Horizontal and Vertical Relationships

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You will not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgement. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Matthew 5:21-26

We look once more at the same text as the previous study. There are often multiple layers of meaning in the scriptures, and yesterday we looked mostly at dealing with anger. Today we look at how relationships with others affect our relationship with God.

There is a lot of preaching, rightly so, about getting yourself right with God. Even more about forming good spiritual habits, about reading the bible and praying, about attending church, and about the sacraments and giving. Most of it deals with the personal relationship with the divine, and I am not knocking any of that – unless any of it becomes legalistic. Because these things must be as a result of a genuine encounter with the Lord Himself in the process of salvation, where one’s personal desperate need of forgiveness and new life is recognised and that personal meeting with Jesus brings that much needed understanding and exchange.

I would emphasise here that relationship and salvation is NEVER about a mental or verbal assent to a set of doctrines or an intellectual understanding of salvation. Without a personal encounter with God, there is no salvation. And I would even go so far as to say that many of the problems that exist in the protestant churches exist because of people saying that they believe the doctrines, but that this is a lifeless mental assent. A bit like doing the experiments in a school science lab and so believing the laws of physics. This is all in the head, and not on a personal encounter level. It is not about relationship and a personal meeting. And as a result there is the over-emphasis on doctrine or legalism, and even a lot of pride involved so that such people become very unloving towards those who think or act in any way differently to they way that they do.

No, the way of the Christian life and walk is started with a personal encounter with Jesus. It might not be as dramatic as that which happened to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, but yet for many people I have spoken with it is still yet a dramatic event in their personal lives that leaves no room for doubt and will never be forgotten.

But none of us should stay as new-born babes, because we all need to grow in the Lord, and it is like a baby grows in the care of parents in the family. You have your Father taking care of you and taking you through the lessons of life, and you have the Bride of Christ to act as the mother at the start, to wipe away the tears when you fall and to help you begin to walk strong. (And as an aside, just look again at what I just wrote… does your local family pick you up when you fall, or are you only criticised for your sinfulness and disobedience? Seriously – the answer to this should tell you all you need to know about whether to stay in that place or to go elsewhere where love is expressed as it should be.)

So there is all this about the personal, or vertical, relationship with God. But there is also the ‘horizontal’ relationship with those in our lives on earth. I don’t know why this is often felt to be the less important teaching, when thinking and learning about this. Our passage shows that our relationships on earth are related to our ongoing relationship with God. There is another way of seeing this. All of our brothers and sisters that we meet during our daily walk are also children of God. They were made in His image also. They have a spiritual life also, whether or not they recognise or believe in it. And all of them have their own walk before God, their own needs and gifts, their own moods, their own cares and worries.

The life we live before God is certainly not only about how we relate to God, but also how we relate to one another in the world. And the one thing that caused Jesus the most distress is the hardness of heart that was often displayed. How, for instance, the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees could blind them to simple compassion for human suffering when they criticised Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.

It is the hardness of heart that is the potential danger in all of us. It causes disputes and it can bring the sin of unforgivingness. Yes, just in case you have not heard it before, I will say this again: unforgivingness is a sin. It is only a hardness of heart that brings unforgivingness. It is only a hardness of heart that can allow disputes to grow to the point where you contemplate going to court.

Jesus, in teaching us how to pray, had us ask forgiveness ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ And so there is shown here that there is a real problem if you hold unforgivingness in your heart. Also, it is almost impossible to have this unforgivingness without also having judgement against your brother or sister.

Jesus also warns about this thing, saying that with the same measure that you judge others you can be judged yourself. So when, for instance, you may judge from the legalistic angle and point out the homosexual tendency in someone else, you leave yourself open to being judged by God by the same measure. So you did not notice that you are wearing a garment made of more than one kind of fabric? You bad sinner!! You will have the same judgement as the homosexual! Sin is sin to God, and he does not add the sense of degree – that is purely a human thing.

So when you bring your gift to the altar… What does this mean? I have seen many explanations in various commentaries. Some speak about Holy Communion. Some speak about giving tithes. Or even entering into corporate worship or prayer. I think that any prayer anywhere is a coming to the altar in your heart – and so I think this passage speaks directly into our personal relationship with God. My personal feeling, but take this as it speaks to your heart.

The passage does NOT say that your ‘gift’ is unacceptable to God. It rather says that there are things you need to do first. You are supposed to care about relationships on earth with diligence, and not ignore what happens on earth simply because you now have the divine aspect to your life.

When we ignore what happens on earth, a situation that began in a small way can begin to grow into a bigger and bigger problem – and, in the example Jesus gives, can grow to the point of one of you being placed in prison.

I would say that, if you do not take proper care of the relationships on earth, then you will have more and more of your personal life imprisoned. You place chains on yourself. You will not be living in freedom and victory, which is our inheritance as children of the Father.

The simple advice here is, as I said yesterday, to first deal with anger. Having done that, to quickly make right the relationship which was affected by such emotions. Don’t let awkward situations fester for days… it can only make it even more awkward to deal with the more time goes by.

And then there is something that is a challenge to my pride and to your pride: apologise!! Yes YOU!!! Don’t be always expecting the apology to come to you first. There would not be a bad situation at all unless there was also something not right in your own heart about things.

I mean this, whether you feel ‘in the right’ or not – it will not hurt you nor the situation to begin with words of apology – and mean them! Yes, there may still be some bitter words in your direction at first as a result. So what?

Stay soft before people and before God. Do not allow hardness of heart to grow in you. It will first spoil your relationships on earth, and ultimately it will not be good for your relationship with your Father in heaven.

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