Friday of the First Week of Lent
Ezekiel 18:21-28 — Matthew 5:20-26
February 26, 2010
Scripture readings from Holy Mass:
Verse for Recollection throughout the Day:
“But I say to you, /
whoever is angry with his brother /
will be liable to judgment….”
will be liable to judgment….”
In today’s Gospel passage, from very early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives His first example of the “New Law”: the Law of Love, in contrast to Israel’s understanding of the Law of Moses. The examples that Jesus gives in this section of the Sermon on the Mount have a consistent structure: “You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you….”
The example in today’s Gospel passage is about anger. In contrast to the ancient understanding of the Law of Moses—“whoever kills will be liable to judgment”—Jesus explains that the Law of Love goes to the root of the matter: “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment….”
What can we say about anger? Many people in the confessional will confess “the sin of anger”, saying something like, “I got angry ten times, Father.” As an emotion, anger is not and cannot be a sin. But the idea that the emotion of anger is a sin is common.
Where does this idea come from? In fact, no emotion can itself be a sin, anymore than an emotion can be a virtue. Maybe this latter point offers us a clue about why certain emotions are considered sins. Because the “pop culture” around us equates “holiness” with “feeling good about ourselves”, very logically “sin” must be about “feeling bad”. And so emotions such as anger, fear and boredom become our culture’s worst “sins.”
On the contrary, our Christian Faith teaches that sins come only from the human will. There are indeed sins that proceed from anger, fear, boredom, and other emotions. But the “bad emotions” are not the sins. The “sins of anger” (or “of fear”, or “of boredom”) are the choices that we freely make when we choose to order our lives according to these emotions.
Consider carefully what Jesus says: He does not say, “Whoever is angry with his brother is sinning.” Jesus says that when anger is within a person, that person will be “liable to judgment”, meaning that the freely chosen actions that flow out of a person filled with anger will be judged, no matter how large or small those choices are. A person with anger in his soul will be held liable for his choices, not only if he kills out of anger, but even if he speaks ill out of anger.
Note also: emotions come and go, but our choices remain. Among the many “sins of anger” (free choices that flow from a soul filled with anger), one of the more powerful is the free choice to “nurture” or “nurse” the emotion of anger. In a normal human life, anger can leave one’s life just as quickly as it enters. But often, a person wants to use this emotion as a source of what he thinks is “strength”. This active nurturing of anger is a true and common sin.
On the one hand, all of this is freeing: because emotions are not freely chosen, we are not responsible for them, and should not believe ourselves guilty for our feelings. On the other hand, Jesus has raised the bar: even when angry, God will hold us accountable for our actions. Our emotions are not excuses for poor choices, and we as Christians will be held accountable even for the small choices that we make.
Do you ask God to take away your anger, or to help you act justly in the face of anger?
click on the painting of The Sermon on the Mount for a lengthy discussion of meekness and anger, intellectually considered