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“Leave Your Gift Before the Altar”: Thanksgiving as a Time for Reconciliation


By Christian Lingner

21 “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. - Matt. 5:21-24


It is a sad reality that the Thanksgiving dinner table is perhaps more commonly associated with tension and dispute than joy and fellowship. All we have to do is talk to friends, turn on the TV, or listen to the radio, and we are likely to hear references to the strains surfaced by a feast intended to be the occasion for celebration and worship. We dig out from a year’s cumulation of dust the list of conversation topics we need to avoid: politics, vaccines, money matters…the crazy ex-wife of Uncle Bob.


It was with an upcoming Thanksgiving season on my mind that I encountered the passage above, which struck me as especially relevant to the problems we often encounter during the holiday season in contemporary America. Though written two-thousand years ago in the language of a foreign land, I believe these words can help us understand and address the sources of discord that so often prevent us from worshipping in peace alongside our family and friends. Such is the nature of Scripture—ancient yet alive, removed yet relevant, obscure yet disclosing.


If any text epitomizes the simultaneous challenge and reward of studying Scripture, it is the Sermon on the Mount. When I read the Sermon, I get the impression that Matthew is intent on one thing only, and that is to present Christ as Christ presented Christ. He does not add or detract. He doesn’t even summarize. Matthew simply offers Jesus' teachings as they were offered. However, to say that Matthew is intent on giving us a living impression of Jesus and His teaching means, among other things, that the Sermon represents an enormous challenge. As anyone who has read the Gospels knows, Jesus had as little to do with alliterated three-point sermons as he did pharisaic religiosity. He spoke in riddles and parables, and when his apostles asked him why he spoke in parables, he replied with a riddle: “because hearing they hear not…”


The passage that inspired this reflection is one such dark saying of Jesus that, perhaps even more than other of the Sermon’s passages, remains a mystery promising hidden mysteries. In the passage, Jesus’ suggests that “everyone who is angry with his brother” is “liable to judgment,” that “whoever insults his brother” is culpable not just spiritually but legally, and that whoever calls his brother a fool is “liable to the hell of fire.” Though we may be tempted to laugh off the tension of the Thanksgiving dinner table, finding it convenient to consider animosity among family and friends to be normal and expected, it is hard to imagine, especially with this text in mind, that Jesus would do the same. Whatever else it may have to teach us, this passage certainly reveals what Jesus believed about the nature and gravity of anger—and, by way of application, what each of us must do in order to approach this feast with a true heart of thanks.


The Meaning of Anger


Approaching any difficult passage of Scripture is, first and foremost, a matter of identifying the problem it presents to us. Fortunately, in the case of the present text, our central question isn’t all that difficult to discern. Yet easy identification of a problem does not entail the easy identification of its answer—if the first few steps on a path known to be very arduous are found to be quite easy, the hiker would be wise to assume that the path has saved the best for last rather than assume the best of himself.


The whole problem of this passage begins and ends with Jesus’ insinuation that anger and murder are equally sinful, even equally egregious sins. This, of course, seems foolish at best and at worst very dangerous. To say that anger is just as bad as murder seems very like saying murder is no worse than anger, an affirmation which clearly fails to take full account of the value of human life. Yet, insofar as we are tempted by these incredulous thoughts, we have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching and are implicated by it.


There are views on the relationship of anger and murder which would seem much more natural to us than that which Jesus here expounds. For instance, if I were to approach the topic on my own terms, I would probably start by saying that we should avoid anger because anger can lead to violence. In fact, I would probably leave it at that, quite confident that I had said something clear-headed and helpful, all the while failing to notice that I could argue by the same logic that we should refrain from walking around in order to avoid slipping on banana peels. But the arguments of God are inoculated against slippery slopes, and anger is not an innocuous act like walking around.


Jesus’ argument does not merely diverge from my own, but runs in the other direction altogether. The view natural to me assumes that the evil of anger is bound up in its possible violent results, and therefore, implies that murder is the true sin to be avoided. Jesus, however, tells us that those who kill and those who are angry with their brother will both be “liable to judgement.” It is not that murder is as trivial as anger, but that anger is as serious as murder.


Part of our problem here is that we take for granted a notion of anger much like that reflected in the definition provided by the New Oxford American Dictionary: “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.” In other words, today we use the term “anger” to refer to the experience of irritation. Clearly this is not the sin that Jesus addresses in this passage, as is made clear by His insistence that the angry will be held accountable for their anger (perhaps for eternity). It’s hard to imagine holding someone responsible for “a strong feeling of annoyance”—that is, until the angered person indulges his anger. The moment a person chooses to remain irritated with another, Jesus’ indictment applies.


For Jesus, anger is not a feeling, but an action. Anger may begin with a feeling of strong emotion, but the moment we recognize that emotion for what it is, we are given a choice to indulge or subdue it. Anger is, then, nothing other than the active maintenance of hatred between two people. Not only does this account for Jesus’ teaching that the angry are responsible for their anger, but also helps us make sense of His further exhortation that His disciples ought to leave a gift at the altar if they “remember that your brother has something against you.” If there has been a rift in a relationship, both the offending and offended parties have a responsibility to pursue reconciliation, or else they are choosing to remain in anger. Until the relationship status changes from “broken” to “reconciled,” a state of hatred will remain, and until the pursuit of reconciliation occurs, it will remain sin.


