The great sage Jesus ben Sirach advises us today regarding the common trap of anger. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he writes: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight,” and later, “If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?” (Sir 27:30; 28:5). We have all given in to the temptation to unjust anger at times. It would be almost superhuman not to have done so, since anger also serves the virtuous and legitimate purposes of protecting us from harm and moving us to action in the face of injustice.
Still, today’s scriptures remind us that too often anger escapes our control and begins to exert control over us. Sirach’s instruction also recalls that we hold onto anger even though it is against our own best interests to do so. Even more, he observes that those who let their anger get so out of hand that they refuse to forgive others can hardly expect forgiveness themselves.
The parable of the unforgiving servant from the Gospel of Matthew underlines these points for us in a way that only the vibrant imagery of a parable can. It is introduced by a conversation between Jesus and Peter, who asks the Lord how many times one must forgive another, offering the proverbial seven times as a possible reply. When Jesus responds famously “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:22), his disciples are astounded and he launches into his parable.
In it, the servant of a king is shown great mercy by his lord when he is unable to repay an enormous debt. Yet when that same servant is declared free from his debt he fails to imitate his master’s kindness when he encounters a fellow servant who owed him a small amount, and threatens the man, even having him thrown into prison, when he is unable to pay. Upon hearing of the matter, the king has the unforgiving servant punished severely, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (Matt 18:32).
In contrast to all this, in the Psalm for today’s mass we sing “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion” (Ps 103:8). This beautiful description of the Lord’s disposition toward us teaches several lessons that will help us when faced with anger, if only we heed them. First, the Psalmist says that the Lord is kind. Kindness which is rooted in love for Christ and love for others—who bear his image—is often described as being good to others even when they do not deserve it. What a better world we create when we live with this generous disposition each day.
Next, we hear that the Lord is slow to anger. This reminds us to be consciousness of our anger and exercise mastery over it, not letting it get the best of us. Lastly, the Psalm teaches us that God is merciful and rich in compassion. This means that the Lord desires to reconcile others to himself rather than standing aloof from them, always moved by love instead of pride or self-interest.
Having taken these lessons to heart, we can better witness to our Christian faith through the manner of our lives, and we can live at greater peace within ourselves, all the while abiding by the words proclaimed in today’s Gospel antiphon: “I give you a new commandment, says the Lord; love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Photo: Seth Harbaugh, The Mediterranean Sea in Caesarea Maritima.