Zeal for your house will consume me

Fr Alec
Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 9:30am

It’s unsettling isn’t it? To see Jesus in this state. Angrily driving the money-changers and traders with their animals out of the temple with a whip of cords. But also somehow bracing. Set against the vaguely androgynous and passive Christ we sometimes settle for, he cuts an altogether more vigorous and forceful figure. Here is Jesus Christ the prophet, consumed by emotion, giving full vent to his feelings in the most controversial and provocative way possible. But what is he so angry about?


Now it is entirely possible that we may have come to believe that anger has no place in the Christian faith. This is understandable. We are taught to turn the other cheek when we suffer wrong, we are taught to love our enemies and do good to those who do us wrong. We learn as we mature to discipline our emotions, and not to respond rashly or aggressively when we are provoked. Anger can come to seem like the opposite of the Christian life, which is lived in a state of saintly calm, abstracted from the tempests of emotion that afflict those without access to the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.


Yet I am not convinced that this is really the case. Anger is a part of who we are, of what we are. It is a God-given aspect of our human nature. Like all aspects of human nature it can turn in the wrong direction, if it is driven by hatred, or jealousy, or self-righteousness. When Cain murdered his brother able in a fit of anger, that was wrong. But it was wrong because murder is wrong, and jealousy is wrong.

In its positive aspect, anger is a motivator towards great things. And there is much that we should be angry about. We should be angry about the suffering of the civilian population in Ghuta, we should be angry about the abuse of innocent children, we should be angry that in a wealthy country like ours, we still have people sleeping on the streets or feeding their families from Food Banks. We should be angry about the destruction of oceans and the heedless waste of our planet’s natural resources. We should be angry with selfishness, with meanness, with manipulation and exploitation. It is anger that motivates us to take action and to speak hard truths. We should be angry because God is angry.


We instinctively shy away from the idea of an angry God, not least because we are justly afraid that we might deserve at least a small portion of that anger ourselves. But we cannot deny that a very large proportion of Holy Scripture is taken up with just that. We may prefer not to look at it very often, but it is certainly there.


There is a hymn, which I like very much, called ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea’, and it constitutes a meditation on the lovingkindness and forgiveness of God, the bottomless mercy he offers to all of us who are tempted down the wrong path – whoever we are, no matter what we have done wrong when we turn back to him in true repentance. This is an important lesson, perhaps the most important lesson of our faith.


But I often feel that there should be a companion to this hymn entitled ‘There’s a wideness in God’s judgement’, because we need to know that too. We need to know that God, our Father, is not a soppy old pushover. That there are circumstances that he simply will not abide. That where there is suffering and barbarity and misery, and needless, meaningless pain, God does not simply shrug his shoulders and smile benignly down from heaven. That God condemns these things, and expects more from humanity than passive acceptance.


If God expects more, then those he has commissioned to express this expectation, to give voice to his displeasure, are the prophets. And it is in the prophetical books of the bible that we will find much of the most blood-curdlingly angry language in Scripture.


It is not uncommon for people to misunderstand just what prophecy is. We can assume, from common usage of the word, that a prophet, someone like, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea or Zecheriah is simply someone who, by the power of the Spirit, foresees the future. But that is not the whole picture. Very often, the future that they portray is a warning. The word that they speak is a condemnation, God’s condemnation of a wrong that is going unchecked, and their vision is a picture of the horrors to which that will lead. Very often, a prophet will act out symbolically what God has spoken, as, for example, when Jeremiah came to the people of Jerusalem, who had wandered away to other Gods, with a pot in his hands symbolising the Kingdom of Judah, and smashed it on the ground there in front of them.


This, I would suggest, is what Jesus is about in the temple. Indeed, Matthew, Mark and Luke all bear witness to Jesus saying:

‘My Father’s house is called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’

This seems to draw directly from the prophet Jeremiah, who, in Chapter 7 has the Lord saying:


‘Are you to steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, go after strange gods that you know not, and yet come to stand before me in this house which bears my name, and say: "We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again"? Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves? I too see what is being done, says the Lord.’


God, it seems, is condemning the idea of ‘cheap grace’.  The sense of doing as we will and trusting that, with the right sacrifices, all can be made good.


It is just this machinery of sacrifice that Jesus attacks. The animals and birds that were offered up for sacrifice. The special temple currency that was needed to pay for them. Here is God’s timeless insistence that sacrifice must be offered in righteousness. With clean hands and a pure heart. Here is a refusal to accept anything from hearts that inwardly reject Him.


When Jesus remembered the saying ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’, they were remembering Psalm 69, an angry psalm recounting the fate of those who reject and persecute the Lord’s servant:

They gave me gall to eat and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.’


If Jesus is here overturning not just the money-changers tables, but the whole business of temple sacrifice, he is replacing it with something else. His body itself, broken by those who rejected him, becomes the temple, the supreme meeting place where humanity and God come face to face. The sacrifice of bulls and goats gives way to God’s own sacrifice of Himself, of his only Son, and his resurrection on the third day becomes God’s binding promise of renewal and hope and life when we turn again from our wrong.


Here is costly grace. God’s love made tangible in his angry rejection of all that is insincere, half-hearted, untrue and self-serving. His violent response, an act that will lead inevitably to the self-emptying sacrifice of love on the cross. A cross that we must take up ourselves if we are to follow where Jesus leads.