The anger of man: sermon on the fifth Sunday after Pentecost

“Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

By all His words, our Lord is teaching us how to enter the kingdom of heaven. One of the lessons that He often teaches us is that outward correctness will not be sufficient without conversion of heart. On Easter morning, St Mary Magdalene mistook Him for the gardener. She was not entirely wrong: He is the gardener of the soul, and He wishes not only to free us from this or that bad act, but to uproot the evil passions that thrust their roots deep within us. Today, it is the turn of the passion of anger.

In the lives of the desert Fathers, there is a story about a young monk who seemed to be making great progress in the monastic life. He spent many hours in prayer, he kept all the fasts very strictly, and he never overslept when it was time to rise in the middle of the night. He experienced only one problem in the monastery: the faults of the other monks often made him angry. He found them all very imperfect: some of them were ill-mannered, others were stupid, others again were lacking in devotion. In fact, they often made him feel so angry that he thought that his own spiritual life was in danger. So, this young monk finally went to his abbot and having explained the problem, he asked for permission to go and live as a hermit in a cave some miles from the monastery, where he might be at peace; and the abbot gave him leave.

Very early next morning, he set off to the cave, and spent the day there alone, praying, reading and weaving baskets, a work that monks at that time often performed. He felt happy to be free of the bother caused him by the folly of the other monks. At the ninth hour of the day, he began to prepare his meal. He put an earthenware pot full of water over the fire, but when the water began to boil, the pot fell off its stand. So, he picked it up, re-filled it with water and put it back on the stand. A little later, as the water inside it grew warmer, the pot fell off again, and he put it back once more. Then only a few moments later, as the water again came to the boil, it fell off for the third time. The monk picked it up, shouted, “Oh, you stupid pot,” and flung it at the wall of the cave. And as it shattered into many fragments, the monk came to his senses. He suddenly perceived that the evil that had been making him so angry in the monastery had been in himself all the time, and not in the others. As night fell, he returned home; and there he was welcomed back by the abbot, who had been waiting for him.

As this story shows, anger often arises from pride, that is from the disordered desire of one’s own excellence. The young monk desired to succeed in the spiritual life, and so became angry with whatever made his path more difficult. This is why our Lord speaks to us about anger: it is often a sign of pride, and no proud man can enter the kingdom of heaven.

Notice that He speaks to us of three levels. First, there is a purely internal anger. “Whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgement.” The person resents his brother, but manages to keep his feelings to himself. But he is still liable to judgement. Perhaps when we come to be judged, we shall see how often our feelings of anger were unreasonable: for example, how often we got angry with other people for doing things that we excused ourselves for doing, when we did them.

The second level of anger is when it manifests itself outwardly, in some angry outburst toward the brother. “Whoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council.” What does this mean? Raca is an Aramaic word expressing indignation. But the council, for Christ’s hearers, would have meant the Sanhedrin, the highest court of law among the Jews. Was the Sanhedrin going to put people on trial for manifesting impatience? That would not seem likely. No, Christ is still speaking of the divine judgement, after death, or on the last day. As the high-priest of the Jews heard the highest cases in Jerusalem, surrounded by the 72 elders of the Sanhedrin, St Jude tells us that our Lord will come in judgement at the end of the world, surrounded by his saints. And if we have shown fraternal charity to our neighbour in bearing with his faults, then we shall not be in danger of the council when we are judged, since we shall have the favour of Christ and the saints. In other words, if we want the saints to intercede for us at our judgement, we should be patient with our fellow sinners.

And the third level of anger is the worst: it goes all the way to hatred, and to a fully deliberate wish that something evil should happen to our neighbour. This is a mortal sin, since it puts a person “in danger of hell fire”.

But here, someone could raise an objection. They could say that anger cannot be always wrong, since Christ in the gospel is said sometimes to be angry. When He cures the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, we read in St Mark that He looked “round about on them with anger, being grieved for the blindness of their hearts”. But we should know that this anger was different from ours. On account of our weakness, anger is something that we undergo: it tends to overpower our reason and to distort our judgement. It is a form of weakness, by which we lose control of ourselves. That is why St John Bosco used to tell his spiritual sons that if ever they had to punish a pupil in their class, they should not do so when they were angry, or they would punish him excessively. Our Lord, by contrast, did not undergo anger. In Him, it was not a passion that threatened to disturb His judgement: it was a perfectly pure and holy response to a real evil.

In itself, then, anger is not an evil emotion. But it is a tool that no fallen man can choose to employ without wounding himself in some way. That is why, even though we do not necessarily sin by feeling it, we should never welcome it into ourselves. In this sense, St James says, “The anger of man worketh not the justice of God.”

Our Lord, who knows us better than we know ourselves, sees that anger is one of the main obstacles to entering the kingdom of His Father. That is why He says, “Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart.” Meekness is what heals the infirmity of anger. In this month of the Sacred Heart, then, let us say to Him, “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto thine.”