The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?Chapter 72
Almighty God, we have come at the appointed time to the appointed place, and we know that thou wilt be more gracious to hear than we can be expressive in prayer; thine answer is greater than our request, as thy grace is greater than our sin. Thou art able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think: as the heaven is high above the earth, so is thy thought high above our thought. In thy presence we see our littleness, and before the unsearchable riches of Christ we see our poverty; but those riches were gathered for us—he who was rich for our sakes became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich. Through death we have life, through blood we have cleansing and forgiveness, yea, thou hast made the wrath of man to praise thee, and out of evil hast thou brought infinite good.
Behold, thou dost work by thine own way, and none can search thee: we cannot find thee out unto perfection, nor can we understand the mind of the Lord and express it in words of men. We will therefore trust thee, resting in thee with unquestioning love, casting all our care, as we have cast all our sin, upon him who is mighty to save. We will not question thee, nor set up our reason against thee, nor endeavor to clear away the cloud by our own feeble breath. Whilst we are in the cloud do thou speak to us, and thy voice shall give us security and joy.
Through all the week thou hast kept us; thou hast beset us behind and before, and laid thine hand upon us. Thou hast measured out unto us our food, and thou hast kept for us a place of rest, and thou hast not withheld the blessing of sleep. The light has been the brighter for thy presence, and the darkness has rested upon us, not as a fear, but as a benediction, because of thy tender care. Gathered together in thine house our hearts glow with ardent love, and our mouth is opened in sweet and holy hymn, which we breathe unto the heavens because we must praise the hand from which our blessings come.
As for our sin, it is our daily distress; we loathe it and repeat it; we pray for its forgiveness and then commit it again. Yet the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin. If our daily sin be upon us, so is the daily sacrifice near at hand—the eternal cross, the tree of life, the way to pardon. "God forbid that we should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." We would be crucified with Christ—we would know the fellowship of his sufferings that we may also know the power of his resurrection. We would be fellow-sufferers with Christ, he atoning, we repenting: he the one propitiation, and we the receivers of the atonement which he made. Grant unto us sweet answers to this our prayer, then shall all other prayers be answered in this infinite reply, "He that spared not his own Son, but freely delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" Grant us this unity with Christ, this identity with the Son of God, this tender, gracious, growing oneness with the very heart of thy grace; then shall all our life be within the ministry of thy care, and we shall lack no good thing.
We put our life into thine hands: it was thine before it was ours, it will be thine again. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. Our days are swifter than a post; yea, swifter than a weaver's shuttle; yea, swifter than a flying shadow, and there is none that abideth. Help us whilst it is called today to call upon thee with our whole heart and to serve thee with our whole strength.
We have come to bless thee for blessings at home: for the care of the little ones, for all the light that has made the house glad, for all the success with which thou hast blessed the week. Hear us when we praise thee for special revelations of thy grace—for close and tender presences of thyself amid distraction and darkness and manifold vexation. Keep our hearts and minds in the love of Christ, save us from all bitterness of feeling, spare us from the distress of wrath, clamour, and uncharitableness, help us to forgive our enemies as we ourselves are forgiven of God. May we live the noble life and breathe the ever-enlarging prayer, and realize the ever-gracious blessing of our Father's presence. Amen.
1. At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest (superior) in the kingdom of heaven?
2. And Jesus called a little child (probably one of Peter's) unto him, and set him in the midst of them.
3. And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5. And whoso shall receive one such little child in (on account of) my name receiveth me.
6. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
7. Woe (an interjection of sorrow) unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
8. Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee (cause thee to sin) cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.
9. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
10. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.
11. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.
12. How think ye? If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
13. And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of (over) that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
14. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
Greatness In the Kingdom
AT the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" So blatantly can we debase the sublimest subjects! See how they put their words together, and learn from the wild incoherence how possible it is for us to commit the same impious ironies. "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" as if there could be any greatness there of our making, as if our stature could outshoulder the great dignities, as if we could be somebody in the infinite kingdom of light and purity and grace. These men were not struck by the grandeur of the idea of the heavenly kingdom, they were plagued with the vexatious question as to which of them should cut a figure in it!
Is it not so now, to some extent? Are we overwhelmed by the occasion, or do we lift our heads above it and wave our hand over it as if we were bigger after all? In the church, for instance, in holy psalm, in tender prayer, in the reading of the revealed word, how do we deport ourselves? Do we shrink away into an all but invisible perspective, being nothing when such light shines and such music thrills the air, or do we come forward in bold, plain self-assertiveness? The subject—when that subject is the kingdom of heaven—should always be greater than the men who approach its consideration. In that sense the altar should be greater than the suppliant; for the altar stands for God and the suppliant but a piping, whining sinner that may hardly let his voice be heard lest his very prayer should become an impiety and his intercession aggravate the guilt which he deplores.
One would have thought that men having had given to them the phrase, "the kingdom of heaven," would have been so dazzled by its glory and so impressed by its tender graciousness, that they would never have thought of themselves at all, and especially never have thought of their gradation, or their status within its infinite circumference. I tell you we all have learned the wicked trick of spoiling everything God gives to us! We would pollute the stars if we could clutch them. We have spoiled the earth, ripped it up into millions of graves, and made it an Aceldama, and if we could only get at the stars we should disfigure and mar their symmetry and music.
Yet how keen we are in blaming the ancients for all these things. We sing about the wicked Jews, and relieve ourselves by historical psalmody. We reproach the past, not knowing that we ourselves crucified the Lord of Glory, we made the cross, stretched the sufferer upon it, drove the nails, and crushed the thorns into the throbbing temples. Do not let us put away such events as if they were historical only; that is a subtle device of the enemy. Men write books now against Christ or against the Christian theology, and they only succeed in so far as they can dig a great historical chasm between the facts and the critics. My Christ is crucified today: there is no space of time between me and him. If I could scatter eighteen centuries between us I should gain so much relief from self-torment. But he is the same yesterday, today, and for ever, and whilst we are in this world we must be partakers of its greatest tragedy. We cannot separate between the cross and ourselves any number of years that may mitigate our personal heinousness in the matter of this infinite responsibility.
So, then, we are asking the old questions now, repeating the old deeds today, and at this very moment there may be uppermost in some men's thoughts the inquiry—"Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" We are not appalled by the subject: contrariwise, we are familiar with every sacred phrase—yea, we have taken God's whole revelation and gone over it in words so frequently that now we repeat them almost mechanically. Could we think ourselves back to the time of Matthew the Apostle, who gives us the expressive phrase, "the kingdom of heaven"—could we think and feel ourselves back until the phrase came to us for the first time, what throb of feeling, what high and sacred animation, what marvellous challenges of the imagination should we feel! Yet that phrase may be repeated so often that we may begin ourselves to map it out into greater, smaller—greater, lesser—higher, lower—superior and inferior, and allot men to its various occupancy. Familiarity may destroy reverence: we may repeat our sacred phrases so often as to lose their lustre or their bloom.
Jesus Christ now answers the question with a great but most unexpected reply: "And Jesus called a little child unto him, and sat him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." As if he should say, "You are asking who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven, forgetting the earlier question, how to get into the kingdom of heaven. Pause before you begin to take your seat in the kingdom of heaven: be sure you are in the kingdom itself." The question takes upon itself a thousand wrong accents, and smites like a great wind from every corner of heaven. "Before you preach the truth, be sure you feel its power; before you theologise be sure you can pray; before you hold high controversy on things literary and theological, be sure your hearts have been cleft in twain, and all your self-righteousness has been expelled from you like the poison of hell. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." "You are asking me who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven—I draw your minds to an earlier question: Are we in heaven's kingdom—have we mistaken the vestibule for the temple—have we mistaken the gate for the inner fire, and the gentle, infinite hospitality of God?" Let us first consider whether we are in the kingdom, and in proportion as we feel ourselves to be in the kingdom of heaven shall we have little concern as to our particular place within the glowing sphere.
Speeches like these of Christ's go right down to the very core and root of things, and make us fundamental in our questioning, vital, anxious even to agony in the inquiries which we address to him. A small thing to settle gradation, if we have not entered into the mystery of participation.
