Anger (John 2:13-22)

A Homily given at St. Hilda’s Anglican Church in Sechelt, BC on March 7, 2021.

Many years ago, I worked for Chi Chi’s in Calgary. Chi Chi’s was a Mexican restaurant chain, that no longer exists in Canada or in the USA. I worked there for about three years back in the 80’s. There was a culture of struggle that existed between the wait staff and the kitchen staff. The wait staff bad mouthed the kitchen staff and the kitchen staff bad mouthed the wait staff. I was a waiter, and so, along with many other of the waiters, I found myself in the habit of slagging the cooks whenever the opportunity arose.

After three years I had decided to move to Vancouver and gave my notice. On the final day of my employment – the final day after three relatively successful years of employment, I received an order for a Nacho Grande. (Actually, I have no idea what was ordered, but the Nacho Grande was my personal favorite, so I’ll say that it was that). It usually took about 10-15 minutes for the food to be ready. I came back at the 10 minutes mark, and the food was not there. Okay, I said to myself, I’ll come back in a few minutes. 

I came back again at the 12-minute mark – nothing. Then at the 15-minute mark – still nothing. I walked by the table, and the customer flagged me down, and expressed anger that the meal had not yet come – especially since everyone else at his table had already received their food.

I went back to the kitchen and unleashed on the cooks. Why isn’t the order for Nacho Grande ready? You guys are incompetent. The customer is complaining all because you guys are losers. Three years of pend up anger against team kitchen staff was released as I expressed my indignation.

And here’s the punchline, after I let loose on the line cooks, I realized that I forgot to place the order in the first place. It wasn’t the cook’s fault at all! It was mine. And here’s the second punchline – in order to fix the problem and get the meal to the customer, I had to eat crow and tell the cooks that I had screwed up and that my anger and rage was completely misplaced.

It was humiliating. Embarrassing. Horrible. It was the bad way to conclude three years of employment, walking out of the restaurant shame-faced dragging my self-esteem behind me through the dirt.

I continue to carry this traumatic experience with me. It reminds me that when I get angry at someone that there is a good chance that when the dust settles, I will realize that I am in the wrong. I have learned to distrust anger. It doesn’t mean I don’t get angry; it just means that I am deeply suspicious of my own anger when I do. If I could, there are times when I think it would be good to never get angry.

But then I come across stories in the New Testament like John 2:13-22. Jesus comes to the Temple where he finds people selling and buying. Jesus’ reaction in John is described as “zeal.” This was a word used to speak of a special kind of anger that reacts to a situation in which the honour of God is being ignored. Jesus’ reaction is not that of the calm self-collected sage. He explodes with anger and drives those buying and selling away with home-made whips. This is not the gentle Jesus I read about in Sunday school!

Well, I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel uncomfortable. Again, I distrust anger.

I don’t think I’m alone. We live in a culture that is a little suspicious about strong emotions. Furthermore, we tend to be suspicious of any emotion not thought to be positive. Happiness – that’s okay. It’s fine if you are happy – but even then, don’t be too happy. That would be odd too. Just the right amount of happy – that’s fine.

But other feelings like anger … good polite Canadians, we shouldn’t be angry. The problem with this is that anger is hard-wired into our bodies. It is something we developed through evolution and has an important role. While we can have an unhealthily relationship to anger, we nevertheless still need it.

If we think about events such as the Holocaust, residential Schools, and experience no anger– that might be a problem. Anger is an important response to perceived or actual injustice. If we are never angry, then it might be that we are not paying attention.

But here’s the thing, I still carry my Chi Chi memory with me – and I believe anger can mislead. Sometimes we perceive an injustice that is not actually that much of an injustice. Sometimes we are angry about the right thing, about directing it at the wrong people. Sometimes our anger in disproportionate to the injustice. There are many ways anger can go wrong.

In the Hebrew Scriptures anger is spoken of in terms of heat and fire. It is like that, isn’t it? There is a brute force about anger – and sometimes the situation calls for – and indeed requires this sort of brute force.[1] We need to be angry, but we also need to be wise. We need to be able to be aware of our anger and not be simply swept away by it.

