A lot is going on this Gospel passage that we heard from Matthew this morning. This passage comes at the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount and is often overlooked. Jesus speaks about confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but he also speaks of adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths. These are all challenging passages in our 21st-century lives under the best of circumstances, let alone the worst. We can overlook so much as long as we can get what we want. Justification is not a spiritual virtue.
But this morning, I want us to consider this idea of confession, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
One of the greatest joys of my pastoral ministry has been helping people reconcile with others. Bringing people together who, for whatever reason, have been estranged some of them for years. It takes a certain amount of boldness on the part of both people to be reconciled to one another, and there needs to be a certain amount of forgiveness on both sides.
Just as I believe that love is at the center of our spiritual lives as Christians, this idea of forgiveness needs to be right there alongside love.
“Therefore, 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.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
“If you are offering your gift at the altar.” You have heard me mention before about the Jewish law concerning forgiveness and reconciliation. People were required to bring an offering for sacrifice; the size depended on the size of the sin. The more sins, the more offerings one had to bring. Jesus ended all of that by offering himself as a sacrifice, in a spiritual sense for all that we have or will do. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice, the lamb that was slain for us, but that does not mean it ends there.
The gift we have, the gift we bring is our lives. Each time we come here to the Temple, if you will, we offer ourselves as a gift to God. “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.” We come here, with others, to give of ourselves; time, talent, and treasure for the work of the Kingdom of God. But before we can do that, we need to be reconciled with others, not just the ones nearby.
“If you 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.” First, go and be reconciled.
Last week, I spoke about the need to love our enemies for perfect love demands that we love all. Several of you came to me after and talked about how difficult it is to love certain people, and I am right there with you. I will remind you that Jesus commanded we have to love them; he said nothing about liking them, and there is a difference. We are commanded to love everyone because we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and we have that Divine Spark in each of us. We love them because, the wretches that we are, God loves us.
One of my favorite social justice warriors is Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy believed is radical forgiveness and reconciliation, and she used to tell those working with her, “If each of us could just remember that we are all created in the image of God, then we would naturally want to love more.”
But what about forgiveness? Forgiving someone has nothing to do with the other person. Forgiveness is all about you. When someone has harmed you in some way until you forgive them, that person holds a piece of you captive; they control a part of your life. We cannot move on from a situation or begin to heal until we have forgiven. And the key thing to remember is it does not matter if the person asks for forgiveness or even acknowledges that they were wrong. The other person may not even know you were harmed; it does not matter. Forgiveness is for you. Forgives us as we forgive others.
But just like love does not equal like, forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness does not mean we do not want to see justice served; forgiveness releases the hold the other person or the situation has on you so you can begin to heal. What the other person does with it is up to them, not to you.
Several years ago, out of the blue, I received a letter from someone I went to middle and high school with. We were in the same class, but we were not friends by any definition. This kid was kind of a jerk and bully. Well, it seems he had an addiction problem and was working through the steps of recovery. As you know, one of the steps is making amends for everyone he had harmed in the past. His letter to me, asking forgiveness, was part of that step.
The funny thing is, I had forgotten all about what a jerk and bully this kid was until he sent me the letter but, I had no choice but to accept his forgiveness. I wrote him back and thanked him and told him I forgave him. I still think he is a jerk, by the way, but I have forgiven him. My only hope is that my forgiveness paved the way for him to forgive himself; most people who are bullies are bullies because they do not like themselves and that he found some comfort from my words.
There are some people that we may never be able to forgive, and that is fine, none of us are perfect. But the most significant person we need to forgive is ourselves. We are our own harshest critic, and we need to fall in love with ourselves again. Forgive us as we forgive others.
I just want to say a few words about anger. From time to time, people mention to me how angry a particular political figure makes them. I truly understand the sentiment, but my response to them, and to myself is, no one makes you mad you let yourself get angry. Anger, my friends, is a sin.
“And if your right-hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30)
If you find yourself getting angry, walk away, change the channel, sing a rousing verse of Kumbyya, take a walk, do something to calm yourself because acting out of anger is never good. It’s okay to be upset about situations and desire change, and most change comes from a place of being upset about situations. Still, we cannot let that turn to anger because anger, just like withholding forgiveness, is destructive to the soul. You are the only one who can control how you let yourself react in situations, and it is no one’s fault but yours.
In the end, we have Jesus as an example. Hanging on the cross, we looked down and saw the Roman soldiers casting lots for his garments. Just a few moments before that, these same men nailed him to that cross and raised him up. Jesus looked upon them, his executioners, and asked his Father to forgive them. I am almost certain none of them heard his voice or even cared what he was saying, but Jesus offered forgiveness before he offered himself as a gift. Think about that, Jesus forgave the very people that had just killed him…. That is the example he wants us to follow.