The story in the Sermon on the Mount of the man offering a gift at the altar is highly indicative of the attitude that Jesus must have had about the inner motivation of religion. He obviously believed that the essence of religion was internal attitudes instead of external rituals, such as making a sacrifice. Jesus said that if you were making a sacrifice and you were angry with any of your fellow men, you should "leave your gift there before the altar; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." He did not say it is enough just to be reconciled to your brother: first be reconciled to any from whom you are estranged, and then make your sacrifice.
We might wonder why we should have to be reconciled to men, because in order for there to be a reconciliation there must have been a falling out in the first place. This would be a natural question, for reconciliation means "to make friendly again, to bring into harmony." The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is exactly what is intended here, for the process of friendship is not just the unfolding of something that already exists in abundance, but the development of a spirit of reconciliation with someone with whom we are no longer in harmony.
The newborn infant does not have the problem of alienation. He reaches out with his little hands for anyone who comes close to his presence. It does not take the growing child long, however, to realize that there is a difference between persons: there is his mother, his father, and his family; and there are those who are more distant. Eventually alienation comes into his life and he may even find himself rejecting his parents. Basically, most of us are not completely open to others. We have been burned too often when we have proffered friendship, and have received either scorn or evidences of antagonism when we have offered our hearts. Few people are so happy and contented with the world and everybody in it that they still instinctively in adulthood reach out to embrace whoever comes along. That would, in fact, be disastrous, and we are all aware of it. So learning to live with our fellow men becomes a process of reconciliation, of making friendly again something which has been tarnished by estrangement and distrust.
There occur to me three possible ways by which an individual may look upon other human beings: he may be perfectly accepting of the people about him, simply taking them as they are and drifting with them; or he may be contemptuous of others, envious of those above him and jealous of his equals. The third way — and the only attitude, I think, which could be considered a noble one — we might call being truly reconciled to men. Reconciled to our fellow human beings, we still understand the foibles of our age, perceive all the weaknesses, and what is mean and sordid both within and without us, but do not rest content there. We see others as they are, and yet stand towards them in a spirit of sympathy, patience, love and helpfulness. This is a very difficult attitude to develop; we are not born with it. Perhaps one reason for this is that in human relations we are egoistic enough to think we are the yardstick by which the mental and moral qualities of the universe ought to be measured. This self-love gets hurt, because somebody fails to render what seems to us our due recognition. For these slight and even contemptible causes we are often unable to take others by the hand and step with them in the onward march of life.
One of the great dangers of so elevating our intellectual and moral ideals is that we may fail to have patience with people we feel do not come up to our standard. In a strange way this peril besets particularly those whose hearts are full of an earnest desire to be of service to their kind. Many have the highest ideals for mankind as a whole and urgently want some reform with which they are identified, to become a reality in this world. Yet, while they would give their lives for it, they would not give courtesy or tolerance in an attempt to understand their fellow human beings. I think society suffers badly from this illness at the moment.
Let me say that I do not believe in a kind of courtesy that is outward rather than inward and bows as a mask for inner feelings of contempt. Surely as we begin to understand others we ought to feel towards them not only respect and a growing patience, but a great reverence. It is only blindness on our part about their true nature which leads us to speak of them with disdain.
It seems to me there are three steps toward reconciliation. The first of these is that we ought to recognize the essential good — and a great amount of it there is — in common human life. Look at the city of New York today with its eight million people. Within the next twenty-four hours many things that are evil will happen in this metropolis. All sorts of namable and nameless vices will be indulged in. Cruel words and blows will be exchanged; there will be unkindness, thoughtlessness, forgetfulness. But when you have tallied all of it, it is actually but as a spot on the sun compared to the great mass of the sun itself. There will be a much larger sum total of love, sharing, sacrifice, and hard work than all wrong done together. For the one man who does a dishonest or violent deed, there will be ten thousand who will do something noble and good.
A second recognition important in this regard is that we understand the possibility of all the worst that is in ourselves. If we are unaware of this as yet, it may be that we simply still do not know ourselves sufficiently. When we see the criminal, the outcast, the vicious — those who stand in our opinion way down on the lowest verge of what is human — we ought humbly to thank God that, although we have these same tendencies within ourselves, through some miracle or bit of luck they have not manifested predominantly in us. We should be grateful for our fortunate circumstances, but not sneer at or feel superior to the man or woman who is down and out, even though, in part at least, it may seem to be his or her own fault.
There are trees that stand alone on the beach where the wind hits them with full force, and they may bend and break. But the tree that is sheltered by other trees in the forest, and thus better able to withstand the strong winds, has no reason to be proud of its sturdy roots. Parentage and opportunities and ten thousand things may have made us different from those we sometimes look down upon — most of which advantages, incidentally, we had very little personally to do with. So let us learn, by seeing our own potential for evil and disaster, to consecrate ourselves to doing what we can to make life for those about us a little better.
Third, and not least in importance, I would suggest a recognition of the possibilities that lie wrapped up in these common human natures of ours. Sometimes, looking at life, we find it hollow and tragic, the world itself a sham and all other people evil. But this reaction may be due to the fact that we have lost our insight and our power of discerning the heart of things.
Suppose we had never seen a butterfly and knew nothing about its life cycle. Then we saw a caterpillar. Only small boys like caterpillars — with all those feet they are so ugly that we brush them off. However, the naturalist might show us a chrysalis, the form the insect takes between its larval and adult stages. This is a cocoon, and there seems to be nothing especially beautiful about it either, but at least it won't crawl over your body. Eventually there comes the unfolding of the life within and a rainbowed lovely creature escapes from the chrysalis and it is a butterfly.
Then we stand in wonder and awe, for the beauty was not apparent in the caterpillar or in the cocoon. But behold what developed from that which was low and unsightly! One reviews the ages, and there is a Jesus, a Socrates, or a Buddha, and one may ask how from the commonplace of human nature such magnificent figures emerged from the chrysalis of life. And we can look inside ourselves. At times we may feel like a caterpillar and doubt whether we can ever burst out of our cocoon of mediocrity and express our true potential.
One wonders about mankind as a species, in the mass. Can we ever leave our animal nature and find our higher self? Will there always be wars and poverty and suffering? Or can we somehow begin to find our true nature, as Jesus termed it, to become as sons of God?
Down through the centuries the message of enlightened religion has been to point man to a destiny higher than that which is evil and sordid and base, because he has this potential to grow into something better, to be more nearly godlike than he now is. And the first step in realizing this is that we honestly reconcile ourselves to our own natures, that we may be reconciled to men.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1973. Copyright © 1973 by Theosophical University Press)