With precise correspondence, if we turn to the other end of His life, we find the equally significant expression in my text which asserts for it, too, that the other necessity to which men necessarily and without their own volition bow was to Christ a matter of choice. 'The Son of Man came to give.' 'No man taketh it from Me,' as He said on another occasion. 'I lay it down of Myself.' 'The Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.' 'My flesh ... I give for the world's life.' Now, brethren, we are not to regard these words as mere vague expressions for a willing surrender to the necessity of death, but as expressing what I believe is taught us all through Scripture, and is fundamental to any real grasp of the real Christ, that He died because He chose, and chose because He loved. What meant that 'loud voice' with which He said 'It is finished,' but that there was no physical exhaustion, such as was usually the immediate occasion of death by crucifixion? What meant that surprising rapidity with which the last moment came in His case, to the astonishment of the stolid bystanders? They meant the same thing as I believe that the Evangelists meant when they, with one consent, employed expressions to describe Christ's death, which may indeed be only euphemisms, but are apparently declarations of its voluntary character. 'He gave up the ghost.' 'He yielded His Spirit.' He breathed forth His life, and so He died.
As one of the old fathers said, 'Who is this that thus falls asleep when He wills? To die is weakness, but thus to die is power.' 'The weakness of God is stronger than man.' The desperate king of Israel bade his slave kill him, and when the menial shrunk from such sacrilege he fell upon his own sword. Christ bade His servant Death, 'Do this,' and he did it; and dying, our Lord and Master declared Himself the Lord and Master of Death. This is a part of the history of the historic Christ. Do you believe it?
II. Then, secondly, the Christ of the Gospels thought and taught that His death was one chief aim of His coming.
I have omitted words from my text which intervene between its first and its last ones; not because I regard them as unimportant, but because they would lead us into too wide a field to cover in one sermon. But I would pray you to observe how the re-insertion of them throws immense light upon the significance of the words which I have chosen. 'The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.' That covers the whole ground of His gracious and gentle dealings here on earth, His tenderness, self-abnegation, sympathy, healing, and helpfulness. Then, side by side with that, and as the crowning manifestation of His work of service, without which His life—gracious, radiant, sweet as it is—would still want something of its power, He sets His death.
Surely that is an altogether unexampled phenomenon; altogether a unique and unparalleled thing, that a man should regard that which for all workers, thinkers, speakers, poets, philanthropists, is the sad term of their activity, as being a part of His work; and not only a part, but so conspicuous a part that it was a purpose which He had in view from the very beginning, and before the beginning, of His earthly life. So Calvary was to Jesus Christ no interruption, tragic and premature, of His life's activities. His death was no mere alternative set before Him, which He chose rather than be unfaithful or dumb. He did not die because He was hounded by hostile priests, but He came on purpose that He might so end His career.
I need not remind you of, and space would not permit me to dwell upon, other instances in the Gospels in which our Lord speaks the same language. At the very beginning of His public ministry He told the inquiring rabbi, who came to Him with the notion that He would be somewhat flattered by His recognition by one of the authoritative and wise pundits of the nation, that 'the Son of Man must be lifted up.' The necessity was before Him, but it was no unwelcome necessity, for it sprung from His own love. It was the very aim of His coming, to live a Servant and to die a Ransom.
Dear brethren, let me press upon you this plain truth, that no conception of Christ's death which looks upon it merely as the close, by pathetic sufferings, of a life to the activities of which it adds nothing but pathos, approaches the signification of it which inheres in the thought that this was the aim and purpose with which Jesus Christ was incarnate, that He should live indeed the pure and sweet life which He lived, but equally that He should die the painful and bitter death which He died. He was not merely a martyr, though the first of them, but something far more, as we shall see presently. If to you the death of Jesus Christ is the same in kind, however superior in degree, as those of patriots and reformers and witnesses for the truth and martyrs for righteousness, then I humbly venture to represent that, instead of going back to, you have gone away from, the Christ of the Gospels, who said, 'The Son of Man came ... to give His life'; and that such a Christ is not a historic but an imaginary one.
III. So, thirdly, notice that the Christ of the Gospels thought and taught that His death was a ransom.
A ransom is a price paid in exchange for captives that they may be liberated; or for culprits that they may be set free. And that was Christ's thought of what He had to die for. There lay the 'must.'
I do not dwell upon the conception of our condition involved in that word. We are all bound and held by the chain of our sins. We all stand guilty before God, and, as I believe, there is a necessity in that loving divine nature whereby it is impossible that without a ransom there can be, in the interests of mankind and in the interests of righteousness, forgiveness of sins. I do not mean that in the words before us there is a developed theory of atonement, but I do mean that no man, dealing with them fairly, can strike out of them the notion of vicarious suffering in exchange for, or instead of, 'the many.' This is no occasion for theological discussion, nor am I careful now to set forth a fully developed doctrine; but I am declaring, as God helps me, what is to me, and I pray may be to you, the central thought about that Cross of Calvary, that on it there is made the sacrifice for the world's sins.
And, dear brethren, I beseech you to consider, how can we save the character of Jesus Christ, accepting these Gospels, which on the hypothesis about which I am now speaking are valid sources of knowledge, without recognising that He deliberately led His disciples to believe that He died for—that is, instead of—them that put their trust in Him? For remember that not only such words as these of my text are to be taken into account. Remember that it was the Christ of the Gospels who established that last rite of the Lord's Supper, in which the broken bread, and the separation between the bread and the wine, both indicated a violent death, and who said about both the one and the other of the double symbols, 'For you.' I do not understand how any body of professing believers, rejecting Christ's death as the sacrifice for sin, can find a place in their beliefs or in their practice for that institution of the Lord's Supper, or can rightly interpret the sacred words then spoken. This is why the Cross was Christ's aim. This is why He said, with His dying breath, 'It is finished.' This truth is the explanation of His words, 'The Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.'
And this truth of a ransom-price lies at the basis of all vigorous Christianity. A Christianity without a dying Christ is a dying Christianity. And history shows us that the expansiveness and elevating power of the Gospel depend on the prominence given to the sacrifice on the Cross. An old fable says that the only thing that melts adamant is the blood of a lamb. The Gospel reveals the precious blood of Jesus Christ, His death for us as a ransom, as the one power which subdues hostility and binds hearts to Him. The Christ of the Gospels is the Christ who taught that He died for us.
IV. Lastly, the Christ of the Gospels thought and taught that His death had world-wide power.
He says here, 'A ransom for many.' Now that word is not used in this instance in contradistinction to 'all,' nor in contradistinction to 'few.' It is distinctly employed as emphasising the contrast between the single death and the wide extent of its benefits; and in terms which, rigidly taken, simply express indefiniteness, it expresses universality. That that is so seems to me to be plain enough, if we notice other places of Scripture to which, at this stage of my sermon, I can but allude. For instance, in Romans v. the two expressions, 'the many' and the 'all,' alternate in reference to the extent of the power of Christ's sacrifice for men. And the Apostle in another place, where probably there may be an allusion to the words of the text, so varies them as that he declares that Jesus Christ in His death was the ransom 'instead of all.' But I do not need to dwell upon these. 'Many' is a vague word, and in it we see dim crowds stretching away beyond our vision, for whom that death was to be the means of salvation. I take it that the words of our text have an allusion to those in the great prophecy in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, in which we read, 'By His knowledge shall My righteous Servant' (mark the allusion in our text, 'Who came to minister') 'justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.'
So, brethren, I believe that I am not guilty of unduly widening out our Lord's thought when I say that the indefinite 'many' is practically 'all.' And, brother, if 'all,' then you; if all, then me; if all, then each. Think of a man, nineteen centuries ago, away in a little insignificant corner of the world, standing up and saying, 'My death is the price paid in exchange for the world!' That is meekness and lowliness of heart, is it? That is humility, so beautiful in a teacher, is it? How any man can accept the veracity of these narratives, believe that Jesus Christ said anything the least like this, not believe that He was the Divine Son of the Father, the Sacrifice for the world's sin, and yet profess—and honestly profess, I doubt not, in many cases—to retain reverence and admiration, all but adoration, for Him, I confess that I, for my poor part, cannot understand.
