sky darkening behind him, and a fiery glow on his face. The background audio would be eliminated and the voice of Christ would change from normal “human” discourse to the booming voice of God, the Second Person of the Trinity: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The second example of righteous anger is the battle in which St. Michael casts out of heaven the fallen prince of darkness himself. St. Michael is a warrior, and as he engages in the cosmic struggle with Satan, I hardly think he demonstrates weakness. Such a mistaken view of this soldier-angel would have him clashing swords while begging Lucifer to change his ways, “Why are you doing this? Don’t you know that the Father loves you? Please reconsider and come home?” This is hardly the St. Michael that is portrayed in the icons and statues of old. No, the same righteous anger demonstrated by our Lord in his dealing with Peter and the cleansing of the Temple accompanies St. Michael as he clashes swords with the evil one: “Go back to the depths of Hell where you belong!” Such a strong and angry reaction would be the only appropriate one in the face of pure evil. Weakness has no place here, but fortitude and courage and the other virtues of spiritual warfare.
Finally, allegorical myth can go a long way in demonstrating eternal and cosmic principles. As I was thinking over the notion of righteous anger, I was reminded of the scene from The Lord of the Rings where the wizard Gandalf battles the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-Dûm. The works of Tolkien are not quite as allegorical as Lewis. (With Lewis, there is no doubt that Aslan is the Christ figure. In fact, Tolkien was moderately critical of what he considered a all-too-obvious allegory in The Chronicles of Narnia.) Gandalf has elements of a Christ figure to be sure, but so too do the characters of Frodo and Aragorn. In the scene on the underground bridge, the Balrog is a creature from the depth of the earth, a terrifying incarnation of hellish evil. Gandalf here can either be seen as Christ himself or even as a St. Michael figure. As the other characters are running to escape certain death, it is Gandalf who stays behind to look evil in the face and to engage the demon in battle. The anger with which Gandalf meets the Balrog is both righteous and unshakable.
I will quote selectively from Chapter V of Book II:
Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, or man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.
It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left hand it held a whip of many thongs.
“A Balrog,” muttered Gandalf. He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. “What and evil fortune! And I am already weary.”
The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring [his sword] gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.
“You cannot pass,” he said. A dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”
The following is a clip showing Gandalf’s encounter with the Balrog from the Peter Jackson films. You will have to fast forward a bit to get to the actual battle. (Embedding was disabled, so you will have to watch it directly on YouTube.)
There is a series of clips that shows the extended battle into the depths of Moria; again embedding was disabled.
This is the epic righteous anger that is appropriate in the battle against evil. It is not an anger that is reactionary, selfish, or impatient. But neither it is not a plea for pacifism. Rather, it is meeting evil face to face, calling it by its proper name, and telling it in no uncertain terms where it can go. I imagine it is the same kind of forceful language that would be used in an exorcism, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to depart!”
As a side note, Pope Benedict XVI dedicates part of the first chapter in the second installment of Jesus of Nazareth to the cleansing of the Temple, which he connects with the prophecy of the Temple’s destruction. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, there are multifarious and multilayered explanations of this prophecy, but certainly on one level the “den of thieves and robbers” is the beginning of the temple’s destruction, certainly a cause for the righteous anger of which we have been speaking.