21 You have heard that the ancients were told, "You shall not commit murder" and "Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court." 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, "Raca," shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, "You fool," shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent.
Matthew 5:21–26 is clearly one unit. It is the first of six units that begin "You have heard that it was said, but I say to you . . . " These six units are Jesus' explanation of the Christian righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. Verse 20, which leads into these six units, says, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." Then comes our text.
The reason for choosing this text this morning has to do with where we are in the Master Planning Process at Bethlehem.
We believe that God has given us a powerful and biblical Mission Statement and Vision for Bethlehem for the next several years. We exist "to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples." We have six fresh initiatives to pursue, clusters of values to live by and a prayer goal of 2000 by 2000 to pour out our lives for. As we prayed and sought the Lord about how to move forward in these things, one of the great challenges we saw was the debt on this building. It seemed to us that, rather than spreading ourselves thin over a dozen different smaller one-time financial goals, we would do better to focus on freeing up about $300,000 a year that we currently pay on this mortgage.
That's what next Sunday is designed for: bringing pledges to the Lord so that when October rolls around, we will each (as God leads us) give a one-time gift to eliminate entirely the $1.1 million debt on this building. But the task force for resources realized from the outset that debt removal is not the greatest thing. Debt is not the biggest obstacle we face. And in the mind of God it is not the biggest issue at Bethlehem. It is a big issue. It may be the biggest financial issue. But it is not the biggest issue in this church or any church.
Something More Important Than Financial Gifts
That's why this Sunday and this text come before next Sunday and the gifts we will pledge to free the future from debt and for this mission. This text is about something that is prior to pledges and gifts. Something bigger in the mind of God than financial gifts. Something deeper and more important than what happens next Sunday financially. That's why we focus this morning on verses 23 and 24.
If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.
Now notice immediately that verse 23 begins with "If therefore . . . " The word "therefore" impels us to look back. Let me put in a sentence about what I think Jesus has just said. He has said, "Despising your brother imperils your soul." Despising a person through acts like murder, despising a person through attitudes like anger, despising a person through words like "Raca" or "Fool"—they all imperil your soul.
"Therefore . . . " verses 23 and 24 follow. And they are utterly relevant to what we are about as a church in the next week. If contempt for a brother or sister (= fellow human being) imperils your soul—if it threatens to cut you off from God forever, as verse 22 says (by referring to hell), then you can't just come happily on your way to worship next Sunday with your Freeing the Future pledge, if something like that is in your heart.
Since despising a brother brings us into peril with God, it is unlikely that God would receive the offering of your worship while you despise your brother in your heart.
"If Your Brother Has Something Against You"
But that is not quite what Jesus says, in verses 23–24, is it? He says,
If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember [not that you despise your brother, but] that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.
In verses 21–22 he has focused on the contempt we may feel for a brother and how we may despise him with anger or words like "fool" and "Raca" (= imbecile, or dolt, or the like). But when he makes the transition to how this relates to worship and giving, he shifts the focus slightly—away from our subjective feelings of anger or contempt or despising onto the relationship that has been wrecked by our contempt.
So, very practically and specifically, what this means is that this week there are two things to pray about for next Sunday, not just one. We are all praying, "Lord, how much should I pledge toward Freeing the Future from debt at Bethlehem? What is my part in the $1.1 million challenge?" But there is something more important to be praying about. That is what Jesus presses on us here. We must also be praying, "Lord, is there someone, as I get ready to take my pledge to the altar (as it were), who has something against me?" For if there is, Jesus says we are to take steps to be reconciled before we bring the pledge.
Now this raises some tough questions for us. Let's put ourselves to the test. Are we really only committed to the exciting goal of debt elimination? Or are we more committed to the effort of enmity elimination?
Am I Responsible for Someone's Grudge Against Me?
Here is a key question: When coming to give, are we responsible for all the grudges and anger and enmity that people may feel against us?
This question is utterly urgent for all of us, but especially for those in prominent, public positions where strong viewpoints are expressed as part of one's calling—positions like President of the United States, or Speaker of the House, or Governor of Minnesota, or network news commentator or host of a radio show like Focus on the Family or preacher in a local church. In every one of these roles, the moment one opens his mouth someone disagrees. And if the issue is hot enough, that disagreement can be felt as anger and alienation. At any given moment, for example, the President of the United States has millions of people calling him a hero and millions calling him a jerk. That was true of Abraham Lincoln and it will be true of every president that ever serves. And it is true of every other public role. So, are all these people responsible, before they worship, to contact every person who has something against them? That would be impossible, it seems.
But it's not our inability to see how it would work that raises the question. It's the context. Go back 14 verses to verse 9. There Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Yes, and that is what this text is about too. Be a peacemaker before you worship. Be reconciled with those who have something against you, before you bring your Freeing the Future pledge next Sunday.
But then notice what comes next in Matthew 5:10–12:
10 Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness [not sin, but righteousness], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely [not truly], on account of Me. 12 Rejoice, and be glad [that is, don't let your conscience be troubled as if you were guilty of their hostility], for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Now this is remarkable. What Jesus says is that sometimes people will hold something against you when they shouldn't—insulting you, persecuting you, saying all kinds of evil against you falsely. What do you do in such circumstances? Do you stop worshiping as long as someone feels like this about you?
If so, Jesus would never have been able to worship in the latter years of his life. He was constantly opposed. They sought to trip him up in his speech. They tried to kill him. They tried to shame him. Was he responsible for this? Not only that, he said that the same would be true for his disciples. In Matthew 24:9 he said, "You will be hated by all nations on account of my name." In other words, "If you are faithful to me, somebody will always have something against you."
"So Far as It Depends on You"
So what does Jesus mean in Matthew 5:23–24? I think he means, "If you remember in this week that someone has something against you because you have wronged them, then as much as it depends on you, try to be reconciled." Humble yourself. Reach out.
You can hear two qualifications of Jesus' words that I see in the context.
- We are only responsible for what others hold against us when it is owing to real sin or blundering on our part.
- We are responsible to pursue reconciliation, but live
with the pain if it does not succeed. In other words, we are not
responsible to make reconciliation happen.
Paul says in Romans 12:18, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." So far as it depends on you. Jesus took every step required of a human being to make matters right with his enemies (he never sinned), and still they had things against him and were not reconciled to him.
There are numerous other questions raised by this text. But let me close this morning with the pressing question about what we shall do with this word from the Lord this week.
Reconciliation Is Harder Than Donation
The acceptability of our pledges next Sunday morning hangs in part on whether we will obey this text this week. To be willing to pledge $20,000 next Sunday, but be unwilling to make a hard phone call to a person you have wronged would not be pleasing to the Lord.
So there are three questions all of us should ask ourselves in a spirit of prayer and openness to the Lord:
- If someone has something against me, is it owing to something I should not have done or should not have said? Is it owing to something I should have done or should have said, but didn't? In other words, have I wronged someone?
- If I am to blame, have I taken sufficient steps to be reconciled?
- If not, am I willing to humble myself and make the contact before I make my pledge next Sunday?
Do you know why God will be pleased if we all do that this week? Because human reconciliation is much harder than financial donation. So if God gives us the grace to do the harder thing, he will get more glory next Sunday when we come with a clear conscience to do the easier thing.