ŇTherefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.Ó Matthew 5:23-24
Here Christ propounds a rule of concord by seeking reconciliation with them whom we have wronged; and it depends upon the former verse, as a consequent and conclusion drawn therefrom, as may appear by the first words, If then, or therefore; as if He had said, If rash anger and the testification thereof, either in gesture or reviling speech, be murder, and deserve condemnation, then we are with all diligence to seek to be reconciled to our brethren whensoever any breach of love is made between them and us.
If thou bring thy gift to the altar
Here Christ alludeth to the JewsŐ manner of worship under the law; which was to offer in the temple sacrifices unto God both of propitiation and thanksgiving. And though Christ here only names this one kind of ceremonial worship, yet under this He comprehendeth all manner of true outward worship, whether legal or evangelical; as if He should say, If thou come to worship God any way, either by offering sacrifices, or by praying unto God, by hearing His Word or receiving the sacraments.
And rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee
That is, that thou hast any way wronged and offended thy brother. This appeareth to be the true meaning by the like words of Mark (Mark 11:15), If thou hast ought against thy brother (meaning for injury done unto thee by him), forgive him; and therefore our brother hath something against us when we have wronged or offended him in word or deed, and he hath knowledge thereof, and just cause thereupon to complain.
Leave there thy gift before the altar
Still He alludeth to the manner of the JewsŐ worship; who, when they went to sacrifice to the Lord, brought their sheep or bullock unto the utter court; or as some think, tied it to the horns of the altar, in token that they presented it unto the Lord. Now if at that very instant they did remember that they had any way offended their brother, then were they to leave their gift there (not quite omitting this duty, but only suspending or deferring it for a while), and go seek to be reconciled to their brother whom they had wronged.
Question: How could this departure be warrantable, seeing the Jews had a law (Ezek. 46:10) that when the service of God was once begun, none might depart, no not the prince himself, till it was ended? Answer: This rule must be understood of departure out of the utter court of the temple, whither the people brought their sacrifice soon after they had presented it, before it was begun to be offered; for till the priests had begun this service, it was lawful for the people to depart, especially upon this occasion.
Question: But what if the party offended cannot possibly come to his brother whom he hath wronged, by reason of his absence in some far country, his close imprisonment, or such like? Answer: He must testify his endeavour to be reconciled unto him; and if the act itself be necessarily hindered by GodŐs providence, God will accept the will for the deed, if there be a willing mind; for this is ChristŐs meaning, that we should do our utmost endeavour to be reconciled unto our brethren whom we have wronged, shewing such care thereof, that we prefer the same before the outward actions of GodŐs worship, not presuming to worship God, till we be reconciled to our brethren.
Here we have a notable rule for the maintaining of love and charity among men; namely, brotherly reconciliation. In the giving whereof Christ still continues His exposition of the sixth commandment; for having condemned murder and the provocations thereunto in the former verse; here He commandeth the contrary virtue of brotherly love, and the means to uphold the same; to wit, reconciliation for offences given.
Out of this rule in general we may observe:
1. First, a third direction to the right expounding and understanding of GodŐs commandments; namely, where any vice is forbidden, there the contrary virtue is commanded; and on the contrary, where any virtue is commanded, there the contrary vice is forbidden. This rule must be observed as a privilege of the law of God, above all human laws; for menŐs laws are satisfied by abstaining from the vice forbidden, though the contrary virtue be not practiced; as he satisfies manŐs law forbidding murder, that abstains from the actual crime, though he love not his brother. But he transgresseth the law of God, that performeth not the contrary virtue, though he abstain from the vice forbidden; for though a man abstain from killing, yet if he do not love his brother, he is guilty of the breach of the sixth commandment; which serves to confute the error of our ignorant people, who because they abstain from murder, adultery and other outward sins, do persuade themselves that they keep the law, and that God will therefore be merciful unto them. But they must know that though they should abstain from the vices forbidden, yet they stand culpable of judgment for want of doing the contrary virtues; for it is not sufficient to abstain from evil, but we must do good, and therefore John Baptist saith (Matt. 3:10), Every tree that bringeth not forth fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire; and the sentence of damnation shall be denounced against the reprobates for their omission of doing good (Matt. 25:42), I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat etc.
2. Secondly, by this rule of reconciliation, it appeareth that the performance of any outward service unto God is displeasing unto Him, if it be separated from the love of our brethren, (Isa. 1:11,12), What have I to do with the multitude of your sacrifices, saith the Lord; and so He proceedeth, rejecting in particular all the service of the Jews, because they lived in envy, debate and oppression. Their hands were full of blood (Isa. 58:5,6). The Lord doth there reprehend the JewsŐ fasting from meats, because they did not withal abstain from strife and oppression; adding withal that refraining from cruelty and doing works of mercy is the fast which He requires; which serves to overthrow the natural conceit of men, who think that the whole worship of God standeth in the duties of the first table. This was indeed the conceit and practice of the Pharisees, whereupon they taught the people (Matt. 15:5) that if they gave oblations to the church, though they relieved not their poor parents, yet God was pleased with them. And the like is the practice of the church of Rome, who in cases of transgression, through want of brotherly love, do not appoint this reconciliation, but auricular confession and canonical satisfaction as matters well pleasing to almighty God. Yea, such is the conceit of our common people, that if they be present at divine service, if they hear the word preached and receive the sacraments at ordinary times, then they have done God good service, and He will respect them, though in their civil conversation they be at enmity with their brethren, or live in such like sins. But we must learn that God is served, not only in the duties of the first table, but of the second also; and that God abhors the duties of piety in such persons as make no conscience of the practice of love and mercy (Jer. 7:9,10), Will you steal, murder, commit adultery etc. and yet come and stand before me in this house, wherein my name is called, and say, We are delivered though we have done all these abominations? As if He should say, Never think it; and therefore if we desire true comfort in our serving of God, let us make conscience to join therewith the practice of mercy towards our brethren.
