Reading: Matthew 5:21-26
I have been stalling in writing this piece mostly because I think I have misinterpreted this passage for a long time, and I have been praying to God for enlightenment. I have turned to my life-application study Bible, and, still feeling not fully satisfied with the explanation, I just waited. I read the passage again, then a moment of enlightenment. No need to delay anymore….
1. Verses 21 to 22 refer to someone who is angry. That could be anyone. We get angry with people when they do something that disappoint or frustrate us, and mostly when they wrong us. We could get to the point wherein we want to strike back, to punish, to get even. Resentment, contempt, bitterness—these are like a gangrene that consumes our person. And that is enough to bring us to judgment, and be in danger of the fire of hell. That’s what Jesus said.
I couldn’t help thinking about how God in the Old Testament kept being stirred to anger. Or Jesus overturning the merchants’ tables at the temple courts, calling Herod a “fox”, and the Pharisees “hypocrites”. But God is slow to anger, abounding in love, compassion and grace (Psalm 103:8), and his anger is righteous. And on the cross, Jesus asked the Father to forgive his executioners “for they know not what they do”. That is different from my anger. Mine could have started as a righteous one (e.g., How could people slander? How could people believe lies and take the wrong side?), but end up enough to bring me to judgment.
2. Verses 23 to 24 say “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (NIV) This verse refers to the offender. For a long time I have confused this with the one who was offended. I was thinking—do I go to the person who has offended me and say, “I’m sorry I have hated you so much for so long because of what you have done”? That statement never goes down well with a self-righteous offender. It’s bound to create more argument. What about the person who doesn’t know s/he has offended me? Do I go to him/her and say, “I’m sorry, you don’t know this, but I have resented you because of something you have done”? It may be a reason for that person, who thought we were all right with each other, to turn away from me. What could have been a smooth relationship (from that person’s view) may then be the start of a falling-out. Can I have the option to just forgive quietly, move on and enjoy the “un-interrupted” relationship?
I will leave those questions above un-answered because I do not know the answers, and because v.23 talks about the offender who knows s/he has offended somebody. As an offender, I have an obligation to make sure that I am not endangering the person I have hurt into judgment or the fire of hell. Remember what Jesus said in Luke 17:1-2? “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (NIV). How grave is that! The Lord would rather have me be thrown into the sea (and stay at the bottom for good)!
3. If verses 21 to 22 refer to consequences in the afterlife, verses 25 to 26 of Matthew 5 refer to the probable immediate consequences for the offender—from the example that Jesus gave: a court case. By settling matters quickly, we also avoid an immediate earthly consequence.
4. Now that I have looked into Luke 17:1-2, I think I also have found already the answer to my questions in number 2: Luke 17:3-4: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (NIV)
rebuke, verb: admonish, castigate, censure, reprehend, reproach, reprove, scold, upbraid (The Oxford Popular Dictionary)
For the offended, there is also the responsibility to correct the offender. I think there is an art to delivering a rebuke: timing (immediate, preferably I think, as how I read Luke 17:3-4) and tact. And if the offender does not ask for forgiveness? Forgive, anyway. Jesus died 2,000 years ago—even before we were born and before we sinned, even before we asked for forgiveness. The forgiveness is there, just waiting to be claimed. We outgrow our relationship with people—even with those we have not fallen out with. And outgrowing a relationship with those who have offended us still does not make us incapable of nor give us an excuse for not loving and extending our compassion and grace.
If you are hurting, remember: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4). And just forgive. Sometimes the devil comes to steal our peace by reminding us of our past hurts and making us forget that we have already forgiven. But as Martin Luther said: “You can’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair”. And in the new earth (with Satan banished forever), we won’t even be reminded of our aggrieved past.
See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. – Isaiah 65:17 (NIV)