But I ask you, what you are going to do with these thoughts and teachings of the Christ of the Gospels. Are you going to take them for true? Are, you going to trust your salvation to Him? Are you going to accept the ransom and say, 'O Lord, truly I am Thy servant; Thou hast loosed my bonds'? Brethren, the Christ of the Gospels, by all means; but the Christ that said, 'The Son of Man came to ... give His life a ransom for many.' My Christ, and your Christ, and the world's Christ is 'the Christ that died; yea, rather, that is risen again; who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.'
THE COMING OF THE KING TO HIS PALACE
'And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, 2. Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto Me. 3. And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. 4. All this was done, that it might he fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5. Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. 6. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7. And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set Him thereon. 8. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. 9. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. 10. And when He was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? 11. And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. 12. And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, 13. And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. 14. And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple; and He healed them. 15. And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David, they were sore displeased, 16. And said unto Him, Hearest Thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise?' —MATT. xxi. 1-16.
Jesus spent His last Sabbath in the quiet home at Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters. Some sense of His approaching death tinged the modest festivities of that evening with sadness, and spoke in Mary's 'anointing of His body for the burying.' The pause was brief, and, with the dawn of Sunday, He set Himself again to tread the road to the cross. Who can doubt that He felt the relief of that momentary relaxation of the strain on His spirit, and the corresponding pressure of its renewed tightening? This passage shows Him putting out from the quiet haven and facing the storm again. It is in two main sections, dealing respectively with the royal procession, and the acts of the King in the temple.
I. The procession of the King. The first noteworthy point is that our Lord initiates the whole incident, and deliberately sets Himself to evoke the popular enthusiasm, by a distinct voluntary fulfilment of a Messianic prophecy. The allusion to the prophecy, in His sending for the colt and mounting it, may have escaped the disciples and the crowds of pilgrims; but they rightly caught His intention to make a solemn triumphal entry into the city, and responded with a burst of enthusiasm, which He expected and wished. The poor garments flung hastily on the animals, the travel-stained cloaks cast on the rocky path, the branches of olive and palm waved in the hands, and the tumult of acclaim, which shrilly echoed the words of the psalm, and proclaimed Him to be the Son of David, are all tokens that the crowds hailed Him as their King, and were all permitted and welcomed by Him. All this is in absolute opposition to His usual action, which had been one long effort to damp down inflammable and unspiritual Messianic hopes, and to avoid the very enthusiasm which now surges round Him unchecked. Certainly that calm figure, sitting on the slow-pacing ass, with the noisy multitude pressing round Him, is strangely unlike Him, who hid Himself among the hills when they sought to make Him a King. His action is the more remarkable, if it be remembered that the roads were alive with pilgrims, most of whom passing through Bethany would be Galileans; that they had seen Lazarus walking about the village, and knew who had raised him; that the Passover festival was the time in all the year when popular tumults were to be expected; and that the crowds going to Jerusalem were met by a crowd coming from it, bent on seeing the doer and the subject of the great miracle. Into this heap of combustibles our Lord puts a light. He must have meant that it should blaze as it did.
What is the reason for this contrast? The need for the former reticence no longer existed. There was no fear now of His teaching and ministry being interrupted by popular outburst. He knew that it was finished, and that His hour had come. Therefore, the same motive of filial obedience which had led Him to avoid what would prevent His discharging His Father's commission, now impelled Him to draw the attention of the nation and its rulers to the full extent of His claims, and to put the plain issue of their acceptance or rejection in the most unmistakable manner. A certain divine decorum, if we may so call it, required that once He should enter the city as its King. Some among the shouting crowds might have their enthusiasm purified and spiritualised, if once it were directed to Him. It was for us, no less than for them, that this one interruption of His ordinary method was adopted by Him, that we too might ponder the fact that He laid His hand on that magnificent prophecy, and said, 'It is mine. I am the King.'
The royal procession is also a revelation of the character of the King and the nature of His kingdom. A strange King this, indeed, who has not even an ass of His own, and for followers, peasants with palm branches instead of swords! What would a Roman soldier or one of Herod's men have thought of that rustic procession of a pauper prince on an ass, and a hundred or two of weaponless, penniless men? Christ's one moment of royal pomp is as eloquent of His humiliation as the long stretch of His lowly life is. And yet, as is always the case, side by side with the lowliness there gleams the veiled splendour. He had to borrow the colt, and the message in which He asks for it is a strange paradox. 'The Lord hath need of him'—so great was the poverty of so great a King. But it spoke, too, of a more than human knowledge, and of an authority which had only to require in order to receive. Some farming villager, no doubt, who was a disciple but secretly, gladly yielded his beasts. The prophecy which Matthew quotes, with the omission of some words, from Zechariah, and the addition of the first clause from Isaiah, is symbolic, and would have been amply fulfilled in the mission and character of Christ, though this event had never taken place. But just as it is symbolic, so this external fulfilment, which is intended to point to the real fulfilment, is also symbolic. The chariot and the horse are the emblems of conquerors. It is fitting that the Prince of Peace should make His state entry on a colt, unridden before, and saddled only with a garment. Zechariah meant that Zion's King should not reign by the right of the strongest, and that all His triumphs should be won by lowly meekness. Christ meant the same by His remarkable act. And has not the picture of Him, throned thus, stamped for ever on the imagination of the world a profounder sense of the inmost nature of His kingdom than many words would have done? Have we learned the lesson of the gentleness which belongs to His kingdom, and of the unchristian character of war and violence? Do we understand what the Psalmist meant when he sang, 'In thy majesty ride on prosperously, because of ... meekness'? Let us not forget the other picture, 'Behold, a white horse, and He that sat thereon, called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He doth judge and make war.'
The entry may remind us also of the worthlessness of mere enthusiastic feeling in reference to Jesus Christ. The day was the Sunday. How many of that crowd were shouting as loudly, 'Crucify Him!' and 'Not this man, but Barabbas!' on the Friday? The palm-branches had not faded, where they had been tossed, before the fickle crowd had swung round to the opposite mood. Perhaps the very exuberance of feeling at the beginning, had something to do with the bitterness of the execrations at the end, of the week. He had not answered their expectations, but, instead of heading a revolt, had simply taught in the temple, and meekly let Himself be laid hold of. Nothing succeeds like success, and no idol is so quickly forsaken as the idol of a popular rising. All were eager to disclaim connection with Him, and to efface the remembrance of their Sunday's hosannas by their groans round His gibbet. But there is a wider lesson here. No enthusiasm can be too intense which is based upon a true sense of our need of Christ, and of His work for us; but it is easy to excite apparently religious emotion by partial presentations of Him, and such excitement foams itself away by its very violence, like some Eastern river that in winter time dashes down the wady with irresistible force, and in summer is bone dry. Unless we know Christ to be the Saviour of our souls and the Lamb of God, we shall soon tire of singing hosannas in His train, and want a king with more pretensions; but if we have learned who and what He is to us, then let us open our mouths wide, and not be afraid of letting the world hear our shout of praise.
II. The coming of the King in the temple. The discussion of the accuracy of Matthew's arrangement of events here is unnecessary. He has evidently grouped, as usual, incidents which have a common bearing, and wishes to put these three, of the cleansing, the healing, and the pleasure in the children's praise, as the characteristic acts of the King in the temple. We can scarcely avoid seeing in the first of the three a reference to Malachi's prophecy, 'The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple ... And He shall purify the sons of Levi.' His first act, when in manhood He visited the temple, had been to cleanse. His first act when He enters it as its Lord is the same. The abuse had grown again apace. Much could be said in its vindication, as convenient and harmless, and it was too profitable to be lightly abandoned. But the altar of Mammon so near the altar of God was sacrilege in His eyes, and though He had passed the traders unmolested many times since that first driving out, now that He solemnly comes to claim His rights, He cannot but repeat it. It is perhaps significant that His words now have both a more sovereign and a more severe tone than before. Then He had spoken of 'My Father's house,' now it is 'My house,' which are a part of His quotation indeed, but not therefore necessarily void of reference to Himself. He is exercising the authority of a son over His own house, and bears Himself as Lord of the temple. Before, He charged them with making it a 'house of merchandise'; now, with turning it into a robber's cave. Evil rebuked and done again is worse than before. Trafficking in things pertaining to the altar is even more likely than other trading to cross the not always very well defined line which separates trade from trickery and commerce from theft. That lesson needs to be laid to heart in many quarters now. There is always a fringe of moneyed interests round Christ's Church, seeking gain out of religious institutions; and their stands have a wonderful tendency to creep inwards from the court of the Gentiles to holier places. The parasite grows very quickly, and Christ had to deal with it more than once to keep down its growth. The sellers of doves and changers of money into the sacred shekel were venial offenders compared with many in the Church, and the race is not extinct. If Christ were to come to His house to-day, in bodily form, who doubts that He would begin, as He did before, by driving the traders out of His temple? How many 'most respectable' usages and people would have to go, if He did!