Let’s look at the Gospel story again. Jesus is angry because he felt that the Temple – the house of his heavenly parent – was being dishonored. Jesus thought that buying and selling was a crass activity for this holy place.

For my part, I would be happier if Jesus was upset at the rich and powerful exploiting the poor and marginalized. When people get angry because God’s honor is being threatened, they can be only a few steps away from enacting blasphemy laws. I don’t think we should slander and dishonor God, but I also think that God can take it. God’s honor stands even if we malign it. But is those who are marginalized are dishonored and deprived what should be theirs – that is a harm against one who might not be able to take it. So, I wish the reason Jesus was getting angry had less to do with God’s honor and more against someone endangering the well-being of fragile human beings. 

This event happens in John during the Passover when many pilgrims came from far away to celebrate at Jerusalem. Many could bring sacrificial animals with them from where they came, but others couldn’t, so they would purchase these animals when they arrived in Jerusalem. The money-changers took the Roman or Greek coins and converted them to an acceptable local currency that could be used in the Temple. It was not deemed acceptable to have human images on the currency used for the temple-tax.

All this is to say that these sellers and moneychangers provided a necessary service. Did Jesus get angry at something unjustly? Was Jesus like me at Chi Chi’s? Perhaps. I think it might depend upon where we imagine this happening. If it was within the Temple, then perhaps Jesus’ problem with the buying and selling concerned where it happened rather the fact that it happened in the first place. Perhaps it would have been okay with Jesus if the buying and selling happened outside of the temple.

When John wrote this Gospel, the Temple had been in ruins for about thirty years. He probably did not have had a clear idea what the sacrifices were like there – he might not have been aware of the important service the buyers and sellers offered.[2]

The issue might have more to do with John’s understanding of Jesus than with how the historical Jesus himself. Perhaps Jesus was carried away by his anger, like I was at Chi Chi’s. Or perhaps his anger was justified, unlike mine at Chi Chi’s.

Jesus, like us, does not really have the choice to not ever be angry. Anger is not subject to our choices. It is something that happens all of its own accord. The question is not whether we will be angry, just like the question is not whether we will draw breath or not. If we are alive, we draw breathe – and likewise, if we are alive, we will be angry, at least on occasion. Sometimes our anger will be wisely placed, and other times it will not be.

Ultimately, it is our bodies generate anger, and our bodies over time learn when and to what degree it will generate anger. Sometimes our bodies, often because of trauma, generate anger in contexts where it is not helpful. But over time, our bodies can sometimes relearn more helpful responses.[3] Over time.

It does no one any good to pretend you are not angry when you are. Being honest with yourself and those you trust can be an important step towards relearning anger.[4] Honesty – being aware of your anger in the moment and being willing to acknowledge that fact – and honesty in how I understand myself when I am angry. I think these are a few helpful steps towards a healthy anger.

So, in conclusion – let us be angry – because we’re going to be anyways. Let us be angry at injustice, but then let us try to overcome that injustice not with anger, but with compassion and love. Let us be honest with ourselves, with God, and with each other. And may the God of peace be with us, even in the midst of our anger.

[1] But the thing about anger is that it by itself will likely not make these distinctions.

[2] But he does not have a problem with Jesus getting angry.

[3] I suspect that one of the important tools in learning a healthy anger is honesty.

[4] John understood Jesus’ anger in terms of “zeal.” He interpreted it in what he thought was a pious way. Was it actually pious? I don’t know. But we sometimes do with our own anger what John did with Jesus’. We interpret it. We understand it in terms that often correspond with how we think of ourselves. “I am angry because the world is out to get me” – understands anger from the position of the martyr. “I am angry because the world in unjust” – understands anger from the position of a social justice warrior. Are these interpretations wrong? I don’t think it really a question of right or wrong. Rather it is again a question of honesty. Can I be honest and acknowledge how I interpret my own anger?

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