In our Gospel reading today Jesus warns his disciples, us, about three dangerous emotional responses, first the danger of anger, second the danger of unrestrained sexual desires and thoughts, and thirdly about rash promises. We don’t really have the time to cover all three areas today so we will consider the one with which most of us struggle, anger. This reminds me of a couple of stories.
The first story is told of a coach of a little league team in Buffalo. During a close ball game he called one of his players over to him and asked the little fellow if he remembered what they had said at the beginning of the season about sportsmanship. The boy said, “Yes.” The coach then said, “You remember that we don’t believe in temper tantrums, screaming at the umpires, or using bad language.” The little boy nodded solemnly. “All right then,” said the coach, “I want you to go over there into the stands and explain that to your grandfather who is jumping up and down and screaming.”
The second story concerns a married couple. One day after a quarrel and then a time of reconciliation a husband said to his wife, “You know, when I get mad at you, you never fight back. How do you control your anger?” There was a short pause and then his wife replied, “I go clean the toilet bowl.” Her husband said, “You clean the toilet bowl? How does that help you with your anger?” “Oh, said his wife, “I use your toothbrush.”
What do you do when you get angry? Anger is something we hear about and see in our society a lot these days. Angry and insulting words are heard daily over the news by our politicians and newscasters. People are shooting each other in angry outbursts. Violence against each other in families, in workplaces, and in schools seems to have become the norm as opposed to the exception any more. Charles Duhigg wrote an article in the Atlantic on anger in the United States. In this article he states, “That America has always been an angry nation. We are a country born from anger and revolution. Combat—on battlefields, in newspapers, at the ballot box—has been with us from the start. The Bill of Rights guarantees that we can argue with one another in the public square, through a free press, and in open court. The separation of powers forces our representatives in government to arrive at policy through disagreement, negotiation, and accommodation.
Recently, however, the tenor of our anger has shifted. It has become less episodic and more persistent; it has become a constant drumbeat in our lives. It is directed less often at people we know and more often at distant groups that are easy to demonize.”
Throughout history and in different societies, anger like this breaks out. Interestingly, it was this way in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The Jewish society in his day was a powder-keg. The people in Palestine lived under the iron foot of Rome and injustice and cruelty were commonplace. Anger, resentment, and violence were seething just below the surface and would frequently erupt. Riots were common. Then after the riots there were the brutal retaliations from the Roman soldiers. Life was extremely hard in Palestine and anger was the common response.
It is in this setting of barely suppressed rage that Jesus is teaching his disciples the parameters, the foundation of the kingdom that he, the Messiah, is setting up. He has started with the beatitudes, the blessed are the poor in spirit, those who are dependent upon God, blessed are the merciful, blessed are those desiring to be more righteous, who are pure; then last week in our gospel readings Jesus went on to tell his disciples that they, as they adopted this new way of living would be the salt or fertilizer of the earth and would be lights to the world to show others how to really live. Today he talks to them about their emotions that can easily get out of control.
Jesus tells us that anger is the first step towards murder. Everyone knows murder is pretty bad. Yet, Jesus says that when we just get angry with a brother or sister we are liable to judgment. Then when we insult a person out of anger it is even worse, and if we call someone a fool why we are in danger of going to hell. And notice that so far we have not even physically touched the person with whom we are angry.
Anger is a primal reaction. Anger is an emotion. But wait, if anger is an emotion, how can I be held responsible for that? After all we cannot control whether or not we have an emotion, right? Jesus is telling us that although emotions arise without conscious control nonetheless, we are responsible to control ourselves no matter what type of emotion we may be feeling.
Clearly we need God’ help to deal with our emotions and especially with our anger. Anger may be the reaction when we don’t get our way or when things do not go the way we think they ought to go. We get angry sometimes when we are hurt, impatient, frustrated, or jealous. But certainly we can get angry at other things too. People can get angry when we see bad things happening to other people and our hearts cry out for justice. Jesus got angry when he saw God’s temple being profaned; but it is quite another thing when you or I get angry because my personal political views are being challenged or when a person pulls in front of me when I are driving. When we feel this emotional anger we need to realize that we need to be careful. This feeling should be a yellow flag of caution to us because this can be a dangerous emotion. Jesus tells us that when we are angry with our brother or sister we are in danger of judgment, God’s judgment! Typically when we are angry, this feeling seems to impel us to say something. And that something we say often results in an insult of the one with whom we are angry. Sometimes we insult them to their face, but other times we insult people in conversation with others or we just insult them in our minds. And what are insults? Insults are meant to dehumanize, demean, and belittle, right? Otherwise they would be compliments. No, when we are angry at someone there is a desire to justify why we are angry so we call them names that put them down. “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” But that is not true. Insults dehumanize, their aim is to make people be less than human. Insults are intended to hurt and dehumanize. These kind of words are used in our society on the news, in the movies, on the television shows, and on talk radio. Kids hear them and use them in the schools. We hear them on the workplace. Interestingly not only do we hurt the other person with our words but Jesus points out that we are hurting ourselves by placing ourselves in positions of being judged by God. God does not like it when we insult others. God doesn’t like it when we call other people who are made in His image, belittling names. Jesus tells us that these sorts of words will endanger our souls as much as murder. This ought to make all of us very uncomfortable.
So what is the solution? Jesus tells us to try to be reconciled with our brother or sister. Talk to each other! We are not to resort to insults; in fact we should grow afraid of using insults! Jesus is describing to us a new society, a new kind of people. This is the kind of people we are to become. This kind of people is the kind of people who will be in His kingdom.
Jesus came to help us become different people. He came to show us a different way of living, thinking, and speaking than our society does. May He continue to work in us through His Holy Spirit so that we are different; so that we become different; so that we act differently even when we are angry. Let us be lights that show that Christ is within us in our community. Amen