And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.…
Helpfulness is the highest, quality of the human life. Service is the crowning glory of man. The serving type is the noblest type of all the manifold varieties of human development. The principle of the text is not to the effect that service is one and the same with, or altogether made up of, what we know as the activities of life. "And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing." That it is not always what we call the most active life which is the most useful. Activity is not all of service. There is the moral power static, as well as the moral power dynamic. Again, let us note that service does not discard the element of beauty or the splendour of intellectual gifts. Beauty, rightly so named, binds up ever within it a factor of highest value. A beautiful picture is nothing less than a moral force in the world. The Madonna face, the Madonna form, through the centuries rebuke coarseness, teach purity, uplift human thoughts, refine human souls. So with flowers. Their beauty has a moral value. The window-sill which lifts them up is twice blessed. It blesses him who plants and him who passes. The law of service, as proclaimed by highest authority, refuses her not beauty as an ally. All that is meant is that, when Beauty stands by herself, divorced from Service, hen the latter is higher, nobler. So also of the splendour of mental gifts. This splendour also may rest upon, may add a new beauty and a new power to that which is the highest type of human life. But when it stands off by itself, when it offers itself as a substitute for or a rival of service, then to the latter must be given the pre-eminence. Measured by the true standard of human greatness, the inventor of the Calculus is less of a man than the founder of London's ragged schools. It is better and it is nobler to help one poor, vicious human life into a pure and happy immortality than it is to weigh the sun or to write equations for the planets. The same must also be said when high station is brought into comparison with helpfulness. But let us turn to the direct consideration of the great canon of human worthiness.
I. HELPFULNESS IS MORE LIKE, IN MORE PERFECT HARMONY WITH, THE DIVINE BEAUTY, WITH THAT DIVINE BEAUTY WHICH HAS ITS EVENER APOCALYPSE UPON NATURE'S FIELD AND IN THE HUMAN SOUL. Even upon His material works has God stamped the law of sympathetic service. Read this written out in the clouds of the sky. These are the great water-carriers of the world. And how diligently, how joyously, they carry on their labour of love t The huge masses skip and whirl and chase each other like lambs at play; but, however weary, they never think of laying down the burden which they bear. And the mountains, too, are in service. Look upon the Andes, vertibral ridge of a continent. They are a giant hand raised to catch and redistribute the moisture of the trade-winds from the Atlantic, thus sending it back across the plains in healthful and life-giving streams. And water, too, serves. By one of its lines cold is carried southward, and by another heat is carried northward, thus diminishing the inequalities of temperature and making the earth a pleasant residence for man. So is it through every department. Nature is an organism. Not a drop of water leads a selfish life, not a wind-blast is without its mission. And let that human life which dares to lift heavenward the formal profession as the fulfilment of the Divine demand — let such a one take his rebuke from ocean's lips! Let him hear it sounding in the winds of heaven! Let him hear it thundered forth by the everlasting mountains. Human lives are not wanted in this world for ornament. God has prettier things for this purpose. And such a life, I say, is in full harmony with the Divine. For a long time the world and man knew not God. In this ignorance and blindness we can well imagine men asking the question, "What is God?" To whom is He like? Is He the Zeus of the celestial world, full of vindictiveness and passion? Is He the Oriental monarch, luxuriously lounging in the palace room of the universe? And while men so questioned, the door of heaven opened, and a Divine one in visible form walked forth before the eyes of men. And this form, what was it? "That of a servant." He bore men's burdens. He healed men's sicknesses. He comforted human sorrows. He went about doing good. He gave His life a ransom for many. And now that the Divine Spirit is in the world the manifestation is the same. He, too, cowries in service. He is the Advocate, the Comforter, His the soft hand which wipes away the falling tear and binds up the broken heart. Such is the Divine, such is Deity.
II. But, in the second place, OF ALL MORAL FORCES, HELPFULNESS IS THE MOST POTENT IN THE EDIFICATION OF INDIVIDUAL CHARACTER. There is nothing which grounds a man in truth and righteousness so firmly, there is nothing which lifts him up so surely, as the doing of good to others. This, indeed, is only the highest illustration of a law wide as the realm of human life. The bird which sings for others gladdens its own heart with its song. The brook which flows with music for listening ears grows more clear and limpid as it flows. Old ocean's mighty tides and racing gulf streams, which ever serve the need of man, paint the great deep with its spotless blue, and bring safety and life to all the mighty host which march and counter-march within its hollow bed. In doing good, everything in God's universe gets good. Service of others is highest service of self, and the best way for any man to grow in grace is to move forward into service.
III. But, again, HELPFULNESS IS MORE LASTING, MORE IMMORTAL, THAN ANYTHING ELSE OF HUMAN LIFE. "Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. But charity never faileth." Bad as is this world, it is good enough to transmute and to hold immortality within it. The beauty of the beneficent deed, the widow's two mites, the alabaster box of ointment, Sir Philip Sidney's cup of cold water; the passing shadow of Florence Nightingale, which the dying soldier strove to kiss; above all, the patient and gentle self-denial of the Christ life — these are pictures which this world — God's world, after all — will not let fade. The suns of centuries rise and set upon them. Consider what this canon of human worthiness calls for of those who would receive honour under it.
1. This, first of all: personal goodness. In this world of ours the tares grow together with the wheat. Service of man calls for a servant first of all; and this can no one of us be who is not disinterestedly in love with his kind, and true and pure in all his works. To do good works which shall endure we ourselves must be good.
2. In the second place, the canon of the text demands that we should be willing to help when help is required.
3. The law of the higher type also makes this a duty. We should seek opportunities for doing good. The glory of the patriarch of Uz was written in these words, "The cause that I knew not I searched out."
4. The principle of the text teaches also the obligation of self-training. If we do not know how to help now, why, then, we should learn. If we are unfit for service now, we must make ourselves fit. Congenital infirmities may be corrected. The inertia of selfish idleness and of grasping covetousness may be overcome by him who, upon his knees, opens his heart to the entrance of the Divine Spirit. The enthusiasm of humanity may be caught from the example and inspiration of Jesus Christ. The mill-wheel will cease to revolve when the waters of the rushing stream are cut off; the moving train will stop when the glowing heat cools within the hidden chamber; and charity in this world will degenerate into a professional schedule without inspiration and without power when the name of Jesus is no longer writ by the hand of Faith upon its banner.
(S. S. Mitchell, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.