By Nicholas Zork
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)
For over five decades, the popular televised game show, Jeopardy, has provided contestants with answers and challenged them to discern the questions behind them. Lately, I’ve been engaging in a little theological Jeopardy, trying to identify the questions behind the theological “answers” I keep offering and the “answers” we regularly put forth as an Adventist community. It’s been an unsettling process. So many of these “answers” — usually in the form of advice about better thinking and better living — reveal a pervasive fear regarding an unspoken yet persistent question: how can we be good enough for God?
I’ve tried to answer this question many times — although I didn’t recognize what I was doing. I can’t remember a time when I actually believed that becoming “good enough” was a necessary or worthy pursuit. If explicitly asked, I would have always said that God loves us the way we are, imperfect people created in God’s image, and that the grace of a loving God is sufficient for us all. But somehow this usually unstated “answer” never satisfied my underlying insecurity that I was, in fact, not good enough and needed to be better. And so inadvertently the question of how I could be better continued to shape the “answers” I found in Scripture.
Recently, I was reading over a sermon I once preached about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 on reconciliation. I was pretty shocked by my interpretation. Jesus says, “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.” I concluded, in short, that if we want to be reconciled with God, we need to be reconciled with our sisters and brothers first. I can’t imagine I actually believed that. And in a closing verbal footnote, I contradicted myself (positively) by claiming that God’s reconciling work in Christ enables our reconciliation with one another. But the overall thrust of my message was precisely in the opposite direction: namely, don’t bother offering your gifts to God until you’re reconciled with others because God doesn’t want your thanks until you make things right with other people. Without intending to, I was basically teaching that we have to earn acceptance by God through better behavior. I guess I thought dangling God’s love like the proverbial carrot before a donkey was a good motivator, but I was profoundly misguided. Fear that God doesn’t love and accept us is a terrible motivator. First of all, it isn’t true; and lies are never a good reason to act. Secondly, God’s unfailing, stubborn love for us all is the reason we are able to love others. God’s reconciliation with us in Christ is what makes it possible for us to reconcile with our family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. We do not accept and love others so that God will accept and love us but because we have already been accepted and loved beyond measure.
As a parent of two young girls, the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 is now quite obvious to me. I imagine that one day, one of my daughters will offend the other. Being a reasonable young lady, she will imagine that there will be consequences for her poor behavior. We’re raising our daughters to be proactive, so she might take preventative measures and come to me while the dispute with her sister is still unresolved. Because she’s smart, she’ll probably bring a gift of some kind (her very presence is a gift so this will not be difficult). But I hope that I will have learned something from Jesus. I hope that I’ll remind her of what she should already know. I hope I’ll say, “Don’t worry about me. We’re good. Our relationship is secure. You couldn’t make me stop loving you if you tried. I’m worried about your sister. Go tell her you’re sorry and make things right. You’re already accepted by me.”
If we come to worship God with our gifts of praise while ignoring those we’ve hurt, Jesus tells us to leave those gifts and go. But it’s not for the reason I once thought. Jesus invites us to make things right with others not so that we can be right with God but because we already are. Essentially, Jesus is saying “Don’t worry about me. We’re good. Our relationship is secure. You couldn’t make me stop loving you if you tried. I’m worried about your sister. Go tell her you’re sorry and make things right. You’re already accepted by me.” This is the Gospel. And it has the power to lovingly transform our lives, our relationships and this world. Fear about where we stand will God will never inspire love. It simply can’t. But God’s perfect love can cast out all fear and leave emotional, spiritual space for us, imperfect as we may be, to love as we are loved.