‘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
The undertakers had done a very good job; a slight black mark on the right temple was the only sign of what had occurred.
‘She says she’s having his car; it’s not hers, I’m his ma’.
‘His girlfriend says she’s keeping his car. She has it at the house where they were living’.
‘Well, I said to her that there was no way that she was having that car. That I was his rightful next of kin and that it was mine’.
‘When he was dying he was crying out for me, crying out for his mother he was’.
There was the temptation to point out that people who put a handgun to their right temple and pull the trigger don’t generally have a chance to cry out for anyone.
The girlfriend was as bad.
‘This was an accident; don’t be listening to what they’re saying. He was cleaning that gun and it went off. He and I were getting married, that’s why his ma didn’t like me’.
The funeral was bleak: prayers in the front room of the mother’s house, with the coffin lying open, followed by burial in a cemetery swept by a biting wind. The two groups of mourners stood either side of the grave like opposing rugby packs; the mother and family members to the right and the girlfriend and her companions to the left. They glared at each other like a pair of heavyweight boxers squaring up for a fight.
At the end of the burial prayers, the girlfriend went to throw a bunch of red roses into the grave. The wind was so strong that they were carried aside and ended strewn over the pile of muddy soil that would soon cover the coffin.
The argument picked up where it had left off. The baffling thing was that neither of them could drive, maybe the car was the only thing of cash value.
Even more than two decades later it still seems astonishing that people might carry their arguments to a graveside. The car seemed the focal point of a deep-rooted animosity which would leave no winner. Exchanging insults would not bring back to life the son of the one and the boyfriend of the other.
‘Be reconciled to your brother or sister’, says Jesus in the Gospel reading and how seriously do we take his words? We might regard the dispute between the late man’s mother and his girlfriend as so extreme that no one could be that bad, but where do we stand in our own disputes with people?
Stories of churches where people have been at war with each other for years are always troubling. There was a country parish in the North where the two churches in the parish were in a state of constant conflict; the row had started years before when one had borrowed a ladder from the other and had not returned it. It seemed ridiculous that churches, groups that claimed to believe in the God of the universe and in Jesus who destroyed the power of death, would go for years and years in dispute over something as silly as a ladder.
Personal disputes can be even more bitter than those in the church and Jesus realizes how deep those disputes can be. He tells people that they should not come to worship unless they have first settled their disputes; even if it means going through the humbling experience of actually leaving worship to go and say ‘sorry’, then that is what they must do.
‘Be reconciled to your brother or sister’, says Jesus. The Cross is a reminder that reconciliation has two dimensions. The upward dimension reminds us of our reconciliation with God, but there cannot be true reconciliation with God unless there is reconciliation with those around us, the Cross is horizontal as well as vertical.
The point made in these verses is repeated in Jesus’ teaching of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. God is asked to forgive us to the extent that we forgive other people; how many times have we said the Lord’s Prayer and paused to think that there are times when we might be praying against ourselves—that we in asking God to treat us as we have treated others, we might be asking for judgment?
In schooldays the teacher would say that no-one ever won an argument. It always seemed an odd thing to teach to people. ‘Of course people win arguments’, we would think. As the years passed it became clear that the teacher was right, that an opponent might be battered, but that would only cause them to slink away and wait for the moment of revenge. Only reconciliation really settles the pain of the past.
There is the temptation to ask, ‘Why should I be reconciled when the other person was in the wrong?’ But no matter how much things are the other person’s fault, reconciliation has to start with someone. For me, memories of that pale young man lying in his coffin come back sometimes as a warning of where arguments can unwittingly lead.
Being unreconciled is not just a barrier between ourselves and those around us, it is a barrier between ourselves and God. Without reconciliation, our worship is not acceptable because it does not come from our heart. With whom do we have to settle our disputes?