What’s It All About
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Fr John Patrick Kenrick preaches on the righteous anger of God.
Many human beings get irritated and give way to anger over all kinds of issues and so we imagine God must be like this too. The Bible apparently agrees – God can sometimes be angry.
But there is a great difference between human anger and divine anger. Human anger is often the result of feeling frustrated or impotent and it is directed at those whom we decide to blame – at other human beings or perhaps at God himself. But divine anger is altogether different. God is never impotent and never frustrated. Moreover he never wavers in his infinite love and mercy. So God’s anger is just another dimension of his love for us. Now we can understand this because we experience a similar kind of righteous anger when we care about injustice done to others – like the Uighurs being persecuted for their faith, or closer to home the people who are regularly kicked downstairs in our very unequal society – those without homes, work or opportunities to make life bearable for themselves or their families. That righteous anger can move people to do good – to feed the poor, to volunteer help, to donate money; or maybe to bang on the doors of power until something gets done.
God also may appear ‘angry’ when there is no other way to move the sinner, except through some ‘punishment’, when love and gentle persuasion have no effect. The psalm today reminds us of the problem – ‘O that today you would listen to his voice. Harden not your hearts.’ It was Pharaoh who had the archetypal hardened heart. The plagues sent to punish him had the practical purpose of liberating God’s chosen people. God’s anger was directed at Pharaoh because he was an obstacle to the divine plan. But it was also directed at him because God loved Pharaoh and did not want to see the person he had created destroying his own humanity. He wanted Pharaoh to seize the opportunity to obey … and when he failed to do that the first time God gave him another chance and then another … to avoid serious loss and suffering.
If God sometimes allows us to see his power so that we have a healthy sense of awe, of his ability to deal with injustice, he certainly doesn’t want to intimidate. In the first reading today from Deuteronomy, we see God responding to people’s fear. The Israelites are frightened of God’s voice and the manifestation of his power and so God is going to give them prophets to convey his commands. But the prophets are answerable to God if they themselves fail to listen to His words.
Attention to the will of God is the whole purpose of life and we all fail to do this well. That is the point of St Paul’s advice in today’s second reading. Paul is not opposed to marriage, he is just saying ‘give your undivided attention to the Lord’. We are all meant to do that, both single and married, both priests and laity, and most of us are not consistently good at it. Fortunately in every community, every congregation there are those who show the way and give us all a great example of devotion.
In today’s gospel Jesus rebukes an unclean spirit. He has two reasons to be angry with this demon. First, the man possessed is clearly suffering. Secondly, the demon is being a nuisance. He is making a noise and disturbing Jesus’ teaching. With their superior intellect the demons have guessed from Jesus’ behaviour that they are dealing with the power of God. And so they are fearful because the mere presence of God in Jesus causes them pain, a reminder of their eternal loss. Unlike us they cannot repent. And so they accuse Jesus of wanting to destroy them. In fact, God has no intention of destroying them – He cannot stop loving any of his creatures, even the fallen angels that have become demons. Jesus simply wants to end this demon’s malign activity and so with a few words he sets the man free.
The real authority of Christ is shown in this act of liberation. Jesus’s words are authoritative. They don’t just sound authoritative, they are effective – like the sacraments we receive. The crowd is impressed. But the gospel leaves us with an unsettling thought. The crowd may be impressed but like so many people they are still ‘making up their minds’. They start asking each other what it all means as though its not obvious that the power of God is at work! Asking what it’s all about is a favourite pastime of human beings who don’t want to commit, ‘What’s it all about?’ The demon who has just been put to flight is in no doubt at all.