Alter Your Life before You Go to the Altar

Light of truth

Benny Nalkara, CMI

The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew is generally considered as the action programme for the Christian life or the blueprint for the Christian praxis. Starting with the Beatitudes which demand a reorientation in life, in this sermon, Jesus presents before the world a new covenant that is based on a new righteousness. This new covenant penetrates the heart of a follower of Christ; it reaches within to govern personal and private life by a maximal standard of holiness. Though we come across a series of radical and poignant sayings by Jesus pertaining to Christian life, the focal point of them is the reorientation in relationships- relationship with God and the relationship with fellow human beings. Mt 5:21-26 clearly depicts that the relationship with the fellow human beings is a primary requirement to establish our relationship with God. To put it plainly, we need to alter our life before we go to the altar of God.

In Mt 5:21-48, the first part of the action programme in the Sermon on the Mount contains six “antitheses” statements. These antithetical statements by Jesus are not opposing ones against the Law and the Prophets but surpassing and radicalizing pronouncements over them. The Old Covenant and the Law referred to only the externals of the religion and governed the temporal affairs of the earthly kingdom of Israel. The Mosaic Law regulated the public behaviour to maintain civil order and thus erected an outward standard of righteousness. Now, Jesus through the New Covenant touches the interiority of the Law. A disciple of Christ is not under the law but under the grace of God and hence the inner attitude and disposition of a person matter more. The first three antitheses in Mt 5:21-32 are calls for greater righteousness. It is very significant that the first antithesis (Mt 5:21-26) is the invitation for reconciliation because in Jesus’ New Covenant both the vertical and horizontal relationships of a person are like the two sides of the same coin.

Jesus presents before the world the unseen or unheard dimensions and nuances of the fifth commandment, “Thou shall not kill” and thus reaffirms that the alteration of lifestyle is important to be a Christian in this antithesis. For Jesus, all forms of violating the dignity of the human person are sinful and even personal anger and private slander (Mt 5:22) constitutes the violation of the New Law. By equating the punishment givenliable to judgment for both the killing and anger, Jesus equates anger with killing. Insulting a brother or sister and abusing a brother or a sister by calling him/her a fool etc are considered as still more punishable grave violations. The ascending order of punishment in these offences – judgment by the local council, trial before the Sanhedrin, condemnation to Gehenna points to the higher degree of seriousness in each of these offences. In fact this radicalization of the commandment is really challenging and has got far reaching consequences. Jesus affirms that any breaking up of a relationship is a murderous act. According to Jesus, what was taught and practised in the old dispensation about prohibition of murder is not satisfactory. It must go beyond that to include anger towards others, keeping the reputation and integrity of others etc. Every thought, word or deed against love is a murderous act and keeping one’s relationship with others is the criterion of authentic discipleship.

Alteration of this lifestyle is needed for a genuine discipleship. Devotion to the Lord without a refined heart doesn’t make one a true disciple. In v 23-24, Jesus makes it clear that reconciliation, overcoming alienation and hostility etc are more important than worship at the altar. Offering sacrifices at the altar in all religions are understood as the means of restoring the broken relationship. The Mosaic Law prescribed the Day of Atonement to make atonement for the sins. Jesus spoke about the offering at the altar in this context. The one who goes to the altar has to alter his life through total reconciliation. It is very clear that this command to ‘leave the gift before the altar and to go and to get reconciled’ is not to be taken literally. The worshiper before the altar cannot literally leave the sacrificial liturgy half completed, find the offended or offending brother or sister, then return to the temple and complete the liturgy. It is to be understood as a kind of parabolic pointer to the kind of greater righteousness appropriate to those who belong to the Kingdom of God. The message is very clear: there is no way for the disciples to get reconciled with God till they get reconciled with their brothers and sisters. Worship and service of God cannot be performed as long as anger and ill-feelings infect human personality.

Jesus’ radical pronouncement regarding reconciliation and worship is the key to the real spirit of Christian praxis. It is an invitation to deepen our relationship-driven spirituality than continuing mechanically in a ritual based religiosity. Often all our ills are reflected or covered up in our liturgy. The real worship should be through the restoration of mutual relationships and altering of our life style to promote and safeguard the reputation and integrity of others.

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