In the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ says something that has long puzzled me and provoked a great deal of thought: “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.” On the face of it, this is not a particularly complicated passage to understand. What Jesus Christ seems to be saying is that we cannot properly show honor or appreciation to God when our relationships with other people are not right. It suggests that our ability to practically apply love and respect for others is the sort of gate that allows us to have a good relationship with God. On the face of it, this seems like a rather alarming implication to draw from the scriptures, and so before we discuss this implication further, it would be worth discussing whether there are other passages that deal with these same concerns, to see if our vertical relationship with God is dependent on our horizontal relationship with our brothers and sisters on this earth.
1 John 2:9-11 indicates that this is a fair interpretation in its own discussion about our need to love others: “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” This would seem to suggest, like the Sermon on the Mount, that our ability to walk in the truth and the light depends on our love for other people. If we hate our brothers, that is, those who like us are living in the Spirit, whose walk is blameless and upright, then we cannot have the relationship with God that we want, because we hate those who are the people of God. When we love other people–not necessarily like them, but that we want what is best for them, and we treat them justly and with compassion and understanding–then our practice in love for the imperfect people around us allows us to love God in heaven above.
It is striking as well that a familiar passage in the minor prophets, Micah 6:6-8, makes the same point, albeit in slightly different language: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Here we see that in the language of the sacrificial system Micah discusses the fact that God does not desire physical sacrifices, but is more concerned with our behavior and with the state of our mind, our heart, and our spirit. Our behavior with others, whether we are just in our dealings, whether we are merciful and understanding towards others, and whether we walk humbly, determines our state with God. We cannot compartmentalize our lives so that we may have a strong relationship with God without applying His ways in our dealings with other people here on this earth.
What does this mean for us? I am a person who tends to devote a great deal of time and energy to service. I also see around me others who do the same. I believe that this service ought to be commended and appreciated , but it comes with a caveat that I feel at some pains to comment upon. If we serve God out of a desire to serve God’s people, and seek what is best for even those who act badly for us, then our service is to be appreciated. If we serve God as a way to avoid loving and serving others, that is a far more troublesome matter. I know that as someone who has had more than my share of difficulties with other people, I know I have spent a great deal of time and effort and agonizing reflection looking at my own motives with service. At times, one is feeling miserable about a problem and one simply does the best that one can despite one’s feelings, knowing that one desires to be right with others, that it is not within one’s power to do so, and that one has to do one’s best anyway. Sometimes we can want things to be the best but they are not because others do not wish it so, for one reason or another, but where our own hearts are not clouded by hatred for others. I would like to think, for my own sake, that our prayers are not hindered and our service is well regarded when our hearts are in the right place and we are obeying God, even if we have difficulties in our lives. That said, if we hate others, the Bible is pretty strikingly clear that God will not regard our acts of sacrifice. Let us therefore make sure that, to the greatest extent possible, no one has any just cause to have anything against us.
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