The second characteristic, or we might say symbolical, act is the healing of the blind and lame. Royal state and cleansing severity are wonderfully blended with tender pity and the gentle hand of sovereign virtue to heal. The very manifestation of the former drew the needy to Him; and the blind, though they could not see, and the lame, though they could not walk, managed to grope and hobble their way to Him, not afraid of His severity, nor daunted by His royalty. No doubt they haunted the temple precincts as beggars, with perhaps as little sense of its sacredness as the money-changers; but their misery kindled a flicker of confidence and desire, to which He who tends the dimmest wick till it breaks into clear flame could not but respond. Though in His house He casts out the traders, He will heal the cripples and the blind, who know their need, and faintly trust His heart and power. Such a trait could not be wanting in this typical representation of the acts of the King.
Finally, He encourages and casts the shield of His approval round the children's praises. How natural it is that the children, pleased with the stir and not yet drilled into conventionalism, should have kept up their glad shouts, even inside the temple enclosure! How their fresh treble voices ring yet through all these centuries! The priests had, no doubt, been nursing their wrath at all that had been going on, but they had not dared to interfere with the cleansing, nor, for very shame, with the healings; but now they see their opportunity. This is a clear breach of all propriety, and that is the crime of crimes in the eyes of such people. They had kept quite cool and serenely contemptuous, amid the stir of the glad procession, and they did not much care though He healed some beggars; but to have this unseemly noise, though it was praise, was more than they could stand. Ecclesiastical martinets, and men whose religion is mostly ceremony, are, of course, more 'moved with indignation' at any breach of ceremonial regulations than at holes made in graver laws. Nothing makes men more insensitive to the ring of real worship than being accustomed to the dull decorum of formal worship. Christ answers their 'hearest thou?' with a 'did ye never read?' and shuts their mouths with words so apposite in their plainest meaning that even they are silenced. To Him these young ringing hosannas are 'perfect praise,' and worth any quantity of rabbis' preachments. In their deeper sense, His words declare that the ears of God and of His Son, the Lord of the temple, are more gladly filled with the praises of the 'little ones,' who know their weakness, and hymn His goodness with simple tongue, than with heartless eloquence of words or pomp of worship. The psalm from which the words are taken declares man's superiority over the highest works of God's hands, and the perfecting of the divine praise from his lips. We are but as the little children of creation, but because we know sin and redemption, we lead the chorus of heaven. As St. Bernard says, 'Something is wanting to the praise of heaven, if those be wanting who can say, "We went through fire and through water; and Thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place."' In like manner, those praise Him most acceptably among men who know their feebleness, and with stammering lips humbly try to breathe their love, their need, and their trust.
A NEW KIND OF KING
'All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass.'—MATT. xxi. 4, 5.
Our Lord's entrance into Jerusalem is one of the comparatively few events which are recorded in all the four Gospels. Its singular unlikeness to the rest of His life, and its powerful influence in bringing about the Crucifixion, may account for its prominence in the narratives. It took place probably on the Sunday of Passion Week. Before the palm branches were withered the enthusiasm had died away, and the shouting crowd had found out that this was not the sort of king that they wanted. They might have found that out, even by the very circumstances of the entrance, for they were profoundly significant; though their meaning, like so much of the rest of Christ's life, was less clear to the partakers and spectators than it is to us. 'These things understood not the disciples at the first,' says John in closing his narrative of the entrance, 'but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that they had done these things unto Him.'
My object in this sermon is not at all to attempt a pictorial treatment of this narrative, for these Gospels tell it us a great deal better than any of us can tell it after them; but to seek to bring out, if it may be, two or three aspects of its significance.
I. First, then, I ask you to consider its significance as an altogether exceptional fact in Christ's life.
Throughout the whole of the preceding period, He had had two aims distinctly in view. One was to shun publicity; and the other was to damp down the heated, vulgar anticipations of the multitude, who expected a temporal king. And now here He deliberately, and of set purpose, takes a step which is like flinging a spark into a powder barrel. The nation was assembled in crowds, full of the unwholesome excitement which attended their meeting for the annual feast. All were in a quiver of expectation; and knowing that, Jesus Christ originates this scene by His act of sending the two disciples into the village over against them, to 'bring the ass, and the colt the foal of an ass.' The reasons for a course so entirely opposed to all the preceding must have been strong. Let us try to see what they were.
First, He did it in order to precipitate the conflict which was to end in His death. Now, had He any right to do that? Knowing as He did the ferment of expectation into which He was thrusting this new element of disturbance, and foreseeing, as He must have done, that it would sharpen the hostility of the rulers of the people to a murderous degree, how can He be acquitted of one of two things—either singular shortsightedness or rash foolhardiness in taking such a step? Was He justified, or was He not?
If we are to look at His conduct from ordinary points of view, the answer must certainly be that He was not. And we can only understand this, and all the rest of His actions during the fateful three or four days that followed it, if we recognise in them the fixed resolve of One who knew that His mission was not only to live and to teach by word and life, but to die, and by death to deliver the world. I take it that it is very hard to save the character of Jesus Christ for our reverence if we refuse to regard His death as for our redemption. But if He came, and knew that He came, not only 'to minister' but 'to give His life a ransom for many,' then we can understand how He hastened to the Cross, and deliberately set a light to the train which was to end in that great explosion. On any other hypothesis it seems to me immensely hard to account for His act here.
Then, still further, looking at this distinctly exceptional fact in our Lord's life, we see in it a very emphatic claim to very singular prerogative and position. He not only thereby presented Himself before the nation in their collective capacity as being the King of Israel, but He also did a very strange thing. He dressed Himself, so to speak, in order to fulfil a prophecy. He posed before the world as being the Person who was meant by sacred old words. And His Entrance upon the slow-pacing colt was His voluntary and solemn assertion that He was the Person of whom the whole stream and current of divinely sent premonitions and forecasts had been witnessing from the beginning. He claimed thereby to be the King of Israel and the Fulfiller of the divine promises that were of old.
Now again, I have to ask the question, Was He right, or was He wrong? If He was right, then He is a great deal more than a wise Teacher, and a perfect Example of excellence. If He was wrong, He is a great deal less. There is no escape from that alternative, as it seems to me, but by the desperate expedient of denying that He ever did this thing which this narrative tells us that He did. At all events I beseech you all, dear friends, to take fairly into your account of the character of Jesus Christ, this fact, that He, the meek, the gentle, said that He was meek, and everybody has believed Him; and that once, in the very crisis of His life, and in circumstances which make the act most conspicuous, He who always shunned publicity, nor 'caused His voice to be heard in the streets,' and steadfastly put away from Himself the vulgar homage that would have degraded Him into a mere temporal monarch, did assert that He was the King of Israel and the Fulfiller of prophecy. Ask yourselves, What does that fact mean?
And then, still further, looking at the act as exceptional in our Lord's life, note that it was done in order to make one final, solemn appeal and offer to the men who beheld Him. It was the last bolt in His quiver. All else had failed, perhaps this might succeed. We know not the depths of the mysteries of that divine foreknowledge which, even though it foresees failure, ceases not to plead and to woo obstinate hearts. But this we may thankfully learn, that, just as with despairing hope, but with unremitting energy, Jesus Christ, often rejected, offered Himself once more if perchance He might win men to repentance, so the loving patience and long-suffering of our God cease not to plead ever with us. 'Last of all He sent unto them His Son, saying, They will reverence My Son when they see Him'; and yet the expectation was disappointed, and the Son was slain. We touch deep mysteries, but the persistence of the pleading and rejected love and pity of our God shine through this strange fact.
II. And now, secondly, let me ask you to note its significance as a symbol.
The prophecy which two out of the four evangelists—viz., Matthew and John—regard as having been, in some sense, fulfilled by the Entrance into Jerusalem, would have been fulfilled quite as truly if there had been no Entrance. For the mere detail of the prophecy is but a picturesque way of setting forth its central and essential point—viz., the meekness of the King. So our Lord's fulfilment is only an external, altogether subsidiary, accomplishment of the prophecy; and in fact, like some other of the external correspondences between His life and the outward details of Old Testament prophecy, is intended for little more than a picture or a signpost which may direct our thoughts to the inward correspondence, which is the true fulfilment.
