On the Feast of All Saints we celebrate men and women of every place and time who lived with great sanctity. Many of them are known to us and are among our great heroes of the Faith; even more are unknown to us.
The most common hymn for this feast day is “For All the Saints.” It is interesting that the name of the tune to which the lyrics are set is “Sine Nomine” (without name). In other words, this feast celebrates those who, although they attained great sanctity, are largely unknown to us. They lived in ordinary circumstances and were fairly hidden from the world at large, but God knows them and has awarded them the crown of righteousness. They, too, are part of the rich tapestry of this feast and the glory of the Communion of Saints.
It is fitting, then, that on the Feast of All Saints, Donald Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington released a pastoral letter on racism entitled, “The Challenge of Racism Today.” We are all well aware of recent racial tensions in our country and the Cardinal would have us reflect on this problem as Catholics. This reflection should come from the perspective of our faith more so than from politics and worldly culture.
I’d like to review a number of the Cardinal’s teachings under three headings.
I. God’s Vision – Cardinal Wuerl begins by noting our daily experience here in the Archdiocese of Washington:
The sight from the sanctuary of many a church in our archdiocese offers a glimpse of the face of the world.
Indeed, our parishes are ethnically and racially diverse. The rich beauty of diversity in the unity of our faith is manifest everywhere.
“Catholic” means universal and it could not be more obvious in Washington, D.C. as it is in many other regions. Catholics come from everywhere!
This diversity is from God Himself, who has not only created the rich tapestry of humankind but also delights in uniting us all in His Church.
Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me; Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “Mother” for all shall be her children.” It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples he writes: “These are her children,” and while they dance they will sing: “In you all find their home.” (Psalm 87:1-7)
It was always God’s plan that people from every nation would find their home in His family. St. Paul spoke eloquently of this plan:
The mystery was made known to me by revelation;…. the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the people of other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. And the mystery is this: that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:3-6)
By God’s grace, by His plan and vision, we are called to be members of the One Body, the Church, through the grace of shared faith.
Jesus sets forth the realization of God’s desire in his great commission:Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).
This is order number one from Jesus: Go everywhere; call everyone; make them disciples by teaching them what I have taught and baptizing them into the one Body of Christ, the Church.
This is God’s vision, His plan, and His command.
II. Sinful Revisions– We human beings are often slow to hear and even slower to do what God commands. When it comes to reaching across racial and ethnic boundaries to make disciples, we often give in to fear and the hostilities that result. We also give in to pride and notions of racial superiority. This has been an ugly tendency throughout human history.
As people of faith, we cannot ignore God’s command to include all in His Kingdom. The Cardinal tells us that we must confront and overcome racism. This challenge is not optional.
Jesus warns us against wrathful disparagement of others: Anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be subject to the fire of hell (Matt 5:22). He counsels us, So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24).
The Cardinal cites the Catechism and bids us to remember this:
This teaching is applied to our day with clarity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone …” (CCC # 357). … There is no basis to sustain that some are made more in the image of God than others.
Cardinal Wuerl cites the pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” published by the United States bishops in 1979:
Racism is a sin. … [I]t divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.
We have no right or capacity to overrule God or reject the dignity He Himself has established. The Cardinal describes racism as a denial of the goodness of creation.
While some dispute the particulars of racism in this or that specific situation, we cannot simply brush aside the consistent experience of so many of our brothers and sisters. The Cardinal reminds us:
To address racism, we need to recognize two things: that it exists in a variety of forms, some more subtle and others more obvious; and that there is something we can do about it… even if we realize that what we say and the steps we take will not result in an immediate solution to a problem that spans generations.
As we are reminded by St. Paul, There should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, every member suffers with him (1 Cor 12:25-26).
As a Church we have not always lived up to the call that God has given us. The Cardinal writes:
Saint John Paul II in the Great Jubilee Year asked for the recognition of sins committed by members of the Church during its history. He called for a reconciliation through recalling the faults of the past in a spirit of prayerful repentance that leads to healing of the wounds of sin. So acknowledging our sins and seeking to remedy what we can, we turn with sorrow to those we have offended, individually and collectively and also express gratitude for the tenacity of their faith…. We also recognize the enduring faith of immigrants who have not always felt welcome in the communities they now call home.
It is a remarkable testimony that so many who have felt spurned by fellow Christians and Catholics did not reject the faith, but tenaciously held on to it. Even in the midst of great pain, so many stayed in the faith; through forgiveness and great patience they have helped to purify fellow Christians and work for ongoing reform within the Church.
III. Overcoming Divisions – The Cardinal also writes:
Because God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, we have received the ministry of reconciliation. Saint Paul tells us, “God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ … entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Thus the Cardinal invokes a key dimension of the apostolic office: reconciling us to one another and to God. As a bishop, Cardinal Wuerl urges us to seek reconciliation where it is needed.
Reconciliation requires first that we acknowledge our sins. As Jesus says, we must go and be reconciled to our brother or sister. If we have in any way fostered division, if we have scorned, mocked, excluded, or derided others, we should admit the sin and seek to be reconciled.
While there are often grievances on all sides when it comes to race, this need not stop us from hearing and pondering the consistent and widespread experience of those who feel excluded or scorned. Sometimes it just starts with listening, before rushing to judge whether the experience of others is valid.
There are wounds that go back decades and even centuries. Reconciliation takes time. Recognizing another’s pain and experience is an act of respect. Listening is a very great gift.
Please consider making a careful, spiritual reading of the Cardinal’s pastoral letter. See it as an honest assessment of our need to recognize racism and repent for any cooperation we have had in it, past or present. Consider, too, his call for us to entrust our hearts to the Lord, so that we can, as the Cardinal says, envision the new city of God, not built by human hands, but by the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.
In the weeks ahead, other initiatives and gatherings will be announced in the diocese. Among them is a recognition of the many African-Americans who were enslaved and who were buried in our Catholic cemeteries without any headstones or markers. You might say that they were buried sine nomine, without any recognition of their names.
It is fitting, then, that on this Feast of All Saints, when we acknowledge the many saints whose names we do not know, that we also remember those buried in our cemeteries whose names are known only to God. They were called slaves but were in fact God’s children, possessed of the freedom of Children of God. May they rest now with God in the peace and unity of the Communion of Saints.
We continue to read from the Letter to the Romans in daily Mass. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. That is, it tells us what is really going on from the perspective of the Lord of History. An inspired text, it traces out not only the current time, but also the trajectory, the end to which things tend. It is of course important for us to read Scripture with the Church, and exercising care, to submit our understanding to the rule of faith and the context of Sacred Tradition.
With those parameters in mind, I would like to consider Romans 1, wherein St. Paul describes the grave condition of the Greco-Roman culture of his day. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he prophetically interpreted the times of the first century A.D. Although the text speaks specifically to those times, it is clear that our modern times are becoming nearly identical to what was described.
St. Paul saw a once-noble culture in grave crisis; it was in the process of being plowed under by God for its willful suppression of the truth.
Let’s take a look at the details of this prophetic interpretation of those days and apply it to our own. The text opens without any niceties and the words rain down on us almost like lead pellets.
I. The Root of the Ruin – The text says, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
As the curtain draws back, we not eased into the scene at all. We are confronted at once with the glaring lights of judgment and the fearsome word “wrath.” Note that the wrath of God is called a revelation. That is to say, it is a word of truth that reveals and prophetically interprets reality for us. The wrath is the revelation!
It’s quite astonishing, really. It directly contradicts to our modern tendency to see God only as the “affirmer in chief,” whose love for us is understood only in sentimental terms, never in terms of a strong love that insists on what is right and true, on what we need rather than what we want.
What is the wrath of God? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God. The unrepentant sinner cannot endure His presence, His holiness. For such a one, there is wailing and grinding of teeth, anger, and even rage when confronted by the existence of God and the demands of His justice and holiness. God’s wrath does not mean that He is in some simplistic sense angry, emotionally worked up. God is not moody or unstable. He is not subject to temper tantrums as we are. Rather, it is that God is holy and the unrepentant sinner cannot endure His holiness; the sinner experiences it as wrath.
To the degree that God’s wrath is in Him, it is His passion to set things right. God is patient and will wait and work to draw us to repentance, but his justice and truth cannot forever tarry. When judgment sets in on a person, culture, civilization, or epoch, His holiness and justice are revealed as wrath to the unrepentant.
What was the central sin of St. Paul’s (and our own) time? They suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18). It is the sin that leads to every other problem.
Note this well: those who seek to remain in their wickedness suppress the truth. On account of wickedness and a desire to persist in sin, many suppress the truth. The catechism of the Catholic Church warns,
The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 37).
St. Paul wrote this to St. Timothy:
For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).
Isaiah described this:
They say to the seers, “See no more visions”; to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right; tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions” (Isaiah 30:10).
Yes, on account of a desire to cling to their sin and to justify themselves, people suppress the truth. While this human tendency has always existed, there is a widespread tendency for people of our own time in the decadent West to go on calling good, or “no big deal,” what God calls sinful.
When we do this, we suppress the truth. Now, as then, the wrath of God is being revealed. On account of the sin of repeated, collective, obstinate suppression of the truth, God’s wrath is being revealed on the culture of the decadent West.
II. The Revelation that is Refused – The text goes on to say, … and since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20).
Note that God the Holy Spirit and St. Paul attest that the suppression of the truth is willful; it is not merely ignorance. While the pagans of St. Paul’s day did not have the Scriptures, they are still “without excuse.” Why? Because they had the revelation of creation. Creation reveals God and speaks not only to His existence, but also to his attributes, to His justice and power, to His will and the good order He instills in us and thus expects of us.
All of this means that even those raised outside the context of faith, whether in the first century or today, are “without excuse.”
The Catechism also couches our responsibility to discover and live the truth in the existence of something called the conscience:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. … Moral conscience … bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. …. [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (CCC #1776-1778).
Because of the witness and revelation of the Created order, and on account of the conscience present and operative in all who have attained the use of reason, those who suppress the truth are without excuse. They are suppressing what they know to be true.
It has been my experience in my many years as a pastor working with sinners (and as a sinner myself) that those I must confront about sin know full well what they are doing. They may have suppressed the still, small voice of God; they may have sought to keep His voice at bay with layers of rationalization; they may have also collect false teachers to confirm them in their sin and permitted many deceivers to tickle their ears. Deep down, though, they know that what they do is wrong. At the end of the day they are without excuse.
Some lack of due discretion may ameliorate the severity of their culpability, but ultimately they are without excuse for suppressing the truth.
So there is also the revelation of creation, the Word of God (which has been heard by most people today), and the conscience. Many people today, as in St. Paul’s time, refuse revelation. They do so willfully in order to justify wickedness; they are without excuse.
III. The Result in the Ranks – The text says, For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:21-23).
This should seem very familiar. In St. Paul’s day, and even more so in ours, a prideful culture has set aside God, whether through explicit atheism and militant secularism or through neglect and willful tepidity. Today, God has been pushed to the margins of our proud, anthropocentric culture. His wisdom has been forcibly removed from our schools and from the public square. His image and any reminders of Him are increasingly being removed by force of law. Many people even mock His Holy Name, mentioning His truth only to scorn it as a vestige of the “dark ages.”
Faith and the magnificent deposit of knowledge and culture that has come with it has been scoffed at as a relic from times less scientific than our own much more “enlightened” age.
Our disdainful culture has become a sort of iconoclastic “anti-culture,” which has systematically put into the shredder every bit of Godly wisdom it can. The traditional family, human sexuality, chastity, self-control, moderation, and nearly all other virtues have been scorned and willfully smashed by the iconoclasts of our time. To them, everything of this sort must go.
As a prophetic interpretation of reality, the Scripture from Romans describes the result of suppressing the truth and refusing to acknowledge and glorify God: … they became vain in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:21).
Yes, there is a powerful darkening effect that comes from suppressing the truth and refusing the wisdom and revelation of God. While claiming to be so wise, smart, advanced, we have collectively speaking become foolish and vain; our intellects grow darker by the day. Our concern for vain, foolish, passing things knows little bounds today. Yet the things that really do matter: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell, are almost never attended to. We run after foolish things but cannot seem to exercise the least bit of self-control. Our debts continue to grow but we cannot curb our spending. We cannot make or keep commitments. Addiction is increasingly widespread. All of the most basic indicators indicate that we have grave problems: graduation rates, SAT scores, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion rates, divorce rates, cohabitation rates. The numbers that should be going up are down and the numbers that should be going down are up.
Although we claim to be so wise and smart today, we have become collectively foolish. Even our ability to think of solutions and to have intelligent conversations has decreased, since we cannot seem to agree on even the most basic points. We simply talk past one other, living in our own smaller and increasingly self-defined worlds.
If you think that the line about idolatry doesn’t apply today, you’re kidding yourself. People are fascinated by stones and rocks, and by all sorts of syncretistic combinations of religions, including the occult. This is the age of the “designer God,” when people no longer tolerate the revealed God of the Scriptures, but believe instead in a reinvented one—who just so happens to agree with everything they think. Yes, idolatry is alive and well in this age of the personal sort of hand-carved idol that can be invoked over and against the true God of the Scriptures.
And people today congratulate themselves for being tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental! It is hard not see that our senseless minds have become dark, our thoughts vain, and our behavior foolish.
Our culture is in the very grave condition that this Scripture, this prophetic interpretation of reality, describes. There is much for which we should be rightfully concerned.
IV. The Revelation of the Wrath – The text says, Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Rom 1:24-27).
In this passage the “wrath” is revealed. The text simply says, God gave them over to their sinful desires. This is the wrath; this is the revelation of the total incompatibility of unrepented sin before the holiness of God and the holiness to which we are summoned.
In effect, God is saying, if you want sin and rebellion, you can have it. It’s all yours. You’ll experience the full consequences of your sinful rebellion, the full fury of your own sinful choices. Yes, God gave them over to their sinful desires.
It seems that God has also given us over in a similar way to our sinful desires today.
Note that the first and most prominent effect is sexual confusion. The text describes sexual impurity, the degradation of their bodies, shameful lusts, and the shameful acts of homosexual relations. The text also speaks of “due” penalty for such actions, probably disease and other deleterious effects that result from using the body for purposes for which it is not designed.
Welcome to the 21st century decaying West.
Many misunderstand what Romans 1 is saying. They point to this text as a warning that God will punish us for condoning and celebrating homosexual acts. But Romans 1 does not say that God will punish us for this; it says that the widespread condoning and celebrating of homosexual acts is God’s punishment; it is the revelation of wrath. It is the first and chief indication that God has given us over to our stubborn sinfulness and to our lusts.
Let us be careful to make a distinction here. The text does not say that homosexuals are being punished; some may mysteriously have this orientation but live chastely. Rather, it is saying that we are all being punished.
