Because Jesus is a human being as we are, we can expect to see the full range of human emotions in Him. When His friend Lazarus dies, we see Him weep. As He is about to be arrested in the garden, we see Him torn by anxiety. We see Him experience disappointment as He is betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter. We also see Him rejoice when people come to believe in Him.
And we see Him get angry.
Today’s gospel is one of the most perplexing in all of Scripture. It goes against our image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We cannot understand how this gentle and humble man could fly into such a rage. How could Jesus who was perfectly sinless, act in such a seeminly violent manner?
A little information about the customs of the time might help us to understand better what made Jesus react as He did.
The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of all Jewish worship in Jesus’ day. It was there that the people offered sacrifices to thank God for some blessed event such as the birth of a child or a fruitful harvest. It was also where they went to ask for forgiveness of their sins. The animals used in those sacrifices were sheep, oxen and doves. Because many of the pilgrims to the Temple were traveling long distances, it was less expensive to buy the animals in Jerusalem than to have to bring them from their native land. Also the animals had to be perfect with no blemish. Imagine bringing an animal all the way to Jerusalem only to find out that, when it is examined at the Temple, it had an imperfection that would keep it from being used as a sacrifice? By buying the animal at the Temple, the pilgrims could be sure that they were without blemish.
As so frequently happens, those who sold animals at the Temple began to take advantage of the people coming to there by overcharging them. They would also bribe those who would examine the animals to make sure that any sheep, oxen or doves brought in from the outside would be deemed unworthy for the sacrifice. Then they would have to buy them from the Temple at the higher price. The same was true of the money changers who offered less in exchange for foreign coins than banks outside of the Temple.
This situation outraged Jesus. Hardworking people who made the sacrifice to come to Jerusalem for the feast to worship God were being taken advantage of by unscrupulous men. And He would stand for it no longer. He would not allow the poor to be exploited for profit or to be kept from worshipping in the Temple. So He did something about it. He put an end to the unjust situation and He called the authorities to task for their corrupt behaviour.
As we reflect on Jesus’ actions, there is a question which we should be asking ourselves. How do we react when we are faced with injustice? What do we do when our brothers and sisters are being taken advantage of? Do we speak up and try to do something about it? Or do we look the other way glad that it is happening to someone else and not to us?
In today’s world there is plenty of violence and injustice. We need only to look at the poor countries of our planet where millions are undernourished while rich countries spend billions of dollars on weight-loss diets. We need only to look at countries where ruthless dictators imprison and torture those who dare to speak up for human rights while those living in democracies barely show up to vote. In so many countries Christians are forbidden from worshiping in public and often killed during their services while we take our freedom to worship and practice our religion for granted. How has such inequality, injustice and intolerance been able to go on for so long? Simply because good people failed to get angry and speak up.
This is important for us to reflect on as we continue our journey through Lent. It is important for us to make sacrifices and practice self-control. But it is more important to help others, to better the lives of our brothers and sisters and to bring relief to those who suffer. God tells us this through the prophet Isaiah: “This is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly.... Setting free the oppressed.... Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” Are our Lenten sacrifices making someones life better or are they just a way for us to say that we met our religious obligation? Are our penances making us more sensitive to the needs of our neighbor or are they filling us with pride? These are very important questions for us to be asking ourselves during these days because Jesus makes it very clear that we will be judged by how we treat the poor who surround us.
It is natural for us when faced with the world’s problems to feel paralyzed. If politicians cannot fix hunger, poverty and war, what can we do? How can we make a difference? The simple answer is that we must start with the people around us. Who could use my help? Is there a sick person I could be visiting, a neighbor who could use a meal or a schoolmate who could use a friend? If we could just slow down, take our minds off our own problems for a minute and look around us, we would see people crying out for help. Whatever little we are able to do, even if it is just offering a prayer for that person, is much better than nothing. And God promises to multiply our efforts through the power of His Spirit making immense blessing come out of our good deeds.
In our world today there is plenty of anger but little action. Jesus has shown us the way and given us the power to transform the world through love. As He offered Himself to be the perfect sacrifice for sins, so let us offer ourselves to one another to relieve the burden of the oppressed and to bring relief to the suffering. That is the Lenten sacrifice that most pleases our Heavenly Father. That is the true religion Jesus came to reveal. The world is counting on us to bring them nothing less than Jesus. Let us not keep Him to ourselves but share Him freely with a hurting world.