A while back I observed a man losing his temper at a stranger. It was clear that he was upset about something, though I did not know what it was at first. Standing back, but wanting to be available to help if needed, it became obvious that things were beginning to escalate so I quickly called 911. It turns out that he was upset because the stranger had chosen to walk on the other side of the street from him. Yes, that may have been a bit too extreme, but that is the kind of society we live in.
What is it that gets you upset? Is it something similar--a personal offense? Or maybe it is someone cutting you off while driving, or even an unkind word from a co-worker? Think about it for a moment, and then ask yourself: is your response actually justified? We live in a culture that gets a lot of things mixed up, and this is one more of them. No, I am not speaking about personal offenses, but rather about our priorities. In other words, do you get upset at little things, and yet still let big things slide? Most people today get furious at those things that they should just let go, and they tolerate those things that should get them upset--we have it all mixed up.
In the gospel reading for Mass today we find James and John asking Jesus if it is OK for them to destroy His enemies. This is something we read about often in the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments), but we usually do not like to speak about it. James and John were not losing their tempers. After all, they did stop to ask Jesus if it was OK: "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" James and John saw an injustice and wanted something to be done about it, and they resorted to a typical type of response that was common in the first century. Their Lord has been insulted and they were bothered by it.
Now, we have to ask: were the Apostles overreacting? Jesus had been rejected by the Samaritans; the very people He had been trying to help. James and John only wanted justice and righteousness, but they were still rebuked by Jesus. It was not, however, because they wanted justice. Rather, it was because they were too quick to respond with justice, and they forgot Jesus' desire to show mercy and allow people to have time to repent (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). How do you respond when people insult the Lord and His ways? Do you have any response at all or do you just stand back and quietly let it go?
We know that Christ does not just ignore sin, but He does allow us to choose to come to Him, and this is what He was doing with the Samaritans. It is almost as though the Lord tells the Apostles, "Yes, the Samaritans were wrong, but your response is not going to help. You will only drive them away from God. We do not respond to rejection with anger, but with humility. We respond by praying for them and recognizing that we too need God's grace to stand."
So then, James and John were right in wanting justice, but wrong in forgetting the place of mercy. We cannot criticize them for their passion; they were completely right in wanting Jesus to be honored and respected. Some things are not supposed to be tolerated (regardless of what modern society tells us). We have to ask ourselves, however, whether we are equally passionate about righteousness, in such a way that we are bothered when people reject Christ. All too often people think lightly about heresy and blasphemy (it is almost as though they think these two categories no longer exist).
Tolerance is not always a virtue. What is it that you are tolerant of? Is it really the same kind of thing that God is tolerant of? Being upset is not always a bad thing (there are many things in the world today that should upset every Catholic). We should be asking the Lord to help us tolerate what He tolerates, and to be passionate about the same things that he is passionate about, and we should do this each and every day. In other words, seek justice and righteousness, but do not seek it with revenge in mind; seek it for the glory of Christ and seek it in humility.