Why? For over 60 years now the decadent West has celebrated promiscuity, pornography, fornication, cohabitation, contraception, and even to some extent adultery. The resulting carnage of abortion, STDs, AIDs, single motherhood, absent fathers, poverty, and emotionally damaged children does not seem to have been enough to bring us to our senses. Our lusts have only become wilder and more debased.
Through the use of contraception, we severed the connection between sex, procreation, and marriage. Sex has been reduced to two adults doing what they please in order to have fun or share love (really, lust). This has opened the door to increasingly debased sexual expression and to irresponsibility.
Enter the homosexual community and its demands for acceptance. The wider culture, now debased, darkened, and deeply confused, cannot comprehend the obvious: that homosexual acts are contrary to nature. The very design of the body shouts against it. But the wider culture, already deeply immersed in its own confusion about sex and now an increasing diet of ever-baser pornography that celebrates both oral and anal sex among heterosexuals, has had no answer to the challenge.
We have gone out of our minds. Our senseless minds are darkened, confused, foolish, and debased. This is wrath. This is what it means to be given over to our sinful desires. This is what happens when God finally has to say to a culture, if you want sin you can have it—until it comes out of your ears!
How many tens of millions of babies have been aborted, sacrificed to our wild lusts? How deep has been the pain caused by rampant divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and STDs? Yet none of this has caused us to repent.
In all of this, The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Notice again, homosexuals are not being singled out; The wrath is against all the godlessness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth. When even the carnage has not been enough to bring us to our senses, God finally says, enough, and gives us over to our own sinful desires to feel their full effects. We have become so collectively foolish and vain in our thinking and darkened in our intellect that as a culture we now “celebrate” homosexual acts, which Scripture rightly calls disordered. (The word St. Paul uses in this passage to describe homosexual acts is paraphysin, meaning “contrary to nature.”) Elsewhere, Scripture speaks of these as acts of grave depravity that cry to Heaven for vengeance.
But as the text says, Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32). This is darkness; this is wrath.
This is the result of being given over to our sins: a deeply darkened mind. The celebration of homosexual acts is God’s punishment and it demonstrates that He has given us over.
V. The Revolution that Results – The text says, Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (Romans 1:28-31).
The text states clearly and in very familiar terms the truth that when sex, marriage, and family go into the shredder, an enormous number of social ills are set loose.
This is because children are no longer properly formed. The word “bastard” in its common informal usage refers to a despicable person, but its more “technical” definition is an illegitimate child. Both senses are related. This text says, in effect, that when God gives us over to our sinful desires, we start to act like bastards.
Large numbers of children raised outside the best setting of a father and a mother in a stable traditional family is a recipe for the social disaster described in these verses. I will not comment on them any further; they speak for themselves.
VI. The Refusal to Repent – Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:32).
Here, too, is the mystery of our iniquity, of our stubborn refusal to repent no matter how high the cost, how clear the evidence. Let us pray we will come to our senses. God has a record of allowing civilizations to come and go, nations to rise and fall. If we do not love life, we do not have to have it. If we want lies rather than truth, we can have them and we will feel their full effects.
Somewhere God is saying,
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place (2 Chron 7:14-15).
Of all the prophets, Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant; his struggle with sin is not hidden. We are currently reading Jonah’s story in daily Mass. In the story we see a portrait of sin and of God’s love for sinners. Psalm 139 says, beautifully,
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps 139: 7-10).
Let’s examine the story of Jonah and allow its teachings to reach us.
I. Defiance –This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.
To defy means to resist what one is told to do, openly and boldly. Defiance also indicates a lack of faith because it comes from the Latin “dis” (against) and “fidere” (believe). Hence Jonah is not just insubordinate; he is unbelieving and untrusting.
His scoffing and defiance likely result from hatred or excessive nationalism. Nineveh is the capital of Syria, the mortal enemy of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness they will grow stronger. Rather than trusting God, he brazenly disobeys, foolishly thinking that he can outrun God.
II. Distance –He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.
Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline of modern-day Spain. In order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah runs some 1500 miles away. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.
Note that he also puts down good money in order to flee. Indeed, many people spend lots of money and go miles out of their way in order to be able to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive—but many seem quite willing to pay the price.
The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous and less costly as well. Like Jonah, though, many line up to pay the price and take the long, painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.
How much of our trouble comes from our sin? The great majority of it. So much suffering, so much expense, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. The bottom line (if you’ll pardon the financial pun) is that sinful choices are usually very costly.
III. Disturbance –The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.
Jonah’s defiance sends him and others headlong into a storm that grows ever deeper. The teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances, and troubles. As our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces ever more powerful.
Note that Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important lesson: in our sin, our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life but also into the lives of others. What we do, or fail to do, affects others.
The mariners, fearing for their lives, also lose wealth and suffer great losses (by throwing their cargo overboard) on account of Jonah’s sinfulness.
Similarly, in our own culture today a good deal of pain and loss results from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness and sexual misbehavior, many families have been torn apart. There is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that come from broken or malformed families. It is of course the children who suffer the most pain and injustice as a result of so much bad adult behavior.
To all this pain can be added many other sufferings caused by our greed, addiction, lack of forgiveness, pride, impatience, and lack of charity. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us but others around us as well.
