Courage and Anger

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The ruler of the synagogue was irritated because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. He responded by telling the crowd that there were six days on which one must work. “So come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath day!” The Lord answered him, “Hypocrites! You all untie your ox on the Sabbath,or take your donkey from the manger and lead it to water, don’t you? This woman is a daughter of Abraham! Satan has bound her for, look, eighteen years. Is it not necessary to relieve her of this enslavement on the Sabbath day?” When he said these things, his enemies were put to shame, but the whole crowd rejoiced at the wonders he was doing.
Luke 13: 17

As the conflict in Luke’s gospel heightens, there is an increasing sense of urgency around Jesus’ call to repent. In this story we have, on the one hand, the woman who is healed and the response of the crowd that “rejoiced at the wonders he was doing,” and, on the other, the “irritation” and shame of the ruler of the synagogue. The sign of contradiction that is Jesus is evident in that the same external experience can lead to such different inner responses. The woman and the crowd have come to the synagogue on the Sabbath to listen and to be taught by Jesus. They are there as students or disciples, knowing the lacks in their own lives and their need for the word. On the other hand, the ruler of the synagogue is not listening with an open mind and heart, but rather filled with his own sense of knowing and on guard against anything that will challenge his own arrogance.

The ruler of the synagogue is angry with Jesus for healing the woman on the Sabbath. The ruler’s own expectations and demands have been overturned and upset, and he responds with the anger and irritation that is typical when something has upset our illusory sense of management and control over our life and world. But, it is not the irritation or anger that evokes the charge of “hypocrites” from Jesus, but rather the way in which the ruler deflects that anger on to the crowd. Instead of confronting Jesus directly, he reprimands the crowd. He reminds us of the fire and brimstone preacher railing at the congregation or the unreasonable teacher berating his or her students. The synagogue ruler lacks the courage to follow the direction of his anger toward a difficult but potentially deeper encounter and relationship with Jesus, and in this way evokes the rebuke of hypocrisy from Jesus. The ruler’s deflecting of his anger, a quite recognizable experience to all of us, represents the lack of courage and trust to live in obedience and truth to the summons of reality that is mediated through his own anger. The direction in the affect of anger is often toward greater connection and intimacy, but often we refuse that direction in favor of greater distance and attempted manipulation and control. To live in the truth to which our affective life summons us requires significant doses of courage and humility.

Adrian van Kaam describes well the “hypocrisy” inherent in our refusal to humbly live with and creatively respond to our own anger.

True spiritual life may lead to gentleness with self and others. This slowly acquired gentleness emerges not from a fear to displease people, not from a need to be liked, not from a desire to foster a career, to look good or to get rid of feelings of anger, irritation, aggressiveness. Gentleness starts from the acceptance of where I stand as a poor person before God, with my smoldering anger, my aggressiveness, my resentment.

Fake spiritual life does not admit to these feelings; it does not accept them and try to live with them while quietly mellowing a little day by day. Fake spiritual life starts from an idealized picture of myself. “From now on I have to be the perfectly holy person approved of by everyone.” Unconsciously, I may add to this ideal image: “If I never get angry, others will never get angry with me.”

This secret expectation changes the orientation of my life. No longer is my main concern God’s love; it shifts to a concern for being liked by people. Mine is no longer a God-centered life. I begin to build my personality on the image of the “nice holy person,” liked and revered by all. Since this is the image I live by, any show of anger, even the slightest irritation, seems to tarnish my “holy” status. Being revered by all is a way to be safe. Any irritation I may evoke in others is felt as a threat to myself. I must avoid anything that brings disesteem upon me.

If we pretend to be gentle while we are not, we affect a pseudo- gentility that slows down our spiritual travel. Pseudo-gentility is based on a lie we may be unconscious of. A lie, as we know, can be maintained only by means of other lies that cover up the first one. This is true not only when we tell a lie to others; it is even more true for the lies that are at the basis of our private life, especially when we fail to see that we are lying to ourselves inwardly.

Spirituality and the Gentle Life, pp. 101-2, 111

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