A Twilight Musing
Then I consider the difficulty of mending broken human relationships, I’m reminded of the nursery rhyme about how “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Any professional counselor is able to relate cases of marital or other interpersonal conflicts where the alienation of the parties from each other is so deep as to seem irreparable. In such cases, the counselor will try to help each party to understand how the matter appears to the other person or persons, since the conflict developed in the first place and deepened because each side assumed that its way of seeing things is the norm. Therefore, each one interprets every action and argument of the other to be either dishonest or perverse. If the two are to come together again (that is, be reconciled), one or both of them must take the risk of reaching out toward the other.
Matt. 5:23-25 lays out the importance of reconciliation among humans who are spiritual siblings: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” These words are addressed to people who purport to be followers of Jesus and therefore are expected to respond to His words as a spiritual command. In that light, it is significant that the person who knows he is alienated from his brother has an obligation that goes beyond whether the “something against you” is valid or not. Even if (in the honest opinion of the one being accused) the brother who has taken offense is wrong, it is so important to take steps toward reconciliation that one is not even to participate in a worship service until every effort is made to bring about reconciliation. This is a step that goes beyond the common sense of trying to settle a dispute out of court, rather than run the risk of losing a lawsuit. What Jesus commands in this case is in the same spirit of not insisting on one’s own right that is commonly referred to as “going the extra mile” (see Matt. 5:28-32).
There is no way in human terms to understand the basis of Jesus’ teaching about selflessness in the Sermon on the Mount without reference to a much larger and more significant reconciliation that has been brought about by God’s initiative. It is only as a reflection of that move of God toward us that we can effectively carry out reconciliation between humans.
But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:8-11)
Paul uses this truth as a rationale for how we as believers are to act:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17-19)
John pointed out that we love (indeed, are even able to love) only because God has first loved us (I Jn. 4:7-12), even to the extent of sacrificing His Son when we didn’t deserve it. In the same way, we also seek reconciliation with others because God has first gone more than “the extra mile” to be reconciled with us, even while we were fallen creatures. Another aspect of basing our response to others on what God has done for us is demonstrated in the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though forgiven an unpayable debt by his master, refused to forgive a much smaller debt owed by a fellow servant (Matt. 18:21-25). Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the unforgiving servant, and He states this condemnation even more bluntly in a comment attached to His giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:14-15): “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Loving our siblings in Christ, even beyond what is reasonable, forgiving them beyond what they deserve, and seeking them out for reconciliation beyond what seems justified are God-enabled reflections of His unlimited desire to be in fellowship with us. These principles are especially difficult to apply in a culture and a society which places a very high value on standing up for our rights, but if we are to have the privileges of fellowship with God, the price is a willingness to give up our “rights,” if necessary, in order to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Note: A word of caution is in order about applying the normal principles of reconciliation outlined above. A desire for reconciliation should never become a means of enabling an abusive person to continue his or her behavior. Nor should an abusive person be allowed to use emotional blackmail to pressure a tender-hearted reconciler to submit to abuse. Being a willing victim of physical or emotional abuse is never an acceptable price to be paid for some kind of surface reconciliation.