THE INSURMOUNTABLE BARRIER
So, then, if you bring your gift to the altar, and if you there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go, and first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
When Jesus said this, he was doing no more than recall the Jews to a principle which they well knew and ought never to have forgotten. The idea behind sacrifice was quite simple. If a man did a wrong thing, that action disturbed the relationship between him and God, and the sacrifice was meant to be the cure which restored that relationship.
But two most important things have to be noted. First, it was never held that sacrifice could atone for deliberate sin, for what the Jews called “the sin of a high hand.” If a man committed a sin unawares, if he was swept into sin in a moment of passion when self-control broke, then sacrifice was effective; but if a man deliberately, defiantly, callously and open-eyed committed sin, then sacrifice was powerless to atone.
Second, to be effective, sacrifice had to include confession of sin and true penitence; and true penitence involved the attempt to rectify any consequences sin might have had. The great Day of Atonement was held to make atonement for the sins of the whole nation, but the Jews were quite clear that not even the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement could avail for a man unless he was first reconciled to his neighbour. The breach between man and God could not be healed until the breach between man and man was healed. If a man was making a sin-offering, for instance, to atone for a theft, the offering was held to be completely unavailing until the thing stolen had been restored; and, if it was discovered that the thing had not been restored, then the sacrifice had to be destroyed as unclean and burned outside the Temple. The Jews were quite clear that a man had to do his utmost to put things right himself before he could be right with God.
In some sense sacrifice was substitutionary. The symbol of this was that, as the victim was about to be sacrificed, the worshipper placed his hands upon the beast’s head, and pressed them down upon it, as if to transfer his own guilt to it. As he did so he said, “I entreat, O Lord; I have sinned, I have done perversely, I have rebelled; I have committed … (here the sacrificer specified his sins); but I return in penitence, and let this be for my covering.”
If any sacrifice was to be valid, confession and restoration were involved. The picture which Jesus is painting is very vivid. The worshipper, of course, did not make his own sacrifice; he brought it to the priest who offered it on his behalf The worshipper has entered the Temple; he has passed through its series of courts, the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of the Men. Beyond that there lay the Court of the Priests into which the layman could not go. The worshipper is standing at the rail, ready to hand over his victim to the priest; his hands are on it to confess; and then he remembers his breach with his brother, the wrong done to his brother; if his sacrifice is to avail, he must go back and mend that breach and undo that wrong, or nothing can happen.
Jesus is quite clear about this basic fact–we cannot be right with God until we are right with men; we cannot hope for forgiveness until we have confessed our sin, not only to God, but also to men, and until we have done our best to remove the practical consequences of it. We sometimes wonder why there is a barrier between us and God; we sometimes wonder why our prayers seem unavailing. The reason may well be that we ourselves have erected that barrier, through being at variance with our fellow-men, or because we have wronged someone and have done nothing to put things right.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary