Before Coming to the Altar
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24
Christians often focus on the phrase "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us." We understand the critical importance of forgiving others if we want God to forgive us (although it may be very difficult for us to do.) But in the passage above, Jesus isn't talking about forgiving others before coming to God, but seeking the forgiveness of others for our sins against them before coming to God.
In this teaching, Jesus has something in common with later Jewish practice that has been largely overlooked by Christians. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Jewish people focus on confessing their sins before God and asking for forgiveness. But one part of the liturgy is a statement from the Mishnah (a compendium of rabbinic thought from around the time of Jesus) that says, "For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against one's fellow, the Day of Atonement does not atone, unless one's fellow is appeased" (Yoma 8:9). The tradition is that in the weeks before Yom Kippur, Jews must apologize and seek reconciliation with those who they have sinned against before coming to God to ask for forgiveness. Of course there are provisions if a friend is unforgiving, but this practice seems to be the living out of Jesus' teaching about being reconciled before offering your gift at the altar.
This is something for us all to think about, isn't it? Next time when we pray "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us," we should include the thought, "forgive us our sins as we have asked others for forgiveness." Then we will have peace both with God and with others.
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