Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time February 12, 2023

   Dealing with the Explosive Power of Anger

Our Gospel reading today is from one of the most famous and central parts of Jesus’ teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. Teaching on a mountain, Jesus is seen as a new Moses, giving his interpretation of the ancient Law. In this passage we have a whole series of intensifications of the Law, including the Ten Commandments. The form Jesus uses is “You have heard it said…”—which gives us the old command…and then, “But I say to you…” –Jesus’ new intensification, getting to the inner motivation behind the command. To deal with the entire passage would be too much in one sitting, so I’ll focus on the first intensification: anger.


Let’s start with a story…There was a carpenter who just finished a rough day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit working, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While his foreman drove him home, he invited his boss to meet his family. As they walked toward the house, the carpenter paused briefly at a large pine tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.


When he opened the front door, he underwent an amazing transformation. His face glowed with smiles and hugs for his two small children; then he gave a long embrace and kiss to his wife. After a while, he walked his boss back to his car. They passed the pine tree, and the foreman’s curiosity got the better of him. He asked the carpenter about the “tree ritual” he had seen him do earlier.


“Oh,” that’s my trouble tree,” he replied. “I know I can’t help having troubles on the job, but one thing is for sure, troubles and frustrations shouldn’t be brought home at the end of the day. So, I stop by that pine tree over there and visualize hanging on it whatever troubles, frustrations and worries I have….You know, a funny thing happens when I come out in the morning to pick them up again, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.”


I like this story because it gives an important insight into the nature of anger and frustration. In order not to react with blind rage, it’s good to find a way of stepping back so that you have a chance of cooling off and seeing things more clearly, especially in determining the response you make.


One of our former bishops once shared with me that, if he gets an email that is critical, or even just annoying, he has made it a practice not to respond immediately, especially if he is tired or frustrated at the moment, or if the email gives rise to a harsh reaction or a burst of anger. By waiting until he cools off, even until the next day, he has kept many friends and acted more compassionately and reasonably.


Just think of what might happen if more people learned to deal with anger in these ways. If a driver daydreams, is careless, or does something stupid, how much safer our roads would be if the other driver doesn’t respond with dangerous or threatening road rage. An automobile can very easily become a weapon of a very destructive explosion of anger.


Or think about some of the mass shootings that have taken place. Oftentimes, the shooter may feel that an injustice has been done, he has been treated very unfairly, and the world is out to get him. If he reacts immediately out of hurt or anger, or if he can’t find a way of defusing the rage, look at the results. There may be many factors that have an impact. The individual may be mentally ill; his home life may be less than helpful; he may endure ridicule or avoidance—and all these things have an impact. The relative ease with which an angry or unbalanced person can get his hands on powerful firearms may add to the problem. The continuous publicity given to mass shooters may present shooting as a very commonplace way to right a wrong, settle a score, or make a statement to a world that has not listened.


Jesus’ teaching reminds us that it’s not enough to look at external behavior. What motivates, or drives, that behavior is very important. Anger can very easily lead to violent reactions, even the desire to kill, if the anger is not defused in some way.


So what do we learn, what do we take with us, from today’s readings? Perhaps we need to look into our hearts and ask ourselves if we have a problem with anger. Do we explode in ways that hurt others or can lead to danger? Do we need to talk with somebody about dealing with the anger? And if we are in a situation where we see anger building up, are we able to do something to help defuse the anger?