In 2006, while I was at Union Theological Seminary, I began a ministry to New York City’s restaurant workers. Being the largely self-proclaimed Chaplain to the New York City Restaurant Industry was a ministry, but it wasn’t exactly a job. And so to pay the rent I was also working in the industry myself as a busboy at a fine-dining restaurant on the Upper West Side. I met a lot of great people, including one of my fellow bussers, Alberto.
It took a while to get to know him because he was kind of a shy guy—which is actually perfect for us busboys. We hover at the edges of the dining room watching our tables sharply and silently. Ideally, we shouldn’t ever be noticed. Just before a water glass is emptied we swoop in, fill it, and slip away. When a dirty napkin is dropped on a chair because of a trip to the restroom, we glide to it, fold it, and lay it back on the seat with quiet deference. When a course is completed, we make eye contact with one another, nod in coordination, and come to the table from multiple angles, clearing every dish and piece of silver no longer needed in the blink of an eye. With our arms loaded up and our heads down, we rush out through the kitchen doors.
If a busboy does get noticed, it’s almost universally a bad sign—a shattered glass, a splattered sauce, and the dreaded, “I’m not done with that yet!” I once tried to clear a diner’s amuse bouche, and she threatened to stab me with her oyster fork. I slid back into the corner with a smile neither amused nor offended, like an aproned automaton.
It does no good to get angry when you’re a busboy. It’s better not to be noticed. And Alberto was good at not being noticed, which made him a good busser. He was introverted. He never raised his voice. He never laughed or fooled around. He never seemed to get bored or tired. He never bickered with the servers or the managers.
After a while, working together night after night for months, when the restaurant was slow, Alberto began to whisper with me in the dark corners of the service area while we watched our tables. He was naturally quiet—even the other Spanish-speakers thought so—but he was also embarrassed by his English. He had a lot of trouble with the pronunciation and enunciation of English words, so we would practice together. He would say an English word he had learned, I’d repeat it back, he’d try to parrot me, I’d repeat it again, slowly articulating each sound. He’d imitate me again and again, trying to contort his lips and tongue into unnatural poses. It was the first time I saw flashes of emotion in the man—anger. Alberto was frustrated with the way he sounded. He kept practicing, but mostly he just kept his head down, stayed quiet, and bussed his tables.
Based on our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus doesn’t seem like he’d make it as a busboy. Flipping tables over, yelling, whipping the customers, arguing with the managers, threatening to burn the place down—none of these things for a good busboy makes. It’s easy to assume that Jesus must have just been made this way—born to be the new sheriff in town!—and that this is just the kind of behavior we should expect from the Son of God—outspoken moral indignation from a Messiah who’s fearless or reckless (or both).
But Jesus’ behavior in the Temple, here in the second chapter of John’s gospel, is very different than what we’d expect from this Jesus based upon what comes before it.
In the beginning of John’s gospel, John the Baptist shouts out in the wilderness just like we expect. But when Jesus shows up there’s no baptism scene. Jesus doesn’t say or do anything. He just shows up. John sees a dove descend on Jesus and John starts calling Jesus the Lamb of God in front of everyone. Jesus doesn’t even seem to notice.
The next day Jesus walks away (so far Jesus has shown up and left—that’s it), and two of John’s disciples decide to follow Jesus—not because Jesus calls them to follow, but because of what John is saying about Jesus. That evening, one of these new disciples takes it upon himself to recruit a third person. Jesus doesn’t even go with him.
Two days later Jesus and his friends go to a local wedding in Cana. Jesus’ mother famously complains to him about the party running out of wine, and he says to her, “What does that have to do with you and me? My hour has not yet come.” But she manipulates the situation as only a mother knows how, and Jesus turns some water into wine. But it’s not like he makes it a big production, waving his hands around and saying “abracadabra.” He doesn’t even get out of his seat. He just says, “Fill those jugs up with water and then drink out of them.” He’s like a busboy slipping in to magically refill a wineglass without the guests even noticing—inconspicuous. When people start freaking out about how good the wine is, Jesus lets the groom take all the credit.
Then Jesus leaves for Passover in Jerusalem, he takes one look at the marketplace that had always been in the Temple, and the next thing you know he’s whirling a whip over his head and inciting a riot. How does something like that happen? How do you go from being quiet and unassuming to a full-blown rabble-rouser with the turn of a page?
I think maybe Jesus got angry! Did you notice that too? So far this Lent we’ve talked about humility and courage, and last week when we talked about the Amistad we started to talk about compassion and justice, but anger? Could anger be virtuous? But Jesus is doing more than just feeling anger and then calmly responding like you would think some sort of holy person would. He seems to be acting out of anger. Can anger be righteous? Productive? Holy?
The other three gospels in the Bible—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—they place this story about Jesus attacking the Temple marketplace near the end of their gospels—right before the crucifixion. In fact, Mark makes it clear how dangerous this action was—Mark implies it’s the inciting incident of the crucifixion: After witnessing this action the Temple authorities decide they have to destroy Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel. But John makes this public protest the inciting incident not of the crucifixion, but of Jesus’ whole ministry. In John’s gospel Jesus’ first public action is an action of anger.