So then, the deed, like the prophecy after which it is moulded, is wholly and entirely of importance in its symbolical aspect.
The symbolism is clear enough. This is a new kind of King. He comes, not mounted on a warhorse, or thundering across the battlefield in a scythe-armed chariot, like the Pharaohs and the Assyrian monarchs, who have left us their vainglorious monuments, but mounted on the emblem of meekness, patience, gentleness, and peace. And He is a pauper King, for He has to borrow the beast on which He rides, and His throne is draped with the poor, perhaps ragged, robes of a handful of fishermen. And His attendants are not warriors bearing spears, but peasants with palm branches. And the salutation of His royalty is not the blare of trumpets, but the 'Hosanna!' from a thousand throats. That is not the sort of King that the world calls a King. The Roman soldiers might well have thought they were perpetrating an exquisite jest when they thrust the reed into His unresisting hand, and crushed down the crown of thorns on His bleeding brows.
But the symbol discloses the very secret of His Kingdom, the innermost mysteries of His own character and of the forces to which He intrusts the further progress of His word. Gentleness is royal and omnipotent; force and violence are feeble. The Lord is in the still, small voice, not in the earthquake, nor the fire, nor the mighty wind. The dove's light pinion will fly further than the wings of Rome's eagles, with their strong talons and blood-dyed beaks. And the kingdom that is established in meekness, and rules by gentleness and for gentleness, and has for its only weapons the power of love and the omnipotence of patience, that is the kingdom which shall be eternal and universal.
Now all that is a great deal more than pretty sentiment; it has the closest practical bearing upon our lives. How slow God's Church has been to believe that the strength of Christ's kingdom is meekness! Professing Christian men have sought to win the world to their side, and by wealth or force or persecution, or this, that, or the other of the weapons out of the world's armoury, to promote the kingdom of Christ. But it has all been in vain. There is only one power that conquers hate, and that is meek love. There is only one way by which Christ's kingdom can stand firm, and that is its unworldly contrast to all the manner of human dominion. Wheresoever God's Church has allied itself with secular sovereignties, and trusted in the arm of flesh, there has the fine gold become dimmed. Endurance wears out persecution, patient submission paralyses hostile violence, for you cannot keep on striking down unresisting crowds with the sword. The Church of Christ is an anvil that has been beaten upon by many hammers, and it has worn them all out. Meekness is victorious, and the kingdom of Christ can only be advanced by the faithful proclamation of His gentle love, from lips that are moved by hearts which themselves are conformed to His patient image.
Then, still further, let me remind you that this symbol carries in it, as it seems to me, the lesson of the radical incompatibility of war with Christ's kingdom and dominion. It has taken the world all these centuries to begin to learn that lesson. But slowly men are coming to it, and the day will dawn when all the pomp of warfare, and the hell of evil passions from which it comes, and which it stimulates, will be felt to be as utterly incompatible with the spirit of Christianity as slavery is felt to-day. The prophecy which underlies our symbol is very significant in this respect. Immediately upon that vision of the meek King throned on the colt the foal of an ass, follows this: 'And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horses from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.'
Let me beseech you, Christian men and women, to lay to heart the duty of Christ's followers in reference to the influence and leavening of public opinion upon this matter, and to see to it that, in so far as we can help, we set ourselves steadfastly against that devilish spirit which still oppresses with an incubus almost intolerable, the nations of so-called Christendom. Lift up your voices be not afraid, but cry, 'We are the followers of the Prince of Peace, and we war against the war that is blasphemy against His dominion.'
And so, still further, note the practical force of this symbol as influencing our own conduct. We are the followers of the meek Christ. It becomes us to walk in all meekness and gentleness. 'Spirited conduct' is the world's euphemism for unchristian conduct, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred. The perspective of virtue has altered since Jesus Christ taught us how to love. The old heathen virtues of magnanimity, fortitude, and the like have 'with shame to take a lower room.' There is something better than these. The saint has all the virtues of the old heathen hero, and some more besides, which are higher than these, and those which he has in common, he has in different proportion. The flaunting tulips and peonies of the garden of the world seem to outshine the white snowdrops and the glowing, modest little violets below their leaves, but the former are vulgar, and they drop very soon, and the latter, if paler and more delicate, are refined in their celestial beauty. The slow-pacing steed on which Jesus Christ rides will out-travel the fiery warhorse, and will pursue its patient, steadfast path till He 'bring forth righteousness unto judgment,' and 'all the upright in heart shall follow Him.'
III. Lastly, notice the significance of this fact as a prophecy. It was, as I have pointed out, the last solemn appeal to the nation, and in a very real sense it was Christ's coming to judgment. It is impossible to look at it without seeing, besides all its other meanings, gleaming dimly through it, the anticipations of that other coming, when the Lord Himself 'shall descend with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel, and the trump of God.'
Let me bring into connection with the scene of my text three others, gathered from various parts of Scripture. In the forty-fifth Psalm we find, side by side with the great words, 'Ride on prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness,' the others, 'Thine arrows are sharp in the hearts of the king's enemies; the people shall fall under Thee.' Now, though it is possible that that later warlike figure may be merely the carrying out of the thought which is more gently put before us in the former words, still it looks as if there were two sides to the conquering manifestation of the king—one being in 'meekness and truth and righteousness,' and the other in some sense destructive and punitive.
But, however that may be, my second scene is drawn from the last book of Scripture, where we read that, when the first seal was opened, there rode forth a Figure, crowned, mounted upon a white steed, bearing bow and arrow, 'conquering and to conquer.' And, though that again may be but an image of the victorious progress of the gentle Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the whole earth, still it comes as one in a series of judgments, and may rather be taken to express the punitive effects which follow its proclamation even here and now.
But there can be no doubt with regard to the third of the scenes which I connect with the incident of which we are discoursing: 'And I saw heaven opened, and beheld a white horse; and He that sat upon Him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness doth He judge and make war.... And out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations; and He shall rule them with a rod of iron; and He treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.' That is the Christ who came into Jerusalem on the colt the foal of an ass. That is the Christ who is meek and long-suffering. There is a reserve of punitive and destructive power in the meek King. And oh I what can be so terrible as the anger of meekness, the wrath of infinite gentleness? In the triumphal entry, we find that, when the procession turned the rocky shoulder of Olivet, and the long line of the white city walls, with the gilding of the Temple glittering in the sunshine, burst upon their view, the multitude lifted up their voices in gladness. But Christ sat there, and as He looked across the valley, and beheld, with His divine prescience, the city, now so joyous and full of stir, sitting solitary and desolate, He lifted up His voice in loud wailing. The Christ wept because He must punish, but He punished though He wept.
Our Judge is the gentle Jesus, therefore we can hope. The gentle Jesus is our Judge, therefore let us not presume. I beseech you, brethren, lay, as these poor people did their garments, your lusts and proud wills in His way, and join the welcoming shout that hails the King, 'meek and having salvation.' And then, when He comes forth to judge and to destroy, you will not be amongst the ranks of the enemies, whom He will ride down and scatter, but amongst 'the armies that follow Him, ... clothed in fine linen, clean and pure.'
'Kiss the Son lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.'
THE VINEYARD AND ITS KEEPERS
'Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: 34. And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. 35. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. 36. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. 37. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. 38. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. 39. And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. 40. When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh what will he do unto those husbandmen? 41. They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. 42. Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? 43. Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. 44. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. 45. And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard His parables, they perceived that He spake of them. 46. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitude, because they took Him for a prophet.'—MATT. xxi. 33-46.
This parable was apparently spoken on the Tuesday of the Passion Week. It was a day of hand-to-hand conflict with the Jewish authorities and of exhausting toil, as the bare enumeration of its incidents shows. It included all that Matthew records between verse 20 of this chapter and the end of the twenty-fifth chapter—the answer to the deputation from the Sanhedrin; the three parables occasioned by it, namely, those of the two sons, this one, and that of the marriage of the king's son; the three answers to the traps of the Pharisees and Herodians about the tribute, of the Sadducees about the resurrection, and of the ruler about the chief commandment; Christ's question to His questioners about the Son and Lord of David; the stern woes hurled at the unmasked hypocrites; to which must be added, from other gospels, the sweet eulogium on the widow's mite, and the deep saying to the Greeks about the corn of wheat, with, possibly, the incident of the woman taken in adultery; and then, following all these, the solemn prophecies of the end contained in Matthew xxiv. and xxv., spoken on the way to Bethany, as the evening shadows were falling. What a day! What a fountain of wisdom and love which poured out such streams! The pungent severity of this parable, with its transparent veil of narrative, is only appreciated by keeping clearly in view the circumstances and the listeners. They had struck at Jesus with their question as to His authority, and He parries the blow. Now it is His turn, and the sharp point goes home.
