The effect of forgiveness (or the lack of it) in homes, workplaces, churches and all human relationships is inestimable. Everything good and productive stops when people won’t forgive! Anger creates alienation and alliances against one another. Reputations suffer; friendships and trust decay; hope is ruined.
This kind of destructive behavior isn’t particular to humans. Deer have been found dead of starvation because they stubbornly, angrily locked horns and couldn’t disengage. Anger kills!
Jesus said much in His teaching about heaven and how to be right with God; He said much more about being right with each other.
Jesus thought living reconciled to God and people, was so vitally-important to life that he even put forgiving others and receiving others’ forgiveness above worship. He warned his disciples (and us) to reconcile with others before going to church to praise God.
In the three short verses of our text are some very important things Jesus said about forgiving that can change our lives in every possible way:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)
It’s a “no-brainer” to hear in church that we need to be forgiven by God; we have all sinned! It also doesn’t take much to remind us that there are some unkind people out there that need our forgiveness for the awful things they’ve done to us.
But the rub usually comes when someone tries to get us to see that we need their forgiveness. The real brawl comes when they have the hubris to imply we need to apologize or ask for their forgiveness! The truth be told, each one of us has “blind spots”, ways that we have offended others.
And don’t forget that part concerning someone “having something against you”….it works the other way too; when you have something against someone else you’d better run from the altar to make it right. Offender or offendee, everybody needs forgiveness.
Two decades ago I had a staff member whose spouse passed-along a false rumor she’d heard about our family. It deeply offended me. I wasn’t angry; I was furious. Our lives were turned upside down. I lit into my staff member, my friend; families parted, estranged.
I thought I had worked through all the anger. Then, this week, just as I was reading an old book on this passage to prepare this sermon, an old picture of that staff member fell out of the book. All the feelings suddenly returned, and I knew immediately that I’d never really asked him for forgiveness for taking out my anger on him. I made the call and now two old men are once again friends.
We all need to be forgiven, and we also need to extend forgiveness; Jesus said so! He also said…
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Matthew 5:25 (NRSV)
Your legacy is what you leave behind. And in relationships, both spiritually, and with family and your community, what legacy you leave depends on the forgiveness you’re willing to extend and receive. The “judge” Jesus mentioned in our text is not some Superior or Supreme Court judge; He’s talking about the Father.
When you mention legacy and forgiveness in the same breath you have to think of Joseph. Joseph was thrown into the pit, sold into slavery….by his brothers! In the end he didn’t spew bitterness, he extended forgiveness.
You have to think of Esau and Jacob, but particularly Esau. When Jacob stole his brother’s blessing and birthright Esau swore he’d kill him. Twenty years later he had the opportunity, but instead Esau welcomed his lying brother home with open arms. The testimony of that was out of Jacob’s own lips: …for truly seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. (Genesis 33:10 NRSV)
Perhaps the best Old Testament example of all is the Prodigal son. In one immature, poor decision he squandered his inheritance and good name. When he came back he deserved to be ridiculed and rejected. If his brother had any say in the matter he would’ve also been hung!
But the father welcomed him back from the pigpen with open arms; he put a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet and a royal robe on his back. Then he threw the biggest party the county had ever seen. He was forgiven!
“Reconciliation” is what Paul called it; this is the ministry of the church. Forgiveness is the work of this reconciliation. Today the world is anything but reconciled in peace. Anger, harshness and retaliation rule the day. And, sadly, it is hardly any better in the church. No wonder Jesus wept!
The world needs a message of reconciliation in this dark hour; they need to know how a Savior died to set us free from the darkness. The best chance they have of seeing that is in how we treat one another!
What will we do with that?
Will we continue in the dark?
Will we continue our squabbles and anger and division?
Or will we offer these hearts of ours to God and each other, with weeping, tears and repentance at the altar?
God is willing to mend our brokenness; what will we do?