“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Jesus, Matthew 5:23
Would you leave your own wedding, at the moment of the vows, and go and meet with someone that you knew was angry with you? That is the analogy that Dallas Willard gives in his book, The Divine Conspiracy, to explain the weight of Jesus’ words here. We are removed from the context of the ritual of offering gifts at the altar of a temple. But Willard argues that the picture that Jesus was painting was one that would be familiar with the crowd. The ritual of offering your gift at the altar was an elaborate one. There were certain rules, certain expectations, and one of those expectations was that nothing would interrupt this sacred ceremony.
First, it is important that we set the context of this famous sermon of Jesus, named the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). Jesus begins with “beatitudes,” a description of who really is well-off in God’s kingdom. It is not who we think. Jesus turns the common thinking of his day upside-down by saying it is the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the peacemakers, and the pure in heart. And, those who are still hungering and thirsting after right relationship—with God, and with others. Jesus is telling the crowd, and us, that God sees the down-and-out, those suffering, those who know they aren’t in control, those who are seeking God and wanting to live in peace with others. And in that condition, not because of their condition, but IN that condition, that God’s presence and power are available.
Next, Jesus says that his hearers are salt and light in the world. Those who will live by these teachings of his will be those that add flavor to the world, help preserve it from rotting (the use of salt in Jesus’ day), and will illuminate all that is good, true, and beautiful. Then, Jesus tells us why he is here. Not to abolish the laws of God, but to show what fulfillment of those laws really looks like.
It is out of all of this teaching that Jesus then moves to this passage. It is interesting to note that Jesus begins his most famous teaching by stressing the importance of relationship with one another. This passage we are looking at comes in the context of a commandment not to murder. It is one of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20. Jesus pushes us all past a cursory obedience to that commandment to reveal the source of murder: anger. Jesus is showing us that it from the well of anger that murder comes, and we must drain the water from that well. So we must become the kind of person that is not mastered by anger.
Jesus then uses this illustration in Matthew 5:23 to show what that would look like. The person who builds their house on the teachings of Jesus would be one who, in the midst of performing a religious or cultural ritual, would see that the more important thing would be reconciliation with a friend, relative, co-worker, or neighbor.
Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, makes it a point to emphasize this about Jesus’ teaching. The point is not that we do these things. Rather, we embark upon the journey to become the kind of person who would do these things.
He writes, “Now just think of what the quality of life and character must be in a person who would routinely interrupt sacred rituals to pursue reconciliation with a fellow human being. What kind of thought life, what feeling tones and moods, what habits of body and mind, what kinds of deliberations and choices would you find in such a person? When you answer these questions, you will have a vision of the true “rightness beyond” that is at home in God’s kingdom of power and love.” (Divine Conspiracy, 156)
May we embark on a journey to be at home in God’s kingdom of power and love, and learn to truly get along.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Questions for reflection: Willard mentions “quality of life and character,” “thought life, feeling tones and moods,” and “habits of body and mind” that might enable someone to do what Jesus describes in Matthew 5:23. What comes to mind when you read those words? Which of those might be lacking in your own life? What might Jesus be calling you to give up, or to add, to lean into Him to become that kind of person?
Questions for families and kids: What are the situations at home, or at school, that you find causing fights among you? Are you holding onto any grudges with someone else? What might Jesus say to you about those grudges?
Questions for your work: I’m picturing here a boss holding a meeting to announce a big development in the company—perhaps the launching of a new product. Can you imagine the boss stopping the presentation and telling everyone he or she needed to reconcile with a co-worker first? What would that communicate to those present at the meeting? What would you think about the character of that boss?