No one is merely an individual; we are also members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.
Jonah is a danger and a cause of grief to others around him. So, too, are we when we defiantly indulge sinfulness.
IV. Delirium –Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.
While all these storms (which he caused) are raging, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a moral sleep, talking about their rights and insisting that what they do is “nobody else’s business.” Yet all the while the storm winds buffet and others suffer for what they do. So easily they remain locked in self-deception and rationalizations, ignoring the damage they are inflicting upon others.
Many people today talk about “victimless sins,” actions that supposedly don’t hurt anyone. Those who are morally alert do not say such things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral slumber, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble. All the while, they continue to ramble on about their right to do as they please.
V. Dressing Down –The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing?” They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.
In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet, unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for a prophet when those whom he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!
First there comes the pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your delusions. Stop with your self-justifying slogans and look at what’s really going on!
Next they say to him, “Pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God, from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours—but call on the Lord!
This is what every sinner, whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up and look at what you’re doing; see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us. Turn back to God lest we all perish.
VI. Despair –They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”
Jonah is now beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more with worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10). Somewhat like Judas, Jonah and many other sinners do not repent to the Lord but rather are merely ashamed of themselves.
In effect, Jonah says to them, “Kill me. I do not deserve to live.” This is not repentance; it is despair.
VII. Dignity –still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.
Surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least not as the first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen deserve our love and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, returning crime for crime, sin for sin.
But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to correct with love.
It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. Our first instinct should always be to respect the dignity of every person—even great sinners—and strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.
VIII. Deliverance –Then they cried to the LORD, “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit.” Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.
In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord. Somehow, they sense His just verdict yet they fear their own judgment and ask for His mercy.
In many American courtrooms, upon the pronouncement of a death sentence, the judge says, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Even in the sad situation in which we can do little but prevent people from ever harming others, we ought to appreciate their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.
God does deliver Jonah. After his “whale” of a ride, a ride in which he must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, Jonah is finally delivered by God right back to the shore of Joppa where it all began.
IX. Determination –Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-3).
Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He is the God of the second chance. Thank you, Lord, for your grace and mercy. He remembers our sins no more. In effect, God says to Jonah, “Now, where were we?”
God does not save us merely for our own sake, but also for the sake of others with whom our life is intertwined. Jonah will go finally to Nineveh and there proclaim a message that will be heeded by those who are so lost in sin that they do not know their right hand from their left (see Jonah 4:11). Hmm, now why does this description seem so familiar?
Here is a video of a performance of the Peccavimus (we have sinned) from the oratorio “Jonas,” by Giacomo Carissimi. It is a luscious, heartfelt piece depicting the repentance of the Ninevites. I wonder if (and hope that) the young people who sang it understood its significance for them, too.
The Office of Readings this week features passages from the pastoral guide of St. Gregory the Great. In the opening line, Gregory reminds us: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service.”
This is not easy. Indeed, self-mastery in speech is among the rarer gifts and usually comes later in life!
Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!
The Book of James says this:
We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.
Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:2-18).
Yes, though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually among the last to be overcome. It almost seems as if there is a separate, baser part of our brain that controls our speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list of ten sins of the tongue from James Melton . Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!
The Lying Tongue – speaking false things with the intention to mislead
The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).
The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them, a form of lying
May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Psalm 12:4).
The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.
Those who say, By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who can lord it over us? (Psalm 12:5) are condemned.
The Overused Tongue – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little
The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all of the information
Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1).
Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).
The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, the secretive injuring of a person’s good name. Calumny is outright lying about another person. Detraction is calling unnecessary attention to the faults of others so as to harm their reputations.
As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger (Proverbs 25:23).
The Tale-bearing Tongue – spreading unnecessary (often hurtful) information about others. Tale-bearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared.
He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips (Proverbs 20:19).
Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Leviticus 19:16).
The Cursing Tongue – wishing that harm come to others, usually that they be damned
He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Psalm 109:17).
The Piercing Tongue – speaking with unnecessary harshness and severity
Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).
The Silent Tongue – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. In our age, the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s Word.
Israel’s watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Isaiah 56:10).
So our speech is riddled with what it should not have and devoid of what it should. How wretched indeed is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect!
There are many cautions to be guided by when it comes to speech. Here is another list of Scripture passages concerning speech, most of them taken from the Wisdom Tradition. Read and heed!
Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth. Honor and dishonor through talking! A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sirach 5:13-16).
He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child. … Like an arrow lodged in a man’s thigh is gossip in the breast of a fool … every story you must not believe … who has not sinned with his tongue? (Sirach 19:5-14 varia)
Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. … Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. … Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God (Eccles 5:1-6).
In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23 NLT).
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).
He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Prov 21:23).
He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin (Prov 13:3).
A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish (Prov 19:9).
A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free (Prov 19:5).
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:27-28).
When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Prov 10:19).
Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).
The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly (Prov 12:22-23).
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly (Prov 15:2).
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Prov 15:4).
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Prov 11:12-13).
The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (Prov 10:32).
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).
Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies (Psalm 34:13).