Well, what was Jesus so angry about? There were all kinds of currencies available in Jerusalem, especially since Rome had come, but only Shekels of Tyre could be used to pay the Temple tax or to do business within the Temple. That meant that if you were a peasant who came into Jerusalem to fulfill your religious obligations during, for instance, Passover, you were at the mercy of exorbitant exchange rates at the moneychangers’ tables.
If the festival you were in town for required an animal sacrifice or if you needed to sacrifice an animal for purification, you couldn’t bring your own homegrown animal to Jerusalem on a leash the cheap way. You had to buy a “pure” animal from the sellers in the Temple. “Pure” animals cost much more than the same animal being sold just outside the Temple walls.
If Jesus is angry, his anger is righteous anger. It’s not that money or animals are offensive to God, it’s that corruption and preying on the poor are offensive to God. Cows in the Temple are not profane. Injustice in the Temple is the profanity. A system that exploits the poor is immoral, and Jesus’ demonstrates to us that the suffering the poor endure because of such a system is one of God’s ultimate concerns. Jesus’ righteous anger is not a self-righteous anger that obsesses over the transgressions of the sinners. It’s a compassionate anger that is deeply concerned with the suffering of the least of these.
Now, I worry about anger. I worry about it because I know from experience just how destructive anger can be. We’ve all seen it happen. We’ve seen anger eat away at someone from the inside. We’ve seen anger burst forth out of someone with violence and hatred. Anger is a powerful emotion. And if it’s not handled properly, it can destroy good things and do terrible things.
But there are also times when a lack of anger is the true problem. Apathy in the face of injustice, not bothering to have a reaction to the suffering of others, not caring about systems of abuse and exploitation, not believing that you or that others deserve better can be every bit as destructive as a fit of anger. When we turn our backs on the suffering of our neighbors, we turn our backs on God.
Restaurant workers move around a lot, and Alberto and I lost touch. Eventually, I got a job as a workplace justice organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. ROC-NY, as it’s called, was formed in 2001 to help restaurant workers displaced by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and has grown to become a national organization in ten urban centers that organizes workers to fight against illegal practices and bad policies in the restaurant industry.
As workplace organizers it was the job of our team to start a justice campaign in a fine-dining restaurant group that was treating its workers illegally—discrimination, sexual harassment, stealing tips and wages, that kind of stuff. Celebrity chef Mario Batali and his numerous NYC restaurants had a bad reputation in the industry for all of these things. Batali’s reputation hasn’t gotten any better recently. He was forced to step away from his businesses after the Me Too movement caught up with him. But we were hearing stories of his sexual harassment way back in 2009. And management was stealing tips, creating a hostile environment for workers of color and immigrant workers, and they were discriminating based on race in their hiring and promotions. We met with a lot of angry workers.
One of the reasons our campaign succeeded was because I found my old coworker Alberto working as a busser in one of Batali’s restaurants. You can imagine that, at first, he did not want to get involved—he was shy. But he was also angry. His managers had insulted him, called him racist names, and even put their hands on him—threatening and demeaning him.
The launch of the campaign was especially stressful for the workers. We told them we couldn’t just file the paperwork in court, but that they needed to present their demand letter to their manager at the restaurant in person. And that it would be a big, public event. All the workers would be there. We’d have a big group of allies and supporters. We’d have news reporters and filmmakers. More than 100 of us would march together to the restaurant during dinner service, go inside, ask to see the manager, and one of the workers would hand the demand letter to their manager and in the biggest, loudest voice they could muster, so that everyone could hear, they would summarize the list of complaints and demands to their own manager.
Obviously, no one really wanted to be the spokesperson of the campaign. No one wants to single themselves out as a leader, or a rabble-rouser, because they were afraid of retaliation, of losing their jobs, of the police, and of immigration troubles. In the end, there were a lot of workers who talked a lot in meetings who passed on this opportunity.
But it didn’t take long for Alberto, who was always quiet, and who never wanted trouble, and who struggled with pronunciation, and who was embarrassed by his English, to raise his hand and volunteer. Anger was moving Alberto. This wasn’t like beating up on himself for messing up an English word. There was a fire in Alberto and it was changing him. He wanted to put himself out front, out in front of all his fears. He found himself wanting to stand up for himself and people like him, to affirm himself in the face of disrespect, in spite of all his fears and the very real risks of leadership. This was strength, this was guts, this self-respect. And anger was the seed that (with the right care and motivation and direction) that eventually produced this harvest of heroism.
And, beloved, when the moment came, Alberto was great. He lifted his head up and squared his shoulders. Flashing cameras popped around him. He looked his manager in the eye. The crowd hushed. He spoke slowly, loudly, clearly about the abuses the workers had suffered and what their demands were. And everyone heard him. Right from the launch of this years-long campaign, Alberto looked his fear right in the eye and said as loud as anyone ever has, “Here I am.” This was anger as I had never seen it before—not immature, not violent, not destructive, but the opposite. It was brave, it was persistent, it was the emotion of self-worth, it was a compassionate force that was building something—a campaign for justice.
I still worry about anger. But, you know, everybody gets angry. What do you get angry about? What do you do when get angry? Has your anger ever made the world a better place? Has anyone ever had a reason to thank God for your compassionate anger? Beloved, it’s fine to worry about the destructive kind of anger, but let’s not miss the opportunity to allow anger to move us toward something greater.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations