In today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses many “fun” topics—anger, debt, lust, divorce, and deceit—all of which impact of our lives in one way or another. This sermon concerns the first of these: anger.
Jesus opens today’s passage this way:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Jesus takes the subject of anger quite seriously. Anger is more than just “having a short fuse” or occasionally “flying off the handle.” He equates anger with murder.
Albert Einstein once stated that “Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools.” Well, my hat’s off to Albert Einstein because in addition to developing the theory of relativity apparently he conquered anger too. But if Einstein is correct in asserting that “anger dwells only in the bosom of fools,” then the truth is that at times I am a fool, and I would guess that at times you are too—because as another genius, Shakespeare, wrote, “Who is man who is not angry?” (Timon of Athens, III.v.57).
That is why on Ash Wednesday all of us ask God to forgive us for: “Our anger at our own frustration” (BCP 268).
If I were to ask you at whom you’re angry, or whom you suspect is angry at you, who would come to mind? For some of you it may be just one or two people, for others there may be so many people they need to take a number and get in line.
For some of you the person at whom you are the angriest is the one in the mirror.
Maybe some of you even got angry driving to church today—I think the comedian George Carlin was onto something when he asked, “Have you ever noticed that everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”
You can often see someone’s anger in their eyes, as local band Sons of Bill sing:
Angry eyes, angry eyes
The kind that look right through you, through the emptiness you keep inside
And just like headlights on the highway through the driving rain tonight
I’m fighting off the tears with angry eyes (“Angry Eyes” from Sirens, 2012).
Even with people who do not have angry eyes, anger can still run deep.
A couple illustrations from television shows, one current, one classic… In the show Parenthood, Adam Braverman (played by Peter Krause) is a father in his early forties. He is a kind, smart, funny, and caring—but he has deep anger beneath the surface. He also has a son named Max who suffers from Asperger Syndrome.
In one episode Adam, accompanied by his father, takes Max to a grocery store. While they are standing in line in the express lane, Max, seeing that the customer in front of them has too many items for the express lane, begins removing items from that customer’s cart. The customer becomes irate, begins grabbing those items back, and makes disparaging remarks about Max, eventually calling him something horrible that I won’t say from the pulpit. Adam’s anger comes pouring out and he punches the man, knocking him to the floor. Adam’s father arrives just after this has happened and later in the episode tries to talk with Adam about it:
“Adam, ever since you were a little boy you’ve always managed to be in control. It astounded me, and I so admired you for that, and I still do.”
“I guess someone had to be in control, right? I was just trying to balance you out, because you were so explosive all the time… And now I’m the angry guy, and I’m angry at everything. I’m angry that I had to fire people at work because of the economy… I’m angry that I can’t do more for my son, I’m angry that he has Asperger’s, I’m angry that you admire me for being in control because I can’t do anything about it, I can’t do anything about any of it. I can’t save those people’s jobs, I can’t make my kid not have Asperger’s, I can’t keep some jerk from making fun of him in the supermarket…I’m just angry all the time and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about it” (Season 2, Episode 8).
On a lighter note, in the final season of the classic show Seinfeld one episode (Season 9, episode 3) dealt with anger. When feeling a wave of anger coming on all you were supposed to do was say “Serenity now,” and it was supposed to go away. At one point in this episode the neurotic Kramer praises this technique to his friend Jerry Seinfeld—“Jerry, the anger just melts right off…serenity now!”
But later in the episode ,Jerry encounters Kramer who’s sitting with a dazed look in his eyes, trying to control the anger welling up within him. He’s darting his eyes back and forth, whispering to himself “serenity now, serenity now.” Jerry observes, “You don’t look well.” Kramer responds, “Well, that’s odd, because I feel perfectly at peace with the world.” Kramer arises, “Would you excuse me for a moment?” and enters his apartment. A moment later you hear him screaming, “Serenity now!” over and over as he throws and smashes things in his apartment.
Another character sums it up: “The ‘serenity now!’ thing doesn’t work. It just bottles up the anger and eventually you blow… serenity now, insanity later.”
Maybe you can relate to Kramer—maybe you try without success various techniques to control your anger; or maybe you can relate to Adam Braverman—you’re angry all the time and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it.
Sometimes we think anger can be helpful, that using anger “constructively” to “set someone straight” or “put them in their place” will improve a situation—and while initially it may appear to do just that, does it really? Paul Zahl writes:
(Anger) “never does any good, despite its reputation for being a motivator. It gets the angry person in a most uncomfortable frame of mind and simply hurts, like a bullet of molten lead, the person to whom it is directed…I see this every day. My anger, somebody else’s anger, does little to rectify things that are wrong or unjust. It just makes me seethe and burn and build massive bonfires of resentment” (Mockingbird Devotional, pp. 57 and 411).
And it’s not just Paul Zahl who thinks our anger ultimately does more harm than good, we find this in the Bible as well—the Letter of James says “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20).
Rather than taking out their anger on others, some people turn inward and respond to their anger by building an emotional walls between them and other people. When I was a kid one of my favorite rock albums was The Wall by Pink Floyd—I probably need to unpack this with a therapist at some point ☺–an album that describes the walls we build out of anger.
When Roger Waters—the bassist of Pink Floyd who wrote the majority of The Wall—was only five months old, he lost his father in World War II, and grew up carrying that hurt. In addition to this hurt, Waters revealed in an interview in Rolling Stone that there was something else beneath the surface of his anger:
“All of the pushing away of people that went on in my young life, all the aggression and all the spikiness came from the fact that I was absolutely terrified every waking moment of being found out, of people discovering that I wasn’t who I wanted to be. I had built this wall that I then described in theatrical terms around myself, all kinds of insecurities, huge feelings of shame” (Rolling Stone Special Collector’s Edition on Pink Floyd).
Roger Waters is not alone, because two common roots of his anger—hurt and fear—lurk beneath the surface of the anger in many people—the deeper and more intense the anger, the deeper and more intense the hurt and fear lurking underneath.
In addition to being angry at others, some people are angry at God because of things in their life that they thought were supposed to happen but didn’t—I thought my mom’s health was getting better, I thought this relationship would actually last, I thought our finances were finally turning around.
Others are angry at God because of things that they thought should never have happened but did—the nightmare medical diagnosis, the betrayal of a friend, the freak accident.
In the film Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan (played by Gary Sinise) is a soldier who nearly dies in Vietnam, but is saved by Forrest. Lieutenant Dan had to have his legs amputated due to severe battle wounds and as a result is seething with “bonfires of resentment” toward God. What he thought was supposed to happen in his life (dying in battle for his country) did not happen, and what he thought should never have happened (losing his legs) did.
Sometime later, confined to a wheelchair, Lieutenant Dan angrily asks Forrest, “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?” Forrest responds, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.” He then erupts about all the “Jesus freaks” at the VA hospital who kept asking him if he had “found Jesus.”
Later in the film, Lieutenant Dan and Forrest are on a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico. When they continually fail in their efforts to catch shrimp, and find themselves pulling garbage out of their nets instead, he sarcastically asks, “Where the (heck) is this God of yours?” Forrest in a voiceover says, “It’s funny Lieutenant Dan said that, because right then God showed up.”
The next scene shows Lieutenant Dan strapped to the mast of the boat during a massive hurricane, looking up to heaven and screaming at God at the top of his lungs at God, all his anger at God pouring out.
On the flipside, some people think God is angry at them, which isn’t true, as Martin Luther wrote nearly five centuries ago, “The one who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face” (Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton).
And yet this idea of God being angry at people is often reinforced with the anger people experience in the church—“conservatives” angry at “liberals” and “liberals” angry at “conservatives”—churches aiming their “righteous indignation” at society, angry sermons from angry preachers—none of it accomplishing the righteousness of God.
So what do we do with all this anger?
If Jesus equates anger with murder—if Jesus tells us that those who are angry are liable to judgment, liable to the council, liable to the fire of hell, and we are still all angry anyway, what do we do?
In the collect today we prayed this: “O God…in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace” (BCP 216).
And that collect points us to the gospel—that when it comes to anger, it is not about what we do or don’t do—it’s about what Jesus Christ has already done.
We see this in “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky in which Jesus returns to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. The nearly 90-year-old inquisitor has seized and imprisoned Jesus, and intends to burn him at the stake as a heretic the next day. The inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell and rails at him about the human condition—a lengthy tirade dripping with anger. How does Jesus, whom Dostoyevsky identifies as “the Prisoner,” respond?
“When the Inquisitor ceased speaking, he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him; His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless, aged lips. That was all his answer” (from The Gospel in Dostoyevsky, p. 37).
Going back to the Sermon on the Mount…prior to today’s passage, Jesus said this, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (5:17-18).
In other words, when it comes to anger, Jesus fulfilled the law in your place…on the cross.
In his suffering and death, Jesus took your place. Jesus took the judgment for all the world’s anger on himself, Jesus literally stood before the council (the Sanhedrin), and between his death and resurrection Jesus endured the hell of fire—all in your place.
Jesus—the Creator and Sustainer of the world, the Lord of glory, the Son of God—who touched the untouchable and loved the unlovable and freely forgave notorious sinners—was condemned by angry religious leaders, nailed to the cross by angry soldiers, mocked by the angry passersby.
And as Jesus suffered, his vision blurred by blood and sweat, he looked in the faces of those around him, and with very few exceptions all he saw were angry eyes.
And yet Jesus didn’t respond with “righteous indignation,” but instead prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
In other words, Jesus kissed an angry world with love, and that was all his answer.
And on the cross Jesus did what your anger and my anger could never do—he actually accomplished the righteousness of God—and in so doing he tore down every dividing wall.
This means that even if you are angry at others, or yourself, or maybe even angry at God…that God is not angry at you.
Back to Lieutenant Dan for a moment…the morning after he poured out his anger at God during the hurricane, the gulf is serene and beautiful, and so is the face and countenance of Lieutenant Dan, who looks at Forrest and smiles. “Forrest,” he says, “I never thanked you for saving my life.” He vaults over the side of the shrimp boat, drops into the water, and begins gently swimming on his back, smiling up at the beautiful light blue morning sky. His anger was gone. Forrest concludes, “(Lieutenant Dan) never actually said so, but I think he made his peace with God.”
In his death on the cross, Jesus has given you the same thing he gave Lieutenant Dan, peace with God.
God is not angry at you—that is the good news of the gospel.
Perhaps today the Holy Spirit will reach beneath your anger, to the fear and hurt in your heart—and pull back the curtain and lift the dark cloud, and minister the unconditional love of God to you.
And when the risen Jesus returns at the end of days he will complete his work of salvation—and cast out every fear and heal every hurt—and anger will be no more.