The account of Jesus turning the merchants and money-lenders out of the temple is a famous one, well-known even to those who would claim no regular acquaintance with the Bible. I suppose it seems to be at odds with our idea of him. In popular imagination he is either the Christ-child, gentle and meek, or he is the God-man, giving himself up uncomplainingly to the horrors of death. Those are both facets of his character, certainly, but they are not the whole person. His tour de force dealing with the agents of commerce in his Father’s house reveal an aspect of Christ that helps us understand him better.
There is a small incident in John’s telling of this story that drew my attention this week. Having taken a whip and driven the livestock out, along with their retailers, he commands the sellers of pigeons to remove the birds from the temple.
Picture the scene: he has scattered the coins, overturned the tables and personally expelled the merchants with their sheep and oxen. But the pigeon-sellers must take themselves and their wares out with no help from Jesus. What prevented him from sweeping their cages to the floor, or throwing them outside? Of course I don’t know, but I am inclined to believe that it was compassion. To rough-handle these gentle creatures would have been cruel and capricious – and, whatever people who don’t know him say, that is not in his nature. This is someone, in fact, so wholly consistent, so reliably in control of his responses, that he can direct and channel his wrath where it is deserved, and turn on a sixpence to show gentle consideration in the same moment.
His anger is not an emotion in the way that mine or yours might be. Sometimes we are controlled and directed by our feelings to a degree which can be destructive. Indeed, our forefathers believed that envy, for one, could be so powerful as to cause physical harm to the object of our desire, without us even knowing what we had done. That phenomenon – usually referred to as ‘the evil eye’ – is mentioned in a lengthy list in the Bible, alongside a whole host of other evils which are not external, but which actually emanate from within ourselves.
That’s quite a bitter pill for us to swallow – that we are not always the poor dupes of Satan, but more often than not, the willing perpetrators of badness ourselves. Our anger, our mean-spiritedness, our jealousy, our greed, our lust, our self-righteousness, our unconcern for others – that’s all on us. Satan just seeks to exploit the way we’re already inclined by nature.
What I like about this aspect of Christ is its realness. It demonstrates even further how completely I can trust him with my life. I have often been unjust to others, judging them harshly, expecting more of them than I should, and then feeling angry towards them when they fall short of my unrealistic demands. But he never has ‘a bad day’. When I go to him in prayer, he never casts up at me that I forgot him the day before when everything was going fine; he never grumbles that I do nothing for him, or retreats because he wants a little ‘me time’.
He is not a two-dimensional nursery god – Christ is multi-faceted, but not mercurial; he displays feeling, but is wholly consistent.
This is why people read Scripture: it is a means of seeing a little more clearly the beauty of Jesus Christ. And it is why, in a way, I prefer John for advent reading. The baby Jesus, whose life was in danger from the moment he was conceived, and the circumstances whose birth has become so culturally iconic as to be almost Disneyfied in the eyes of the world, he is easy to love. All babies are easy to love and none more so than the manger-child who gave us Christmas.
John presents us with something more challenging, though – he brings us Christ, who doesn’t lie helpless in a manger. He walks abroad and challenges those he meets with his very presence; and when it is necessary, he shows his wrath. Wrath to the defilers of his Father’s house, and gentleness to the helpless creatures who are guiltless of any wrong. I wish I had the wisdom to know the difference, and the self-control to treat them accordingly.
But, more than anything, this Advent, I’m grateful to know him a little better than I did last year. What an unparalleled feeling it is to be assured that there will never be any unpleasant surprises with Christ – that even his displays of anger are wholly justified, and trained precisely on the target.