I. The first stage is the preparation of the vineyard, in which three steps are marked. It is planted and furnished with all appliances needful for making wine, which is its great end. The direct divine origin of the religious ideas and observances of 'Judaism' is thus asserted by Christ. The only explanation of them is that God enclosed that bit of the wilderness, and with His own hands set growing there these exotics. Neither the theology nor the ritual is of man's establishing. We need not seek for special meanings for wall, wine-press, and tower. They simply express the completeness of the equipment of the vineyard, as in Isaiah's song, which lies at the foundation of the parable, and suggest his question, 'What could have been done more?'
Thus furnished, the vineyard is next handed over to the husbandmen, who, in Matthew, are exclusively the rulers, while in Luke they are the people. No doubt it was 'like people, like priest.' The strange dominion of the Pharisees rested entirely on popular consent, and their temper accurately indexed that of the nation. The Sanhedrin was the chief object at which Christ aimed the parable. But it only gave form and voice to the national spirit, and 'the people loved to have it so.' National responsibilities are not to be slipped out of by being shifted on to the broad shoulders of governments or influential men. Who lets them be governments and influential?
'Guv'ment ain't to answer for it, God will send the bill to you.'
Christ here teaches both rulers and ruled the ground and purpose of their privileges. They prided themselves on these as their own, but they were only tenants. They made their 'boast of the law'; but they forgot that fruit was the end of the divine planting and equipment. Holiness and glad obedience were what God sought, and when He found them, He was refreshed as with 'grapes in the wilderness.'
Having installed the husbandmen, the owner goes into another country. The cluster of miracles which inaugurate an epoch of revelation are not continued beyond its beginning. Centuries of comparative divine silence followed the planting of the vineyard. Having given us our charge, God, as it were, steps aside to leave us room to work as we will, and so to display what we are made of. He is absent in so far as conspicuous oversight and retribution are concerned. He is present to help, love, and bless. The faithful husbandman has Him always near, a joy and a strength, else no fruit would grow; but the sin and misery of the unfaithful are that they think of Him as far off.
II. Then comes the habitual ill-treatment of the messengers. These are, of course, the prophets, whose office was not only to foretell, but to plead for obedience and trust, the fruits sought by God. The whole history of the nation is summed up in this dark picture. Generation after generation of princes, priests, and people had done the same thing. There is no more remarkable historical fact than that of the uniform hostility of the Jews to the prophets. That a nation of such a sort as always to hate and generally to murder them should have had them in long succession, throughout its history, is surely inexplicable on any naturalistic hypothesis. Such men were not the natural product of the race, nor of its circumstances, as their fate shows. How did they spring up? No 'philosophy of Jewish history' explains the anomaly except the one stated here,—'He sent His servants.' We are told nowadays that the Jews had a natural genius for religion, just as the Greeks for art and thought, and the Romans for law and order, and that that explains the origin of the prophets. Does it explain their treatment?
The hostility of the husbandmen grows with indulgence. From beating they go on to killing, and stoning is a specially savage form of killing. The opposition which began, as the former parable tells us, with polite hypocrisy and lip obedience, changed, under the stimulus of prophetic appeals, to honest refusal, and from that to violence which did not hesitate to slay. The more God pleads with men, the more self-conscious and bitter becomes their hatred; and the more bitter their hatred, the more does He plead, sending other messengers, more perhaps in number, or possibly of more weight, with larger commission and clearer light. Thus both the antagonistic forces grow, and the worse men become, the louder and more beseeching is the call of God to them. That is always true; and it is also ever true that he who begins with 'I go, sir, and goes not, is in a fair way to end with stoning the prophets.
Christ treats the whole long series of violent rejections as the acts of the same set of husbandmen. The class or nation was one, as a stream is one, though all its particles are different; and the Pharisees and scribes, who stood with frowning hatred before Him as He spoke, were the living embodiment of the spirit which had animated all the past. In so far as they inherited their taint, and repeated their conduct, the guilt of all the former generations was laid at their door. They declared themselves their predecessors' heirs; and as they reproduced their actions, they would have to bear the accumulated weight of the consequences.
III. Verses 37-39 tell of the mission of the Son and of its fatal issue. Three points are prominent in them. The first is the unique position which Christ here claims, with unwonted openness and decisiveness, as apart from and far above all the prophets. They constitute one order, but He stands alone, sustaining a closer relation to God. They were faithful 'as servants,' but He 'as a Son,' or, as Mark has it, 'the only and beloved Son.' The listeners understood Him well enough. The assertion, which seemed audacious blasphemy to them, fitted in with all His acts in that last week, which was not only the crisis of His life, but of the nation's fate. Rulers and people must decide whether they will own or reject their King, and they must do it with their eyes open. Jesus claimed to fill a unique position. Was He right or wrong in His claim? If He was wrong, what becomes of His wisdom, His meekness, His religion? Is a religious teacher, who made the mistake of thinking that He was the Son of God in a sense in which no other man is so, worthy of admiration? If He was right, what becomes of a Christianity which sees in Him only the foremost of the prophets?
The next point marked is the owner's vain hope, in sending his Son. He thought that He would be welcomed, and He was disappointed. It was His last attempt. Christ knew Himself to be God's last appeal, as He is to all men, as well as to that generation. He is the last arrow in God's quiver. When it has shot that bolt, the resources even of divine love are exhausted, and no more can be done for the vineyard than He has done for it. We need not wonder at unfulfilled hopes being here ascribed to God. The startling thought only puts into language the great mystery which besets all His pleadings with men, which are carried on, though they often fail, and which must, therefore, in view of His foreknowledge, be regarded as carried on with the knowledge that they will fail. That is the long-suffering patience of God. The difficulty is common to the words of the parable and to the facts of God's unwearied pleading with impenitent men. Its surface is a difficulty, its heart is an abyss of all-hoping charity.
The last point is the vain calculation of the husbandmen. Christ puts hidden motives into plain words, and reveals to these rulers what they scarcely knew of their own hearts. Did they, in their secret conclaves, look each other in the face, and confess that He was the Heir? Did He not Himself ground His prayer for their pardon on their ignorance? But their ignorance was not entire, else they had had no sin; neither was their knowledge complete, else they had had no pardon. Beneath many an obstinate denial of Him lies a secret confession, or misgiving, which more truly speaks the man than does the loud negation. And such strange contradictions are men, that the secret conviction is often the very thing which gives bitterness and eagerness to the hostility. So it was with some of those whose hidden suspicions are here set in the light. How was the rulers' or the people's wish to 'seize on His inheritance' their motive for killing Jesus? Their great sin was their desire to have their national prerogatives, and yet to give no true obedience. The ruling class clung to their privileges and forgot their responsibilities, while the people were proud of their standing as Jews, and careless of God's service. Neither wished to be reminded of their debt to the Lord of the vineyard, and their hostility to Jesus was mainly because He would call on them for fruits. If they could get this unwelcome and persistent voice silenced, they could go on in the comfortable old fashion of lip-service and real selfishness. It is an account, in vividly parabolic language, not only of their hostility, but of that of many men who are against Him. They wish to possess life and its good, without being for ever pestered with reminders of the terms on which they hold it, and of God's desire for their love and obedience. They have a secret feeling that Christ has the right to ask for their hearts, and so they often turn from Him angrily, and sometimes hate Him.
With what sad calmness does Jesus tell the fate of the son, so certain that it is already as good as done! It was done in their counsels, and yet He does not cease to plead, if perchance some hearts may be touched and withdraw themselves from the confederacy of murder.