Jesus Christ was always fundamental in his teaching. Who but himself dare have represented the kingdom of heaven and his greatness by a little child? Who but himself had the sublime audacity, the infinite tranquillity of power, which enabled him to say, "The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed?" Christ lifted up the little into grand typology; Christ came to seek and to save that which was lost; Christ lighted the candle and swept the house diligently till he found the tenth piece; Christ wandered over the mountains to seek the strayed one; Christ gave commandment to gather up the fragments that nothing be lost. He is great walking upon the sea, great when standing at the grave of Lazarus, and, with a loud voice that sent its resurrectional resonance through all the chambers of the dead, says, "Lazarus, come forth;" but, oh, to me in my tenderest moments, when my heart is all tears and my life is lifted up into one crying prayer, he is greatest when he calls a child and reveals the kingdom of heaven under the infinite simplicity of a child's trustful, loving, gentle heart.
It was a great day in the Church when that little child stood there and all unconsciously represented the kingdom of heaven. Dear little child!—so little that the Saviour took him up into his arms: a hand all dimples, a cheek so fair, made for the kiss of love and trust and blessing, and eyes that had no speculation in them, still a gentle wonder of dreamy love, looking round itself wondering at the scene. And yet that child was made that day to set forth to all the ages the kingdom of heaven! Where, then, are the great, the noble, the wise, the rich? Where are the ingenious, the intellectual, the learned, the men of mighty brain and mind? Where are they? There is folly in that question. I have always found that in proportion as a man is truly learned is he truly modest; in proportion as a man is really great is he really childlike. Herein I would repeat my own experience as a preacher: if I have to preach one sermon upon which my whole future depends, and if I have to choose my audience, I shall fill the church with the greatest preachers, the greatest scholars, the greatest men—they will have more pity for me, more sympathy with me, keener insight into any faculty I may possess, than inferior men can have. As it is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men, so it is better to fall into the hands of the higher class of men than into the hands of those who are inferior in conception, insight, and range of sympathy.
Jesus Christ in this discourse, as in every other, was himself' the sermon. He humbled himself and took upon him the form of a servant; he was rich yet for our sakes became poor; he took a towel and girded himself and washed the feet of his disciples, and said, "Ye call me Master and Lord: so I am; if I therefore have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another's feet. Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls." He shall not strive, nor cry, nor cause his voice to be heard in the streets. We are called not only, therefore, to see the child in his arms, but to see the still younger, purer child that held the typical one. They are both children: the child represents the Christ, the Christ represents the Father: "He that receiveth me receiveth not me, but him that sent me."
Herein, then, is a practical inquiry: have we the child-heart? We might pause here to rebuke those who found denominations upon isolated texts. In ancient times there was a denomination actually built upon this one expression about the little child; people who mistook childishness for childlikeness built a denomination upon the illustration here given by Jesus Christ. They thought the more childish they were the more like Christ they would be. I will not recite to you the enormities they perpetrated in the name of childhood. I only dwell upon the point to show you how possible it is so to strain the letter as to miss the spirit, and how mischievous it is to pervert the sweetest and grandest sayings of the Lord. Childlikeness does not mean ignorance: childlikeness does not mean pretended modesty; childlikeness does not mean that a man who is conscious of his power should tell a lie, saying that he is not at all conscious of spiritual strength and insight. Childlikeness is simplicity, trustfulness, utter unconsciousness in the sense of vain boasting and glory, gentleness, love, sincerity of heart and motive. Do not strain the letter, but endeavour to penetrate the meaning of the spirit. Few words are so misunderstood as childlikeness, modesty, amiability, simplicity. Whenever I hear of a preacher who is so simple, so very simple, I feel no particular warming of heart towards him; it may be that he is only inane, wanting in vigour, jejune, sapless, fireless. Simplicity—do not abuse the word—simplicity is the last result of wisdom, energy, robustness, and intellectual industry. Simplicity is an outcome, a result, as rest is. The worlds that fly around their centres are at rest because of their velocity. This childlikeness is not an ostentation, not a strenuous endeavour to become a child outwardly and literally; it is wholly different, and can be only understood in its deeper senses and finer applications by those who have passed through the great spiritual process of crucifixion, having had all boasting taken out of them by the cross of Christ.
So Jesus proceeds to say that if the hand offend, or the foot offend, or the eye offend, there must be cutting off and plucking out. Whatever stands in the way of that grand spiritual reduction which ends in childlikeness must be taken away. Where then are we? Where are the children, the little children? We are theological—are we Christian? We are clever—are we good? We talk about Christ—do we live Christ? We defend the Gospel—do we exemplify it? We speak with the tongues of men and of angels—have we charity? How do we take rebukes, slights, rebuffs, misconceptions, misrepresentations? There is an ostentation of childlikeness, and I know of no outrage much greater upon the spirit of the sanctuary than to appear to be children when we have not in reality the child's heart.