3. Thirdly, here also we may learn how to behave ourselves before we come to the LordŐs table. If we call to mind, even when we be in the church, that we have any way offended our brother, we must first go and reconcile ourselves unto him, and then come to the LordŐs table. We must not abstain upon the remembrance of our wrongdoing, for so we add sin unto sin, refusing spiritual society with God, because we will retain enmity towards our brother; but seeking reconciliation, we must return to receive the LordŐs sacrament. Which flatly condemns the common practice of many, who abstain from the LordŐs Supper, because they will not seek to be reconciled to their brethren. This argues an heart full stuffed with pride and malice, which prefers its own lust before the will of God; for God commands that the sun go not down upon our wrath; and it is His ordinance we should receive the sacrament to shew forth ChristŐs death, when it is administered by the church, against both which he offendeth that abstaineth, because he is at variance with his brother; for Christ will not have the gift that is brought to be taken away, but there left a while, till reconciliation be made.
4. Fourthly, in this rule of reconciliation, we may see that there be degrees in the duties of GodŐs worship; all are not equal, but some more, and some less necessary. The first and highest degree of holy worship is prescribed in the first commandment, as to love, fear and rejoice in God above all, and to believe in Him, and all His promises. The second degree of holy duties is to love our neighbour as ourselves, to seek peace and reconciliation with them whom we have wronged or offended. Thus much doth Christ here import, in preferring the practice hereof before the offering of sacrifice. The third degree consists in the outward ceremonial duties of GodŐs worship commanded in the first table; as the outward actions of GodŐs worship, and the outward solemnity of the Sabbath; for these give place to the works of love and charity commanded in the second table, and therefore Christ saith, First be reconciled and then offer thy gift.
Now by this distinction of holy duties, we have a good direction for our behaviour; that seeing the love of God and our brethren are the two highest degrees of good works, therefore we are above all things to seek after them, and prefer the doing of them before the outward worship of God; for that we see cometh in the last place. But the practice of men is otherwise; generally they are more forward in outward ceremonies than in the main duties of the love of God and of their brethren; like to the Pharisees (Luke 11:42), who passed over judgment and the fear of God, and were very strict in tithing mint and rue. But this is a preposterous course, and clean contrary to this precept of our Saviour Christ.
Thus much of this rule in general. Now I come to the more particular observations out of the words: Leave thy gift at the altar. Here Christ approveth of this worship of God among the Jews by offering sacrifices; from whence it followeth that sacrificing at the altar, and by proportion other ceremonial worship, was not abrogated either at ChristŐs birth or baptism, for here Christ alloweth of them; and therefore they ceased only at His death, when upon the cross He said (John 19:30), It is finished, then He put out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us (Col. 2:14).
Thy gift; that is thy sacrifice; whereof the Jews had two kinds: Propitiatory and Gratulatory, or of thanksgiving; and they are here called gifts, because in sacrificing the people gave something unto God; in which respect a sacrifice differeth from a sacrament, wherein God gives something unto us. Now the sacrifices of the law, wherein men gave something unto God, signified two things: first, that Christ should give Himself unto His Father for our sins; secondly, that we should wholly give ourselves unto God, both in soul and body, to serve Him; and therefore God saith (Prov. 23:26), My son, give me thy heart; (Rom. 6:13), Give your members as weapons of righteousness unto God, as they that are alive from dead works; (Rom. 12:1), I beseech you brethren, by the mercies of God, that you give up your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God. This we ought to do in token of thankfulness for GodŐs endless mercies; and this we then do, first, when we acknowledge ourselves not to be our own, but GodŐs in Christ; secondly, when we consecrate and dedicate ourselves to the service of God, that both in heart and life we may shew ourselves thankful for our creation, preservation and redemption especially. But lamentable is the case with men in this behalf. Instead of giving themselves to God, men bequeath themselves to the devil, and become his slaves and vassals; they make their hearts his dwelling place, by malicious, wicked and lustful thoughts; they consecrate the faculties of their souls, with all the parts of their bodies unto him in the practice of sin. This ought not to be, seeing Christ gave Himself for us, let us give ourselves wholly unto Him.
And there remembrest. that is, doest call to mind, that thy brother hath ought against thee etc.
By this, Christ teacheth us that whensoever we come to do any service to God, we ought first of all to enter into our own hearts, and there to search and try our own estate, in respect of offences given to God or man, whereof we have not repented, that so before we come to GodŐs solemn worship, we may be reconciled both to God and to our brethren. The want of this brings many a curse upon menŐs souls, even in the means wherein they think to receive GodŐs blessing; and therefore we must look to the practice of this duty, that we do it speedily, and from our hearts. This we have need to look unto in respect of God whom we daily offend; for if He have ought against us, and yet we stand out against Him by impenitence, who can save us from His wrath? Let us think on EliŐs speech (1 Sam. 2:25), If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge it; but if a man sin against the Lord, who will plead for him?