“You shall not kill”.
We hear this very commandment as it is being broken in Ukraine. We hear it as a new war is writing itself into history and into suffering. A war which has seized our attention – for many reasons, not least for the threat of escalation. If one wing of your house is ablaze, the whole house is in danger. And Europe is one house; the world is one house.
Today we hear a passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Six times in the section from which it comes our Lord cites what the “ancestors”, meaning normally the Law of Moses, have said. Then he goes beyond that Law. In another sense than Oliver Twist, he asks his listeners for more. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (i.e. the practitioners of the Law), you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” “Exceeds” – the word means overflow, like a river its banks. This is our Lord’s proposal: overflowing righteousness. It is not enough not to kill, not to have actual blood on our hands. One must not even carry anger in one’s heart or voice it in cruel words. And if one seeks peace with God one must seek it first with one’s brothers. Here, our Lord is doing deep-sea drilling, drilling down to the dark places from which violence erupts, down to the human heart. This is root and branch surgery.
Let’s stand back and look at what’s happening in a passage like this. Single-handedly, like David, Christ is confronting one of the great Goliaths of history – one of its great drivers. He is confronting human aggression, our inner and outer violence. He is digging out its roots, namely the passions of anger and hatred. Four times in the passage, we hear the word “brother”. This harks back to Cain, and the first murder. Indeed, our Lord is implying all the violence of Scripture; indeed, all the violence of history, past, present and future. He was saying these things, too, in a country occupied by a Roman invader, smouldering and often erupting in violence. Our Lord is speaking, we can add, to our past century; it has been estimated that between 1914 and 1990, 168 million people died as a result of violence. Our Lord is speaking to now. He is speaking to us.
He is confronting this huge human reality. He is declaring his own very different war on killing and anger. He does it with such clarity and simplicity, with David-like stones from the stream, the words of the Gospel. War, we have traditionally said, is not always and everywhere wrong. If even now, when weaponry has reached such scary sophistication; if there is such a thing nowadays as a just war – and it is a question – the Ukrainians appear to be waging it. More generally, anger itself is not purely negative; it is the response to injustice. It can empower us to remove the obstacles to what is right and just. It can serve positive ends. But, in the hands of tormented, fallen creatures like ourselves, it is a weapon dangerous to use. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”, the Bible says (Jas 1:20). It’s a river all too likely exceed itself, overflow its banks, and wash away its perpetrators.
The Desert Fathers and early monastic writers took our Lord’s words to seriously and were much preoccupied with anger. They knew how much space it fills in human life. I mention three things. 1. The Fathers saw in the spiritual combat wit anger something more central, more serious, more critical, more decisive than that with lust or greed or other passions. As we engage with life, as we take part on the stage, our anger levels will rise. Our anger will be what confronts us and requires our response. Either we master it or it masters us. 2. Secondly, they looked at it, they observed it, traced its symptoms. They watched the way it changes a person’s eyes and face, how it deforms the judgment, erupts into ill-considered words, can set the whole body shaking, turns hands into fists and overflows in active aggression. They were great cartoonists of the passion of anger. With our history, we have our own images to add, the gaping buildings, the blasted trees, the empty streets, the tides of refugees. Anger warps, anger lays waste. This is not the human being, this is not the co-existence, the Lord wants. This is not man “in the image and likeness of God”. It is man deformed. 3. Thirdly, the Fathers distinguished between the anger that flares up and out, obvious and public, open loss of temper and the like, and another kind: slow-burning, long-running, smouldering, underground almost, a sullen bitterness, resentment. This, they observed, is more pernicious. It’s like a hidden cancer in our lives. Everything that happens to us is quietly turned into fuel to feed our inner unhappiness. It then creates an unpleasant atmosphere around us. It’s like drip, drip, drip, a surreptitious ingress of water, staining the house of the soul, creating a dankness all around.
Today’s Gospel ends with the image of prison. Anger is precisely that. Anger imprisons our whole self. It forbids us expanding. It contains us. It constricts us, diminishes us. I don’t want to be political, but how easily leaderships get locked into anger and revenge.
It is our Lord who can lead us out of this prison. He did not just face violence verbally on a hilltop in Galilee. He underwent it in Jerusalem. He exposed himself to it, fully and freely. It nailed him to the Cross. He suffered it. If ever the commandment not to kill was broken it was on Calvary. If ever anger had its say, if ever there were abusive words and insults and contempt, it was then and there, with the God-man its target and our venom fully exposed. And if ever there was a Victim of violence, who stands with and carries all the victims of history, it was him. “By oppression and judgment he was taken away…and they made his grave with the wicked…although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Is 53: 8, 9). But our Lord did not allow the anger to penetrate himself. He met it, overcame it with his “Father, forgive them…” And the Father heard this prayer. He raised his Son, he passed his verdict. He established justice by glorifying the Victim of anger. In the Risen Christ, he showed his mercy to all the innocent and the forgiveness open even to repentant perpetrators. The giant was slain.
How do we then, in Christ, leave the prison? There is a key to the door. The Fathers were not just diagnosticians; they were healers, just as Lent is. Lent has it. They proposed mercy. Nothing cuts at the root of our constant anger so effectively as remembering the mercy shown us, his constant loving in spite of our meanness. This sets us free. This releases the river, the overflowing river of righteousness, the river that gives joy to God’s city, the river opened on Calvary. And the river’s name is mercy too. Mercy received runs into mercy given. It flows out in the works of mercy, all 15 of them. Mercy is the only antidote to anger. After the Passion, said the French poet Paul Claudel, there is only compassion. Amid the contemporary horror at Europe’s eastern end, haven’t we been amazed at the generous help shown the suffering? Isn’t it telling that, in Poland, receiving more than a million refugees, it hasn’t to my knowledge yet been necessary to set up camps – because people have taken them into their homes? That surely is “exceeding righteousness”. That is the living out of Christ’s words.
May we do likewise!
St Mary’s, Beauly, 11 March 2022