This course of reasoning would be attended—were it carried out legitimately—by many practical results. Many would be first who are now last, some might be last who are now first. At all events, the great vital question would be put by every man to his own heart—am I in the kingdom? Jesus Christ will not have the child spirit slighted, insulted, or neglected: "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea." It was the custom in Syria and in Greece so to treat criminals. It was an ancient custom to encase criminals in lead and to throw them into the sea furthest from the shore. Jesus Christ is not now inventing a new method of punishment: he is not speaking vindictively, he is adapting his conversation to what was well known to the people to whom he addressed himself. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me." Why, what harm can there be in that? It is the pastime of the church, it is one of the chief recreations of the world, to snub the Christian, to contemn the praying man, to give the suppliant a nudge as you pass him, and to laugh at the fool who speaks into vacuity. The Master takes another view of the case. We shall have to account for our contempt. The idle words we speak against sacred exercises and spiritual relationships will gather themselves up into a severe accusation against us one day. These children, men of the child heart, keep the world sweet. Ten righteous men saved the city, the child-heart saves the world from the decrepitude and ghastliness of old age.
When this doctrine is realized, we shall live more in grace than in genius; our life will be simple because deeply rooted in God and in truth. Instead of vexing ourselves with ten thousand questions which never can be settled, we shall nestle ourselves in the heart of the Father. Recall the case of Abraham. In his case one of the greatest words in human speech or human history had its beginning. The Lord took him out one night and showed him all that was visible of the host of heaven, and said to the childless wanderer, "Look up—even SO shall thy seed be." What followed? And Abraham, no longer the mighty chief and audacious explorer of lands unknown, no longer the owner of countless flocks and riches of an Eastern kind, became himself 'a little child: and Abraham BELIEVED God—the first time the word "believed" occurs in the Bible in that instance—and Abraham believed God: said to Sight, "Stand back!" said to the laws of Nature, "Hold your peace!" said to a misgiving heart, "Silence, thou lying tempter!" And he believed God.
How much there is in that word believe as it was first written! Abraham nestled in the heart of God, nurtured and fed himself upon the Divine vitality—such is the meaning of the word "believed." Abraham as a little child nestled in the very heart of God, so he became the father of the faithful, the head of all the children. He exemplified the child heart, relinquishing his own grandeur, his own ability, his own social status, his own will. Impoverishing himself of all that the world would have counted characteristic as to grandeur and force, he became a little child, and went into the warm heart and fed himself upon the Divine life and love.
May we thus know by manifold discipline, by anxious experience, even by painful suffering, what we can never be taught by the mere letter—how wondrous, how restful is the child-heart!
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.Chapter 73
Almighty God, our hearts have a longing desire to enter into thy courts, even into the innermost place of thy dwelling, there to behold such of thy glory as our vision can endure. Thou hast inspired us with a great ambition: this is not of our own creation, but of thine; our desire is to see thee, to love thee, to read thy truth more deeply and more understandingly, and to express thy purpose in all the breadth and force of our daily life. We have come home, we have been brought home; stung by pain, made mad by hunger, embittered by disappointment, we have returned to our Father's house, and today we would be admitted to his presence. Thou didst seek us and thou hast found us, and what is worthy in us to be found thou only knowest, for we are filled with shame, and wounded and utterly undone. Behold the image is in us, but in the eyes of thine own grace, and by the grace of God we are what we are. Wherein we have done evil and spoiled all our days and utterly stained them with guilt, let thine answer be one of redemption and not of judgment: let grace prevail over law, and let the tender gospel of the blood of the Son of God prevail to silence the just accusations of thy law.
Thy law is severe upon us, but still righteous. It cries for our life, it pursues our soul, it demands the uttermost drop of blood that is in our guilty hearts; but thou hast arrested the law, thou hast spoken thy gospel, thou hast set up the cross, and Jesus Christ is now our Redeemer and Saviour, our Priest and Prophet and King, and in him would we hide ourselves as in a rock that cannot be shaken. There is no end to thy mercy, thy compassions are more in number than the dews of the morning, thy kindness is thrown round about us as a great defence and a perpetual comfort, and thine eye is upon us, not searchingly in judgment, but compassionately in redemption. Herein therefore do we hope, and in this is our abiding confidence.