Help me, Lord. Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth! Put your Word in my heart so that when I do speak, it’s really you speaking.
The tragic Gospel passage about the death of St. John Baptist (which we read in daily Mass on Tuesday) is a study in two common sins that afflict most of us. While the results of these sinful tendencies may not always be this dire, the damage wrought is often significant. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
The sin of human respect – This is a sin wherein we fear human beings and their opinions of us more than we fear God and what He thinks of us.
John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but she was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him. She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee. Herodias’ own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.” He even swore many things to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.” … She replied … “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head (Mark 6:18-27).
The key insight from this passage is that Herod Antipas (not Herod the Great, who was dead by this time), knew in his conscience that he was wrong and that what John the Baptist had said was right. He was living in an adulterous and legally incestuous relationship with Herodias, his “wife” but who was actually the wife of his brother Philip. Herod was disturbed by what John had said to him and John’s words also harmonized with the voice of God deep within him. Herod’s first sin was fearing Herodias’ wrath more than God’s righteous judgement. Because of this, he imprisoned John.
Herod then made things worse at a critical moment when his “wife,” through her daughter, demanded an evil thing: murder. Herod was deeply troubled by the request, knowing it to be wrong. But again, because he feared the opinion of his guests, Herodias, and her daughter, Herod consented to this evil act and had John beheaded. Herod feared man (his guests, Herodias, her daughter) more than God. This is the sin of human respect.
I have written more on that sin here: What Is the Sin of Human Respect?For today’s reflection, however, simply note that this is a widespread human problem. It is amazing how afraid we are. Our fear is not so much of physical danger, but rather of being ridiculed, scorned, or rejected by others. Many people will do almost anything to be liked, to be esteemed, and to “belong.” A great many of our sins spring from this desperate “need” to please and to be respected by others. Meanwhile, we marginalize the Lord; His truth is suppressed or ignored and the reality that He alone will judge us one day is conveniently forgotten. This is the sin of human respect.
One might think that Herod, a powerful king, would not have been very concerned by what people thought of him. But how did he rise to such a position? Most likely by making compromises, ingratiating himself to others, and conforming to what was politic and prudent in a cunning and worldly way. One who spends his life doing such things does not suddenly find a spine. So Herod heard the voice of God in his conscience, but feared human beings even more.
The sin of “harboring a grudge”
John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And so, Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so (Mk 6:18-19).
Sadly, harboring grudges is a common problem for us. If not addressed, a grudge (which is a form of hatred or wrath) grows like a cancer.
The Greek text describes Herodias as ἐνεῖχεν αὐτῷ (eneichen auto). The Greek root enecho means “to hold in.” Auto is an intensifying pronoun. Thus, a rather literal translation is that Herodias “held in, within her deepest self” an anger against John. A Latin expression for having a grudge is estuans interius ira vehementi, which means “to be seething inside with destructive anger.”
Yes, Herodias was harboring a grudge, nursing wrath until the day when she could exact her revenge. Her simmering wrath grew until it burst forth in a murderous rage.
We have all harbored grudges against others, often as a response to having been hurt. Many stifle their rage just beneath the surface and continue to feed it. Though it robs them of internal peace, they somehow feel righteous in doing so, thinking that it honors the pain they have experienced in some strange way. In nursing this grudge, they encourage it to grow and draw energy from other more profitable human activity. They lie in wait for an opportunity to wound the one who hurt them, whether in small or large ways. It can even lead to wishing the other dead or to violent acts. Communities, families, races, and nations harbor grudges, too. The horrifying effects are seen in hatred, violence, war, and genocide.
Sometimes we are the victims of grudges. Others seem to hate us without cause. What was an unintentional offense, a misunderstanding, or a simple disagreement is wrathfully held by another who will not let go. No amount of clarification or even an apology will suffice.
Identity politics and the sharp political and ideological divisions of our time also contribute to a “take no prisoners” mentality, rooted in grudges and exceptionally harsh criticism.
One of the solutions to this tendency is to strive to cast our cares on God. If we have been hurt in some way, especially if we think it undeserved, God asks us to give it to Him. In effect He says, “I saw everything that happened. Give me your pain. I promise that if the person who hurt you dies unrepentant, he will answer to me for what he has done. Lay down your anger now and give it to me. I will carry it. I know where the truth lies” (see Rom 12:19, inter al).
Therefore, we should neither harbor grudges nor be too angry with those who harbor grudges against us. Give it all to God. Be free of the wrath of holding a grudge. Harboring a grudge or being unforgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
In the Gospel for Wednesday of the 21st week of the year, we see Jesus make some pretty angry denunciations of the religious leaders of His day. In fact, throughout the Gospels Jesus manifests quite a lot of anger and issues many denunciations, often accompanied by the phrase, “Woe to you!” In this way, He spoke in much the same way as did all the prophets before Him.
We live in a culture that tends to be shocked by anger; it is almost reflexively rejected as counterproductive and usually sinful. But is anger always a sin?
The simple answer is no. In fact, in some situations anger is the appropriate response. Jesus displays quite a lot of anger in the Gospels, so we should be a bit more thoughtful about anger and make some distinctions.
