Q&R with Brad Jersak – “Leave your gift at the altar” (Matthew 5:24)


In Matthew 5:24, Jesus says, “Leave your gift at the altar.” What does that mean in context? Does it mean we need to go and apologize to those we’ve hurt, or God won’t talk to us?


Let’s begin with the context, as you suggested. This is a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) where he is citing the Law of Moses and explains how the spirit of the law goes deeper than external conformity to obvious rules against murder or adultery (for example). God’s intent is to transform our hearts so that in following Jesus Christ, grace will weed out the roots of murder and adultery while they are still inward hatred or lust. Elsewhere, Jesus will say that all these laws are summarized and fulfilled by the Great Commandment, “Love God,” and its partner, “Love your neighbor.” Righteousness is a love that penetrates our lives well beyond a list of “Thou shalt not” commandments.  

Now for the altar section of Jesus’ sermon:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hellfire. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. 

Jesus begins with the law of murder and says, in blazing rhetoric (to emphasize its seriousness) that shows how hateful name-calling and condemning speech falls under the same umbrella. Like murder, it can rebound against you and becomes self-destructive. Note that he doesn’t say “God will condemn you.” Sin bears its own consequences, and in the case of disputes, often through retaliation and escalation from our opponent. The end result, he warns, is that those inclined to judge inevitably experience judgment. It’s how sin works. It’s how the world works.

Two Scenarios 

Jesus then describes two scenarios, one religious and one civil. In the first case, the context is the Temple altar. Imagine you are going to worship in the world of Jewish worship. You may have come all the way from Nazareth, where you’ve left behind somebody you hate enough to call a bad name (What is the equivalent of “Raca” you use on others in your most heated moments?). You’ve traveled 103 miles by foot or donkey all the way to Jerusalem for a religious festival, paid for an offering and entered the Temple.

And Jesus reminds you what the prophets had said all along: “Go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). He makes the point in the extreme to show us how silly it is to claim we love God while hating our brother, or to imagine we’re worshiping God while degrading our sister. In brusk terms, such “love” for God is a fantasy, and our loveless worship is worthless. Remember, though, that Jesus has not come to threaten and condemn but to save us from the downward spiral of perishing we were already on. Re-Turn and follow me! he says. I’ll show you the path back to life and love! 

In the second case, he shows us how the same principle applies in the world of civil law. If we want to disarm and deescalate the rancor in this world, he calls us to settle out of court rather than going for the throat, to opt for reconciliation and restoration rather than retaliation and retribution. This is the path of righteousness. This is the way of the Lord. And practically, it’s a better and more peaceful way to live. It’s also less risky because, in a dog-eat-dog world, we shouldn’t be so naive as to think we’ll win every time and walk away unscathed.   

Spiritually Speaking

Historically, Christian teachers have also applied this principle spiritually. Whether we regard the adversary or accuser as the devil or as our own conscience, I hope our readers know it’s not Jesus or his Father. He’s our great Advocate. And in this text, as our Advocate, he advises confession instead of defensiveness. When we feel condemnation, our first instinct may be to justify or rationalize or push back directly, wrestling with the enemy, who may or may not actually be right.

But Jesus shows us a better way, an easier path. Instead of self-defense, we turn immediately to the Lord and say, “My adversary has accused me; my conscience is troubling me. I have no energy to bother fighting it. Instead, I turn to you and say, even though it may be true, I cast myself on your grace. Show me the truth and I will own it because you are the one only Judge who always forgives and renders the verdict of ‘Mercy.'”      

Please share:
Share by Email