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Seven Unholy Habits: Anger

Matthew 21.12–17

Is anger a bad thing?

Or in Christian terms, is anger sinful? That is the question that I want to spend some time on this morning, and it is a question that Christian thinkers and scholars have spent time on for generations. Of course, everyone agrees that anger can sometimes be a bad thing. No one thinks that anger is always good. There are plenty of examples of angry people doing horrible things, and anger causing violence in the home and on a global scale. But Christian scholars have been divided on whether anger is always a bad thing, or if it can sometimes be neutral, or even a good thing.

I wanted to do a little more research on anger. So, naturally, I went to a place where anger pools and festers on a regular basis: Facebook.

Of course, that wasn’t the only thing…there were plenty of stories of hope and joy. But alongside of them, anger was everywhere:

There were plenty of posts angry at governmental officials. Mad at the president for not moving quickly enough on the virus, for using the crisis as a campaign tool, or for trying to protect corporations and the economy more than people through all of this. Mad at their governors for not getting the right supplies in the right places, being too aggressive or not aggressive enough with executive orders, or even for appear to get a haircut!

There was plenty of anger over shelter in place orders, or school cancellation, or their favorite places being closed. Even if deep down they understood and agree with all of it, there is still a frustration, an anger at it all.

There were news stories about angry people. Apparently, the security around Dr. Anthony Fauci, the primary medical voice on the coronavirus in the country right now, because of the number of angry death threats that he has received. Or on the other end of the country, in LA, where a train engineer was angry enough at the government creating a Navy hospital ship that he derailed his train in order to stop the ship or bring attention to the injustice over it.

But my favorite Facebook post was a video of two dogs. The caption at the top said something like, “a couple sheltering in place together” and you scroll down to the video to see these two little dogs slowly inch toward each other, until at the same time, they both bark at each other with a shaking violence, continuing for about 10 seconds, until they both stop, walk about two feet away, and sit down.

Anger abounds.

In the world that we live in today, there is plenty of anger. But even in this survey of Facebook, one can see that not all anger is equal. You might think that some of those examples are clear examples of sin, while others, are a little harder to tell. When is anger sinful?


Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung has written about this question, in her book about the capital vices. She suggests that there is this heightened category of anger that the ancients called “wrath.” This is the vice that we recognize when anger becomes misdirected, excessive, self-protecting, sinful. Someone caught up in the vice of wrath is unable to escape their anger; their anger rules them instead of them ruling their anger.

The folks in the Two-Way this week recognized this type of anger in the passage for today. They noticed that the only time that this entire passage uses the word “anger” is to describe the religious leaders at the end of the passage. This is their big moment, the Passover Festival, but they notice that someone else is stealing their thunder, the text says, “They became angry…”

They give us an example of this fallen path of wrath. You may not be surprised that the Greek word here implies this wrath. “To be indignant.” “To be incensed.” It implies a personal need to be right, for one’s own sake. It is the same word in Greek used for the older brother in the Prodigal Son story, for the people who tried to throw Jesus off the cliff in Luke, and even the devil in Revelation. This anger is a sinful anger, a wrathful anger, and it is at its heart an angry opposition to the ways of God. Here in Matthew, it shows the heart of the religious leaders: they were mad because their power was encroached upon, their authority challenged, and the attention of the people had been moved from them for a half a second. It made them mad. Theirs was a system of exclusion and arrogance, led by the exclusion and arrogance of these leaders.

It is hard to know for sure, but I would guess that their anger had crossed over into wrath. If not on Sunday, it would by Thursday for sure. And their wrath would be in full display by the Friday of that week. Anger leading to revenge. Revenge leading to violence. Violence leading to death.

But Jesus knew all of this coming in to the week, didn’t he? Marcus Borg and John Dominc Crossan, in their book The Last Week, imagine Palm Sunday a little differently than we usually describe it. They imagine a Sunday with two parades. From the east, Jesus rode into the city on a donkey from the Mount of Olives, a symbol of peace from the place traditionally associated with the coming of the prophetic Messiah. But at the same time, from the West, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate rode in on a war horse, in order to establish Roman power and authority as the Passover Feast was beginning and crowds were creating potential danger. Two simultaneous parades. Two very different missions. Two very different authorities.

