Monday, June 3, 2013

Hallway Sacrifices


Have you ever been in a frustrating situation—the kind that sometimes keeps you up at night? It wreaks havoc on your focus and productivity and makes other areas of your life harder to handle. I’ve been there.

During times like these, I’ve been told to focus on my own reactions and my own emotional wellbeing. Friends have advised me to dive into other projects—writing and hobbies—to take my mind off of things. After all, it’s not wise to let other people control your life. All of this advice is good, and—believe me—I’ve tried these tactics. It’s just not always that easy to compartmentalize, and it’s not often I have too much control over when parts of my life overlap.

I’ve tried to think about times when things have been the other way around—when something I’ve done has probably been a source of severe frustration for someone else. I must admit that it’s more difficult to remember those times, probably because when it’s the case, the issue is someone else’s problem. It’s easy to pretend we’re taking some sort of moral high ground by rationalizing that if the other person had it more together or were more spiritual, they wouldn’t get so bothered by it all. After all, it’s their problem to deal with, not ours.

Not too long ago, I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount, and one particular passage struck me—that part about leaving your sacrifice on the altar if you remember some reason your brother might be angry with you. It’s Matthew 5:23.

I was thinking about my current situation and how I wished that other Christians took these verses to heart. We are so ready to justify ourselves that we rarely think we’re the one who needs to drop our sacrifice on the temple floor and run out of the room to make amends. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

Jesus said that it would be better if we would go and reconcile with the person we’ve wronged in order to avoid the payback they might exact. All in all, sound advice. The problem is we rarely think that such payback will ever happen or that it’s deserved. I’ll speak for myself and say I regularly make it a habit to justify my own actions as naturally as I make it a habit to breathe. That’s when Jesus words become just good advice, and not something necessary to follow Him.

This time, however, when I was reading this passage, I was shot in the face by the words that came before. Jesus had just compared anger to murder, saying, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22, ESV). He goes so far as to say that anyone who calls someone else a fool will be worthy of hellfire. This seems so extreme to our modern American ears; I’ve been called far worse things in traffic on my way to work.

Then we come to our passage about leaving our sacrifices in the hallway in order to make peace with those we may have wronged. Here’s what I hadn’t noticed before: The person who’s angry—the one that Jesus just said would be in danger of condemnation—is the one who’s been wronged, not the one did the wronging. So, there’s bad news for everyone. If you do something horrible to someone else, they may take vengeance on you, but if someone does something inexcusable to you and you get angry, you might be setting yourself up for fire and brimstone. There’s retribution, anger, and violence in a nice, never-ending circle. Fun all around.

Jesus’ point is simple: It’s everyone’s responsibility to live at peace with everyone else, and this peace is not just a peace that simply avoids others. It’s a shalom of perfect harmony—of reconciliation and restoration. It’s the kind of thing Paul described when he wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

How our behavior affects other people cannot simply be their problem. It’s our problem too. Just before Jesus began talking about all this anger and hellfire and setting aside sacrifices, He said this to his disciples and the listening crowds: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Again, that sounds particularly harsh to modern ears, but Jesus was speaking out against the kind of “righteousness” that follows the letter of the law, but ignores the heart of God.

I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I know that conflicts carry consequences, and both stand in stark contrast to the kingdom that Jesus brought. Every time we feel the sting of mistreatment or anger, we fall back into the old world, while the new world Jesus described seems just out of reach. Resolution brings peace, and peace is the order of the day in God’s new creation.

Normally with a post like this, I would urge readers to make peace with anyone they may have wronged and with anyone who may have wronged them. But that seems too easy, like I’m casting a stone of good intentions out the window of my glass house. 

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