“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; there is enjoyment when people receive what people 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 the Star Wars series of films, people like stories where people get even.
Looking at the Gospel reading, Jesus explicitly rules out revenge – destroying one’s enemies is specifically excluded. It is a teaching people probably don’t find too challenging, people are not movie characters and are unlikely to leap into action to exact revenge on those who have wronged them. Most people are more likely to be the sort of people who bear a grudge, people with a sense of resentment at treatment at the hands, not of enemies, but of the people around. People might not take physical action, they might look for other ways to get even with people. They might take delight at them suffering misfortune. If challenged, they might say, “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 the agenda. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.”
Not only should people not be angry, they should take positive steps. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister”, says Jesus and how seriously do people take his words? Where do they stand in their own disputes with people?
Being Christians does not mean being immune to anger and resentment. Sometimes there is even bitterness between churches. Disagreements can become questions about people’s honesty and integrity.Churches, groups that claim to believe in the God of the universe and in Jesus who destroyed the power of death, can become involved in disputes 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 people of their reconciliation with God, but there cannot be true reconciliation with God unless there is reconciliation with those around, 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 people to the extent that they forgive other people; how many times have people said the Lord’s Prayer and paused to think that there are times when they might be praying against themselves—that in asking God to treat them as they have treated others, they might be asking for judgement on themselves?
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”, the class 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 people be prepared to stand before the Lord on the day of judgement and argue that they had the right to continue to be bitter?
Being unreconciled is not just a barrier between people and those around, it is a barrier between people and God. Without reconciliation, worship is not acceptable because it does not come from our heart, it says to God that people have not listened to the words of Jesus.
Getting even is fine for stories, it is fine for the movies; it is not fine for Christians. With whom do people have to settle our disputes? If they are not prepared to settle disputes, not prepared to set aside bitterness and resentment, how shall they answer to God?