First, Be Reconciled

What tops Jesus' list of commandments? It's one from the heart - Make friends and seek reconciliation.

Full Text: 

Matthew 5:21-37

There is a Jewish story about a boy who refused to study the Torah – the laws of Moses.  His parents loved him very much.  They were distressed by this because they were very faithful.  So, they lectured and they ordered.  They pleaded and they threatened.  They persuaded and they prodded.  But nothing worked.  Their son simply refused to study the laws of Moses – the heart of the Jewish scriptures.

At their wits end, they approached the great rabbi of Studena.  He was renowned for his knowledge of and his passion for the Torah.  They poured out their hearts to him.  At last he said, “Bring him to me.  I will do what I can.”

So, the parents brought their son to see the rabbi.  The rabbi asked the parents to wait outside.  Then the rabbi laid down on the floor of his study and he told the young man to kneel down and place his head on the rabbi’s chest.

The young man had expected a stern lecture, telling him how sinful he was, how disrespectful he was to his parents, to his rabbi and to God.  So, he was so surprised by what the rabbi asked him to do, as strange as it seemed, he did it.  For a long time, the young man knelt there, his head on the rabbi’s chest.  The only thing he could hear was the beating of the great teacher’s heart.

At the end of the day, the rabbi told him to go home.  From that day on, the young man wanted to do nothing but study the laws of Moses.  After he himself had become a great rabbi, someone asked him how he had come to love the Bible.

He replied, “The rabbi of Studena taught me the meaning of Torah.”

The true meaning of the laws of Moses lies in the heart.  This is what the great rabbi of Studena teaches.  This is also what the great rabbi of Nazareth teaches.  More than this, Jesus teaches us, the law is not about outward conformity, but rather about inner transformation – the transformation of the heart.

This is contrary to the way the law is practiced in Jesus’ day by the scribes and Pharisees.  At best, they seem to use the law simply as a way of avoiding doing anything wrong, and, at worst, they use the law to appear righteous in other people’s eyes.  Yet Jesus teaches us that the purpose of the law is much more than this.  The purpose of the law is to teach us compassion, so that we might not only be salt and light in the world, but that we may know that the kingdom of heaven is truly at hand.

The first issue of the heart that Jesus addresses is the matter of anger.  Fulfilling the commandment, “You shall not murder,” is more than a matter of avoiding killing anyone.  You can mistreat people far short of killing them.  You can treat them with contempt, calling them, “Fool!” and, “Idiot!”  If you do, warns Jesus, you will suffer for it.

At first, we easily think that Jesus is raising the command against murder to impossible levels.  Instead, what Jesus teaches us is to be aware of what is going on in our hearts and to seek understanding of what is within our hearts.  This will open opportunities to regard ourselves and others with compassion, rather than contempt. 

I have to admit that those are two of my favorite words when I am angry at someone.  It may be someone driving down the Beltline who cuts me off.  It may be some politician I read about.  It may be a video I see on-line about a news media personality.  That kind of anger is wonderfully gratifying, of course.  It allows me to foster the illusion that I am superior to that person.  But that kind of feeling is really a kind of prison, a kind of hell, because it cuts me off from other people.

With all the talk about civil discourse in the weeks since the shooting in Phoenix, can you imagine how much our talking with each other might improve if we not only stopped using those words, but forsook that kind of attitude with each other?  What difference would it make if we prayed for one another, especially those we disagree with most strongly?

So, the solution is not to make a stronger law about demeaning language.  The solution is to look in our hearts and see what is there.  Is there anger in our hearts?  Is there fear in our hearts?  Is there pain in our hearts?  What is behind that anger, that fear, that pain?  And can we look at our own hearts with compassion?

If this all sounds a bit too introspective for you, I think Jesus’ advice boils down to this: Make friends and seek reconciliation.  And seeking reconciliation is even more important than worshipping God.  “So when you are offering your gift at the altar,” Jesus says, “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; then come and offer your gift.”

I recently finished a book called, The Four Things That Matter Most, by Dr. Ira Byock.  He has been an emergency room doctor and for many years has worked in the fields of palliative care and hospice care.  He writes:

Ask a man who is being wheeled into transplant surgery or a woman facing chemotherapy for the third time what’s on his or her mind and the answer will always involve the people they love.  Always.

The specter of death reveals our relationships to be our most precious possessions.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve met people in my office, an emergency room, or a hospice program who have expressed deep regret over things they wish they had said before a grandparent, parent, sibling, or friend died.  They can’t change what was, but without fail their regrets have fueled a healthy resolve to say what needs to be said before it’s too late – to clear away hurt feelings, to connect in profound ways with the people who mean the most to them. (p. 4)

What are the four things that Dr. Byock believes people who care about each other need to say? Please forgive me; I forgive you; Thank you; and I love you.  And he says that these words can improve our relationships and our lives now.  We don’t need to wait until someone is dying.

You may be glad for words to say what needs to be said.  Or you may think, “I could never say those words to that person.  They’ve hurt me too badly.” 

First, let me say that, when we withhold forgiveness from someone else, we’re not hurting them. We’re hurting ourselves.  It is our own resentment that we are holding on to.  It may satisfy our need for revenge.  It may even help us to feel superior to that person.  But it’s not really hurting them and it’s not really helping us.  Resentment is an unhealthy diet.

Second, I’m not advising to run immediately to that difficult person and say these things.  Say them to yourself first.  Please forgive me; I forgive you; thank you; I love you.  Say them within yourself to that person. Please forgive me; I forgive you; thank you; I love you.  Say all four of them – as hard as it may seem – even if you can’t stand that person and see no hope of ever being reconciled with that person.  I’m not talking about being best friends with this person.  I’m talking about being reconciled.  I’m talking about leaving the hell that is within you. 

Begin to say these four things.  Please forgive me; I forgive you; thank you; I love you.  Then see what happens in you.  Do you sense a lightening, a loosening in your heart?  Do you sense an opening within yourself to more possibilities in your relationship with that person – possibilities beyond anger and resentment and distance – possibilities that include reconnecting with that person in some way?  That is the kingdom of heaven.

The fulfillment of the law is not merely in avoiding doing bad things, like murder and name calling and anger.  It is in doing good things.  At the top of the list is reconciliation – first, be reconciled. 

That is not merely the work of the law.  It is the work of the heart.  It is the teaching of Jesus.