“I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement” Matthew 5:22
Vengeance is a popular theme in entertainment; we enjoy it when people receive what we regard as their just desserts. Think of how many television programmes there are where someone is wronged, but waits and finds an opportunity to get revenge. Think how many films work up to a finale where the hero triumphs and the villain is vanquished. The most successful films often have a vengeance theme – think about Star Wars, think about Lord of the Rings – we like stories where people get even.
When we look at the Gospel reading, Jesus explicitly rules our revenge – destroying one’s enemies is specifically excluded. It is a teaching we probably don’t find too challenging, we are not movie characters and are unlikely to leap into action to exact revenge on those who have wronged us. We are more likely to be people who bear a grudge, people with a sense of resentment at our treatment at the hands of not of enemies, but of the people around us. While we might not take physical action, we might look for other ways to get even with people. We might take delight at them suffering misfortune. Isn’t that all right? Isn’t it OK to expect to see what we think is justice?
Well, Jesus says it’s not. Jesus says getting even should not be on our agenda. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.”
Not only should we not be angry, we should take positive steps. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister”, says Jesus and how seriously do we take his words? Where do we stand in our own disputes with people?
Being Christians does not make us immune to anger and resentment. Sometimes there is even bitterness between churches. 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, but it had snowballed into questions about people’s honesty and integrity. 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 a dispute that had begun with something trivial,a dispute that might have been settled at once by simple words of apology.
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 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. Would we be prepared to stand before the Lord on the day of judgement and argue that we had the right to continue to be bitter?
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, it says to God that we have not listened to the words of Jesus.
Getting even is fine for stories, is fine for the movies; it is not fine for us. With whom do we have to settle our disputes? If we are not prepared to settle disputes, not prepared to set aside bitterness and resentment, how shall we answer to God?