Sunday, May 23, 2010

Did Jesus get angry?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

Jesus undoubtedly displayed anger, as scripture indicates on more than one occasion. We should not be surprised at this, although we see frequent passages warning us against uncontrolled anger. When we fail to use reason to moderate feelings of anger and revenge, we commit the capital sin of anger.[i] The reason this unmoderated emotion is sinful is because it can easily lead to other sins, St. Paul warns in Ephesians 4:26. Ashley notes that such anger is wrong because the motive is not justice but revenge, because the target of such anger may not warrant it, or because the response is not moderated by any sense of meekness or clemency.[ii]

However, not all anger constitutes this capital sin. One can also exhibit righteous anger. While anger uncontrolled and unmoderated through reason is sinful, anger that is controlled and expressed properly, for example, when a parent corrects a disobedient child, can be considered a kindness in that it expresses love and desire for the child to choose well, as in Proverbs 27:5: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love”; or in the more famous adage from Proverbs 13:24, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” In some cases, expressing anger is the best way to bring someone’s attention to wrongs they have committed or to unjust situations. Jesus’ expressions of anger fall into the latter category of righteous anger.

All four gospels recount the story of Jesus driving the vendors and moneychangers from the temple, each with a slightly different emphasis. Matthew 21:12–13 and Luke 19:45–46 share very similar, concise accounts that give just a hint of Jesus’ anger. Mark, however, adds a detail missing from the other accounts: “and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (11:16). While Jesus had clearly an unearthly authority, he was not a priest or Levite and had no human authority. Yet He essentially took over the temple. In John, He actually makes “a whip of chords,” (2:15) prompting His disciples to remember the passage from Psalms 69:9: “For zeal for thy house has consumed me.” These passages demonstrate a great degree of courage on Jesus’ part and show how righteous anger can prepare us with courage to fight or resist. Ashley notes that the virtue of courage uses anger as an instrument in such cases.[iii]

Another passage from Mark doesn’t just imply anger but notes it expressly. He asks the congregation in the synagogue (which we might assume to be Pharisees and scribes since they seek to accuse Him) whether it is lawful to do good or harm, to save life or kill on the Sabbath. They don’t respond. Mark tells us, “And he looked around them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (3:5). Jesus’ anger here comes not from an external defilement as in the temple, but at the unjust attitudes of the Pharisees—a defilement of the heart. Anger in such circumstances is virtuous if it compels us to act justly or courageously in defense of the faith, so long as we do not allow it to compel us to sin or to act rashly or disproportionally.


i. Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 242.
ii. Ibid., 243.
iii. Ibid., 248.
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