Whilst we are in thine house, fill the place with thy presence. Make room for thyself, and grant unto us visions of thy face that shall make our hearts rejoice with a great gladness. There is trouble in our soul, there are great tears in our eyes, a solemn fear burdens our spirit like a weight that cannot be borne, and the little light that is in the sky is threatened to be driven out by an infinite gloom. Do thou then come to us thyself with revelation and light and assurance and with repetition of the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and so do thou command thy blessing to rest upon us as to liberate us from every chain and bring us from under the dominion of every terrifying fear.
Thou knowest what our days have been, and what tomorrow shall yet come, with new chances and opportunities, and offers of larger light and nobler liberty. Thou knowest those who have a great fear before them during the coming week, who are dreading the hour that shall try their very life, who are now crying unto thee to be fortified against the trial that awaits them. The Lord's grace be magnified above man's fear, the sustaining power of the goodness of God lift up those that are crushed, until they feel the burden no more. Enter into every one of our houses, not as a glance of light, presently to depart, but as an abiding glory, a perpetual guest, yea as King of the house, and Father and Ruler of all.
Go with us in our walking up and down in the earth, and in the doing of all the business of life; help us to do it with moral dignity, with a consciousness of integrity before God, knowing that our purpose is true, and our design wholly honourable in thy sight. Give us a right view of things: show us that our life is in our nostrils, that we are here for a moment, and will presently be gone: animate us by the spirit of Christ, fill us with the grace that is in Christ Jesus, ennoble us by every consideration that can lift up the life towards the light that is in thyself; save us from despair, deliver us in temptation, guard us in danger, surround us all the way through this slippery path, keep our feet from falling, our eyes from tears, our soul from death.
Have compassion upon us every moment of the day. Help us to forgive our enemies; with the noble charity of Christ's own spirit enable us in all things not to return evil for good, but to return good for evil; smitten on the one cheek, may we turn the other also; may it be our desire to know what Christ would be and do, that we may be and do as Christ.
The Lord help us in all time to bear the burden, to walk steadily across the swamp—enable us to find the bridge of God's own building over every difficult river—bring us every one at last to see the meaning of it all, and to give praise to him who by many a devious way has led us to the common rest. Amen.
15. Moreover if thy brother shall trespass (and if thy brother shall sin) against thee, go and tell him his fault (convict him) between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17. And if he shall neglect (refuse) to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church (assembly or society), let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
18. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
19. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
20. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Ubi tres, ibi Ecclesia—a saying of the Fathers.)
21. Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
22. Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven (symbolic numbers).
23. Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
24. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents (two millions and a half sterling):
25. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
26. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
27. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt (literally a debt contracted through a loan).
28. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, which owed him an hundred pence; and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
29. And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
30. And he would not; but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
31. So when his fellow-servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
32. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst (entreatedst) me:
33. Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?
34. And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
35. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
Brotherhood and Forgiveness
A thread of connection binds these apparently broken sentences. The subject is the child-heart—these are illustrations of its actions in daily life. A notable consequence is the fact that Jesus Christ himself was the living exemplification of his own doctrine. He was himself the child in the midst of us; he was meek and lowly in heart. Our first lesson, therefore, is founded on the fact that the child-heart may be associated with the keenest intellectual penetration. Carefully considered, it will be found that these illustrations are most remarkable instances of Christ's intellectual virility, especially as revealing profound knowledge of human nature.
How could he know how to portray sin so vividly who knew no sin himself? How could he enter into feelings which had never excited his own heart? Account for this. Yet never was sin drawn by the hand of so powerful an artist. We are told that only those who have known delirium tremens can describe its effect, or give any true hint of its infernal revelations. Surely only the sinner can talk about sin. There will be some slip of the tongue on the part of any man who attempts to talk about that of which he himself has had no experience: he will break down in his portraiture, he will employ false colours, he will set things in undue relationships. Yet the absolutely sinless One describes sin: spotless, incorruptible Virtue sits down to paint every lineament of hideous vice, the Sun of holiness undertakes to photograph the ghastliness of crime!