Let’s begin with some of those distinctions.
The internal experience or feeling of anger must be distinguished from its external manifestation. The internal experience of anger as a response to some external stimulus is not sinful because we cannot typically control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals to us that something is wrong, threatening, or inappropriate. Sometimes our perceptions are incorrect, but often they are not. In this sense, anger is not only sinless, but necessary, as it alerts us to the need to respond to something and gives us the energy to address it. It is a passion and an energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
Anger can arise from less than holy reasons. Some of the things we fear we should not. Some of our fears are rooted in pride or an inordinate need for status and affirmation; some come from misplaced priorities. For example, we may be excessively concerned with money, property, popularity, or material things; this triggers inordinate fears about things that should not matter so much. This fear gives rise to feeling threatened with loss or diminishment. This in turn triggers anger, because we sense that something is wrong or threatening. But we ought not to be so concerned with such things because they are rooted in pride, vanity, and materialism. In this case, the anger may have a sinful dimension. The sin, though, is more rooted in the inordinate drives than in the anger itself. Even when anger arises from poor motives, it is still not an entirely voluntary response.
External manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension, particularly when they are beyond what is reasonable. If we express anger by hurling insults or physically injuring someone, we may well have sinned. Even here, though, there can be exceptions. For example, it is appropriate at times to physically defend oneself. However, it remains true that we live in thin-skinned times and people often take offense when they should not. Jesus did not often hesitate to describe his opponents in rather “vivid” ways.
Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin. The Scriptures say, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4). So anger is not the sin, but the expression of anger may be. Further, it is possible that some of our anger springs from less than holy sources.
When is the external manifestation of anger appropriate? Most simply put, when its object is appropriate and reasonable.
For example, it is appropriate to be angry when we see injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. harnessed the appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism. He elicited it and focused its energy in productive ways. However, he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not give the civil rights protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to bring out a just anger in many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist injustice and effect change through non-violence. This sort of angry response was appropriate, reasonable, and even holy. The tradition of non-violent resistance to injustice remains strong in those who protest abortion and other sins, crimes, and social injustices. It is the anger that motivates within us the desire to speak out and the zeal to take action to rectify injustice.
There are, however, also those persons today who sadly respond to injustice with violent protests, and express hatred. In such protests, anger is no longer a creative energy that summons one to prophetically call for change and justice. Rather, it is vented as violent anger that manifests hate and often ends in destruction of property, harm to and even the death of other human beings. This is not worthy of any Christian notion of appropriate anger.
Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction. To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example, if a child punches his brother in the mouth and knocks out a tooth, a parent ought to display an appropriate amount of anger in order to make it very clear that this behavior is unacceptable. Gently correcting the child in a smooth and dispassionate voice might lead to the impression that this action really wasn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. The display of anger should be at the proper level, neither excessively strong nor too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.
Meekness – This is an important beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit that helps us to master anger. Today, we think of a meek person as one who is a bit of a pushover, easily taken advantage of. But the original meaning of meekness describes the vigorous virtue through which one gains authority over his anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης) as the mean between being too angry and not being angry enough. The meek person has authority over their anger and is thus able to summon its energy but control its extremes. The meek are far from weak; in fact, they show their strength in their ability to control their anger. St. John Chrysostom said this regarding anger: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices (Homily 11). St Thomas Aquinas said, Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (Summa Theologica II, IIae 158.8).
What, then, should we make of Jesus’ manifestation of anger? On the one hand Jesus seems to have taught very strongly against anger:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:21-22).
Taking the passage at face value, it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus clearly broke his own rule because as we know He exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus does clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful anger. The two examples in this passage show the kind of anger He means. The first example is use of the term Raca, an epithet that displayed utter contempt for the recipient. Notice that Jesus links this kind of anger to murder because by using the term, the other person is so stripped of any human dignity that to murder him would be no different than killing an ox or mule. This sort of anger depersonalizes the other and disregards him as a child of God. Using the term fool has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger would seem unreasonable given Jesus’ own example, which included not a little anger.
Most people are familiar with Jesus’ display of anger in the cleansing of the temple, but there were other times when He also manifested significant anger. Today’s Gospel is certainly an example.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23:29-33)
On many other occasions Jesus said similar things. Here is another:
Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire! He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God!” (John 8:44-47)
Passages like these do not exhibit the “Mr. Rogers” kind of Jesus that is common in the modern imagination; Jesus was no Caspar Milquetoast.
What should we make of these angry displays?
They are not sinful. Clearly they are not sinful displays of anger because Scripture assures us that Jesus never sinned (e.g., Heb 4:15).
The culture in Jesus’ time was different than it is today. In the culture of the ancient Jews there seems to have been a wider acceptance of the expression of anger than there is in American society today. Even within the United States there is a wide variance in the acceptance of anger. When I was in college, I dated an Italian girl; she and her mother could really set to it—lots of loud shouting in Italian! But then a moment later it was over and they were on to the next topic. In their family, strong expressions of anger were much more accepted than I was used to. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was also an expression more acceptable in the culture of that time than it would be today. Turning over tables was a “prophetic action.” Prophets did things like this in those days. Even we find a place for civil disobedience today. We may not always like it, but we respect that it has a place.
