Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 3:1-6
When Mike met Dr. Luskin at the Forgiveness Institute, Mike told Dr. Luskin that there was no way he could forgive his boss. Mike was hired as a web designer for a start up internet company. And when he began, he loved his job. Everyone in the company was working 70 hours a week but Mike didn’t even care because he was so excited to be a part of something new and he felt he was contributing using the gifts he wanted to use. The company grew very quickly, however, and they began to hire more web designers. They moved Mike into technical writing. He was working the same amount of hours, but now he despised what he did. He was disgruntled and angry and felt that his company had lied to him and treated him poorly. Mike’s anger came out of a genuine sense of injustice. He was hired for one thing and then asked to do another. He was loyal to the company and felt that the company was not loyal in return, rejecting the gifts that he felt he could contribute. But Mike got caught in his story until it became a grievance for him. He blamed the company for everything— for his unhappiness, for his inability to have a social life outside of work, for his inability to use his gifts. (1)
So many people find their anger to be a stumbling block to forgiveness. They don’t know what to do with it. Many people try to rid themselves of it through unhealthy means— addiction or stuffing their feelings and becoming depressed, or taking their anger out on others around them. And, of course, anger is most often a secondary emotion— caused by another strong emotion like embarrassment, loss of dignity, sadness, or fear. So by its very nature, anger actually has a lot to teach us if we pay attention to it. Roberta Bondi writes that as Christians we’re not called to get rid of our anger as much as we are called to allow it to become a spiritual guide to us. But that means we have to stop long enough to ask ourselves, what is our anger teaching us? Where can our anger lead us if we place it in God’s hands? (2)
In both of our Scriptures this morning, there are many people who are angry. Jesus is the most obvious about it in the scene where he overturns the tables. You see the religious laws of that time said that everyone needed to come with a sacrifice to God. But many people traveled far distances to get to the Temple, so instead of bringing their animal or their grain, they would buy their sacrifice at the door. So a whole marketplace had sprung up under the disguise of being helpful to people, but often took advantage of people who needed to buy their sacrifice right there at the temple. Jesus would’ve grown up seeing the ways in which people were taken advantage of in this system— maybe even saw relatives and others have to pay extreme prices. So he takes this moment to turn over the tables, to make a statement about what the Temple is really for— for people to come closer to God. But instead of just causing a scene and leaving, Jesus has the audacity to stay and heal the people who are there— the ones who would’ve been buying the sacrifices in order to make an offering for healing. This makes the chief priests and the legal experts furious because not only is Jesus disrupting the temple system— something they consider sacred— he is also doing thing only God can do. When the children begin shouting praises at Jesus as the Messiah, the religious leaders can’t handle it. Everything they’ve worked so hard for, every notion that they have of who they are, is being questioned right in front of them. They are angry in response to Jesus’ actions, and they immediately decide to use their anger to get rid of him.
In the other story, the motives are similar, though the situation is different. Jesus goes to the Temple on the Sabbath and there is a man who is need of healing. We are told that even before he arrives, the Pharisees are looking for ways to trap him. They are already filled with anger and are set on retribution. Jesus, knowing their motives, asks them whether it is legal to do good on the Sabbath. He wants to expose their hardness of heart, to challenge their understanding of the law. He becomes angry because they are blinded in their own anger, from seeing the truth, from being open to healing and life and love. This time his anger is in response to theirs, but for the same reasons—they are not interested in offering people life through the law. They are interested in controlling the people.
So the Pharisees, legal experts, and religious leaders are angry pretty much throughout the Gospels as Jesus’ ministry reaches out to those they have deemed unworthy and marginalized. You can imagine them creating their own grievance story— about how people are now looking for Jesus instead of coming to the Pharisees; about how Jesus is constantly breaking the laws that they have spent their lives figuring out how to follow; about how miserable Jesus is making their lives. They decide early on to get rid of Jesus because they blame him for disrupting what already seems like a fragile existence to them, with the Roman government constantly looking over their shoulders. It’s easy for us to read these passages and scoff at the Pharisees— see their hypocrisy as the Gospel writers portray it. But how often is our own anger flared because our own self interest is being threatened? How often do we act like the Pharisees are acting in these stories?
Marjorie Thompson, in her book, The Way of Forgiveness, says that there are certain keys of discernment to help us know whether our anger is showing us that we are hurt and vulnerable and that there is something wrong that is happening to us; or whether our pride is hurt; and we need to examine our lives. One of these keys of discernment is to ask ourselves, “Do I live what I teach and preach?”, to discern whether our anger is being provoked by our own lack of integrity rather than by a true injustice. (2)
This is a very difficult discernment since most of us are very good at hiding even from ourselves the things we don’t want to admit about ourselves, but it is exactly this kind of discernment that Jesus demands of us. If we are angry because we’re losing something that is dear to us, but it is that very things that is actually keeping us from God, than we will need to repent and ask God for forgiveness. Often the Pharisees and religious leaders that we read about are railing against Jesus, seeking his destruction, and are doing so under the guise of protecting their religion— they might’ve even said they were protecting God. But every once in awhile we meet someone like Nicodemus or Gamaliel, Pharisees who paused long enough to see that God is speaking through Jesus and they’re concerned that maybe they’re on the wrong side in attempting to get rid of Jesus. We don’t know anything about what happens to the Pharisees after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but at some point along the way, in order to live differently, they would need to face their own behavior and learn to tell their story differently— taking responsibility for their own actions and turning back to God. My guess is that getting rid of Jesus didn’t change anything for the Pharisees, because he wasn’t their problem. It is their lack of integrity that is their problem, their self-righteous attitude, and their desire to want to control what God is doing.