The Tactics of Anger


It is natural to consider murder worse than anger because of the physical death entailed by murder. However, both anger and murder aim at the destruction of the other, the difference between them amounting to a matter of tactics. The murderer, often in a moment of intense feeling, takes matters into his own hands and destroys the life of the one he disdains, while the angry person, usually more covertly and deliberately, pursues the same goal by making the other person disdain his own life. It is the difference between sieging a city by direct assault and sieging a city by starvation—each is set on taking the city, but siege by starvation requires less risk of the sieging party, while delivering the gratification of watching a white flag slowly rise from the ramparts.


How exactly, though, do angry people attempt to make their enemies disdain life? The first tactic of the angry is nearly always to withdraw relationship. The strategy at this point is to impose conditions that will give the enemy a glimpse of life without the withheld relationship and thereby force an acknowledgement of the pain of its absence. The angry person could, of course, pursue reconciliation directly, but somewhere in his soul—and this is perhaps a secret he even keeps from himself—he wants to capitalize on this “justified” opportunity to hurt the other as he has been hurt. To initiate reconciliation would require him to acknowledge his vulnerability in the relationship, a fact he has recently felt the sharp end of and for which he feels ashamed. Therefore, the angry person seeks to force his friend-turned-enemy to admit what he refuses to admit himself—that the other has the power to do him harm. At bottom, more than a confession of wrongs committed, this is what the angry person wants. He wants to know that he is on even terms with the other person, that he can inflict on the other person what they have inflicted on him. As with so many other sins, insecurity and pride lie at the very core of anger.


However, if this initial strategy does not yield the desired effect, the angry person will often pursue a more aggressive approach. It is at this point that he begins to slander the other person. At its most effective, this strategy will convince mutual friends to withdraw their relationships as well, leaving the enemy further isolated. This isolation, in turn, may finally prompt the confession of vulnerability and sin that the angry person has been after all along. In the least, this strategy will often provoke those mutual friends to relay to the enemy what has been said, allowing the angry person to communicate his discontents without the embarrassment of direct communication.


Regardless of whether the angry person communicates indirectly or deigns to insult the enemy face-to-face, we can see how his approach no longer even feigns the desire for reconciliation, having devolved into a full-fledged attack on the wellbeing of the other. Since the enemy failed to respond to withheld relationship, the angry person feels even more slighted and devalued than before, which prompts him to intensify the attack so he can, as before, inflict pain proportional to his own. Through insult and slander, the angry person seeks to destroy the enemy through shame—in other words, to make the enemy hate who he is, just as he has come to hate himself. Thus, we begin to understand why Jesus might say that “whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” Shaming, whether public or private, amounts to nothing less than an attempt to make another person hate their life and given nature.


Anger, then, is a retributive act. It seeks to “get back at” the enemy through a variety of means, all of which are beyond or outside the natural consequences of the initial offense. Much as the natural consequences of a broken arm are pain and a crippled arm, the natural consequences of a broken relationship are pain and a crippled relationship. Even if those involved in a broken relationship are pursuing reconciliation, it takes time to mend shattered trust. But these consequences are not enough for the angry person, who feels the need to torture and take revenge, all that he may watch his enemy suffer. He desires “an eye for an eye,” and, in this case, that eye is the very love of life that he has allowed his enemy to remove from him.


Anger and Thanksgiving


In a particularly moving scene from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the elder Zosima tells Alyosha, his young devotee, to leave the monastery, assuring him that “you will bless life and cause others to bless it—which is the most important thing.” This, it has always seemed to me, is a beautiful encapsulation of the meaning of life, especially for believers who ground their affirmation of the goodness of creation in a Creator who called His creation good. Not only are we to bless life ourselves, but we are commissioned to express and embody for others the belief we hold most dear, that the world is the gratuitous blessing of a gracious God.


Thanksgiving is nothing other than a communal affirmation that God is the giver of life, and life is something for which we ought to give thanks. In fact, this joyous expression of the goodness of life, together with the pursuit of renewed right relationship with the Creator through confession, lies at the heart of every act of worship. However, much of what occurs at Thanksgiving, if we are honest, not only has little to do with the feast’s intended purpose, but can even run counter to that end. All too often we take our seats at the Thanksgiving table next to those with whom we are angry, against whom we hold hatred.

The yearly feast of Thanksgiving is a reminder that thanksgiving, like anger, is a disposition of the heart that must be chosen and enacted daily. Each day we must choose between one or the other, thanksgiving or anger—they cannot be maintained simultaneously. We cannot thank God for what He has created while hating a brother or sister whom He created. Indeed, we cannot thank God for creation until we can thank Him for who He has made us to be. As we have seen, anger arises, first and foremost, from our own feelings of shame and self-hatred.


Thanksgiving is the antithesis, and ought to be the ultimate undoing, of anger. When angry, we curse life and cause others to curse it, while when in a state of thanksgiving we worship, along with those around us, the One who came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” Therefore, before we settle around the table, offering our thanks for all God has graciously given us this year, let us remember the words of Our Lord: “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.”



Bibliography


Fyodor, Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Knopf, 1990.



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