The last time I got angry, if I remember correctly, I did not plan it exactly the way Aristotle suggests I should plan it.
That’s because we don’t plan our anger. It just happens. Or does it?
In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 5:17-37), Jesus suggests otherwise. Rather than contradicting Aristotle, or the 10 Commandments for that matter, he drives right to the core of the matter — the core of our sins, our passions.
His message: if we want to live a fulfilled, virtuous life, we must outdo the pharisaical type who lives by the letter of the law; we must fully identify with Christ who embodies the law as its living model.
All of today’s readings develop and build up to that point. Jesus Christ is the model and the foundation of the virtuous life. He calls us beyond virtue to a life of holiness, a life centered on imitating and following him.
The first reading (Sirach 15:15-20) teaches us that the commandments are the very wisdom of God. Hence, as Psalm 119 suggests, those who follow God’s law are blessed, because their lives are guided by that wisdom.
Yet simply following the letter of the law is not enough to grasp God’s wisdom or to be truly wise. That is why St. Paul, in today’s second reading, invites us to scrutinize “even the depths of God” (1Cor 2:6-10). In doing so, as he always does, Paul points us toward Christ.
Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is God’s wisdom incarnate.
So when Christ instructs his disciples, during the Sermon on the Mount, to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees, he raises the standard, by setting himself as the standard. Not only does the law tell you ‘thou shall not kill’; I tell you ‘Do not even get angry with your brother’. That’s a lofty ordinance. Who can abide by that?
No one can if their lives are not centered on Christ.
No one plans their anger or even chooses to get angry for this reason or that reason. It just happens. It happens because of lack of self-control, whose root cause is self-centeredness. When we are centered on ourselves, even for the sake of self-improvement, the virtuous life just isn’t possible.
This is why Aristotle correctly observes that getting angry at the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way is not easy. Following Christ isn’t always easy either. The wisdom of Christ surpasses the wisdom of the wisest men, such as Aristotle. It urges us on to a life that exceeds all human standards. How is this possible?
God makes it possible. By becoming a man, he shows us the way.
In today’s Gospel, God isn’t asking us to improve ourselves. He’s asking for more. He’s asking us to become more like him, Christlike, meek and humble of heart.