Jesus’ anger, in contrast, is quite different. There are several times in the Gospels where we see Jesus get angry and speak bitter words to the Pharisees or turn the tables as he does in the first passage in order to make a scene and call attention to the hypocrisy. However, Jesus recognizes the injustice that is causing his anger and speaks against it and then moves on. He doesn’t allow his anger to fuel rage or destruction. Instead, he channels it into healing those who were being hurt by the Pharisees and in bringing about the Kingdom of God. Jesus is angry out of a genuine spirit of humility; out of his faithfulness to God and to God’s command that we love God and love our neighbor as ourself. He allows his anger to show him what is wrong, to speak up against it, and yet to love his enemies enough to want life for them too.
So we need, as people who follow Jesus, to really be willing to offer our anger to God and let God help us discern why we are angry and what to do with that anger. Are we angry out of a commitment to loving God and loving our neighbor? Or are we angry because we are clinging to something that is keeping us from God?
How we tell the story of our anger makes a huge impact on how we can move towards forgiveness.
Do you remember Mike who was holding a grievance against the company he worked for? Like all of us, our motives of being angry aren’t always as clear as Jesus’. Mike was angry because his employer had been dishonest with him, but in blaming his employer for everything that was wrong in his life, he gave over all of his power to the very people he felt he could not forgive. When Mike was adamant that he could never forgive his boss, Dr Luskin asked Mike if he’d be willing to learn how to forgive if someone offered him $20 million dollars but he could never think a negative thought about his boss again— that they would have some way of knowing if he did, and the money would vanish. Mike immediately said of course, he wasn’t stupid, he would take the money. Dr. Luskin then pointed out that if that was the case, it wasn’t that what they did was unforgivable, it was that Mike hadn’t found something that motivated him enough to want to forgive them. (1)
We all find ourselves in that place from time to time— so that’s where we need to begin. As Wendy Wright once said, “God cannot find you where you ought to be, God can only find you where you are.” Or, as Tutu put it in The Book of Forgiving, “...you can’t push past your anguish on your way there to find the path to peace. You will have to meet your pain and speak its name.“ (2)
It’s important to recognize your pain and speak to it. It’s important to tell your story, and as you do so, to do so with people you trust. And it’s also important to recognize how to learn from your anger, and how to let it go when it has become a way of life instead of a helpful tool for you. Know that God has given you anger as a gift to teach you the things you need to know, but that God also wants you to be able to identify why you are feeling angry and to be able to let it go when it is no longer serving you or the people around you.
Thompson, in her book on forgiving, gives four ways we can practice transforming our anger. The first, is to be attentive. As she says it, sit with your anger, not on it. Recognize that it is not that you are an angry person, but rather that you are having feelings of anger, and be a witness to those feelings so you can learn from them rather than being consumed by them. Second, express your anger to God. The people who wrote the Psalms— that book in the very middle of the Bible— were very good at this. Read through the Psalms when you go home and you will find people who were not afraid to tell God how angry they were because they knew beyond a doubt that God could handle it. Third, pray for your enemies. We talked about this last week. There’s almost nothing that transforms anger and fear more quickly than to pray for those who are causing that anger and fear. And fourth, practice shifting from anger to gratitude. Notice what doesn’t make you angry. Notice the good things in your life. Take more time in your day giving thanks than you do getting angry. (2)
In The Book of Forgiving, Tutu references Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison in South Africa. I think of Mandela as an amazing font of wisdom, as a patient and kind and saintly man who was able to forgive those who put him in prison for most of his life and become the leader of all of the people of South Africa at a time when they needed a courageous leader. But Tutu remembers a different Mandela— an angry Mandela— who entered prison with little patience and lots of fire. And somehow, in that time in prison, learned by God’s grace, to refine that fire to be useful for the world instead of being destructive to his nation or himself. (3)
I don’t know when Jesus’ angst years were, but by the time he began ministry, he understood the important role anger plays and the important role forgiveness plays. And he lived a life of integrity that shows us to this day what it means to be faithful to God with all of our feelings and experiences. What an amazing gift that we worship a God who knows us that well, who has walked in our foot steps, and who walks with us still as we journey on this path of forgiveness.
Resources Cites or Consulted:
1) Forgive for Good by Dr. Fred Luskin 2) The Way of Forgiveness by Marjorie Thompson 3) The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu