Recently we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Quite properly we hailed him as a latter-day prophet to America, a drum-major for justice, a visionary whose dream still inspires us. But I am old enough to remember our attitude toward Dr. King while he was alive. He was roundly condemned by most of us whites as a trouble-maker.
Isn’t it often true that today’s trouble-makers are tomorrow’s heroes? Jesus said so. He criticized the most religious folks of his day, saying, “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets'” (Matthew 23:29-30).
I have a little secret to tell you about Jesus: He was a trouble-maker. How did He make trouble? By upsetting the status-quo. Jesus did that consistently, boldly, and gloriously. And if we dare to call ourselves Christian, we must be willing to make trouble too, in the right way, at the right time. If we do that, not everybody will like us. In fact, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you . . . Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven” (Luke 6:22-23).
In order to see Jesus the trouble-maker in action, turn with me to John 2:13. Let me set the scene for you. Jerusalem was in the middle of its biggest annual holiday — Passover. Passover was the week-long celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery some 1800 years earlier. Every Jewish adult male living within twenty miles of the city was required to come to Passover. Jews all over the world wanted to be there, and thousands of them came. Just imagine over two million people jammed into a city no larger than downtown Memphis, about ½ mile wide and three miles long.
In the center of the city was an awesome temple which covered a space about the size of the FedEx Forum and adjacent parking areas. During the week of Passover, every Jewish male must offer an animal or bird sacrifice. Most of the Jews, especially those living some distance from Jerusalem, cannot very well bring their cow or sheep with them. So, they prefer to buy an animal or bird in Jerusalem. But guess what! The Jewish authorities who control the temple have sold exclusive franchises for selling these creatures. And the markup is at least 60 percent.
In addition, the Jewish authorities had another money-making scheme. Every Jewish male was required to pay a temple tax. Surely you did not think that taxes were a modern idea. The tax on each Jewish male was equivalent to two days’ wages. Let’s just call it $200. That’s a pretty stiff tax. And, the Temple authorities required that it be paid in local currency, no foreign money. That made it necessary to have money-changers present. The Temple authorities sold exclusive franchises for this, too. The money changers charged about $100 to change foreign money into local currency. No telling what the kickback was to the Temple authorities. We do know that 28 years later, when the Romans conquered Jerusalem and raided the temple treasury, they found the equivalent of $10 million there.1 The temple rackets were almost as profitable as Saddam’s “oil for food” scandal.
One section of the Temple complex was called the Court of the Gentiles. It was outside the holiest sections of the Temple. It was a place where non-Jews could gather for worship and prayer. But during Passover the Temple authorities had allowed this area to be taken over by the vendors, animal salesmen, and money-changers. How could Gentiles pray in the midst of all that? Just imagine yourself in that area. The noise would have been deafening: the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the cooing of the doves, the shouts of the hucksters, the rattle of the coins, and the raucous bargaining disputes. And just catch the aroma coming from all those animals! No, this was not a very worshipful atmosphere.
John 2:14, Jesus enters this area and is disgusted by what He sees. Poor people are being exploited. This area — which was supposed to be a place of prayer — has been turned into a cattle pen, a bazaar, a den of robbers.
What did Jesus do? He got angry and took direct action. He grabbed a few bamboo reeds — which made a good whip — and started swinging it. I love this picture of Jesus — swinging that whip, kicking over tables, shouting, “Get out of here, you’re ruining God’s house!” Can’t you see it now?
The cows and sheep stampeded. Money was rolling everywhere and the merchants were diving after it. There is no indication that Jesus hurt anybody, but He cleaned house.
If you ever pictured Jesus as a wimpy character who always turned the other cheek, you must adjust your image. He did not turn a cheek here. He kicked a few cheeks, but did not turn a cheek.
Perhaps you have been under the impression that anger is a sin, but the Bible does not say that. The Hebrew word for “anger” appears 455 times in the Old Testament, and 375 of those refer to God’s anger.2 The Bible says that God is slow to anger, but the anger and wrath of God are very real.
Is anger a sin? It depends on what causes it and what you do with it. Selfish anger is a sin. Jesus chastised a man for his anger over not getting what he thought was his fair share of his father’s inheritance. That’s selfish anger. This is anger about not getting a raise or a promotion or enough attention. Anger that causes one to abuse another person, verbally or in any other way, is a sin.
But there is a kind of good anger that we call “righteous indignation.” This means to be angry about the things that anger God. The Bible actually commands us to be angry at certain times. St. Paul wrote, “Be angry but sin not” (Ephesians 4:26).
It ought to make us angry that racial prejudice is still around some 37 years after Dr. King died here.
It ought to make us angry that hooded terrorists in Iraq would blow up innocent civilians in order to keep citizens from voting.