IV. We have next the self-condemnation from unwilling lips. Our Lord turns to the rulers with startling and dramatic suddenness, which may have thrown them off their guard, so that their answer leaped out before they had time to think whom it hit. His solemn earnestness laid a spell on them, which drew their own condemnation from them, though they had penetrated the thin veil of the parable, and knew full well who the husbandmen were. Nor could they refuse to answer a question about legal punishments for dishonesty, which was put to them, the fountains of law, without incurring a second time the humiliation just inflicted when He had forced them to acknowledge that they, the fountains of knowledge, did not know where John came from. So from all these motives, and perhaps from a mingling of audacity, which would brazen it out and pretend not to see the bearing of the question, they answer. Like Caiaphas in his counsel, and Pilate with his writing on the Cross, and many another, they spoke deeper things than they knew, and confessed beforehand how just the judgments were, which followed the very lines marked out by their own words.
V. Then come the solemn application and naked truth of the parable. We have no need to dwell on the cycle of prophecies concerning the corner-stone, nor on the original application of the psalm. We must be content with remarking that our Lord, in this last portion of His address, throws away even the thin veil of parable, and speaks the sternest truth in the nakedest words. He puts His own claim in the plainest fashion, as the corner-stone on which the true kingdom of God was to be built. He brands the men who stood before Him as incompetent builders, who did not know the stone needed for their edifice when they saw it. He declares, with triumphant confidence, the futility of opposition to Himself—even though it kill Him. He is sure that God will build on Him, and that His place in the building, which shall rise through the ages, will be, to even careless eyes, the crown of the manifest wonders of God's hand. Strange words from a Man who knew that in three days He would be crucified! Stranger still that they have come true! He is the foundation of the best part of the best men; the basis of thought, the motive for action, the pattern of life, the ground of hope, for countless individuals; and on Him stands firm the society of His Church, and is hung all the glory of His Father's house.
Christ confirms the sentence just spoken by the rulers on themselves, but with the inversion of its clauses. All disguise is at an end. The fatal 'you' is pronounced. The husbandmen's calculation had been that killing the heir would make them lords of the vineyard; the grim fact was that they cast themselves out when they cast him out. He is the heir. If we desire the inheritance, we must get it through Him, and not kill or reject, but trust and obey Him. The sentence declares the two truths, that possession of the vineyard depends on honouring the Son, and on bringing forth the fruits. The kingdom has been taken from the churches of Asia Minor, Africa, and Syria, because they bore no fruit. It is not held by us on other conditions. Who can venture to speak of the awful doom set forth in the last words here? It has two stages: one a lesser misery, which is the lot of him who stumbles against the stone, while it lies passive to be built on; one more dreadful, when it has acquired motion and comes down with irresistible impetus. To stumble at Christ, or to refuse His grace, and not to base our lives and hopes on Him is maiming and damage, in many ways, here and now. But suppose the stone endowed with motion, what can stand against it? And suppose that the Christ, who is now offered for the rock on which we may pile our hopes and never be confounded, comes to judge, will He not crush the mightiest opponent as the dust of the summer threshing-floor?
THE STONE OF STUMBLING
'Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.'—MATT. xxi. 44.
As Christ's ministry drew to its close, its severity and its gentleness both increased; its severity to the class to whom it was always severe, and its gentleness to the class from whom it never turned away. Side by side, through all His manifestation of Himself, there were the two aspects: 'He showed Himself froward' (if I may quote the word) to the self-righteous and the Pharisee; and He bent with more than a woman's tenderness of yearning love over the darkness and sinfulness, which in its great darkness dimly knew itself blind, and in its sinfulness stretched out a lame hand of faith, and groped after a divine deliverer. Here, in my text, there are only words of severity and awful foreboding. Christ has been telling those Pharisees and priests that the kingdom is to be taken from them, and given to a nation that brings forth the fruits thereof. He interprets for them an Old Testament figure, often recurring, which we read in the 118th Psalm (and I may just say, in passing, that we get here His interpretation of that psalm, and the vindication of our application of it, and other similar ones, to Him and His office); 'The stone which the builders rejected,' said He, 'is become the head of the corner'; and then, falling back on other Old Testament uses of the same figure, He weaves into one the whole of them—that in Isaiah about the 'sure foundation,' and that in Daniel about 'the stone cut out without hands, which became a great mountain,' crushing down all opposition,—and centres them all in Himself; as fulfilled in Himself, in His person and His work.
The two clauses of my text figuratively point to two different classes of operation on the rejecters of the Gospel. What are these two classes? 'Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.' In the one case, the stone is represented as passive, lying quiet; in the other, it has acquired motion. In the one case, the man stumbles and hurts himself; a remediable injury, a self-inflicted injury, a natural injury, without the active operation of Christ to produce it at all; in the other case the injury is worse than remediable, it is utter, absolute, grinding destruction, and it comes from the active operation of the 'stone of stumbling.' That is to say, the one class represents the present hurts and harms which, by the natural operation of things, without the action of Christ judicially at all, every man receives in the very act of rejecting the Gospel; and the other represents the ultimate issue of that rejection, which rejection is darkened into opposition and fixed hostility, when the stone that was laid 'for a foundation' has got wings (if I may so say), and comes down in judgment, crushing and destroying the antagonist utterly. 'Whosoever falls on this stone is broken,' here and now; and 'on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder,' hereafter and yonder.
Taking, then, into account the weaving together in this passage of the three figures from the Old Testament to which I have already referred,—the rejected stone, the foundation, and the mountain-stone of Daniel, and looking in the light of these, at the twofold issues, one present and one future, which the text distinctly brings before us,—we have just three points to which I ask your attention now. First, Every man has some kind of contact with Christ. Secondly, Rejection of Him, here and now, is harm and maiming. And, lastly, Rejection of Him, hereafter and yonder, is hopeless, endless, utter destruction.
I. In the first place, every man has some kind of connection with Christ.
I am not going to enter at all now upon any question about the condition of the 'dark places of the earth' where the Gospel has not come as a well-known preached message; we have nothing to do with that; the principles on which they are judged is not the question before us now. I am speaking exclusively about persons who have heard the word of salvation, and are dwelling in the midst of what we call a Christian land. Christ is offered to each of us, in good faith on God's part, as a means of salvation, a foundation on which we may build. A man is free to accept or to reject that offer. If he reject it, he has not thereby cut himself off from all contact and connection with that rejected Saviour, but he still sustains a relation to Him; and the message that he has refused to believe, is exercising an influence upon his character and his destiny.
Christ comes, I say, offered to us all in good faith on the part of God, as a foundation upon which we may build. And then comes in that strange mystery, that a man, consciously free, turns away from the offered mercy, and makes Him that was intended to be the basis of his life, the foundation of his hope, the rock on which, steadfast and serene, he should build up a temple-home for his soul to dwell in,—makes Him a stumbling-stone against which, by rejection and unbelief, he breaks himself!
My friend, will you let me lay this one thing upon your heart,—you cannot hinder the Gospel from influencing you somehow. Taking it in its lowest aspects, it is one of the forces of modern society, an element in our present civilisation. It is everywhere, it obtrudes itself on you at every turn, the air is saturated with its influence. To be unaffected by such an all-pervading phenomenon is impossible. To no individual member of the great whole of a nation is it given to isolate himself utterly from the community. Whether he oppose or whether he acquiesce in current opinions, to denude himself of the possessions which belong in common to his age and state of society is in either case impracticable. 'That which cometh into your mind,' said one of the prophets to the Jews who were trying to cut themselves loose from their national faith and their ancestral prerogatives, 'That which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries to serve wood and stone.' Vain dream! You can no more say, I will pass the Gospel by, and it shall be nothing to me, I will simply let it alone, than you can say, I will shut myself up from other influences proper to my time and nation. You cannot go back to the old naked barbarism, and you cannot reduce the influence of Christianity, even considered merely as one of the characteristics of the times, to zero. You may fancy you are letting it alone, but it does not let you alone; it is here, and you cannot shut yourself off from it.
But it is not merely as a subtle and diffused influence that the Gospel exercises a permanent effect upon us. It is presented to each of us here individually, in the definite form of an actual offer of salvation for each, and of an actual demand of trust from each. The words pass into our souls, and thenceforward we can never be the same as if they had not been there. The smallest ray of light falling on a sensitive plate produces a chemical change that can never be undone again, and the light of Christ's love, once brought to the knowledge and presented for the acceptance of a soul, stamps on it an ineffaceable sign of its having been there. The Gospel once heard, is always the Gospel which has been heard. Nothing can alter that. Once heard, it is henceforward a perpetual element in the whole condition, character, and destiny of the hearer.
