The Imitation of Christ’s Anger
In the wake of the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, Catholics everywhere are sickened, heartbroken, and increasingly angry. JD Flynn of Catholic News Agency rightly says that the response “seems to exceed even the anger during the ‘Long Lent of 2002.’” These new revelations point to an even deeper and wider vein of infidelity, abuse, and cover-up in the Church, a systemic corruption that, in at least one case, stretched right up to the college of cardinals. The sanitized, idle responses of some of the implicated figures has only intensified the outrage of many of the faithful. Some, I’m sure, are so angry and disgusted with the whole crisis they’re thinking about walking away from the Church and never looking back. Others are funneling their anger into all-too-human drives—catharsis, revenge, and the hunt to find and destroy a scapegoat—to recover some sense of order.
This is why it’s important right now to reflect on the anger of Christ in the Gospels. “Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger,” G.K. Chesterton observed. But Jesus? “He never restrained his anger.” It wasn’t a haywire or self-serving anger, and it wasn’t aimed at people or groups of people. It was the hatred of evil itself and the passion to set things right: the cleansing anger of the God of Israel in the flesh. The same Jesus we believe founded the Catholic Church and communicates his grace and mercy and peace to it through its sacraments (especially the Eucharist) is also the fiercest prophet, precisely because he loves humanity so perfectly and “wills everyone to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4)—no exceptions.
And when we look at the Gospels, we find three great evils that made Jesus particularly angry. One is the abuse of children. At the beginning of the eighteenth chapter of the Matthew, the disciples approach Jesus and ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He calls a child over to them and says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” Then he adds: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin!” Christ identified with children, and he offered a visceral, thunderous warning to those who hurt them or lead them away from him.
A second evil that made Jesus especially angry was the worldly love of money and self-preservation corrupting the house of God. When Jesus arrived in the temple area of Jerusalem, which was crowded with money changers and sellers of oxen, sheep, and doves, he proceeded to flip over their tables and chairs and drive them out with a whip of cords. And then comes the chilling pronouncement: “It is written: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of thieves.” This scene appears in all four Gospels, so we are clearly meant to pay close attention to it. When the temple is overrun with wheeling-and-dealing and ceases to be meaningfully set apart from the world, the Lion of Judah manifests his powerful longing to set things right.
A third evil that uniquely stoked Jesus’ anger was the hypocrisy of religious leaders. In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees—men who “do not practice” what they preach and who “will not lift a finger” to help people carry the heavy burdens they lay on them. He declares woe upon them, saying (among other things): “You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.…You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?” This depiction of the scene from Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth helps us to see that Jesus was probably shouting these divine words from the depths of his human lungs, his voice bellowing over the crowds with devastating clarity and authority.
When we face the crisis in the Catholic Church, we see not just one or two of these evils; we see all three. We see the horrific abuse of children, the worldly corruption of God’s house, and a cancerous growth of moral and religious hypocrites who do not practice what they preach. What’s more, these evils are being inflicted on Jesus’ bride, the Church, by some of his own ministers: men who were supposed to represent his saving love to the world and instead spread depravity and darkness.
We read in Ecclesiastes that there is an appointed time for everything—and this is a time to be angry. That doesn’t mean division, blame, hysteria, vengeance, scapegoating, or violence. Far from imitating the anger of the Son of God, these things—even in our minds and hearts if not our words and deeds—are part of the same morass of evil that infuriated Jesus. Instead, as we look out over the Church today and in the days to come, may our anger be prayerful and resolute—an anger that’s on fire with the love of God and souls, and focused on practical and decisive steps to rebuild what was torn down.
We’ll be in good company.