The Bible’s Viewpoint
What to Do When You Offend Others
SOMETHING is wrong. You just know it. Your Christian brother is giving you the cold shoulder. He has not said what is bothering him, but he barely says hello—and then only if you first greet him! Should you approach him to find out what is wrong?
‘That’s his problem,’ you may think. ‘If he has something against me, he should come and talk to me about it.’ Indeed, the Bible encourages a person who is offended to take the initiative to make peace with his brother. (Compare Matthew 18:15-17.) But what about the offender? What responsibility, if any, rests on his shoulders?
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “If, then, you are bringing your gift to the altar and you there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, and go away; first make your peace with your brother, and then, when you have come back, offer up your gift.” (Matthew 5:23, 24) Notice that Jesus’ words here are aimed at the offender. What responsibility does he have to settle the matter? To answer that, let us consider what Jesus’ words meant to his first-century Jewish listeners.
“Bringing Your Gift to the Altar”
Jesus here paints a vivid picture: A Jewish worshiper has come to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals. He has a gift—likely an animal—to sacrifice to Jehovah.* Offering a sacrifice was far from a meaningless ritual. Explains the book Judaism—Practice and Belief: “Selecting fat, unblemished victims, seeing them inspected by experts, walking with them to within a few yards of the flaming altar, handing them over, laying hands on the head, confessing impurity or guilt, or otherwise dedicating the animal, slitting its throat, or even just holding it—these guaranteed the meaningfulness and awesomeness of the moment. . . . No one who believed that God had commanded the entire service . . . could go through it without being caught up in it.”
Jesus’ words at Matthew 5:23, 24 thus transport his listeners to a moment filled with meaning and awe to the Jewish worshiper. One Bible scholar describes the scene this way: “The worshipper has entered the Temple; he has passed through its series of courts, the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of the Men. Beyond that there lay the Court of the Priests into which the layman could not go. The worshipper is standing at the rail, ready to hand over his victim to the priest; his hands are on [the animal’s head] to confess.”
At that crucial moment, the worshiper remembers that his brother has something against him. It may be that his own conscience tells him this, or it may be that he has sensed from his brother’s attitude toward him that there is some feeling of offense. What is he to do?
“Leave Your Gift . . . , and Go Away”
“Leave your gift there in front of the altar,” Jesus explains, “and go away.” Why? What could be more important at that moment than offering up a sacrifice to Jehovah? “First make your peace with your brother,” Jesus further explains, “and then, when you have come back, offer up your gift.” So the worshiper leaves his offering alive at the altar of burnt offering and goes off to search for his offended brother.
Since it is a festival, the offended brother is no doubt among the pilgrims who have flocked to Jerusalem. With narrow streets and houses crowded closely together, Jerusalem has a sizable population. But this is a festival, and the city is packed with visitors.*
Even if people from the same town traveled and camped together, getting through the crowded city to find someone would take some effort. For example, during the Festival of Booths, visitors set up booths all over the city and in the roads and gardens around Jerusalem. (Leviticus 23:34, 42, 43) Nevertheless, the Jewish worshiper is to search for his offended brother until he finds him. Then what?
“Make your peace with your brother,” says Jesus. The Greek expression rendered “make your peace” comes from a verb (di·al·lasʹso) that means “‘to effect an alteration, to exchange,’ and hence, ‘to reconcile.’” Having gone to considerable effort to find his offended brother, the Jewish worshiper seeks to make peace with him. Then, says Jesus, he may return to the temple and offer up his gift, for now God will accept it.
Jesus’ words at Matthew 5:23, 24 thus teach a crucial lesson: Reconciliation, or peace, comes before sacrifice. The way we treat fellow worshipers has a direct bearing on our relationship with God.—1 John 4:20.
What to Do When You Offend Others
What, then, if you find yourself in the situation described at the beginning of this article—you sense that you have offended a fellow worshiper? What should you do?
Applying Jesus’ counsel, take the initiative to approach your brother. With what objective? To convince him that he has no reason to feel offended? Absolutely not! The problem may be more than a simple misunderstanding. “Make your peace,” said Jesus. Remove, if possible, ill will from his heart. (Romans 14:19) To that end, you may need to acknowledge, not deny, his hurt feelings. You may also need to ask, ‘What can I do to make amends?’ Often, a sincere apology is all that is needed. In some cases, however, the offended person may need some time to resolve his feelings.
What, though, if despite repeated efforts you are not able to effect a reconciliation? Romans 12:18 says: “If possible, as far as it depends upon you, be peaceable with all men.” You can thus be confident that once you have expended yourself to make peace, Jehovah will be pleased to accept your worship.
The usual time for bringing sacrificial offerings was during the three seasonal festivals—Passover, Pentecost, and Booths.—Deuteronomy 16:16, 17.
Estimates vary as to the number of pilgrims that flocked to ancient Jerusalem for the festivals. First-century Jewish historian Josephus estimated that nearly three million Jews were present for the Passover.—The Jewish War, II, 280 (xiv, 3); VI, 425 (ix, 3).