Heart disease is a top killer in America.
It’s probably not just America. I’m guessing that diseased hearts are just as deadly in countries where skinny people eat lots of rice and fish.
I’m not talking about the kind of cardiac problems your doctor warned you about. That kind is easily avoided. Just maintain a perfect diet, a daily exercise regimen, and stay away from funnel cakes. You know, all your Lenten promises.
No, I’m talking about heart disease of the spiritual variety—the kind Jesus diagnoses in today’s Gospel reading when he tells us not to call others “fools.” This heart disease leads to much worse than shortness of breath. It’s even worse than death. As Jesus so delicately puts it, so as not to offend people, this kind of disease leads to “fiery Gahenna.”
Call it what you will—contempt, hostility, resentment—it is the disease of negative judgment. It’s having a heart clouded with mean-spirited assessment of others. Need an example? It’s the interior disposition on display on political talk shows. Need an example closer to home? It’s how you feel about that one person who gets under your skin.
Jesus is saying that when you’re angry with someone, when you call her a fool, an idiot, a stinkin’ liberal, or a witch, your words are symptoms of a spiritual disease. In other words, you have a problem, not just the person you’re describing.
But isn’t this so much hyperbole? Surely some people really are fools, and need to be outed as such, right? Even the book of Proverbs uses the term “fool” dozens of times. So is calling a spade a spade really that bad? Isn’t it actually good in some cases?
I suspect there is a distinction between soberly assessing another person’s faults (when you’re in a legitimate position to do so) and flying off the handle because someone pisses you off. To me, the chief difference is the emotional temperature on display. When your blood boils, the Great Physician is saying you’re in critical condition, spiritually speaking. There’s something in your heart opposed to love, which should be the heart’s primary purpose.
The take away? Mean-spirited judgment of another is real sin—even when you’re right and they’re wrong. Why? Because it’s a half-step away from pride. And pride gets ugly quickly. The negativity we harbor toward others is so ugly, in fact, that it separates the wicked from the virtuous, like Ezekiel describes in today’s First Reading. The Gospel implies that bad-mouthing (or even quiet, angry judgement) is bad enough to keep you from the altar. Jesus says it leads to hell.
So what’s the cure for this kind of heart disease? Jesus lays it out clearly: “be reconciled with your brother.” In other words, seek peace. Let bygones be bygones. Realize that other people are weak, just like you, and cut them some slack. Be tender-hearted. Forgive.
And then see if the disease doesn’t clear up:
“If the wicked, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.”
Sam Alzheimer is the founder of Vianney Vocations, an organization that helps dioceses promote the priesthood.