Meeting anger with compassion

Photo by Felix AtsoramWhat do you do when someone’s angry at you?  If it’s for something you did wrong, you might feel guilty, try to justify yourself, or just avoid the other person.  But what if it’s for something you don’t think you did, or did in innocence?  Would you try to explain or argue?  Or just turn your back and mutter, “Hey, I didn’t do anything.  If he wants to be mad, that’s his problem”?

This past weekend, our pastor read a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus deals with the matters of anger and reconciliation.  I was already familiar with the passage, having used it in my own writing and teaching.  But as I reread it, reviewing the context, it hit me: all these years, I had missed something important, something that now seems obvious.

Here’s the full text:

You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.  If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council.  And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.  Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go.  First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.  Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court.  Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison.  I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny.  (Matt 5:21-26, CEB)

We should note that Jesus doesn’t command his followers not to be angry, and Paul suggests that it’s possible to be angry without sin (Eph 4:26).  Jesus here seems to be addressing the legalistic attitude that we’re okay as long as we don’t murder someone outright.  Serious anger is serious business, Jesus says, serious enough to get us roasted in the fires of Gehenna.

“Therefore,” he says, connecting the two parts of the passage.  Anger can be tantamount to murder in God’s eyes.  Therefore, if you want to worship God truly, don’t just drop your dollar in the offering plate, go and seek reconciliation.

But here’s what I missed: in Jesus’ examples, who’s angry?  Who stands to face the hellish consequences?  I had somehow taken the implications of the passage as if Jesus had said, “When you’re angry with someone, go make it right.”  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  But what Jesus is saying is, “If you remember that someone else is angry with you, possibly even enough to take  you to court, go make it right.”

This isn’t about being magnanimous to those who have offended us; we are the offenders.  And it’s not about managing our own anger.  The passage suggests that the anger of others toward us puts them in precarious spiritual state.  To seek reconciliation in such a situation can thus be an act of compassion.

Yes, we have our own anger to answer for.  And when people are angry at us, they often have good reason.  It may take great humility to set aside our defensiveness long enough to find out what that reason is, and to make the proper amends.

But imagine extending compassion to someone who is angry at you, seemingly without cause.  Who would do such a thing?

I can think of One.