“If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
“Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” – Matthew 5:23, 24
These words from the Sermon on the Mount are very familiar to us. In their obvious meaning they teach us the futility of expecting a blessing from our heavenly Father if we are unwilling to show brotherly good will to others. There are requirements connected with giving.
In its letter the text refers to the offerings brought by Israel to the great altar in the temple court, the animals, birds, and fruits of the harvest. And in the detailed Levitical laws concerning these offerings it is made clear that it is not man who confers a favor upon God by his offerings; it is man who is blessed by God if his offerings are accepted. Therefore if man is to be blessed, he must give as God requires. And the first requirement of worthy giving, the Lord tells us, is that a man be reconciled to his brother. Prayers, church-going, contributions toward religion, ceremonies, the reciting of creeds have no honor to the Lord in them unless one does good in his daily life.
Israel was commanded to give the first fruits and offerings without blemish. The first fruits are states of innocence, and innocence essentially is believing and acknowledging that all truth and good are from the Lord and not from ourselves. This innocence we have in childhood, and it should be preserved and developed into the wiser innocence of manhood and womanhood. The first thing in us is the motive, the inmost spring of our action, and it should be worship of the Lord and not exaltation of self.
To give is not in itself good. Giving to support subversive movements is not good. Giving to gain popularity confirms selfishness and pride. Giving to cover up sharp practices is hypocrisy. Giving to the lazy and slothful encourages idleness and puts a premium on it.
But there is a deeper meaning in our text. There are other gifts than material ones. Our text refers to gifts of all kinds, and the law is that giving is genuinely good only when the Lord is honored in the life – that is, when one gives to promote what is good in the Lord’s sight. For this reason the offering is a part of our worship. All our possessions – material and spiritual – are given us to be used in the service of the Lord, and so the requirements of true giving are laid down by the Lord to whom the gifts are to be made.
So one of the deeper lessons of the text is that in no sense are we to approach the altar of God as those who would confer a favor. In our text the brother is charity. Brothers in Scripture in a good sense always represent faith and charity, and worship is an act of faith. So, where there is not good will or charity in the heart the command is: “Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” The Lord is not deceived; we have deceived ourselves. No fire from heaven will descend to kindle to flame our offerings to Baal.
The phrase “to bring thy gift to the altar” refers to worship because Israel worshiped the Lord by its sacrifices. In bringing gifts to God we acknowledge Him. The Wise Men in bringing their gifts to the Lord at Bethlehem represented to all future ages the manner and spirit of worship by offering to Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh – their love, faith, and obedience. Because the offerings of Israel represented worship the laws of sacrifice were given with so much detail. The laws of the offerings reveal the right attitude of man toward God and picture our giving to Him or using in His service every faculty and power with which we are endowed.
Man is formed in the image and likeness of his Creator. The purpose of God is to give Himself to others and to seek their good. All we have that is of any value is given us by the Lord. From Him alone comes every good and perfect gift. All that we can bring to the altar is first of all received from the Lord. One of His very first gifts to us is the power to give, the will to give, and as we study His Word, the wisdom to give rightly. To enumerate all that has been given us which we might give would be unending. We shall always find that the opportunities for service are limitless.
It will help us in all our giving if we remember that the Lord wishes us to give as of ourselves and that we should realize that the power to give is itself one of the Lord’s most precious gifts to us. We should acknowledge that all we have is already the property of the Infinite Love. It is this acknowledgment that makes our giving an act of worship. We worship the Lord in using our talents in His service. That is why in our order of worship the offertory comes after the reading of the Word and the sermon which draws doctrine from the Word, teaching us to order our lives more wisely. The Lord’s gifts to us are not ours, but only ours to give.
This attitude toward giving may be illustrated by the lives of little children. A child wants to give something to one of his friends. He has not the means to purchase it and asks his parents for the money. The present will be purchased and given and will be regarded as coming from the child, and the child in his innocence thinks of the gift as coming from himself. We naturally have this feeling when we bring our gifts to the altar of God and in all our giving of our endowment for Divine purposes, but it is our Heavenly Father who first gave that we might give and might be instruments of bringing happiness to the lives of others and might have the happiness which comes of seeing them glad. We must not cheat ourselves – we older ones – by thinking that the joy was made by us.
There is this striking statement in the writings of our church: “What are called gifts and presents offered to the Lord by man, are in their essence gifts and presents offered to man by the Lord” (A.C. 9938). The truth of this may not at first be seen. It involves much more than the mere fact that we can give to the Lord only something which we have received from Him. It means “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” It means that man’s offering to God is to be after the manner of a vessel or cup, which He on receiving it can fill to overflowing for our increasing spiritual welfare. For only as we give to Him can He give to us. This does not mean that He wishes to give to us only when we first give to Him, but that the gifts of His love can be received only in a vessel formed to pour out to others what is received.
All right giving is bringing our gift to the altar. To express it otherwise, every gift to be acceptable to heaven must be brought to the altar. It must be made an act of worship to the Lord Jesus Christ. Only so can it bless him that gives and him that receives. The Lord said, “Ye fools and blind; for whether is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?” That which sanctifies our gifts is the altar.
And so our greatest gift will ever be the acknowledgment of the Lord Jesus Christ and the shunning of evils as sins against Him. Thereby alone do we truly worship Him. Thereby alone are we reconciled to our brother. And thereby alone do we receive from heaven the things that are of real worth. That gift alone will multiply and contribute to the good of mankind which is laid upon the altar.
The essence of the gifts which heaven sees and the Lord receives is the worship of which they are tokens, the spirit that would give glory and strength to the Lord and extend His works of love through us as His messengers and servants.