Christ does something to every one of us. His Gospel will tell upon you, it is telling upon you. If you disbelieve it, you are not the same as if you had never heard it. Never is the box of ointment opened without some savour from it abiding in every nostril to which its odour is wafted. Only the alternative, the awful 'either, or,' is open for each—the 'savour of life unto life, or the savour of death unto death.' To come back to the illustration of the text, Christ is something, and does something to every one of us. He is either the rock on which I build, poor, weak, sinful creature as I am, getting security, and sanctity, and strength from Him, I being a living stone' built upon 'the living stone,' and partaking of the vitality of the foundation; or else He is the other thing, 'a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to them which stumble at the word.' Christ stands for ever in some kind of relation to, and exercises for ever some kind of influence on, every man who has heard the Gospel.
II. The immediate issue of rejection of Him is loss and maiming.
'Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken.' Just think for a moment, by way of illustrating this principle, first of all, of the positive harm which you do to yourself in the act of turning away from the mercy offered you in Christ; and then think for a moment of the negative loss which you sustain by the same act.
Note the positive harm. Am I uncharitable when I say that no man ever yet passively neglected the message of love in God's Son; but that always this is the rude outline of the experience of people who know what it is to have a Saviour offered to them, and know what it is to put Him away,—that there is a feeble and transitory movement of heart and will; that Conscience says, 'Thou oughtest'; that Will says, 'I would'; that the heart is touched by some sense of that great and gentle vision of light and love which passes before the eye; that the man, as it were, like some fever-ridden patient, lifts himself up for an instant from the bed on which he is lying, and puts out a hand, and then falls back again, the vacillating, fevered, paralysed will recoiling from the resolution, and the conscience having power to say, 'Thou oughtest,' but no power to enforce the execution of its decrees, and the heart turning away from the salvation that it would have found in the love of love, to the loss that it finds in the love of self and earth? Or in other words, is it not true that every man who rejects Christ does in simple verity reject Him, and not merely neglect Him; that there is always an effort, that there is a struggle, feeble, perhaps, but real, which ends in the turning away? It is not that you stand there, and simply let Him go past. That were bad enough; but the fact is worse than that. It is that you turn your back upon Him. It is not that His hand is laid on yours, and yours remains dead and cold, and does not open to clasp it; but it is that His hand being laid on yours, you clench yours the tighter, and will not have it. And so every man (I believe) who rejects Christ does these things thereby—wounds his own conscience, hardens his own heart, makes himself a worse man, just because he has had a glimpse, and has willingly, and almost consciously, 'loved darkness rather than light.' Oh, brethren, the message of love can never come into a human soul, and pass away from it unreceived, without leaving that spirit worse, with all its lowest characteristics strengthened, and all its best ones depressed, by the fact of rejection. I have nothing to do now with pursuing that process to its end; but the natural result—if there were no future Judgment at all, if there were no movement ever given to the stone that you ought to build on—the natural result of the simple rejection of the Gospel is that, bit by bit, all the lingering remains of nobleness that hover about the man, like scent about a broken vase, pass away; and that, step by step, through the simple process of saying, 'I will not have Christ to rule over me,' the whole being degenerates, until manhood becomes devil-hood, and the soul is lost by its own want of faith. Unbelief is its own judgment; unbelief is its own condemnation; unbelief, as sin, is punished, like all other sins, by the perpetuation of deeper and darker forms of itself. Every time that you stifle a conviction, fight down a conviction, or drive away a conviction; and every time that you feebly move towards the decision, 'I will trust Him, and love Him, and be His,' yet fail to realise it, you have harmed your soul, you have made yourself a worse man, you have lowered the tone of your conscience, you have enfeebled your will, you have made your heart harder against love, you have drawn another horny scale over the eye, that will prevent you from seeing the light that is yonder; you have, as much as in you is, withdrawn from God, and approximated to the other pole of the universe (if I may say that), to the dark and deadly antagonist of mercy, and goodness, and truth, and grace. 'Whosoever falls on this stone,' by the natural result of his unbelief, 'shall be broken' and maimed, and shall mar his own nature.
I need not dwell on the negative evil results of unbelief; the loss of that which is the only guide for a man, the taking away, or rather the failing to possess, that great love above us, that divine Spirit in us, by which only we are ever made what we ought to be. This only I would leave with you, in this part of my subject, Whoever is not in Christ is maimed. Only he that is 'a man in Christ' has come 'to the measure of the stature of a perfect man.' There, and there alone, do we get the power which will make us full-grown. There alone is the soul planted in that good soil in which, growing, it becomes as a rounded, perfect tree, with leaves and fruits in their season. All other men are half-men, quarter-men, fragments of men, parts of humanity exaggerated and contorted and distorted from the reconciling whole which the Christian ought to be, and in proportion to his Christianity is on the road to be, and one day will assuredly and actually be, a 'complete and entire man, wanting nothing'; nothing maimed, nothing broken, the realisation of the ideal of humanity, the renewed copy 'of the second Adam, the Lord from heaven.'
There is another consideration closely connected with this second part of my subject, that I just mention and pass on. Not only by the act of rejection of Christ do we harm and maim ourselves, but also all attempts at opposition—formal opposition—to the Gospel as a system, stand self-convicted and self-condemned to speedy decay. What a commentary upon that word, 'Whosoever falls on this stone shall be broken,' is the whole history of the heresies of the Church and the assaults of unbelief! Man after man, rich in gifts, endowed often with far larger and nobler faculties than the people who oppose him, with indomitable perseverance, a martyr to his error, sets himself up against the truth that is sphered in Jesus Christ; and the great divine message simply goes on its way, and all the babblement and noise are like so many bats flying against a light, or like the sea-birds that come sweeping up in the tempest and the night, to the hospitable Pharos that is upon the rock, and smite themselves dead against it. Sceptics well known in their generation, who made people's hearts tremble for the ark of God, what has become of them? Their books lie dusty and undisturbed on the top shelf of libraries; whilst there the Bible stands, with all the scribblings wiped off the page, as though they had never been! Opponents fire their small shot against the great Rock of Ages, and the little pellets fall flattened, and only scale off a bit of the moss that has gathered there! My brother, let the history of the past teach you and me, with other deeper thoughts, a very calm and triumphant confidence about all that opponents say nowadays; for all the modern opposition to this Gospel will go as all the past has done, and the newest systems which cut and carve at Christianity, will go to the tomb where all the rest have gone; and dead old infidelities will rise up from their thrones, and say to the bran-new ones of this generation, when their day is worked out, 'Are ye also become weak as we? art thou also become like one of us?' 'Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken': personally, he will be harmed; and his opinions, and his books, and his talk, and all his argumentation, will come to nothing, like the waves that break into impotent foam against the rocky cliffs.
III. Last of all, the issue, the ultimate issue, of unbelief is irremediable destruction when Christ begins to move.
The former clause has spoken about the harm that naturally follows unbelief whilst the Gospel is being preached; the latter clause speaks about the active agency of Christ when the end shall have come, and the preaching of the Gospel shall have merged into the act of judgment. I do not mean to dwell, brethren, upon that thought; it seems to me far too awful a one to be handled by my hands, at any rate. Let us leave it in the vagueness and dreadfulness of the words of Him who never spoke exaggerated words, and who, when He said, 'It shall grind him to powder,' meant (as it seems to me) nothing less than a destruction which, contrasted with the former remediable wounding and breaking, was a destruction utter, and hopeless, and everlasting, and without remedy. Ground—ground to powder! Any life left in that? any gathering up of that, and making a man of it again? All the humanity battered out of it, and the life clean gone from it! Does not that sound very much like 'everlasting destruction from the presence of God and from the glory of His power'? Christ, silent now, will begin to speak; passive now, will begin to act. The stone comes down, and the fall of it will be awful. I remember, away up in a lonely Highland valley, where beneath a tall black cliff, all weather-worn, and cracked, and seamed, there lies at the foot, resting on the greensward that creeps round its base, a huge rock, that has fallen from the face of the precipice. A shepherd was passing beneath it; and suddenly, when the finger of God's will touched it, and rent it from its ancient bed in the everlasting rock, it came down, leaping and bounding from pinnacle to pinnacle—and it fell; and the man that was beneath it is there now! 'Ground to powder.' Ah, my brethren, that is not my illustration—that is Christ's. Therefore I say to you, since all that stand against Him shall become 'as the chaff of the summer threshing-floor,' and be swept utterly away, make Him the foundation on which you build; and when the storm sweeps away every 'refuge of lies,' you will be safe and serene, builded upon the Rock of Ages.