Jesus was clearly angry. He was grieved at the hard-heartedness of His opponents. His strong tone was an authoritative summons to repent. A soft, lowered voice might not have conveyed the urgency of the situation. These were hardened men who needed pointed, passionate denunciation. Jesus’ anger was righteous anger.
We ought to be careful, however, before simply using Jesus’ angry tone ourselves. There are two reasons for this: First, Jesus was able to see into their hearts and determine the appropriate tactics; we may not always be able to do this. Second, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone; it may be less effective in our setting. Prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.
In the end, anger is not sinful or wrong per se. It is sometimes the proper and necessary response. We do well to be careful with our anger, however, for it is an unruly passion. Above all we ought to seek the fruit of the Spirit that is meekness and to ask the Lord to give us authority over our anger and prudence in its use.
These videos show some displays of Jesus’ anger. In one it is more obvious; in the other it is more subtle:
The animated short below is a dramatization (sort of) of the story of Samson and Delilah as well as a commentary on lust and power. (If you would like to review the story of Samson and Delilah, clickhere.)
As the video opens, two superheroes are summoned to an emergency. They rush to the scene, but do so recklessly; a great crash occurs. This is symbolic of our pride, for too often we rush headlong into solving problems without considering other problems that might be created in the process. For example, the quest to “end poverty in our time” has led to the demise of the family; the quest to liberate the world from tyranny (through violence, drone strikes, and war) has more often led to even more violence and the rise of new villainies.
The superheroes try to blame each other for the accident. This is symbolic of our tendency to shift blame and avoid personal responsibility. We speak endlessly of our rights and our freedom to do as we please, but we want none of the responsibility; and of course any consequences are someone else’s fault.
Each of them then tries to take control of the situation. This is an image of our desire for power over others. This only serves to usher in a struggle that ultimately no one can win. Rather, all suffer devastating loss. Even victory is fleeting because the cycle of violence soon begins again.
At first, our male superhero (let’s call him Samson) seems to have the upper hand; but the female superhero (let’s call her Delilah) is not to be undone. Delilah tries to overcome Samson through her feminine charms. This symbolizes our lust. Whatever his strengths, Samson has a fatal flaw, one that destroys many men: lust. Many men (and women) and have ruined their lives due to lust. This has resulted in poverty, STDs, abortion, teenage pregnancy, shattered dreams, broken families, and broken hearts.
The end of both of these superheroes is death and destruction. Pride, irresponsibility, unrestrained power, and lust unleash only devastation, destruction, and death—both individually and collectively.
In the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, Delilah only “won” for a brief moment. So it is with every worldly victory; it is temporary at best. Only heavenly victory and treasure stored up there will prevail. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
One of the most commonly committed—yet least often confessed—sins, is that of rash judgment. The commercial below humorously depicts the sin and how wrong we can sometimes be.
In reality, the sin is not often humorous and can lead us to some very dark places. On account of rash judgments, we may harbor grudges, resentments, fears, and unjust anger. We may allow it to foster pride, feeling ourselves superior to others. We may even seek revenge based on misinformation or as a result of misinterpretation of others’ actions. And gossip is usually the daughter (or son) of rash judgment.
St. Thomas speaks of rash judgment in this way:When the human intellect lacks certainty, as when a person, without any solid motive, forms a negative judgment on some doubtful or hidden matter, it is called judgment by suspicion or rash judgment (Summa Theologica, Quest. 60, art 2).
Fr. John Hardon defines it in this way: Rash judgment is unquestioning conviction about another person’s bad conduct without adequate grounds for the judgment. The sinfulness of rash judgment lies in the hasty imprudence with which the critical appraisal is made, and in the loss of reputation that a person suffers in the eyes of the one who judges adversely (Modern Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J.).
The Catechism places rash judgment in the context of our obligation to preserve the good reputation of others:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty
– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way (CCC 2477-2478).
All this said, rash judgment is often committed out of weakness. Our minds are weak and we often lack the patience or determination to carefully discern the whole truth. Sometimes we commit this sin because of past hurts or the general climate of cynicism that permeates our culture.
On account of these roots in weakness, the necessary antidote is humility and an understanding that in most cases we do not have all the facts at our disposal immediately. In fact, there are many situations in which we may never have all the facts. In humility, we should presume benign intent in uncertain matters unless and until the facts indicate otherwise.
In today’s world of 24×7 information at our fingertips, we are encouraged to make quick judgments. News outlets often rush to provide “analysis” before many of the facts are known. When “experts” speak from the anchor’s desk, their statements can seem quite credible when, in fact, they are often little more than rash judgments.
Be very careful. Rash judgment, especially when shared with others, can do a lot of damage. It is not a sin to be taken lightly, even if it is often committed in weakness.
Perhaps, then, a little humor will make the point. In this commercial, a man with all the best of intentions appears to be guilty of the worst intentions. Enjoy.