The Sermon on the Mount
Many of us love this passage of Scripture. Jesus Himself preached it, and it was one of the longest messages anyone heard Him speak. This message was also the first recorded sermon He preached during His earthly ministry.
He started with the Beatitudes, a series of sayings depicting various types of blessedness. After this, He spoke of many things, including the text for this message:
"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 scribes were copyists of the Law and Old Testament, and the Pharisees were a distinctive group of religious leaders. Their righteousness was mostly external, and Jesus later exposed both groups for their errant thinking and behavior. We won't go into detail here, but they were so righteous and religious the people must have wondered, "How religious can you get?" In fact, a preacher once gave a radio message, asking that very question.
Here, Jesus opened a new topic. He began this section of the Sermon on the Mount by saying, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old, 'Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. ' But I say to you that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment, and whosoever shall say to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be in danger of the council. But whosoever shall say, 'Thou fool,' shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there remember 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" (emphasis added).
So, Jesus expanded on what we could say is the doctrine of killing. We're not going to debate side issues such as capital punishment, manslaughter or accidental homicides. The Old Testament had many such cases, including premeditated murder. However, look at how Jesus is moving the focus from the obvious act (i.e., the actual taking of someone's life) to the attitude or the motive of one person toward another. The Jewish people knew the Law of Moses, as well as the prophets. They probably wondered what else this Teacher could add to what they already knew to be the correct means of conduct.
Jesus introduced this new learning by quoting one of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill." The Old Testament cited different levels of severity, from accidental death or involuntary manslaughter, all the way to premeditated murder. There were cities of refuge, where those who accidentally took the life of another person could go until the current high priest died, for example.
Jesus was describing is a conflict between two brothers. There is no distinction between blood brothers (family) or members of the same nation (a fellow Israelite or Hebrew) that we can see from the text. The underlying concept is that one brother is angry with another. This anger could escalate from thinking an angry thought (this doesn't seem to be addressed here) to being angry without a cause, to uttering a curse or epithet—Raca seems to be a serious insult, meaning "empty-head" or something even worse—to calling your brother a fool (moron, according to Strong's Concordance). How could anyone ever get to that point?
We don't have an answer to that question. The only response is what Jesus said. Let's take a closer look:
The first thing He said was, "If you bring your gift to the altar…" In the Old Testament system, under the Dispensation of Law, any Jewish person had responsibility for many offerings. The Book of Leviticus, for example, describes many of these: the grain offering, the sin offering, the trespass offering, and others. There were also freewill offerings, but one thing was common to all the offerings: The first stop was at the priest. God gave His people specific instructions as to what they were supposed to do, what the priest was supposed to do, and what was going to happen to the materials of the offering itself.
In my opinion, the gift to which Jesus referred was a voluntary offering, though it could have been another kind. The same Greek word, doron, is used for both types of offerings, according to Strong's Concordance, so the first stop was at the priest.
Jesus added, "and there remember your brother has (anything) against you." This is something I haven't found addressed specifically in the Old Testament, but in reality, isn't this the most important thing? Didn't Jesus Himself later say the greatest commandment was to love God and love your neighbor? Then how can we genuinely love our brothers/sisters/neighbors/anyone else if we have something against them?
The issue here is if we remember someone has something against us. One way of looking at this is if we don't remember someone has something against us, then there is no prohibition. It's clear there is no restriction. We can offer the gift. Yet if we do remember someone has something against us, then it's up to us to take the first step toward reconciliation. Jesus addressed this in the next verse, but first He said, "Leave the gift, and then go thy way, be reconciled to your brother. Then and only then offer the gift." The word He used, reconciled, is beautiful. It means "to have a mutual concession after mutual hostility," according to Dr. A.T. Robertson in his Word Pictures in the New Testament. The word is only used in this one verse of the Greek New Testament, according to both Dr. Robertson and Strong's Concordance.
The primary application for this verse was for Jews living under the Law of Moses, where various offerings were commanded. Jesus was emphasizing that it's not so much the action or the deed itself as much as the motive. Time and again, the Old Testament prophets had encouraged the Israelites to get their hearts right with God and each other; but they didn't, and wound up going off to captivity. There was no need for that, and the Israelites would have had God's blessings if they had done the right thing.