Against Anger

The Commandments are one thing.  The new Way is quite another.  The Law says, “You shall not commit murder.”  We know what murder is, the taking of another’s life.  Some would immediately put qualifications on the commandment and say, “You shall not commit murder, except under these circumstances or conditions.”  And those circumstances or conditions usually have to do with provocation.  It’s murder only when the victim has done nothing to merit the killer’s blow.  Killing is the extreme reaction to offensive behavior.  Everything short of that is understandable and can be justified.  Or so many would like to think.

The Sermon on the Mount is an outline of how life is to be lived in the Kingdom that Jesus is initiating.  He is the authoritative teacher, promulgator of the New Way.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Carta of the Christian Way.  Jesus’ authority is quite clear in the present context.  You have heard the commandment imposed on your ancestors, he says.  Moses brought that commandment from God to the people and imposed it as a sign of the covenant between God and the people.  God is the author.  Keeping the commandments would ensure right order in society, reverence and respect for God, reverence and respect for each other.

Jesus does not do away with the commandments, as we saw earlier in our discussion about the Law.  What he does do, however, is speak in the first person and widely expand what should be included under that law.  What I say to you is that far more than murder is unacceptable in this faith community.  In the process of salvation, Jesus is reordering creation and clarifying the implications of living as children of God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.

More than murder is forbidden here.  So are anger and abusive language.  Before we go further, there is one important idea we need to post.  There is such a thing as just anger that is not forbidden by this new commandment.  Jesus’ own actions attest to this.  Think only of his fury as he made a whip out of his belt and drove the moneychangers from the temple.  The justification for his rage?  “My father’s house is a house of prayer; you have made it a den of thieves.”  And the Gospel says, “Zeal for his father’s house consumed him.”  Anger is an appropriate response to injustice and the exploitation of the vulnerable.  Anger compelled Mahatma Gandhi, albeit, non-violently.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was angered by the treatment of his Black brothers and sisters.  His anger compelled him to lead marches.   Apartheid angered Archbishop Desmond Tutu and compelled him to work for conciliation.  So, there are situations and conditions that warrant anger.  A license to kill does not follow.

Jesus addresses the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples, to those who have begun to commit themselves to him and are acknowledging Jesus as Messiah and even Lord.  He is telling the disciples how they are to conduct themselves in this emerging community in which all are brothers and sisters.  Killing a brother or sister is reprehensible.  Jesus says that hating a brother or sister merits the same consequence, damnation.  The one who hates deems the other to be loathsome, abominable, and detestable.  One cannot have such an attitude toward a brother or sister, a fellow member of the community.  So, then, whom can one hate?  It won’t be long before Jesus bans hatred, or so it would seem.  You’ve heard the admonition: “Love your enemy.  Do good to those who hate you.”  In the abstract, you might think that it is not all that challenging to banish hatred from your life.  But put a face on the “enemy” and see him or her as the one who has done something despicable to you, ruined your life, or absconded with your spouse or your life’s savings.  Could you wash that person’s feet?  Jesus would.  He exchanged a kiss with Judas, after all.

I have heard it said that soldiers in the battlefield must dehumanize the enemy before they can kill them.  They don’t see the faces or know the stories and families of those at whom they hurl the grenades or shoot the guns.  They have to make faceless the one at whom they aim.  They see a moving target and a generic enemy.  Part of post-traumatic-stress disorder can rise from the realization that the one killed had a name and a wife or husband and had children.  Every person is made in the image and likeness of God.  That can be difficult to live with for one who has killed another.

Before we can kill, we must demean.  The aborted fetus is not fully human, or if allowed to mature will be an unwanted burden on the mother or a too painful reminder of a romance gone badly.  Those promote euthanasia who see the elderly and disabled as burdens without merit.  Because they cannot fully function they are not fully human and do not have the right to life.  Capital punishment allows us to kill those deemed corrupt and to have merited death for whatever crimes we think warrant death as retribution.  Of course the slippery slope here is that once one class of persons’ right to life can be taken away, the rights of all are in peril.  Remember the Holocaust.  The Nazis felt justified in purging their society of the Jews because, they said, the Jews were responsible for all the ills that plagued Germany.  Nothing unites people more closely than a common enemy.  The goal became to purify society and restore the Arian race to its rightful primacy in the hierarchy of beings.  The pestilence afflicting the people gradually expanded to include the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the disabled and mentally ill, and on and on.  Jesus says demeaning your brother or sister is forbidden and tantamount to killing with the same punishment.

It was jealousy between brothers that caused the first murder.  Cain killed Abel because God seemed to favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s.  Jesus inaugurates a new society where brothers and sisters live in unity and peace because that has been God’s intention from the beginning for the human family.  Brothers and sisters take pride in each other’s accomplishments and are not threatened by abilities that one has and another lacks.  Each individual is uniquely gifted.  One gift does not negate another.  Think of Paul’s litany of gifts in the First Letter to the Corinthians that make up the human body and the body that is the church.  Different gifts but the same giver, Paul says.  That “giver” is God.  And when those different gifts are supported and encouraged how powerful becomes the body and how apparent is the God in whose image the humans are made.

So it seems clear that Jesus is saying to his disciples that they can never be content with dissention in the community.  Disciples can never accept fractured relationships.  Because someone offends does not mean that he or she can be shunned or exiled from the community.  The grace of repentance is always available.  And so Jesus admonishes the offender, the one who caused the breakdown, to have as his or her first priority to make amends and seek reconciliation.  This obligation comes before the obligation to worship God.  If the person is on his way to temple with the elements of sacrifice in hand, Jesus says to tend to first things first.  Reconcile and then offer the sacrifice.

We live in a litigious society.  Every year a list of the top ten silly suits that were successful for the one suing are posted, begun when a woman was awarded a huge amount because she spilled her coffee on herself and was scalded by the “too-hot” coffee.  Mac Donalds had to pay big time.  Laugh though we might, Jesus is saying that this is not acceptable practice in the community he is initiating.  The urgency ought to be to settle outside of court and not waste time in litigation.  Reconcile, reach a settlement and go on to buildup and strengthen the faith community.  Then you can return to worship.

It is not by accident that our liturgy begins with the Penitential Rite wherein we call to mind our sins and, recognizing that there is no such thing as a private sin that does not weaken the whole assembly, we ask pardon of God and of our neighbor before we enter into the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Then, do not miss the significance of the greeting of peace that precedes the Communion Procession.  What we are celebrating is the reconciliation that is necessary to heal the breaches in our society.  Only then can we approach the Table and partake of the One Bread and the One Cup that sacramentalizes our unity with Christ and one another.  It is Mystery that we celebrate, and it is all grace that we must put into practice.

One bread, one Body, One Lord of all/

One cup of blessing which we bless/

And we though many throughout the earth/

We are one Body in this one Lord.

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