How can it be done? We should mock the man who knew nothing about music undertaking to give his opinion about it. A man who had never handled a brush or mingled two colours would be mocked if he claimed to paint the simplest object in nature. His want of experience would be thrown in his face as an argument against his pretensions, and justly so. It is in this way that men acquire influence and draw around themselves the trust of others; their experience is so rich, so varied, so painful in its exactness, so exquisitely coincident with the facts of this tragical life. Jesus Christ, however, undertakes to describe sin, and to track the evil motive all through and through its winding way in the cavernous heart, and to watch its coming out at the last in vivid and actual expression. How will he do this? We can tell, too, exactly how the Sun will paint the portrait of crime—we can compare the photograph with the original, we can say, "Look on this picture and on this," and laugh at the minister who undertook to complete a photograph about which he himself knew nothing. In this way we can tell precisely whether Christ preached in pretence or in truth when he attempted to describe human nature.
The doctrine must be without value if he does not fully understand the nature to which he proposes to apply it. We have many superficial religions, simply because we have many superficial theories of human nature. How can he prescribe for a disease who never heard of it before? How can he undertake to speak a language of which he does not know so much as one letter? We have easy remedies, because we have ignorant conceptions of the symptoms and realities with which we have to deal. Christianity is mysterious because sin is mysterious—the remedy must be adapted to the disease. Christ saw the mystery of our life, and adapted the mystery of his religion to it. Beware of any suggestion that is marked by extreme and miscalled simplicity in this matter of redeeming and reclaiming human nature. Human nature is not itself a simple construction: find simple keys for simple locks, but where the lock is complicated, the key must match its complication in every line.
When I enter the Christian sanctuary and hear the Christian religion enunciated, I am struck by its mysteriousness, its remoteness from all common things, its metaphysical and transcendental claim and point of observation, and in my ignorance I say, "Surely something simpler than this could be devised." But God sends me back to consider my own nature—know thyself. When I have studied the lock, I find that the mystery was in me, not in God—in sin, not in truth—in rebellion, not in redemption.
How could Jesus Christ undertake to speak that parable of the prodigal son? His audacity amazes me. Let him paint the well-behaved boy, that never left his father's house an hour, that retired regularly and rose punctually, and pursued the even tenor of his way all through the hours of the day, with undeviating punctiliousness; let him tell us about his prayers, his virtues, his untempted integrity, his paper loyalty—there he may be at home; but Son of God, Child of the heavens, Companion of angels—how can he undertake to describe the way of the prodigal? He will stumble; he will make the most ludicrous mistakes. How will he talk about riotous living and harlots, and all the ways of darkness and all the speech of hell? He will pronounce that speech like a foreigner; there will be an accent in its utterance that will make us smile as if mocking the man who had undertaken to speak such a speech. Let any critic sit down to consider the parable of the prodigal son simply as a delineation of human nature, and say if he could amend one word, add one hue to the vivid colouring, or mark in more graphic boldness the outline of the madman's career.
Whence this knowledge of human nature? Truly Jesus needed not that any should testify of man, for he knew what was in man. That he should never have been corrected in his delineation of virtue is a commonplace, but that he should never have been criticised successfully in his delineation of vice transcends in power of surprise any miracle of his with which I am acquainted. Take this instance of trespasses and forgiveness and ask how far they coordinate with all we know of human nature. Did the Man know what he was talking about? Did he pronounce our language like a foreigner? Did he give merely superficial etchings, or faithful and undeniable delineations of our very selves? Let us see.
"If thy brother shall trespass against thee." But do brothers trespass against one another? How bold the assumption, how improbable the circumstance! The Man romances. It is impossible that brother should trespass against brother—what is the speaker thinking of? Brothers will love brothers, brother will never disagree with brother—it must be, "If a man shall trespass against his enemy—kill a wild beast, shoot a bird of prey." It is not so. "If thy brother shall trespass against thee." This man knows what he is talking about, he is familiar with facts, he looks at human life in its actuality. He paints nothing in merely rosy hues, he proceeds upon the assumption that the whole social head is sick and the whole social heart is faint. He who grips fundamental facts in this way may possibly have some remedy for the disease which he depicts.
