Leviticus 19-21, Psalm 37:1-18, Mark 10
Choosing not to feed the free-floating beast of anger within us
Leviticus 19 – 21
As I walked along the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, I passed through Spain’s famous Rioja region just as the grape harvest was taking place. As the sun began to warm the day and hunger and thirst developed, I stopped occasionally to pick a cluster of grapes from the vines growing along the trail.
The grapes were bursting with sugar and juice. They were the perfect snack before stopping for lunch. I was reminded of that experience as I read chapter 19 of Leviticus, where the Israelites were instructed not to harvest their fields up to the very edges of the field and not to gather up fallen grapes so that the poor and aliens might benefit from harvesting them.
The author of Leviticus notes, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” God does not want them to forget the hardship and suffering that they endured before entering the Promise Land. It is easy for all of us to forget previous difficulties after we enter a time of greater prosperity. Remembering hardships, however, gives us a bond with those who suffer now and helps us to make their life better. God says,
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:33)
Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus provides us with the Holiness Code, which is so called due to the highly repeated use of the word Holy, which means to be “set apart” for God’s use. We read,
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Lev. 19:1-2)
The holiness code warns us not to steal, not to defraud, not to revile deaf, not to put a stumbling block before the blind, not to be partial, not to be a slanderer and not to hate in our heart. There are clear similarities to the Ten Commandments. These statutes calling us to respect the elderly and not to cheat are timeless. We all need a moral code to follow. Ethical teachings are the guardrails of life that help us to travel safely and provide comfort of knowing that that are clear boundaries as we make our journey.
I have a friend and colleague who is one of the best-known counselors in the Philadelphia area. In addition to my wife and a professor at college, he is one of the three persons whom I have learned the most from as an adult. He explains that a lot of people have free-floating anger roaming around inside them. It’s like a big ball of cotton candy that needs to be fed. Each time, a situation occurs that provokes anger they go on an emotional trip and feed the free-floating angry mass within them.
The monster therefore grows because it is being fed. Each person, he says, goes on their own personal emotional trip, but usually it is the same trip that an individual will take time and time again. They might think, “I’m no damn good” or “I’m always getting dumped on” or “I’ve been abandoned again.” He said at the very moment that we are about to embark on that journey, we are free to say, “I am not taking that journey.” By doing so, we starve the free-floating anger within us. Over time, that mass of anger shrinks and its appetite becomes minimal. We may even succeed in making it disappear altogether.
The Bible has much to say about anger and the damage it creates. In Psalm 37 we read,
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret – it leads only to evil. (Ps. 37:8)
I know someone who still blames her husband the problems in her life decades after being divorced. Her anger is palpable. It is sad to witness. Anger fills her like a cancerous tumor growing within her body, taking up space and crowding out other parts of her being. Sadly, this is what anger does.
We are almost always the chief victims of our own anger. The person with whom we are angry is often rarely affected. Meanwhile, we stew in our own acidic juices, harming our heart, mind, soul and body. The psalmist wisely counsels us to:
Trust in the Lord, and do good…
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps. 37:3-4)
Making a conscious decision to focus on love, joy and peace is a fundamental part of the Christian journey. The Bible time and again notes that God sets before us a choice between life and death, blessing and curses. Choose life! It is the only healthy choice. Choosing anger is a deadly choice.
Anger is a drug. It is dangerous and addictive. It should come with a huge warning label that it ruins lives and relationships and harms each human being who uses it. Each time you feel an angry response building within you, say to yourself, “I’m not taking this journey.” Exercise your free will. Remain in control. Slowly start to starve the little monster that wants to grow and build a bigger home within you. In doing so, you will leave lots of room for love, peace and joy to fill your beautiful being.
We had a wonderful Associate Rector, who recently left our church to become the priest-in-charge of her own parish in Virginia. We miss her greatly. She would tell members of our church from time to time that I have high expectations for them, but that they are always expectations that are good for our church and for them personally as they journey with Christ.
I always appreciated her saying this, because it was not something that I could express myself. I suppose that my high expectations come directly from Jesus. Jesus must have had a marvelous sense of humor, something that we, Christians sometimes neglect to see or discuss. Yet, Jesus also had a very serious side. He was aware of the dangerous challenges that he faced.
In today’s reading, we see both the serious challenges as well as the high expectations that he set before his followers. When a man and woman marry, Jesus said that they “become one flesh.” (Mark 10:9) My wife, Mims, and I recently celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. I wrote briefly about this in our church newsletter and spoke about dedicating a recent walk on our church’s labyrinth to our marriage and our daughters. As I walked the labyrinth’s concentric circles, I thought about all the twists and turns that our marriage and our family have taken. It’s been a good journey, but one with challenges. It takes work, tenacity, laughter, joy, patience and forgiveness to keep walking the journey until its very end.
A number of parishioners mentioned the article to me and commented about how many years they had been married and how it had been good, but not always easy. Few marriages are. Lasting relationships are usually like stock investments. They do not always go up and up and up. They sometimes go down. We have to be patient and nurture them. Jesus holds the bar high for all of us in our marriages. It’s good to have someone who expects great things of us and of our relationships. It makes us strive to offer our best and to stay in relationships that are not fulfilling or easy at each and every moment.
Likewise, Jesus instructs the man who had many possessions to go and sell all that he had and give the proceeds to the poor and then follow him. We never hear about this man again, at least by name. Jesus’s high expectations might have haunted this man and made him question the need for all of his possessions. Possessions over time come to possess us. It is a good thing for us to liberate ourselves from many of them. Jesus was not laying a guilt trip on this man. He was seeking to liberate him.
Jesus noted that “no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30) Jesus then makes his third prediction about his forthcoming death and resurrection. Like many martyrs of the Church who sensed that they would die as a result of their faith, Jesus knew that serious challenges lay before him and before those who followed him.
If you are not experiencing any persecution for following Jesus and do not think of Christianity as a faith of high expectations, perhaps it would be good to reread chapter 10. Christ does not merely seek regular churchgoers and nice people willing to say, “I am a Christian.” Christ will settle for nothing less than all of who we are and what we have to offer. God wants to consecrate our lives to build his kingdom, because he knows that this is where we find our deepest joy. We were created for this.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret – it leads only to evil. (Ps. 37:8)
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Mark 10:8)
Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible. (Mark 10:27)
But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. (Mark 10:43)
What kind of holiness code do you try to follow? What moral standards are most important for you when it comes to living in relationships? Do you experience anger? How do you manage it? Do you live with or know someone whose anger sometimes gets out of hand? What can you do about it? Do you see God as having high expectations for your life and for others? How are you doing with living into them? Do you think that Jesus knew what was in store for him when he traveled to Jerusalem?
Gracious God, anger is the rust that corrodes our lives and destroys our ability to function and find peace, happiness and joy. Help us to root it out of our lives, to make the bold decision each time we feel it welling up within us to exercise self-control so that we may be agents of your peace, love and joy. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania