Leave your gift

File:Second Temple view1.jpg

Thursday

Matthew 5:21-37

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we hear the word gift and altar we cannot help but think of the offering plate and a church altar. It’s hard to imagine a religious institution teaching that you should not make an offering if you are at odds with someone. Every organization dependent upon donations is normally trying to remove any obstacles to giving, not adding one. But then, the mission of the church is not to encourage offerings; it is to make disciples of Jesus.

In the traditional liturgy of the church, just such a moment happens before for the offerings are gathered. The presiding minister declares “The peace of the Lord be with you” and, following the congregation’s response, “and also with you,” bids the community to share the peace with one another. God has made peace with us in Christ Jesus – now, before you give an offering, before you come to the table, we are summoned to make peace with one another.

I wonder how the community would react if we spoke more bluntly: “Don’t come to the dinner table divided from one another.” “You can’t be reconciled to God if you won’t be reconciled to one another.” “God doesn’t want your money if you’re not going to walk the walk.”

Jesus and his hearers, of course, are not imagining people in pews with ushers passing offering plates. They are imagining the massive temple platform surrounded by its grand colonnades. They are imagining the inner courtyards: for Gentiles (beyond which no gentile could go); for women (beyond which no woman could go); and for men (beyond which only priests could go). In the walled and colonnaded courtyard that is open only to ritually pure Jewish men there is a gate that leads further in to the temple courtyard with its great altar and the smoke of the rising offerings. Beyond that altar stands the temple proper, covered in gold, its giant pillars guarding huge closed doors. What could be seen only over the top of the enclosing walls is now revealed in full glory. To that gate a man brings his calf or lamb (or doves, if he is poor) where it is slaughtered and the priest takes it to the altar for the gift to be burned in part or in whole.

By the time you had completed the rituals, passed through the courts, and stood in line with your animal – to be told to leave the creature there and run out in order to be reconciled with some adversary… now we can hear the startling point Jesus is making.

God is in the world to reconcile. God is in the world to heal the human community. God is working to restore the torn fabric of life. It is not just murder that rends the human community, but every word of insult and anger. It is not just the act of adultery that tears at society, but the passions willing to violate the integrity of another family. We ought not think, says Jesus, that our moral behavior and religious acts mean anything if they are not joined to the reconciling work of God.

Tough words. Important words. Life-giving words.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASecond_Temple_view1.jpg By Ariely (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Every good and perfect gift is from above

Saturday

James 1:17-27

File:Chartres JBU09.JPG17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

This seems like an awkward translation to me. The verse I remember is from the old RSV is “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above,” and the NIV has simply “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” There are two words being used for gift and the first can mean either the act of giving or the gift itself (thus the NRSV translation above), but the adjective is ‘good’ and I am reluctant to restrict that to ‘generous’. “good giving” isn’t very poetic, but fits the point is that all that comes from God is both good and gift.

Our appointed reading for Sunday picks up in the middle of a thought. The author of James has begun by talking about rejoicing in trials and declared No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God.” God doesn’t send evil; what comes from God is good and gift.

Evil, trial, temptation, all has its roots in us not in God. God is the author of good; we are the authors of what is not.

One is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

God is not like the gods. The gods are fickle, jealous, impulsive, willing to cast thunderbolts and storms, willing to throw down as easily as they raise up. God is not so. God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

People outside the tradition – and sometimes those within – read the Old Testament (and the book of Revelation) and see a god of thunderbolts, sanctioning war, capital punishment and terrors. Perhaps this is what comes naturally to us as frail creatures beset by forces beyond our control. Hurricanes and tragedies become, in our minds, “acts of God.” But it is a false reading of the record. The plagues that come upon Egypt are the consequences of a society founded on injustice and slavery. Each natural crisis is an opportunity to repent, to change their ways. It is not a story about the vindictiveness of God; it is a story of our persistence in sin and its terrible price. And it is a story of a God determined to bring justice to the world.

God is a giver of good and perfect gifts. The scripture does not shrink back from telling horrifying stories – but they are stories about our warring passions, our cruelty, our callousness, our brokenness. In the face of the corruption of the world God remains perfect goodness.

So we are not, says James, to attribute our trials to God but to ourselves and to our place within a fallen human community. What we are to do is remember that “he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are to be “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” We are to “look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act.” We are, in other words, to live in and from the perfect goodness and generosity of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChartres_JBU09.JPG
By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons