Murder is final. Unlike other crimes, there is no possibility of restitution or restoration. Recently a young man walked into a church in Charleston South Carolina. A Bible Study was in progress. He listened for some time before taking out a pistol and killing nine of the people who were there. Long before he pulled the trigger his heart was seeded with hate. Like Cain who killed Abel, he had a choice. He could have walked back out of that Bible Study. He could have seen the inherent value in each living soul. He could have found forgiveness for the sin buried in his heart. But he didn’t. And we all agree that what he did was wrong, a sin against God and man of the highest order.
For those of us who love and follow Christ, Jesus declares a more stringent standard. “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:21–22, NASB95) Practically every society and culture on earth agrees that murder is wrong (although the definition of what is and is not murder varies). Jesus proclaimed a higher standard, one that is impossible to perfectly live up to on our own. Who hasn’t called someone any of a thousand different terms to indicate their wrong-headed thoughts or actions? Who hasn’t felt the heat of anger when wronged, offended, or injured? Who hasn’t, even in jest, called someone an airhead, a blockhead, good for nothing, nobody, imbecile, moron, or whatever the current expression is for a fool? Those are the seeds of murder; the devaluing of a human life. And we are all guilty of this kind of murder even if we have never physically ended a life.
So how do we change? How can we fly over that high bar that Jesus has set for our characters? He gives us the answer in the verses that follow. “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.” (Matthew 5:23–25, NASB95) The keys are reconciliation and forgiveness.
Jesus calls on those who have offended to initiate reconciliation. Taking those steps requires honest self-examination and humbleness. It means putting aside our justification for our words, thoughts, and deeds. But let’s be honest, more often than not we see ourselves as the victim and have difficulty seeing our own sin in the relationship, situation, or incident. Jesus didn’t say that we only initiate reconciliation if we feel guilty but that our going is dependent on the feelings of the other person; if someone has something against us. Paul instructed, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Romans 12:17–18, NASB95) Steeping out in reconciliation and forgiveness is not always well received. The important part is that we have stepped out and continue to leave the door open for the other person.
There is one other verse of scripture that applies, “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19–20, NASB95) Being quick to hear, being good listeners, requires that we value the other person. It doesn’t mean that we extend a blanket agreement, but that we hear, that we really listen. We must seek to hear where they are coming from while also listening for the Holy Spirit so that when we do speak our words are life instead of anger, death, and separation. Responding with life and love instead of reacting with anger and fear. Far too often we speak first and ask questions later. Far too often we raise our walls and prepare our defenses while the other person is talking instead of lowering our walls and building bridges. Often what we hear will offend us which is why we must walk in the light of Christ and forgiveness.
The young man that killed our brothers and sisters in Christ sought to start a race riot. Instead, forgiveness broke out. The families of the victims declared their forgiveness during a court proceeding. Forgiveness is the “more” needed to leap over the bar Jesus has set. Walking in forgiveness protects our heart from the seeds of hate along with their first fruits; anger and the devaluing of others. Yep, it seems impossible – but God makes the impossible possible.