“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 nlt).
The Bible describes three types of sins: 1) intentional sins that I commit against God, 2) unintentional sins that I commit against God, and 3) sins that I commit against my neighbor. For sins I intentionally commit against God, the only course of forgiveness is repentance: “You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it; You are not pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart” (Psalm 51:16-17 hcsb). The sin sacrifices—which represent only about 17 percent of the sacrifices commanded by God—pertain to those sins unintentionally committed against God. For the sins that I commit against my neighbor, however, repentance to God and sacrifices do not atone for them according to the Bible. I must make restitution of up to four times the damages and be reconciled to my neighbor, both in the Old and New Testaments.
Jesus’ injunction to His followers (Matthew 5:23-24) comes from this biblical realization regarding the different ways in which we must deal with the broken relationships in our lives. For Jesus’ first-century Galilean listeners, the only place they could make an offering was in the Jerusalem Temple—a journey that took at least four days from the Galilee. It’s striking to hear Jesus’ words as His initial audience did: If you are at the altar in Jerusalem and remember that someone has something against you, leave your offering, go back at least four days’ journey, and be reconciled. Then return to Jerusalem and present your offering to God. Reconciliation with one’s neighbor provided the foundation for that offering to be accepted.
Jesus’ commandment to His followers, even the spirit of it, grew from the world of ancient Judaism. This commandment is still practiced today within the Jewish community in the days surrounding Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most holy day within Judaism. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur—a day when people fast, repent, and call upon God to forgive the sins they committed against Him—Jewish people first seek to be reconciled with their neighbors. They ask forgiveness and seek to make restitution. Why? Because of the belief that we cannot ask forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur if we have unrepaired relationships with our neighbors; those must be repaired first, even if we must make restitution. Then, when we come to God, our gift will be acceptable.
This same spirit stands behind the words of Jesus in the Gospels. My relationships with others provide the foundation for my relationship with God. Zacchaeus told Jesus, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today” (Luke 19:8-9 nlt).
When we think about the Day of Atonement, we often focus upon our relationship with God and His forgiveness of our sins. The Bible teaches that our repairing, making restitution, and reconciling ourselves with our neighbor provides the foundation upon which God accepts our gifts to Him: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love God he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 hcsb).
Father, forgive us as we have forgiven. Amen.