There is some very difficult material in today’s Gospel. ‘If anyone kills he will answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: Anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court.’ ‘You must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ ‘If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.’
All this makes Jesus’ teaching on divorce seem quite mild. There are only twenty verses in this passage; yet, when I picked up a commentary, I found thirty-five pages trying to explain what Jesus meant.
I am a little worried at Jesus teaching about anger. That may sound a strange thing for a priest to say. But anger is an emotion and therefore is neither good nor evil. What we should do with an emotion is that it should be recognised and find an appropriate expression. If we are angry with our brother because of something he has done then we should acknowledge our feeling, confront the situation and seek reconciliation.
However, people often think that anger itself is wrong. They then either suppress it or brood over it. Suppression is unhealthy, it denies the feeling pushing it into the unconscious so as to pretend it is not there. What happens then is that much later it reappears in an inappropriate way. Brooding is just as unhealthy, when we brood we nurse the anger, we feed it and keep it to ourselves. The whole thing grows out of all proportion and leaves us feeling bitter hatred.
I think that Jesus was talking about these two inappropriate expressions of anger. As we have said, anger is an emotion and as such is neither good nor evil, it is what is done with it that brings it into the moral sphere. After all Jesus himself showed anger when he chased the money changers out of the Temple.
Perhaps what we need to do is to look at the actual words Jesus uses: ‘Anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court.’ The court meaning, presumably, the court of God. There we have it. We are answerable for our anger. This does not mean that we are in the wrong every time we are angry. It means that we are answerable, we are called to account. There are appropriate expressions of anger and inappropriate expressions of it. It is how we handle our anger that becomes moral and this can be either good or bad.
You might be asking by now: ‘Why is he going on so much about anger?’ I am going on about it because I think it is very important. Learning to handle anger is one of the most important lessons in life, and it has real consequences for our mental and spiritual well-being. Suppressing anger is the road to an overdeveloped sense of guilt.
I was once watching a TV soap about two American girls living in a flat in New York. The Jewish one tried to make the other one feel guilty about something. The reply came as quick as a flash. ‘Don’t lay that on me. I’m a Catholic, I’ve got more than my fair share of guilt.’ There is a real truth there. We Catholics are experts when it comes to guilt. We know all about it and we can feel guilty over the most trivial thing. What did the old Confiteor say: ‘I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.’ We certainly knew how to rub it in. And I think that we still do.
In this Gospel passage Jesus lays it on the line. If we were to summarise what he has to say in one sentence it would be: Outward conformity to the law is insufficient, true conversion is conversion of the heart. Jesus does not just want slavish obedience to the letter of the law. He wants us to see things through his eyes, he wants us to live like he did, he wants us to do the things he did, he wants us to model our lives so closely on him that we become one with him. But most of all he wants us to be free. He does not want us to be overburdened with a heavy sense of guilt.
Everything that Jesus did was to remove guilt. He did not diminish sin, he acknowledged it, and forgave it, and thus banished guilt. He said: ‘Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest.’ These words could never have come from someone who wanted people to feel guilty. In another place he says: ‘I will set you free, and you will be free indeed.’
When we are faced with a difficult passage from the Gospel and we don’t know what to make of it we remember one thing: it is the Gospel and therefore it is the Good News. Then we look at it afresh and we see the Good News in it. This passage today is not about extending the law to cover inward actions as well as outward actions. It is about seeing what is behind the law, it is about how to be free and how to live a good life.
When we are faced with strong emotions like lust and anger. We mustn’t pretend that they don’t exist and suppress them; battening down our emotional hatches. No, we try to give them expression in an appropriate way. We acknowledge that we are angry or strongly attracted to another and we experience the emotion. But then we ask ourselves the question: what is the right way to deal with this? And then we do what our conscience dictates. This is the way to live our lives in a way that improves our mental health and stability. This is the way to live our lives in accordance with God’s law.
Two monks were on a long journey. They came to a ford in a wide river and wanted to cross. There was an exceptionally beautiful woman with a low-cut dress who also wanted to cross. One of the monks picked her up on his shoulders and waded into the river carrying her across. When they reached the other side, he put her down and the two monks continued their journey. When at long last they got to somewhere they could stay the night the other monk berated his companion.
‘How are we going to explain to the Abbot the disgrace you have brought on the monastery? People would have seen you carrying that woman across the river. Had he forgotten that he was a monk? How dare he touch a woman, let alone one so provocatively dressed.’ He went on and on. Finally, the first monk said: ‘Brother, I left that woman on the bank of the river, you seem to have been carrying her all day.’
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket