Musings on Matthew 5:25a

Musings on Matthew 5:25a

23When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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.                                    —NRS Matthew 5:22-25

A long time ago a close friend was vocally, publicly, angrily criticized by someone in our church, leading my friend to leave the church of which he had been a part for many years.

I deeply loved both individuals involved. This incident was very painful for me—first, because I was no longer able to enjoy the one friend’s presence except on rare occasions; second, because I knew well that the criticism my friend had endured was well-founded.

The person who voiced the criticism saw clearly the deep, destructive aspect of our friend’s personality that had led the latter into calamitous behavior for many years. The critical church member should have been more gracious and thoughtful in the criticism, and definitely should have done it in private.  But that did not happen. The criticism was shrill and offensive and embarrassing—in short, inexcusable in its delivery.

But it was valid!

And that is what I want to address for a few paragraphs.

When you are criticized, listen carefully

If someone brings a charge against me—whether in private or in public, whether out of deep love or out of crude animosity—Jesus challenges me in Matthew 5:25a to listen to the accusation and to discern whether or not it is true.

All of us have a strong tendency to immediately dismiss accusations of any kind, especially those made in anger. Yet such accusations may well be on target, either in whole or in part. And we do ourselves (and our Lord) a disservice if we reject accusations without first asking ourselves if they are credible. God’s word can come to us from any direction: The story is told that he prophesied to Balaam through a donkey! (Numbers 22:28-30) Our most rabid enemies may see conspicuous defects in our characters that are quite obvious to them, if not to us.

I am incredibly blessed to have five adult children who are wise and gracious. On several occasions they have, in various combinations, taken me aside to explain how my behavior has been inappropriate. It is an unspeakable gift to have such wonderful children. In each case when they have admonished me, they have been loving and sympathetic; and in each case they have been absolutely correct. I am fortunate to have such gracious critics. Yet even had they instead expressed anger or even hatred and violence, it would have been incumbent upon me to listen to their indictments, hold them up to my Lord, and ask if the charges were warranted.

That, I believe, is at least in large part what Jesus was getting at in Matthew 5:25a. If my accusers—no matter who they are, no matter how graciously or maliciously they present their accusations—have a valid assertion, then I have no other course than to say something like, “You are correct! That behavior is totally unacceptable. I have been wrong. Thank you for helping me to see my sin. I need to change my attitude and my behavior. Please forgive me. . .” This, in my understanding, is an expanded description of what it means to “make friends with” our accuser.

Applicable on all levels

This attitude of humility and openness to the prophetic word (whether or not one acknowledges its divine source) is appropriate on all levels, from individuals to organizations to nations. How rare it is, for example, for a nation to be criticized and to respond, “You are correct. We have done wrong. We repent of our evil!”

On the level of nations, check out the film Citizenfour as an illustration of how our own country prefers to “shoot the messenger” rather than to admit truth; and compare the responses of Germany (repentant) and Japan (largely unrepentant) in the aftermath of World War II.

On the individual level, consider the positive response of Mr. Darcy, in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, after his dressing-down by Miss Bennett—in repenting he says, in part, “By you I was properly humbled.”

Great blessings will accrue to the individual or the family or the organization or the nation that, confronted with its misdeeds, boldly confesses sin and repents.

The blessings, of course, may not always be immediately apparent. Many years ago I was a research director in a high-tech agricultural products company, with several bachelor’s-level technicians working under me. I had explained to all of my employees that, if I did anything that was inappropriate, they should feel free to correct me without fear of repercussion. Over a couple of years, each of my senior technicians at some point had haltingly, fearfully knocked on my office door, asking if they could talk to me. In each case, they pointed out some behavior in which I had engaged (usually related to my treating employees in a thoughtless way) that was wrong. In each case, they were trembling—understandably, since I could have fired them immediately! But in each case I realized they were absolutely correct, and I thanked them for their boldness and honesty, and I repented of my callousness. I used the same approach in reverse with my boss, who (along with the rest of the senior management) had engaged in illegal acts as well as policies that had consistently demoralized the entire research department. On the last such occasion, when I told my boss how I had welcomed criticism from my employees and I encouraged him to do the same, he said, “That’s the difference between you and me. I don’t want to hear criticism.” He fired me on the spot, ordering me to clean out my desk and leave.

Yet I would in no way change places with someone who, although remaining in a very high-end position (while I was instantly unemployed), had kept that job by refusing to acknowledge truth that was spoken to him. God doesn’t guarantee that everything will go smoothly when we follow his way (in spite of the outrageous and unbiblical claims of “prosperity gospel” preachers). But he does promise that, if we do things his way, in the end we will be immeasurably blessed (see Romans 8:28-29). In some cases those blessings show up in this life; in many cases, we receive the blessings after the resurrection. Whichever way it goes down, it is definitely a good idea to go with God’s way rather than with any other alternative! This is true for individuals, for families, for corporations, for charitable organizations, for nations. And God’s way involves shining Light into all hearts, all situations. It involves acknowledging what is true.

Back now to my friend whose story began this essay: his response to ill-mannered, if valid, criticism, was the equivalent of Balaam’s shooting his donkey dead when he rather should have thanked it for speaking the truth. Our first response upon hearing an accusation must never be anger or insults (Matthew 5:22). Our response, rather, should always be to ask ourselves, “Is this accusation true?” And if it is true, our next step should be to acknowledge our sin and to repent of our sin. (For an outstanding example of how to do this in a legitimate way, see II Samuel 12:1-13 and following verses, describing how King David immediately repented upon being denounced by the prophet Nathan; see also Psalm 51 as a postscript to this poignant event.)

A corollary of this principle is that we should never disdain or reject those who speak truth to us—which they do in many cases, alas, because they “have something against” us (Matthew 5:23). Even if they accuse us in an inexcusably rude and antagonistic manner, they nevertheless have provided to us an outstanding service. We should welcome and befriend such people, to the extent that they are willing to let us do so. Jesus calls us to “be reconciled to” those who have something against us (Matthew 5:24). The first step in such reconciliation is to acknowledge, when appropriate, that the accuser is correct and to ask forgiveness and to change our ways.