“and then come and offer your gift.” This teaching of Jesus shows that having the right heart toward God and other people is much more important in God’s sight than sacrifices and offerings. By extension, this teaching also means that loving God and people is also more important than the other “religious duties” that make people feel accepted in the sight of God. Offerings and sacrifices were never designed to make a person with an evil heart acceptable in the sight of God. An evil and arrogant person who has no real intention of obeying God cannot simply do a sacrifice, make an offering, or pray, and by doing that be accepted by God.
The sacrifices and offerings in the Law were designed to be an outward show of an obedient and humble heart; they were not designed to allow the person to gain favor in the sight of God if the person was evil and unrepentant, as if God would overlook evil as long as the person offered sacrifices. God is much more interested in obedience and a humble heart than in a person’s making sacrifices (1 Sam. 15:22; Ps. 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Jer. 7:22-23; Hos. 6:6 [quoted in Matt. 9:13 and 12:7]; Mic. 6:6-8).
In fact, the Bible is quite clear that when a person is evil and unrepentant, the sacrifices and offerings he makes, including prayers, are simply rejected by God. God’s favor is not for sale: no amount of sacrifices, offerings, or prayers, can buy God’s favor or prod Him into giving His grace. God is looking for a humble heart, and that is what He responds to. This is a huge point with God, and so He makes it over and over (cp. Prov. 15:8; 21:27; 28:9; Isa. 1:11-15; 58:1-8; Jer. 6:20; 14:10-12; Hos. 5:5-6; Amos 5:21-23; Mal. 1:10; 2:13-14; James 4:6. Verses that specifically mention prayer include: Job 35:12-13; Prov. 15:29; Isa. 59:1-2; Ezek. 8:17-18; Mic. 3:4; Zech. 7:12-13; James 4:3; 1 Pet. 3:7).
Jesus corrected many religious errors in the Sermon on the Mount, and here he corrected the self-righteous attitude of many of the religious leaders and people who were hypocrites and who made sure they paid tithes from their herb gardens and gave mint, dill, and cumin, but who omitted the much weightier matters of justice, mercy, and trust (Matt. 23:23). The Jews were treating the sacrifices like they were gifts that bought God’s favor instead of being offerings that expressed their love and thankfulness for God’s favor and forgiveness.
Being truly humble and loving is much harder than giving offerings and prayers. In this teaching of Jesus, the man going to the altar with his gift had a fairly easy road: procure the gift, go to the Temple, offer the gift, and leave feeling righteous in the sight of God (but sadly, perhaps not being righteous in the sight of God). On the other hand, going to another person who is offended at you and doing what it takes to mend the relationship—well, that can be difficult indeed. We all know how hard it can be to mend a broken relationship. Proverbs 18:19 says an offended brother or sister is harder to win than a strongly fortified city.
Of course, there are some people who simply refuse to mend a relationship, and Jesus does not speak about those people in this context; he is only speaking about the person who wants to offer the gift to God. If the offended person does not want to heal the relationship, then Romans 12:18 applies: “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people.”
[For more on God not being as concerned with sacrifices as obedience, see commentary on Jer. 7:22.]