“Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
The devotions for Trinity 6 have been rather lengthy, but this is the Sermon on the Mount! Each verse is loaded with questions, challenges, and profundity. Jesus is casting His seed into hardened hearts. Seeds are simple, yet no scientist can replicate them. A seed will break apart concrete by its subtle ways. Lengthy thoughts on Jesus’ words are a way of allowing the seed to do its thing. It’s what, in fact, genuine meditation is. The profundity of each “jot and tittle” of Jesus’ words could never be exhausted, insofar as they teach eternal truths.
That being said, hopefully the current meditation will be briefer than others.
Jesus introduces the altar in this passage. Some think He’s speaking contextually, to temple-goers for whom the altar was a thing. The millenialists believe Jesus is talking about the future temple Jesus will restore once Israel is restored. Both views remove the New Testament Church, to whom Matthew is clearly writing.
Jesus references the altar because the altar was and remains an element of the Church’s spiritual architecture. Hebrews says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.” And Revelation refers to “the altar” seven times.
The altar is the place of sacrifice for sins, and Jesus certainly is a sacrifice for our sins. Where is His sacrifice made real for us, but where the words “Given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins” are proclaimed on the elements testifying to the sacrifice?
Also, Jesus talks about “leaving a gift” at the altar. Do we “leave gifts” at the altar at church? Well, of course we do. It’s called the offering, which is marched up to the altar each week. We also leave sacrifices of thanksgiving there, and indeed, the focal point of the Christian liturgy is the altar. Even the pulpit, like John the Baptist, stands to the side of the altar, pointing over to it as the focal point.
Jesus introduces the altar as the focal point of worship, but more importantly, again, brings up the attitude of the heart about how the altar should be approached. It’s a place of reconciliation.
Of course it is! Jesus has made it so. Jesus has made it a place where brothers are brought together in peace. He first forgives us, and that forgiveness then overflows our hearts to our neighbors.
Jesus speaks in an interesting way about the one going to the altar. He doesn’t say, “If you have something against your brother,” but “If you remember your brother has something against you.” That suggests you’ve sinned against him, meaning you need to confess your sins not just to God, but to him.
In the context, He may mean that you’ve sinned against him by calling him fool, or by being angry at him. You’ve wronged him. But worse, you may have wronged him in such a way that he doesn’t deem himself worthy to be at the altar. By calling him “fool,” you’ve condemned him. This is the sort of “sin” Jesus says can cause a man to stumble, or fall away from the faith, and which can incur God’s wrath upon you. Simple meanness toward one another is daily, forgivable fare, but representing the Church in such a way that keeps people from the altar is damnable.
So, your mission isn’t so much “be reconciled with the brethren before going to the altar,” but rather, “Change your theology around so that your brother knows clearly God’s love and forgiveness for those who repent and turn to him.”
The altar must be a place of reconciliation. Jesus’ blood has made it so. The one whose behavior keeps others from the altar has abused Christ’s blood. And that, yes, is damnable.