The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Sirach 27:30—28:7  +  Romans 14:7-9  +  Matthew 18:21-35

Pride and anger have something in common.  Both can be either good or evil.

Take pride, for example.  A student ought to take pride in a report card with very good grades.  A sports team ought to take pride in winning a championship.  A farmer ought to take pride in completing the season’s harvest.  All of these forms of pride are morally good, and deserved, even though each demands qualification.  Each requires the exercise of the virtue of prudence.

After all, while the student can rightly take pride in his hard work and his intelligence, where did the capacity for hard work and intelligence come from?  He was given those gifts—not to mention the gift of life itself—from his parents in cooperation with God’s providence.  Furthermore, the student likely has other people as well, such as teachers, whom he needs to recognize as helping him if he’s going to take pride in his academic accomplishments.  That’s why every morally upright act of pride demands that it not be completely self-centered, but instead that it gives credit to others where credit is due.  Likewise for the athlete, the farmer, the businessman, the politician, the parent, the spouse, and so on.

Pride can be exercised in a morally upright way, but pride can also be a terrible sin and even a horrible vice when the human person is lacking in prudence and humility.  Something very similar is true of anger.  Anger can be exercised in a morally upright way.  But anger can also be a terrible sin, and even a horrible vice.  Today’s Scripture passages show us the dark underside of the sin and vice of anger.

However, before reflecting on today’s Scripture passages, we ought to consider a passage that shows us anger in a good light:  in the light of Jesus Christ.  All four of the Gospel accounts record Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem.  He overturns the money changers’ tables.  He makes a whip of cords, and drives out both those selling animals, and the money changers.  And He declares:  “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’”[1]

The fact that all four evangelists recorded this event in their Gospel accounts drives home an important truth:  that anger can be both morally good, and even holy.  However, like with pride, the virtue of prudence has to guide a person’s anger.  If prudence and humility do not guide a person’s anger, the anger becomes first sinful, and then a vice:  the type of anger we hear about in today’s Scripture passages.

“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.”  That opening sentence of today’s First Reading points to one of the paradoxes of the sin and vice of anger.  Wrath and sinful anger are so harmful to the person who holds them inside, and yet there can be a harmful compulsion to hold on to them:  or in the words of Sirach, to hug them tight.  But why would anyone hug tight, next to oneself, things that are hateful?  It makes no sense.

You might as well drive to the nearest pet store and purchase two porcupines.  Take them home.  Name one of the porcupines “Wrath”, and the other porcupine “Anger”.  Then every night before you go to sleep, take your porcupines in your arms and hug them tight.  Give them a great big hug.  That would make more sense than hugging tight the sin of anger and the vice of wrath.  It would make more sense because the porcupines would only harm your body, while the sin of anger and the vice of wrath harm your soul, and place your soul in jeopardy of eternal punishment.

So, if anger can be either righteous or sinful—virtuous or vicious—the question is:  what makes the difference?

The key difference is the object.  What is the object of one’s anger?  What are you angry at?  What are you angry about?

There are many people running around in the world who don’t know what they’re angry about, which results in them being angry at everything, and venting their anger at whatever or whoever happens to be in front of them.  But for anger ever to be righteous—for anger ever to be morally good—there has to be a clear object of one’s anger, and there has to be a just reason for focusing one’s anger at that object.  In the case of the Cleansing of the Temple, the object of Jesus’ anger was the money changers and those selling animals in the Temple.  He had a just reason for being angry at them because they were profaning God’s Temple, and He took action against those who were doing wrong.

Of course, there are times in this world here below when it’s impossible to direct one’s anger at the true and just object of one’s anger.  Imagine, for example, parents whose high school daughter is killed in a car accident by a drunk driver.  The tragic situation is made even more difficult because the drunk driver was also killed in the accident, meaning that the parents have no way of seeking justice in a courtroom against the man who killed their daughter.  The parents do not have their daughter.  They do not have the means to seek justice on this earth.  What can they do in the face of their anger?

Remember that when Jesus was asked by a Pharisee which commandment is the greatest, Jesus named two commandments, which sum up His entire Gospel:  love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.[2]  Whenever you’re at a moral or spiritual impasse, that reminds you how to proceed.

For example, in the case of the parents whose daughter was killed, although they are unable to seek justice in the courtroom, they can love their neighbor by becoming advocates for those suffering as they have, or for those at risk by advocating in a preventive manner.  In these sorts of ways, their anger can become productive and life-giving.

Yet in addition to loving their neighbors, the grieving parents need even more to love God, asking for a share in His strength and wisdom.  When someone with a just reason for being angry has no way of seeking justice, it’s important for that person to ask God in prayer for guidance about the best way to direct one’s anger.

Of course, even when someone with just anger does have the means to address directly the object of his anger, it’s important to take one’s anger to God in prayer.  Through prayer and the grace of the sacraments, God can increase within the justly angry person the virtues of prudence and humility, so that he can address the object of his anger in the most holy way possible.

However, today’s Gospel passage suggests that God might direct the angry person in a different direction:  namely, to the exercise of mercy.  The king in today’s parable clearly symbolizes God the Father, who mercifully forgives sins.  It’s because the king had forgiven the servant who owed him a huge amount that the king expected that servant to “pay it forward”, to use a modern expression.  When the servant does the opposite, the king justly grows angry, and “in anger… handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.”  Then, Jesus, to drive home the symbolism of the parable, explains:  “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

So at the beginning of the parable, the king shows mercy, but at the end, he acts out of a just anger towards the servant who refused to show mercy to a fellow servant.  Jesus does not explain the punishment of the servant who refused to imitate his king:  does this punishment symbolize the eternal pains of Hell, or the temporal punishment of Purgatory, or maybe simply earthly punishment that has to be suffered in order to come to one’s senses?  Jesus does not tell us.

But the point of the parable is clear.  The point of the parable mirrors one of the lines of the only spoken prayer that Jesus taught.  Often we pray the Our Father too rapidly, and don’t think about the meaning of each phrase.  Each time we pray the Our Father, we need to be conscious of what we’re saying when we speak these words:  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  That tiny word “as” in the middle of the sentence is incredibly important, because we’re asking God the Father to forgive us “as” we forgive those who sin against us.  In other words, if we do not forgive our neighbor, then we’re telling God the Father not to forgive us, and if God the Father does not forgive us, then our punishment will certainly be without end.

In this world here below, there are times when we’re justifiably angry, and justified in seeking justice.  If we never sought justice in this world, this world would be filled with chaos.  But if we never extended mercy, this world would be filled with persons who never become like God the Father.  Justice can bring us a measure of peace on earth.  But only Divine Mercy can bring us to eternal peace in Heaven.  If you’ve never prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, take the time to learn about it, and to begin praying it.  While sinful anger and wrath are hateful things, Divine Mercy is a godly thing.  The sinner hugs anger and wrath tight to himself.  Through Divine Mercy, God hugs the sinner tight to Himself.

[1]  Luke 19:46; cf. Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.

[2] Matthew 22:35-40.

Click HERE to learn how to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet.