In the Gospel for Wednesday of the 21st week of the year, we see Jesus make some pretty angry denunciations of the religious leaders of His day. In fact, throughout the Gospels Jesus manifests quite a lot of anger and issues many denunciations, often accompanied by the phrase, “Woe to you!” In this way, He spoke in much the same way as did all the prophets before Him.
We live in a culture that tends to be shocked by anger; it is almost reflexively rejected as counterproductive and usually sinful. But is anger always a sin?
The simple answer is no. In fact, in some situations anger is the appropriate response. Jesus displays quite a lot of anger in the Gospels, so we should be a bit more thoughtful about anger and make some distinctions.
Let’s begin with some of those distinctions.
The internal experience or feeling of anger must be distinguished from its external manifestation. The internal experience of anger as a response to some external stimulus is not sinful because we cannot typically control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals to us that something is wrong, threatening, or inappropriate. Sometimes our perceptions are incorrect, but often they are not. In this sense, anger is not only sinless, but necessary, as it alerts us to the need to respond to something and gives us the energy to address it. It is a passion and an energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
Anger can arise from less than holy reasons. Some of the things we fear we should not. Some of our fears are rooted in pride or an inordinate need for status and affirmation; some come from misplaced priorities. For example, we may be excessively concerned with money, property, popularity, or material things; this triggers inordinate fears about things that should not matter so much. This fear gives rise to feeling threatened with loss or diminishment. This in turn triggers anger, because we sense that something is wrong or threatening. But we ought not to be so concerned with such things because they are rooted in pride, vanity, and materialism. In this case, the anger may have a sinful dimension. The sin, though, is more rooted in the inordinate drives than in the anger itself. Even when anger arises from poor motives, it is still not an entirely voluntary response.
External manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension, particularly when they are beyond what is reasonable. If we express anger by hurling insults or physically injuring someone, we may well have sinned. Even here, though, there can be exceptions. For example, it is appropriate at times to physically defend oneself. However, it remains true that we live in thin-skinned times and people often take offense when they should not. Jesus did not often hesitate to describe his opponents in rather “vivid” ways.
Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin. The Scriptures say, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4). So anger is not the sin, but the expression of anger may be. Further, it is possible that some of our anger springs from less than holy sources.
When is the external manifestation of anger appropriate? Most simply put, when its object is appropriate and reasonable.
For example, it is appropriate to be angry when we see injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. harnessed the appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism. He elicited it and focused its energy in productive ways. However, he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not give the civil rights protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to bring out a just anger in many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist injustice and effect change through non-violence. This sort of angry response was appropriate, reasonable, and even holy. The tradition of non-violent resistance to injustice remains strong in those who protest abortion and other sins, crimes, and social injustices. It is the anger that motivates within us the desire to speak out and the zeal to take action to rectify injustice.
There are, however, also those persons today who sadly respond to injustice with violent protests, and express hatred. In such protests, anger is no longer a creative energy that summons one to prophetically call for change and justice. Rather, it is vented as violent anger that manifests hate and often ends in destruction of property, harm to and even the death of other human beings. This is not worthy of any Christian notion of appropriate anger.
Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction.To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example, if a child punches his brother in the mouth and knocks out a tooth, a parent ought to display an appropriate amount of anger in order to make it very clear that this behavior is unacceptable. Gently correcting the child in a smooth and dispassionate voice might lead to the impression that this action really wasn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. The display of anger should be at the proper level, neither excessively strong nor too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.
Meekness – This is an important beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit that helps us to master anger. Today, we think of a meek person as one who is a bit of a pushover, easily taken advantage of. But the original meaning of meekness describes the vigorous virtue through which one gains authority over his anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης) as the mean between being too angry and not being angry enough. The meek person has authority over their anger and is thus able to summon its energy but control its extremes. The meek are far from weak; in fact, they show their strength in their ability to control their anger. St. John Chrysostom said this regarding anger: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices (Homily 11). St Thomas Aquinas said, Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (Summa Theologica II, IIae 158.8).
What, then, should we make of Jesus’ manifestation of anger? On the one hand Jesus seems to have taught very strongly against anger:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:21-22).
Taking the passage at face value, it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus clearly broke his own rule because as we know He exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus does clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful anger. The two examples in this passage show the kind of anger He means. The first example is use of the term Raca, an epithet that displayed utter contempt for the recipient. Notice that Jesus links this kind of anger to murder because by using the term, the other person is so stripped of any human dignity that to murder him would be no different than killing an ox or mule. This sort of anger depersonalizes the other and disregards him as a child of God. Using the term fool has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger would seem unreasonable given Jesus’ own example, which included not a little anger.
Most people are familiar with Jesus’ display of anger in the cleansing of the temple, but there were other times when He also manifested significant anger. Today’s Gospel is certainly an example.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23:29-33)
On many other occasions Jesus said similar things. Here is another:
Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire! He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God!” (John 8:44-47)
Passages like these do not exhibit the “Mr. Rogers” kind of Jesus that is common in the modern imagination; Jesus was no Caspar Milquetoast.
What should we make of these angry displays?
They are not sinful. Clearly they are not sinful displays of anger because Scripture assures us that Jesus never sinned (e.g., Heb 4:15).
The culture in Jesus’ time was different than it is today. In the culture of the ancient Jews there seems to have been a wider acceptance of the expression of anger than there is in American society today. Even within the United States there is a wide variance in the acceptance of anger. When I was in college, I dated an Italian girl; she and her mother could really set to it—lots of loud shouting in Italian! But then a moment later it was over and they were on to the next topic. In their family, strong expressions of anger were much more accepted than I was used to. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was also an expression more acceptable in the culture of that time than it would be today. Turning over tables was a “prophetic action.” Prophets did things like this in those days. Even we find a place for civil disobedience today. We may not always like it, but we respect that it has a place.
Jesus was clearly angry. He was grieved at the hard-heartedness of His opponents. His strong tone was an authoritative summons to repent. A soft, lowered voice might not have conveyed the urgency of the situation. These were hardened men who needed pointed, passionate denunciation. Jesus’ anger was righteous anger.
We ought to be careful, however, before simply using Jesus’ angry tone ourselves. There are two reasons for this: First, Jesus was able to see into their hearts and determine the appropriate tactics; we may not always be able to do this. Second, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone; it may be less effective in our setting. Prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.
In the end, anger is not sinful or wrong per se. It is sometimes the proper and necessary response. We do well to be careful with our anger, however, for it is an unruly passion. Above all we ought to seek the fruit of the Spirit that is meekness and to ask the Lord to give us authority over our anger and prudence in its use.
These videos show some displays of Jesus’ anger. In one it is more obvious; in the other it is more subtle:
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill reads a tally during the USCCB June meeting. (photo: USCCB/Youtube)