It ought to make us angry that Hollywood actors blaspheme God’s name in R-rated movies and that millions of Christians support the blasphemy by buying tickets.
It ought to make us angry that in a country where thousands of couples want to adopt a child, almost one million little unborn babies are executed every year, in most cases because their parents regard them as inconvenient.
It ought to make us angry that inmates in our prison system are frequently raped and abused.
It ought to make us angry that most major hotel chains promote pornography by running it on their in-house TVs.
It ought to make us angry that the essential medical needs of our most disadvantaged citizens in Tennessee are not a top priority for most Christians in Tennessee and their elected representatives.
It ought to make us angry that thousands of children all over the world will die this year of preventable causes — like impure water, malaria, and HIV passed from mothers to babies.
It ought to make us angry that many young people in our county will graduate from some public schools without the skills necessary for the American marketplace.
Good anger, righteous indignation, is anger for the right reasons. It is anger that leads to constructive action. Good anger becomes fuel for building the Kingdom of God.
Now, look at Psalms 69:17: “Zeal for your house will consume or devour me.” This was a prediction concerning the coming Messiah. After Jesus was crucified and resurrected, the disciples remembered this verse and understood how Jesus had fulfilled this prediction. This cleansing of the Temple was the single deed by Jesus that most infuriated the Jewish authorities and motivated them to conspire to kill him.
The point is this: It costs something to take a stand. Where did we get the idea that following Jesus is a carefree string of victories? Whatever gave us the idea that Christians are always prosperous, stress-free, and above the fray?
Jesus never promised us the easy life. In fact, He said, “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:32). He told us to “be patient in tribulation” (Romans 12:12). Listen to St. Paul describing his lifestyle: “in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger . . . ” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5)
Move on in our Scripture to verses John 2:18-19. Jesus’ critics demanded to know by what authority He dared to cleanse the Temple. They kept asking for some miracle that would confirm that He was at least a prophet, so Jesus offered them a Temple riddle. In John 2:19 He said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” His critics probably laughed out loud. They knew that King Herod’s workmen had been renovating that temple for 46 years. So, it seemed ridiculous to them for Jesus to claim He could build it back in three days. But they were thinking about the physical structure of the temple. John 2:21 tells us that Jesus was referring to His own body.
What is the meaning of the riddle? For almost 1000 years the temple in Jerusalem had been the acceptable place to offer animal sacrifices to atone for sin. God had instituted animal sacrifices to prepare the people to understand the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Now that Jesus had come, the temple as a place of sacrifice had no further use. In fact, the Romans would tear it down 43 years later. This is why Jesus told a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well that in the future worship would not be localized to a mountain or to Jerusalem: ” . . . the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
The risen Christ is the new temple. He was crucified (or destroyed) and in three days was resurrected. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Jesus’ sacrifice was a one-time event, never needing to be repeated.
When we repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we become part of the new temple, the body of Christ, the Church. St. Paul says to us, “You are God’s temple” (2 Corinthians 6:16). “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Now that we are in Christ, we must be bold like Christ. Now that we are in Christ, the things that anger him ought to anger us. Now that we are in Christ, we must accept the fact that following him will cost us, and we must be willing to pay the price.
At times we must be troublemakers. And for God’s sake, when we make trouble, may it be for heavenly causes.
In a sermon by Martin Luther King entitled “The Strength to Love,” he described the lowest point in his ministry. It happened during the Montgomery bus protest. He began to get threatening phone calls. Gradually he could feel himself faltering and becoming fearful. After a particularly strenuous day, he settled into bed at a late hour. His wife had already fallen asleep when the phone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen (and he used the “N” word) we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”
Dr. King hung up, but he couldn’t get to sleep. So he went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. He was really discouraged and ready to give up. He tried to figure a way he could move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. Finally, he just dropped his head onto his hands and began to pray out loud. He said, “Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe to be right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, but I don’t have the strength to lead them. I am at the end of my powers. I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, said Dr. King, he experienced God’s presence in a unique way. He seemed to hear an inner voice saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. I will be at your side forever.” Almost at once Dr. King’s fears passed. He felt an awesome sense of peace and power. Now he was ready to face anything. He went back to bed and slept soundly.3
Some time ago I was walking through an ancient cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina. I was reading epitaphs. On the tombstone of James Lewis Pettigru was this epitaph that should describe all disciples of Jesus:
Unawed by opinion, unseduced by flattery, undismayed by disaster,
He confronted life with antique courage.
May God help us to do the same!
Bill Bouknight is Senior Pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN.
1 Barclay, William, The Gospel of John, p. 96.
2 McGinnis, Alan Loy, Bringing Out the Best in People, p. 133.
3 A Testament of Hope: The essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, (Harper: San Francisco, 1986), p. 508-509.