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Righteous and Unrighteous Anger
Gospel Reflection for September 17, 2023 - Matthew 18:21-35
Then came Peter unto him and said: Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Jesus saith to him: I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times.
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a king, who would take an account of his servants.
And when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him, that owed him ten thousand talents.
And as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
But that servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
And the lord of that servant being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt.
But when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellow servants that owed him an hundred pence: and laying hold of him, throttled him, saying: Pay what thou owest.
And his fellow servant falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he paid the debt.
Now his fellow servants seeing what was done, were very much grieved, and they came and told their lord all that was done.
Then his lord called him; and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me:
Shouldst not thou then have had compassion also on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee?
And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt.
So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts. (Matthew 18:21-35 DRA)
The Gospel reading for this Sunday, which appropriately follows from last Sunday’s instruction on fraternal correction and concludes Matthew 18, focuses on anger. St. Thomas Aquinas defined anger as the desire for revenge, the punishment of wrongdoing. Since revenge belongs to God alone, (Rom 12:19) can anger therefore ever be justified? And yet, Our Lord said, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.” (Mt 5:6) Likewise, St. Paul taught, “Be angry, and sin not. Let not the sun go down upon your anger.” (Eph 4:26) Jesus, in His cleansings of the Temple, had every right to desire and even enact vengeance, since He is God, just as He did in the Old Testament – but is anger ever justified for us?
This is a difficult question. Our first reading from Sirach, which prefigures the teaching of Christ in the Our Father prayer to “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors,” (Mt 6:12) seems to prohibit all anger as a violation of charity and a refusal of mercy. Sirach provides a memento mori, a reminder of death which for all of us is immanent and after which we will be judged for our sins; while we still live, we have time to forgive, to imitate the mercy of God. And yet, Paul directly permits anger and distinguishes it from sin, and many saints throughout Scripture and Christian history can be said to have acted out of righteous anger without being unmerciful.
As always, Aquinas is helpful when making these kinds of distinctions. He explains, “evil may be found in anger, when, to wit, one is angry, more or less than right reason demands. But if one is angry in accordance with right reason, one's anger is deserving of praise.” The desire for revenge, he says, is not always wrong – fundamentally, anger is the desire for justice, which Our Lord promotes in the Beatitudes, the repayment and correction of evil. Anger is a passion of the sensitive, irascible appetite, a movement against a present evil; as such, it is natural, and only becomes corrupted, like other passions, when not moderated by right reason. This immoderate and excessive vengefulness is the sin which Sirach warns against, whereas Christ’s cleansings of the Temple, done with perfect justification and without cruelty, demonstrate moderate righteous anger, the kind St. Paul permits. Ultimately, anger is sinful when it is unjust and unmerciful. Like the man in Christ’s parable, who refused to show the mercy which had been shown to him by the king, leading him to violently assault someone who was penitent toward him, this kind of anger is liable to the Purgatory to which this man was assigned by the king and which awaits anyone who fails to forgive those who repent of their sins. If God has forgiven our offenses against Him, which He did not deserve and had every right to punish, we must forgive those who sin against us as fellow sinners while still desiring that God’s justice be done:
[I]f one desire the taking of vengeance in any way whatever contrary to the order of reason, for instance if he desire the punishment of one who has not deserved it, or beyond his deserts, or again contrary to the order prescribed by law, or not for the due end, namely the maintaining of justice and the correction of defaults, then the desire of anger will be sinful, and this is called sinful anger… the movement of anger should not be immoderately fierce, neither internally nor externally; and if this condition be disregarded, anger will not lack sin, even though just vengeance be desired.
While anger is dangerous and can become sinful, it is a passion designed by God for a reason. Immoderate anger is sinful, but so is the cowardice and pusillanimity of failing to be angry when confronted with grave evils. Those who are indifferent toward injustice, who simply ignore the oppression of others and focus only on themselves, fail in fraternal correction which is itself a work of mercy. Unlike hatred, which desires evil for the sake of committing evil, anger desires revenge as a good, arising from the sorrow of a present assault of evil; to combat this evil is a work of mercy, if done with rational and disciplined judgement. As Aquinas wrote,
It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice; and to this the sensitive appetite can tend, in so far as it is moved thereto by the reason: and when revenge is taken in accordance with the order of judgment, it is God's work, since he who has power to punish ‘is God's minister,’ as stated in Romans 13:4. (Cf. Summa theologiae II-II, q. 158)
Today’s world of social media is often called the “outrage culture.” Angry rhetoric from all sides is omnipresent, not only on television and the internet but in daily life. People today of all ages and cultures seem perpetually on the defensive, ready to strike against anything of which they disapprove. In a way, this is not as bad as many assume. It indicates a form of conscientiousness which is sensitive to evil and desires its punishment; this is in apparent contrast to the “live and let live” indifference of the Sexual Revolution and the “tolerance” of Enlightenment liberalism. Nevertheless, it is frequently a false conscientiousness and an unjust anger, since it is often based not in objective morality and God’s law but in what Catholic apologist Karlo Broussard has called the “new relativism,” a kind of enforced and dictatorial agnosticism toward all moral norms. Morality thus becomes the acceptance of all things, and the only evil is an unwillingness to accept evil. This is the condition of the world today, and the great evils which it permits, including the murder of children (born and unborn), euthanasia, child sex trafficking, transgender ideology and child mutilation, pedophilia, drug abuse, etc., rightly inspire many, especially conservative Christians, to boldly point out these evils and desire their punishment by just authorities. Sometimes, in the deepest darkness, only the brightest light can penetrate it.
While it can be admirable for Christians to participate in these dialogues, and we are morally obligated to stand up against this demonic tide of evil in society, it is also important to restrain anger through reason and the laws of the Church, without which evil easily becomes sinful and makes us like those we fight, most of all their demonic influencers. Alongside the fire of anger, the water of compassion, forgiveness and patience must act as a soothing ointment. Only in this way can Christians, always keeping the judgement of God in mind, avoid the damnation promised by Sirach and Our Lord for those whose anger becomes sinful, while still fighting against evil and serving to build up the Kingdom of God.
Today is the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, who knew when to restrain his anger and when to act on it for correction of injustice. Ora pro nobis!