In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus offers us a stern warning regarding anger and the desire for retribution. He also offers us a corrective for that anger: to make peace with the one who has wronged us, or who we have wronged. The good news for us is that Jesus understands how limited we are, which is why in the Gospel lesson today we don’t hear him say that we will never fight with our neighbors or have disputes; but, he offers the way out. One of the great tragedies of being angry at our brothers and sisters is that there is a lot that we should be angry about in the world: we need to channel that righteous anger where it belongs, not project it onto our friends and loved ones.
Jesus’ warning that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” is very important here. The Pharisees and scribes are typically referred to by Jesus as being poor stewards of the kingdom of heaven, failing in their understanding of how they were meant to minister to the people of God. They had, in short, a limited and almost legalistic understanding of the sacred laws of God, in which the sacred covenant with God was more transactional than transformative. The words this morning from the prophet Ezekiel, seen in this light, are profoundly instructive for us today. The book of Ezekiel is deeply concerned with the people of Israel failing to live up to their covenantal relationship with God. As the chosen people of God, Ezekiel warned, like all the prophets before and after him, that the people would continue to suffer if they didn’t amend their ways and become true emissaries of the living God.
How can we hear this message today and act on it? In my own experience, I need to start by looking at what my own role is in perpetuating suffering, both my own and of those around me. Anger, or a lack of love and compassion for myself or my fellow humans, is certainly one way that I perpetuate the cycle of misery. Even when those little examples that I can point to in my own life may seem prosaic in relation to the true horrors that can be unleashed into the world from human rage, they matter immensely, because I can actually do something about it, right here and now.
One practice that I have recently taken up is to slightly change the Jesus prayer as I usually pray it. In the Jesus prayer, if you aren’t familiar, we pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The form can vary, but the core is always Jesus Christ. Instead of “have mercy on me” I’ve changed it slightly to “save me from myself.” By emphasizing that I am very much in need of being saved from myself, this is profoundly freeing. Lent is a time for getting honest with ourselves and honest about our faith in Jesus: If we are going to challenge the highly destructive tendency to indulge our sense of righteous indignation, in other words, our anger, we are going to need God’s help. Jesus knows that, and He is with us in that journey, and He loves us, more than we can possibly imagine.
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