"If he will not hear thee." It is impossible—a brother not hearing a brother, a man turning a deaf ear to a fellow-man who goes to expostulate with him, a man hardening himself into an unresponsive stone when the human voice falls upon his ear in piteous and pleading tone! O Christ, thou art now in regions too remote for thy thought to be familiar with—so would one talk about such words as these—but what are the facts of daily life?
Have you met with men who will not listen to you when you go to state your complaint, or to ask for redress, or to demand that simple justice be done? Are there stubborn men, are there deaf souls, are there those who draw themselves up into impenetrable isolation when you wish them to listen to statements which you suppose will correct their judgment and bring their conscience to bear intelligently upon a given set of circumstances? Is the picture correctly drawn?
"Take with thee one or two more." How did he, the Christ, know how to treat a social difficulty? If the brother would not hear the one man, how would he possibly hear the one or two more? "That every word may be established." Why, would the man go back upon his own word? What need have we of witnesses in social life, especially in Church or Christian life? When a brother has spoken a sentence, he will never surely modify it, recall it, deny it, trifle with it—why should there be one or two more listening, taking notes, and called in for the purpose of verification? Truth is simple, truth is easy, truth will never be denied, truth will stand when all things fall—why should there be one or two more? Have you never felt the necessity of having a witness present when a man was talking who had done a trespass? The very fact that he had done the trespass gave you ground for believing that he would do the further trespass of denying his own word. How he knows us, how he searches us through and through, how his eye burns upon us—there is nothing hidden from the light thereof! A man who talks so about our personal and social relations may have something to say presently of a deeper kind.
"Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." There is a point at which patience gives out. Jesus Christ points to a similar circumstance in our higher relations—the Lord is long-suffering and very kind of heart, and his eyes are filled with pity and he longs to see us come home, and he has prepared broad welcome for our prodigal, penitent hearts; yet there is a point at which he says, "Let him alone: this sin hath forgiveness neither in this world nor in that which is to come." To God we may be as a heathen man and a publican, to our Creator we may be an eternal offence. This is the mystery of life—we may be cast out of our Father's heart, and be thrown by our own sinful hands beyond the bounds of penitence and forgiveness.
Jesus Christ then says that whenever a process is conducted in this fashion and the final word is spoken, be it a word of binding or of loosing—whatever is done rightly upon earth is done also in heaven. The earthly books on which the transaction is written may be burned, but the registry above is beyond the reach of fire. Not only so, he says that where the right process is conducted, and two or three come together to settle the matter, there he is. This matter is not settled in stubbornness and resentfulness or in a spirit of social injustice, but it is done religiously; where two or three are gathered together in my name, to cut off any man or to take any man back again into the fold which he has left, there am I in the midst of them. This passage has been quoted in reference to prayer meetings, and in reference to small religious gatherings, and has been misquoted so as to bring in the words, "and that to bless." Jesus Christ is not speaking about such meetings—his subject is altogether different; it is solemnly and graciously true of every meeting of hearts for the purpose of worshipping God through Christ; but in this instance Jesus Christ is speaking about another subject altogether, and therefore the text must not be wrested from its immediate application to bear but a secondary reference to other sets of circumstances. He would rather not be present when any man is accounted a heathen man and a publican—but he must be there. He is Judge as well as Saviour.
Peter now interposes and shows that he knows nothing about human nature. We see how grand Christ is by seeing how pitifully little every other man is in comparison. Peter comes forward with a half-question, based upon a half-view of human nature: "How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?" The question is founded upon a foolish assumption. You do not know how high the mountain is till you see some other mountain and set it up against it shoulder to shoulder. Mont Blanc does not impress strangers who visit the neighborhood for the first time—they are rather surprised that the mountain is not higher. But let them climb the old king's shoulder, and one by one how the mountains are left behind, as the traveller goes up into awful solitude. So with this Christ. We could have read this passage ending with the words "There am I in the midst of them," and never felt its grandeur; but when we hear Peter, our own brother, who ought to have known all about human nature, we feel ashamed of him. "How oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?"—the self-complacent dog! "My brother sin against me?" Just like us! It never occurred to Peter that he might sin against his brother. Standing there in conscious perfectness of character and disposition, will and thought, godly man, serene and most pious soul, he wonders how often he has to play the great man by forgiving somebody else! He starts from a wrong point. The question is not an innocent one, it is steeped in guilt if he did but know it; but whoever assumes his own peccability, who ever starts the question from the possibility that he may be the offender?
