" If thou bring thy gift to the altar. . . . " (Matthew v. verse 23)
You will be familiar with the passage. It is from the sermon on the Mount. " If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift ".
These words are read at the beginning of the sacrament of the Holy Supper. They caution us, in an impressive manner, of the futility of supplicating our Heavenly Father for His blessing if we are unable to show brotherly goodwill to others, or continue in any way to harbour resentment or unworthy feelings towards them. The giving of a gift upon the altar is not only a ritual of great beauty, it involves on the part of the giver the observance of the most exacting requirements; requirements, be it noted, laid down by the One to Whom the gifts are made, the Lord Jesus Christ. In no sense are we to approach the altar of God as those who would confer a favour; we are required by Divine injunction to observe with care and precision the manner and spirit of our approach.
The altar of which the Lord spoke is the sacrificial altar of ancient Israel, and the gift is the animal, bird, and meal offering the nature of which is so precisely described in the pages of the Old Testament law. There, in that lengthy legislation, it is made clear to all that it is not man who confers a favour on his God; it is man who is favoured and blessed by God's gracious acceptance of his gift. Divine blessings are never bestowed with caprice or inconsistency, and if man is to give in such a way that God will receive, he must learn to give as God requires.
The first requirement of worthy giving is that a man be reconciled to his brother. Who is this brother ? Who is this brother who must have nothing against us if we are to give an acceptable gift to the Lord? The question recalls an earlier one, " Where is Abel, thy brother? " And we are reminded of the answer, " I know not. Am I my brother's keeper? " On that occasion, a brother had delivered up the brother to death. In other words, he had regarded charity as of no concern. The " brother " with whom we are to be reconciled is charity. And the Divine command is where the heart knows that there is a lack of charity, where the full, frank fellowship of goodwill is restrained or withheld, and where resentment glowers sullenly over some fancied or real wrong, " leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way ".
Under such circumstances, heaven is not deceived; it is we who are duped, and there is no baal to descend and kindle our altar offerings to flame.
The phrase, " to bring thy gift to the altar " is, of course, another way of referring to worship. Israel worshipped the Lord by way of its sacrifices. Worship is to bring gifts to God. By them, we acknowledge Him. By them, we magnify and serve Him. When the wise men from the East opened their treasures before the Infant Lord at Bethlehem and presented to Him the gold and frankincense and myrrh, they represented to all future ages the manner and the spirit of perfect worship. And so, the whole idea of a gift or of giving a present to God, embodying as it does the act and spirit of man's approach to God, is seen to involve the complete doctrine of worship. Little wonder that the laws of sacrifice for ancient Israel were given with such care and detail. By his sacrifices, the Hebrew of old adjusted his whole attitude to God; and, that his attitude to God might be a right one, it was necessary that God should reveal to him what those sacrifices should be, when they should be made, and the full ritual that should accompany their offering. How arresting is the thought that the right attitude of man to God, the state in which we are to be when we approach God, is the state of giving; and of giving to Him; denying ourselves, and rendering to Him, to His purposes, His ends and His uses, every faculty and power with which we are endowed. Is not man created in the image and likeness of the Lord, the Creator? Is not the Esse of Divine Life to give Himself to others, to seek their good and well-being? Must not the bright gleam of this Divine image shine from the countenance of man, the creature, only as he, too, gives himself, everything he has, back to the Lord, for the furtherance of Divine ends? Is not man seen by God, heard by Him, and blessed by Him, only as man is found in the spirit and act of giving? The image of God upon man is the image of a DIVINE GIVER; we worship God only as we learn to give.
What, then, shall we give? And so soon as our treasure chests are brought into the open (and in a true sense they are all inexhaustible) the undeniable fact is brought to light that everything there of any value has first been a gift from the Lord. He it is from " Whom alone cometh every perfect gift." However puerile and obvious the fact may seem, it is nevertheless very impressive; all that we can bring to the altar, all that we can give to this or to that worthy endeavour, is first of all received from the Lord. The Divine Giver has been there before us, and filled our treasure chest that we might have gifts to give. This has been the very first of all His gifts to us, the gift of the power to give - of the will to give, and of the wisdom to give well. It is, you see, the signature of His trinal nature upon us creatures made in His image. To catalogue all that we have been given that we might give, would be unending. If only we begin to give, we then find we are pulling at a golden thread whose end is never reached. But the end we have must not remain with us; we must draw the thread, as it comes from the weavers of heaven, only to pass it, with its benedictions and uses, into the hands of some brother. " The Lord wills writes Swedenborg, " that gifts should come from man as from himself, provided he acknowledges that they are from the Lord ". How incredibly it would help if, in all our giving, we gave one thought to that truth itself, of course, another of God's gifts to us. Looking upon the treasure we wish to pass on to a friend, as belonging, by right of creation, to God, as already the property of the Infinite Love, shall we not make the giving of it more of an act of worship, shall we not plan our giving more wisely and more freely, acknowledging that the gift is not ours, but only ours to give ?
The whole glad, shining theme of giving, which is the very sunshine of heaven, is summed up in the Writings of the New Church in these words, words which ring so paradoxically in our ears because our thinking is so worldly and false, " What are called gifts and presents offered to the Lord by man, are in their essence gifts and presents offered TO MAN BY THE LORD. Their being called gifts and presents is according to appearance. All who are wise at heart recognise this appearance, but not so the simple; and yet the gifts and presents of the simple are acceptable, so far as they are offered from ignorance in which there is innocence ". (The children, you see, are all right. They do not see the principle, not yet being wise in heart, but the innocence of their ignorance protects them.)
"Gifts offered to the Lord by a man, are, in their essence, gifts offered to the man by the Lord ". (Arcana Caelestia, 9938.) The truth of it may not at first be seen. It involves much more than the mere fact that we can give to the Lord only something of what we have first received from Him. It means that in what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. It means that man's gift to God can be regarded after the manner of a vessel or cup, which He, on receiving, can fill to overflowing for our increasing spiritual welfare. Seeing us before His altar in the act of giving, He then can give to us; not that He will give only as we first give to Him, but that the gifts of His Love can be poured only into a vessel whose peculiar character it is to GIVE.
All right giving is a bringing of our gift to the altar. Or, to express it otherwise, a gift, to be acceptable to heaven, must be brought to the altar. It is to be made an act of worship to the Lord Jesus Christ. Only then can it bless him that gives and him that takes. "Ye fools and blind; for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? " That which sanctifies our gifts is the altar. And so our greatest gifts will ever be the acknowledgment of the Lord Jesus Christ and our shunning of evils as sins against Him. Thereby alone do we truly worship Him; thereby alone are we reconciled to our brother (for there is no charity where evil remains); and thereby alone do we receive from heaven the things which are of real worth. That gift will multiply and abound to the good of mankind, that is laid upon the altar.