I'm presently journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with my sermons. This Sunday we're discussing Matthew 5:21-26.
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
While getting ready for Sunday, I was talking to our music minister on the phone. She had also been reflecting on this passage. She pointed out something that, once she pointed it out, seemed glaringly obvious, but I'd never caught it before. By connecting the man who leaves the altar with the man who is on his way to jail, she astutely noticed that this is not a teaching about us forgiving our enemies. It is a teaching about asking our enemies to forgive us.
In my mind, I have always partnered this teaching with Jesus' other teachings about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. I always had the middle of the Lord's Prayer playing in the back of my mind, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." However, if we really listen to what Jesus is saying, as our music minister did, we are caught short by the absence of any of that language. This teaching isn't about learning to forgive. It's about finding the courage to be forgiven. It's about humility and admitting wrong.
Christians aren't very good at this. A survey done by the Barna Group has been making its way around the blogosphere here lately. I personally haven't looked at the whole thing, but what I've seen isn't all that encouraging. During the survey, people were asked how they would describe Christians. The number one response among Americans ages 16-29 was...can you guess? Anti-homosexual! The next most common negative perceptions were judgmental, hypocritical, and too involved in politics. (Here's my source. You can order the book unChristian here.) I don't mention that to say Christians are all horrible people. I am one, so I hope that isn't the case. However, it does go to prove that there are some "I'm sorries," that need to go around, and we're the ones who need to be saying them.
The Sermon on the Mounts is all about what life should look like in the Kingdom of God. And here, toward the very beginning of the sermon, we find that living in the Kingdom means taking responsibility for our actions, and then going to pay the piper, so to speak. Being a Christian means being the first to drop what we're doing, especially if it's worshiping God, and righting our wrongs with other people. Then we can come back to worship God. In the Kingdom of God, we say we're sorry.