Peter further discloses his littleness by making a suggestion as to the number of times—"till seven times?" Now let us look at Mont Blanc and see how far this little molehill compares advantageously with the infinite majesty. "I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven." My thought is not your thought, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
The answer appals me, the answer rejoices me. You have in this sentence an illustration of the severity and the goodness of God. We are called upon to forgive the repentant brother until seventy times seven. If he turn saying, "I repent," forgive him. How oft? a countable number of times? No, an uncountable number of times! Therein is the discipline most severe. Why, then, does the text rejoice me? In this way; because if God asks so much from me, what will he be prepared to be and to do himself in reference to my repentance? I will point out his own words if the argument should grow very serious and high—laying my finger upon this celestial arithmetic, how I might plead with him! The Lord is slow to anger, plenteous in forgiveness. He multiplies to pardon; it is not a thin transparent wave he allows to flow over the black stone of my sin, but sea upon sea, Atlantic upon Atlantic he pours upon that blackness, letting it be found no more for ever. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon, with multiplied forgiveness, wave upon wave, billow upon billow of forgiving love, and our sin shall be as a stone cast into the depths of the sea.
Out of this reasoning Jesus brings the flower of a parable about the kingdom of heaven being likened unto a certain king which would take account of his servants. Search that parable and you will see that the kingdom of heaven puts forward rights and claims, and insists upon their being met. There is no trifling with the law of righteousness in this parable: no mere bubble of sentiment is this, but a living thing with a living claim. He who has nothing to pay must be sold, and payment must be made. Read this parable further, and you will see that whilst righteous claims are set forth the spirit of mercy is consulted. "Have patience with me and I will pay thee all." Observe, there is nothing sentimental here; the debt is acknowledged, payment is promised, patience is invoked, and the king, grand in imperial majesty, becomes grander still in moral clemency. So the flower is rooted in the rocks, and the rocks are rooted in the sun, and the sun is rooted in God.
We need not pursue the bad servant, who, being forgiven himself failed to forgive another; we must hasten to the solemn word which closes the parable. "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses." There can be no doubt, then, whatever as to the operation of this law of retribution and pardon—a child can understand this parable; no secret wizardry or black art prevents us from seeing God's meaning in this great matter of human forgiveness. There is no grammatical puzzle in the interpretation of this parable; do not seek to find any way out of it; it comes to one of two things; either forgive for Christ's sake and be forgiven, or do not forgive and be not forgiven.
Wondrous is the word, "If ye from your hearts." Forgiveness is sometimes an affair of the lips, pardon is accompanied with a thousand reservations. I know of no men so disinclined to forgiveness as professing Christians. How barbarians do I cannot tell, but professing Christians cannot forgive. Ministers of the gospel there are who have never known the joy of having forgiven a brother man. They forgive with parentheses, they forgive with great big ifs following the reluctant words. They will forgive but not forget, they will watch, they will wait, they will hope, they will even hope for the best, but it will take a long time to restore confidence! Marvellous Christianity,—evangelical doctrine, diabolical temper. Spotless orthodoxy,—black, hideous devilism. Forgiveness should be the delight of Christian men. Forgiveness must be based upon repentance—there must be confession or there cannot be pardon. "But if thy brother turn again, saying, I repent, forgive him"—do not take six months to see how he behaves; you must behave well. "If thy brother turn again saying" I repent, forgive him." Do not say, "It will be a long time before the old love comes back"—where would you be this day if God forgave you with a distinct intimation that he was going to withhold his old love? Happy he who can pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us." That is the crux of prayer,—that is the supreme difficulty of intercession!
Homiletic Note on the Parable
Matthew 18:23-35.—The principal ideas suggested by this parable are:—1. The kingdom of heaven recognises individual responsibility, —a king would take account of his servants; 2. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of justice,—"his lord commanded him to be sold," etc. (Matthew 18:25)! 3. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of mercy,—"the lord of that servant was moved with compassion;" 4. The kingdom of heaven teaches that personal obligation should become a social benefit,—he who has been forgiven should forgive; 5. The kingdom of heaven having failed in mercy will have recourse to absolute justice,—"his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him."