Now, Borg and Crossan admit that they are a little imaginative that these parades happened exactly this way at exactly the same time. But you understand their point. What was happening in Jerusalem was not sweet and cuddly. It was a powder keg, getting ready to erupt. The Roman Empire, the superpower of the day, with its power and authority and violence and oppression, propped up by the religious leaders of the Jerusalem Temple, was set to run headlong into the Gospel of Christ, which stood over and against that power, and acknowledged a very different authority. These two kingdoms—one of peace and one of violence—were set to contrast long before Friday rolled around. So, they suggest, when Jesus came into Jerusalem, he came with a prophetic mission to help and heal.

Perhaps you know that the Aramaic word that the people cried out—Hosanna—is not only a cry of praise. Literally, it means, “Save us!” or “Help us!” Jerusalem was a city of the oppressed: people hurting under the thumb of the Roman overlords and their religious sidekicks.

Jesus knew this pain. Jesus heard their cry. And it made him angry. Jesus’ symbolic entry was an intentional gauntlet thrown to the Roman officials—and the religious authorities who served them. An alternative to their parade of violence and oppression. So, seeing it this way, it is no surprise what happens directly next in Matthew. Jesus walks into the tables of the money-changers, the symbolic center of Temple values, and turns them over, and roars at the people for turning the house of God into a den of thieves.

Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem and submitted himself to the wrath of the Roman/Temple power structure, because his heart was broken for the people. He did it because he was angry. The history of the prophets of God is that they did what they did from a place of righteous anger at how God’s ways were being warped. How God’s people were losing their way. How God’s children were abused at the hands of powerful and unjust leaders. So, for Jesus to turn over the tables of the Temple was a symbolic and prophetic way to express not just his personal anger, but God’s anger, at the entire Temple system and the warped power that it represented.

So in the end, DeYoung, and many Christian thinkers over the years, have suggested that there is a distinction that must be made. Anger, as a human passion, has the potential to create prophets and healers and truth-tellers. In fact, DeYoung points that Christian scholar Thomas Aquinas wrote that perhaps it is sinful to not ever be angry, because it means you are not paying attention.

So, can you see the difference? Anger that is passionate, loving, other-centered, and justice-minded. Versus wrath that is self-centered, misdirected, excessive, and arrogant. The anger of Jesus verses the wrath of the Temple leaders. How do you tell the difference? For example, which of the Facebook examples above was a loving righteous anger, and which was a wrathful vice? I don’t know. DeYoung suggests it is tough enough to tell in ourselves, even tougher to diagnose another. If we suspect that wrath is a vice with which we struggle, she suggests some practices to let God heal us from that debilitating anger, good practices for this Lenten season. She calls them antidotes to the vice:

  • She suggests that we do some evaluation, some internal processing, perhaps even journaling at the end of the day or the end of the week. We ask how have we handled anger in our lives? Getting to the bottom of the anger might stop it from controlling us. For some, counseling has helped in this area.
  • She suggests that we work to cultivate virtues that will push back against wrath. We work to cultivate gentleness. We work to create humility. The more that we work to make these virtues a part of our lives, the less likely that wrath will sneak into our lives.
  • And finally, she invites us to be more like Jesus…

Jesus was angry. But not in the way that we often get angry. Not in the way that the chief priests and scribes got angry. Not the anger, the wrath of violence. Destruction. Fear. Look what happened when Jesus got angry. It lead to healing.

I love that Matthew collapses all of these events together, because he makes a point about what Jesus was all about. Look at the end of the passage…the direction that all of this anger and action and prophetic point is all pointed towards:

“The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.”

Simple, isn’t it?

The healing touch of love. Reminds us of a nurse, wearing the same mask for his whole twelve-hour shift, in order to care for those who are suffering. Reminds us of a doctor, sitting down at the bedside of a dying COVID patient whose family cannot visit or be with them, waiting with them until the end, and then doing it again in the next room. Reminds us of a therapist, watching her client struggle extraordinarily in the midst of extraordinary crisis, staying on the Zoom call just a little bit longer, until she knows that they are going to be OK for now. People hurt. They come to one who cares. They are cured.

Jesus was angry, but only angry at those who caused pain and trauma and violence. Only angry at those who turned a blind eye from those in need. Only angry because of love. And because of love, he heals God’s children.

Angry enough to stand up against the powers that be, in their arrogance and selfishness.

Angry enough to follow that passion, even into death.

But even that death couldn’t contain the power of love and healing he brought to earth.

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