TWO WAYS OF DESPISING GOD'S FEAST
'And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said, 2. The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, 3. And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. 4. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. 6. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise; 6. 'And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. 7. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. & Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. 9. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. 10. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. 11. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding-garment: 12. And he saith unto him, Friend, how earnest thou in hither not having a wedding-garment? And he was speechless. 13. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 14. For many are called, but few are chosen.'—MATT. xxii. 1-14.
This parable, and the preceding one of the vine-dressers, make a pair. They are closely connected in time, as well as subject. 'Jesus answered.' What? Obviously, the unspoken murderous hate, restrained by fear, which had been raised in the rulers' minds, and flashed in their eyes, and moved in their gestures. Christ answers it by repeating His blow; for the present parable is, in outline, identical with the preceding, though differing in colouring, and carrying its thoughts farther. That stopped with the transference of the kingdom to the Gentiles; this passes on to speak also of the development among the Gentiles, and ends with the law 'many called, few chosen,' which is exemplified in Jew and Gentile. There are, then, two parts in it: verses 1-9 covering the same ground as the former; verses 10-14 adding new matter.
I. The judgment on those who refuse the offered joys of the kingdom. In the previous parable, the kingdom was presented on the side of duty and service. The call was to render obedience. The vineyard was a sphere for toil. The owner had given it indeed, but, having given, he required. That is only half the truth, and the least joyful half. So this parable dismisses all ideas of work, duty, service, requirement, and instead gives the emblem of a marriage feast as the picture of the kingdom. It therein unites two familiar prophetic images for the Messianic times—those of a festival and of a marriage. As Luther says, 'He calls it a marriage feast, not a time of toil or a time of sorrow, but a time of holiday and a time of joy; in which we make ourselves fine, sing, play, dance, eat, drink, are glad, and have a good time; else it would not be a wedding feast, if people were to be working, mourning, or crying. Therefore, Christ calls His Christianity and gospel by the name of the highest joy on earth; namely, by the name of a marriage feast.' How pathetic this designation of His kingdom is on Christ's lips, when we remember how near His bitter agony He stood, and that He tasted its bitterness already! It is not the whole truth any more than the vineyard emblem is. Both must be united in our idea of the kingdom, as both may be in experience. It is possible to be at once toiling among the vines in the hot sunshine, and feasting at the table. The Christian life is not all grinding at heavy tasks, nor all enjoyment of spiritual refreshment; but our work may be so done as to be our 'meat'—as it was His—and our glad repose may be unbroken even in the midst of toil. We are, at one and the same time, labourers in the king's vineyard, and guests at the king's table; and the same duality will, in some unknown fashion, continue in the perfect kingdom, where there will be both work and feasting, and all the life shall be both in one.
The second point to be noticed is the invitations of the king. There had been an invitation before the point at which the parable begins, for the servants are sent to summon those who had already been 'called.' That calling, which lies beyond the horizon of our parable, is the whole series of agencies in Old Testament times. So this parable begins almost where the former leaves off. They only slightly overlap. The first servants here are Christ Himself, and His followers in their ministry during His life; and the second set are the apostles and preachers of the gospel during the period between the completion of the preparation of the feast (that is, the death of Christ) and the destruction of Jerusalem. The characteristic difference of their message from that of the servants in the former parable, embodies the whole difference between the preaching of the prophets, as messengers demanding the fruit of righteousness, and the glad tidings of a gospel of free grace which does not demand, but offers, and does not say 'obey' until it has said 'eat, and be glad.' The reiterated invitations not only correspond to the actual facts, but, like the facts, set the miracle of God's patience in a still brighter light than the former story did; for while it is wonderful that the lord of the vineyard should stoop to ask so often for fruit, it is far more wonderful that the founder of the feast, who is king too, should stoop to offer over and over again the refused abundance of his table.
Mark, further, the refusal of the invitations: 'They would not (or "did not wish to") come.' That is Christ's gentle way of describing the unbelief of His generation. It is the second set of refusers who are painted in darker colours. We are accustomed to think that the sin of His contemporaries was great beyond parallel, but he seems here to hint that the sin of those who reject Him after the Cross and the Resurrection, is blacker than theirs. At any rate, it clearly is so. But note that the parable speaks as if the refusers were the same persons throughout, thus taking the same point of view as the former one did, and regarding the generations of the Jews as one whole. There is a real unity, though the individuals be different, if the spirit actuating successive generations be the same.
Note the two classes of rejecters. The first simply pay no attention, because their heads are full of business. They do not even speak more or less lame excuses, as the refusers in Luke's similar parable had the decency to do. The king's messenger addresses a group, who pause on their road for a moment, to listen listlessly to what he has to say, and, when he has done, disperse without a word, each man going on his road, as if nothing had happened. The ground of their indifference lies in their absorption with this world's good, and their belief that it is best. 'His own farm,' as the original puts it emphatically, holds one man by the solid delight of possessing acres that he can walk over and till; his merchandise draws another, by the excitement of speculation and the lust of acquiring. It is not only the hurry and fever of a great commercial city, but the quiet and leisure of country life, which shut out taste for God's feast. Strange preference of toil and risk of loss to abundance, repose, and joy! Savages barter gold for glass beads. We choose lives of weary work and hunting after uncertain riches, rather than listen to His call, despising the open-handed housekeeping of our Father's house, and trying to fill our hunger with the swine's husks. The suicidal madness of refusing the kingdom is set in a vivid light in these quiet words.
But stranger still is the conduct of the rest. Why should they kill men whose only fault was bringing them a hospitable invitation? The incongruity of the representation has given offence to some interpreters, who are not slow to point out how Christ could have improved His parable. But the reality is more incongruous still, and the unmotived outburst of wrath against the innocent bearers of a kindly invitation is only too true to life. Mark the distinction drawn by our Lord between the bulk of the people who simply neglected, and the few who violently opposed. He does not charge the guilt on all. The murderers of Him and of His first followers were not the mass of the nation, who, left to themselves, would not have so acted, but the few who stirred up the many. But, though He does not lay the guilt at the doors of all, yet the punishment falls on all, and, when the city is burned, the houses of the negligent and of the slayers are equally consumed; for simple refusal of the message and slaying the messengers were but the positive and superlative degrees of the same crime—rebellion against the king, whose invitation was a command.
The fatal issue is presented, as in the former parable, in two parts: the destruction of the rebels, and the passing over of the kingdom to others. But the differences are noteworthy. Here we read that 'the king was wroth.' Insult to a king is worse than dishonesty to a landlord. The refusal of God's proffered grace is even more certain to awake that awful reality, the wrath of God, than the failure to render the fruits of the good possessed. Love repelled and thrown back on itself cannot but become wrath. That refusal, which is rebellion, is fittingly described as punished by force of arms and the burning of the city. We can scarcely help seeing that our Lord here, in a very striking and unusual way, mingles prose prediction with parabolic imagery. Some commentators object to this, and take the armies and the burning to be only part of the imagery, but it is difficult to believe that. Note the forcible pronouns, 'His armies,' and 'their city.' The terrible Roman legions were His soldiers for the time being, the axe which He laid to the root of the tree. The city had ceased to be His, just as the temple ceased to be 'My house,' and became, by their sin, 'your house.' The legend told that, before their destruction, a mighty voice was heard saying, 'Let us depart,' and, with the sound of rushing wings, His presence left sanctuary and city. When He was no longer 'the glory in the midst,' He was no longer 'a wall of fire round about,' and the Roman torches worked their will on the city which was no longer 'the city of our God.'
The command to gather in others to fill the vacant places follows on the destruction of the city. This may seem to be opposed to the facts of the transference of the kingdom to the Gentiles, which certainly was begun long before Jerusalem fell. But its fall was the final and complete severance of Christianity from Judaism, and not till then had the messengers to give up the summons to Israel as hopeless. Perhaps Paul had this parable floating in his memory when he said to the howling blasphemers at Antioch in Pisidia, 'Seeing ye ... judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us.' 'They which were bidden were not worthy,' and their unworthiness consisted not in any other moral demerit, but solely in this, that they had refused the proffered blessings. That is the only thing which makes any of us unworthy. And that will make the best of us unworthy.