An Angry Jesus

An Angry Jesus

Sixth Sunday of the Year. Fr Euan Marley suggests that St Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on anger helps us to understand today’s Gospel.

I sometime think I could do with a course in anger management. I can go weeks without being angry. I really need to get organised.

Unfortunately that is not what is on offer. The courses purport to get rid of anger altogether. Which suggests a very serious misunderstanding not only of anger, but all emotions. St Thomas Aquinas states in the Summa Theologica that while it is true that we can sin through anger, we can also sin through a lack of anger. This is in the Secunda Secundae, Question 158, Article 8.

If this seems strange, it is because of the modern habit of thinking of emotions as simply feelings in the body, with no reference to the object of these feelings. The next step is to suggest that since feelings are an end in themselves, there are good feelings and bad feelings, and the object of therapy is to get rid of the bad feelings. One of my favourite examples of just how this therapeutic model has soaked its way into even technical thinking was from someone in California – it had to be California – who was a senior figure in forestry management. He stated during a major forest fire, ‘This is a very angry fire. Until we get a change in the weather conditions, I am not overly optimistic. The fire is headed just about anywhere it wants.’ Obviously this was a forest fire which just needed to be loved.

Anger is not in itself a sin, even though it leads to many sins. St Thomas has a simple argument for that: Our Lord was angry, and he was without sin. He says more though. Thomas divides emotions into two groups, following and developing a tradition which stems from Plato. There are passions -as he calls them – that are from our capacity to desire things, and there are passions that are from our capacity to be angry about things.

The important word there, is things. Thomas calls emotions passions because some object is acting upon them. A passion is a sort of passivity. The object might be imaginary, but there is always some object producing the passion. Most of the time the objects are real enough and a failure to react to them is a defect. There’s a big difference though between passions which flow from reason, and reason which is governed by the emotion. Reason is not opposed to emotion, nor is it separate from emotion, reason generates emotion, and the absence of the emotion where it should be, is a sign of flawed reason.

I haven’t left much space to look at today’s Gospel but I think it is the sort of passage which many people in the modern age, even Christians, perhaps especially Christians, are liable to find repulsive. It is a speech made by Christ in anger, and unless we understand that anger can be a necessary good thing, then we can’t begin to understand this passage. Christ was angry because he was reasonable but also he was angry because he knew what the kingdom could be.

Here I have to quote something else from St Thomas which might sound strange. In the Prima Secundae, Question 46, Article 2, he says, ‘anger is always accompanied by hope’. Does that sound strange? Well, we have to go a little further into the meaning of anger. Anger is the emotion that seeks to change things. That is why anger ends in one of two ways. Either the angry person succeeds in changing the object of their anger, or accepts that it can’t be changed. Anger therefore has no opposite emotion. Either we are angry or we are not. Hope is the emotion which believes that it is possible for some good to come out of some evil. Without hope, we could not be angry because we could not have any expectation that our anger could do anything to change things.

It is true that anger comes to end in Heaven, but then so does hope. Hope, fear and anger belong to a world where there is evil but since we live in a world where there is evil, it is good for us to have these emotions. Our Lord had these emotions, (though not the virtue of Hope, which is transcended in his case by the beatific vision,) while he lived on earth. His anger was for the sake of the kingdom. In short, he was angry because he loved us.

Readings:Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20|1 Corinthians 2:6-10|Matthew 5:17-37

fr. Euan Marley O.P. is Prior at Blackfriars, Cambridge.