Here then, brethren, are the perpetual elements of our constant power, an eternal Word, an abiding Spirit, an unchanging Lord.
II. The condition of exercising this power is Faith.
With such a force at our command—a force that could shake the mountains and break the rocks—how come we ever to fail? So the disciples asked, and Christ's answer cuts to the very heart of the matter. Why could you not cast him out? For one reason only, because you had lost your hold of My strength, and therefore had lost your confidence in your own derived power, or had forgotten that it was derived, and essayed to wield it as if it were your own. You did not trust Me, so you did not believe that you could cast him out; or you believed that you could by your own might, therefore you failed. He throws them back decisively on themselves as solely responsible. Nowhere else, in heaven or in earth or hell, but only in us, does the reason lie for our breakdown, if we have broken down. Not in God, who is ever with us, ready to make all grace abound in us, whose will is that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth; not in the gospel which we preach, for 'it is the power of God unto salvation'; not in the demon might which has overcome us, for 'greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.' We are driven from all other explanations to the bitterest and yet the most hopeful of all, that we only are to blame.
And what in us is to blame? Some of us will answer—Our modes of working; they have not been free enough, or not orderly enough, or in some way or other not wisely adapted to our ends. Some will answer—Our forms of presenting the truth; they have not been flexible enough, or not fixed enough; they have been too much a reproduction of the old; they have been too licentious a departure from the old. Some will answer—Our ecclesiastical arrangements; they have been too democratic; they have been too priestly. Some will answer—Our intellectual culture; it has been too great, obscuring the simplicity that is in Christ; it has been too small, sending poorly furnished men into the field to fight with ordered systems of idolatry which rest upon a philosophical basis, and can only be overturned by undermining that. It is no part of my present duty to discuss these varying answers. No doubt there is room for improvement in all the fields which they indicate. But does not the spirit of our Lord's words here beckon us away from these purely secondary subjects to fix our self-examination on the depth and strength of our faith, as incomparably the most important element in the conditions which determine our success or our failure? I do not undervalue the worth of wise methods of action, but the history of the Church tells us that pretty nearly any methods of action are fruitful in the right hands, and that without living faith the best of them become like the heavy armour which half-smothered a feeble man. I do not pretend to that sublime indifference to dogma which is the modern form of supreme devotion to truth, but experience has taught us that wherever the name of Christ, as the Saviour of the world, has been lovingly proclaimed, there devils have been cast out, whatever private and sectional doctrines the exerciser has added to it. I do not disparage organisation, but courage is more than drill; and there is such a thing as the very perfection of arrangement without life, like cabinets in a museum, where all the specimens are duly classified, and dead. I believe, with the old preacher, that if God does not need our learning, He needs our ignorance still less, but it is of comparatively little importance whether the draught of living water be brought to thirsty lips in an earthen cup or a golden vase.
'The main thing is, does it hold good measure? Heaven soon sets right all other matters.'
And therefore, while leaving full scope for all improvements in these subordinate conditions, let me urge upon you that the main thing which makes us strong for our Christian work is the grasp of living faith, which holds fast the strength of God. There is no need to plunge into the jungle of metaphysical theology here. Is it not a fact that the might with which the power of God has wrought for men's salvation has corresponded with the strength of the Church's desire and the purity of its trust in His power? Is it not a truth plainly spoken in Scripture and confirmed by experience, that we have the awful prerogative of limiting the Holy One of Israel, and quenching the Spirit? Was there not a time in Christ's life on earth when He could do no mighty works because of their unbelief? We receive all spiritual gifts in proportion to our capacity, and the chief factor in settling the measure of our capacity is our faith. Here on the one hand is the boundless ocean of the divine strength, unfathomable in its depth, full after all draughts, tideless and calm, in all its movement never troubled, in all its repose never stagnating; and on the other side is the empty aridity of our poor weak natures. Faith opens these to the influx of that great sea, and 'according to our faith,' in the exact measure of our receptivity, does it enter our hearts. In itself the gift is boundless. It has no limit except the infinite fulness of the power which worketh in us. But in reference to our possession it is bounded by our capacity, and though that capacity enlarges by the very fact of being filled, and so every moment becomes greater through fruition, yet at each moment it is the measure of our possession, and our faith is the measure of our capacity. Our power is God's power in us, and our faith is the power with which we grasp God's power and make it ours. So then, in regard to God, our faith is the condition of our being strengthened with might by His Spirit.
Consider, too, how the same faith has a natural operation on ourselves which tends to fit us for casting out the evil spirits. Given a man full of faith, you will have a man tenacious in purpose, absorbed in one grand object, simple in his motives, in whom selfishness has been driven out by the power of a mightier love, and indolence stirred into unwearied energy. Such a man will be made wise to devise, gentle to attract, bold to rebuke, fertile in expedients, and ready to be anything that may help the aim of his life. Fear will be dead in him, for faith is the true anaesthesia of the soul; and the knife may cut into the quivering flesh, and the spirit be scarce conscious of a pang. Love, ambition, and all the swarm of distracting desires will be driven from the soul in which the lamp of faith burns bright. Ordinary human motives will appeal in vain to the ears which have heard the tones of the heavenly music, and all the pomps of life will show poor and tawdry to the sight that has gazed on the vision of the great white throne and the crystal sea. The most ignorant and erroneous 'religious sentiment'—to use a modern phrase—is mightier than all other forces in the world's history. It is like some of those terrible compounds of modern chemistry, an inert, innocuous-looking drop of liquid. Shake it, and it flames heaven high, shattering the rocks and ploughing up the soil. Put even an adulterated and carnalised faith into the hearts of a mob of wild Arabs, and in a century they will stream from their deserts, and blaze from the mountains of Spain to the plains of Bengal. Put a living faith in Christ and a heroic confidence in the power of His Gospel to reclaim the worst sinners into a man's heart, and he will out of weakness be made strong, and plough his way through obstacles with the compact force and crashing directness of lightning. There have been men of all sorts who have been honoured to do much in this world for Christ. Wise and foolish, learned and ignorant, differing in tone, temper, creed, forms of thought, and manner of working, in every conceivable degree; but one thing, and perhaps one thing only, they have all had—a passion of enthusiastic personal devotion to their Lord, a profound and living faith in Him and in His salvation. All in which they differed is but the gay gilding on the soldier's coat. That in which they were alike is as the strong arm which grasps the sword, and has its muscles braced by the very clutch. Faith is itself a source of strength, as well as the condition of drawing might from heaven.
Consider, too, how faith has power over men who see it. The exhibition of our own personal convictions has more to do in spreading them than all the arguments which we use. There is a magnetism and a contagious energy in the sight of a brother's faith which few men can wholly resist. If you wish me to weep, your own tears must flow; and if you would have me believe, let me see your soul heaving under the emotion which you desire me to feel. The arrow may be keen and true, the shaft rounded and straight, the bow strong, and the arm sinewy; but unless the steel be winged it will fall to the ground long before it strikes the butt. Your arrows must be winged with faith, else orthodoxy, and wise arrangements, and force and zeal, will avail nothing. No man will believe in, and no demon will obey, spells which the would-be exorcist only half believes himself. Even if he speak the name of Christ, unless he speak it with unfaltering confidence, all the answer he will get will only be the fierce and taunting question, 'Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?' Brethren, let us give heed to the solemn rebuke which our Master lovingly reads to us in these words, and while we aim at the utmost possible perfection in all subordinate matters, let us remember that they all without faith are weak, as an empty suit of armour with no life beneath the corselet; and that faith without them all is strong, like the knight of old, who rode into the bloody field in simple silken vest, and conquered. That which determines our success or failure in the work of our Lord is our faith.
III. Our faith is ever threatened by subtle unbelief.
It would appear that the disciples were ignorant of the unbelief that had made them weak. They fancied that they had confidence in their Christ-given power, and they certainly had in some dull kind of fashion expected to succeed in their attempt. But He who sees the heart knew that there was no real living confidence in their souls; and His words are a solemn warning to us all, of how possible it is for us to have our faith all honeycombed by gnawing doubt while we suspect it not, like some piece of wood apparently sound, the whole substance of which has been eaten away by hidden worms. We may be going on with Christian work, and may even be looking for spiritual results. We may fancy ourselves faithful stewards of the gospel, and all the while there may be an utter absence of the one thing which makes our words more than so much wind whistling through an archway. The shorn Samson went out 'to shake himself as at other times,' and knew not that the Spirit of the Lord had departed from him. Who among us is not exposed to the assaults of that pestilence that walketh in darkness? and, alas! who among us can say that he has repelled the contagion? Subtly it creeps over us all, the stealthy intangible vapour, unfelt till it has quenched the lamp which alone lights the darkness of the mine, and clogged to suffocation the labouring lungs.
I will not now speak of the general sources of danger to our faith, which are always in operation with a retarding force as constant as friction, as certain as the gravitation which pulls the pendulum to rest at its lowest point. But I may very briefly particularise two of the enemies of that faith, which have a special bearing on our missionary work, and may be illustrated from the narrative before us.
First, all our activity in spreading the Gospel, whether by personal effort or by our gifts, like every form of outward action, tends to become mechanical, and to lose its connection with the motive which originated it. Of course it is also true, on the other side, that all outward action also tends to strengthen the motive from which it flows. But our Christian work will not do so, unless it be carefully watched, and pains be taken to keep it from slipping off its original foundation, and so altering its whole character. We may very easily become so occupied with the mere external occupation as to be quite unconscious that it has ceased to be faithful work, and has become routine, dull mechanism, or the result of confidence, not in Christ, whose power once flowed through us, but in ourselves the doers. So these disciples may have thought, 'We can cast out this devil, for we have done the like already,' and have forgotten that it was not they, but Christ in them, who had done it.
How widely this foe to our faith operates amid the multiplied activities of this busy age, one trembles to think. We see all around us a Church toiling with unexampled expenditure of wealth, and effort, and time. It is difficult to repress the suspicion that the work is out of proportion to the life. Ah, brethren, how much of all this energy of effort, so admirable in many respects, will He whose fan is in His hand accept as true service—how much of it will be wheat for the garner, how much chaff for the fire? It is not for us to divide between the two, but it is for us to remember that it is not impossible to make of our labours the most dangerous enemy to the depth of our still life hidden with Christ in God, and that every deed of apparent service which is not the real issue of living faith is powerless for good to others, and heavy with hurt to ourselves. Brethren and fathers in the ministry! how many of us know what it is to talk and toil away our early devotion; and all at once to discover that for years perhaps we have been preaching and labouring from mere habit and routine, like corpses galvanised into some ghastly and transient caricature of life. Christian men and women, beware lest this great enterprise of missions, which our fathers began from the holiest motives and in the simplest faith, should in our hand be wrenched away from its only true basis, and be done with languid expectation and more languid desires of success, from no higher motive than that we found it in existence, and have become accustomed to carry it on. If that be our reason, then we harm ourselves, and mask from our own sight our own unbelief. If that be the case the work may go on for a while, like a clock ticking with fainter and fainter beats for a minute after it has run down; but it will soon cease, and neither heaven nor earth will be much the poorer for its ending.
Again, the atmosphere of scornful disbelief which surrounded the disciples made their faith falter. It was too weak to sustain itself in the face of the consciousness that not a man in all that crowd believed in their power; and it melted away before the contempt of the scribes and the incredulous curiosity of the bystanders, without any reason except the subtle influence which the opinions and characters of those around us have on us all.
And, brethren, are not we in danger to-day of losing the firmness of our grasp on Christ, as our Saviour and the world's, from a precisely similar cause? We live in an atmosphere of hesitancy and doubt, of scornful rejection of His claims, of contemptuous disbelief in anything which a scalpel cannot cut. We cannot but be conscious that to hold by Jesus Christ as the Incarnate God, the supernatural Beginning of a new life, the sole Hope of the world, is to expose ourselves to the contempt of so-called advanced and liberal thinkers, and to be out of harmony with the prevailing set of opinions. The current of educated thought runs strongly against such beliefs, and I suppose that every thoughtful man among us feels that a great danger to our faith to-day comes from the force with which that current swings us round, and threatens to make some of us drag our anchors, and drift, and strike and go to pieces on the sands. For one man who is led by the sheer force of reason to yield to the intellectual grounds on which modern unbelief reposes, there are twenty who simply catch the infection in the atmosphere. They find that their early convictions have evaporated, they know not how; only that once the fleece was wet with dew and now it is dry. For unbelief has a contagious energy wholly independent of reason, no less than has faith, and affects multitudes who know nothing of its grounds, as the iceberg chills the summer air for leagues, and makes the sailors shiver long before they see its barren peaks.
Therefore, brethren, let us all take heed to ourselves, lest we suffer our grasp of our dear Lord's hand to relax for no better reason than because so many have left His side. To us all His pleading love, which knows how much we are moulded by the example of others, is saying, in view of the fashion of unbelief, 'Will ye also go away?' Let us answer, with a clasp that clings the tighter for our danger of being sucked in by the strong current, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.' We cannot help seeing that the creeping paralysis of hesitancy and doubt about even the power of Christ's name is stealing over portions of the Church, and stiffening the arm of its activity. Lips that once spoke with full confidence the words that cast out devils, mutter them now languidly with half-belief. Hearts that were once full of sympathy with the great purpose for which Christ died are growing cold to the work of preaching the Gospel to the heathen, because they are growing to doubt whether, after all, there is any Gospel at all. This icy breath, dear brethren, is blowing over our Churches and over our hearts. And wherever it reaches, there labour for Jesus and for men languishes, and we recoil baffled with unavailing exorcisms dying in our throats, and the rod of our power broken in our hands. 'Why could not we cast him out? Because of your unbelief.'
IV. Our faith can only be maintained by constant devotion and rigid self-denial.
I can touch but very lightly on that solemn thought in which our Lord sets forth the condition of our faith, and therefore of our power. This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting. The discipline then which nurtures faith is mainly moral and spiritual—not as a substitute for, or to the exclusion of, the intellectual discipline, which is presupposed, not neglected, in these words.
The first condition of the freshness and energy of faith is constant devotion. The attrition of the world wears it thin, the distractions of life draw it from its clinging hold on Christ, the very toil for Him is apt to entice our thoughts from out of the secret place of the most High into the busy arena of our strife. Therefore we have ever need to refresh the drooping flowers of the chaplet by bathing them in the Fountain of Life, to rise above all the fevered toil of earth to the calm heights where God dwells, and in still communion with Him to replenish our emptied vessels and fill our dimly burning lamps with His golden oil. The sister of the cumbered Martha is the contemplative Mary, who sits in silence at the Master's feet and lets His words sink into her soul; the closest friend of Peter the apostle of action is John the apostle of love. If our work is to be worthy, it must ever be freshened anew by our gaze into His face; if our communion with Him is to be deep, it must never be parted from outward service. Our Master has left us the example, in that, when the night fell and every man went to his own home, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives; and thence, after His night of prayer, came very early in the morning to the temple, and taught. The stream that is to flow broad and life-giving through many lands must have its hidden source high among the pure snows that cap the mount of God. The man that would work for God must live with God. It was from the height of transfiguration that He came, before whom the demon that baffled the disciples quailed and slunk away like a whipped hound. This kind goeth not out but by prayer.
The second condition is rigid self-denial. Fasting is the expression of the purpose to control the lower life, and to abstain from its delights in order that the life of the spirit may be strengthened. As to the outward fact, it is nothing—it may be practised or not. If it be, it will be valuable only in so far as it flows from and strengthens that purpose. And such vigorous subordination of all the lower powers, and abstinence from many an inferior good, both material and immaterial, is absolutely necessary if we are to have any wholesome strength of faith in our souls. In the recoil from the false asceticism of Roman Catholicism and Puritanism, has not this generation of the Church gone too far in the opposite direction? and in the true belief that Christianity can sanctify all joys, and ensure the harmonious development of all our powers, have we not been forgetting that hand and foot may cause us to stumble, and that we had better live maimed than die with all our limbs? There is a true asceticism, a discipline—a 'gymnastic unto godliness,' as Paul calls it. And if our faith is to grow high and bear rich clusters on the topmost boughs that look up to the sky, we must keep the wild lower shoots close nipped. Without rigid self-control and self-limitation, no vigorous faith.
And without them no effectual work! It is no holiday task to cast out devils. Self-indulgent men will never do it. Loose-braced, easy souls, that lie open to all the pleasurable influences of ordinary life, are no more fit for God's weapons than a reed for a lance, or a bit of flexible lead for a spear-point. The wood must be tough and compact, the metal hard and close-grained, out of which God makes His shafts. The brand that is to guide men through the darkness to their Father's home must glow with a pallor of consuming flame that purges its whole substance into light. This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
Dear brethren, what solemn rebuke these words have for us all! How they winnow our works of Christian activity! How they show us the hollowness of our services, the self-indulgence of our lives, the coldness of our devotion, the cowardice of our faith! How marvellous they make the fruits which God's great goodness has permitted us to see even from our doubting service! Let us turn to Him with fresh thankfulness that unto us, who are 'less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that we should preach among the nations the unsearchable riches of Christ.' Let us not be driven from our confidence that we have a gospel to preach for all the world; but strong in the faith which rests on impregnable historical grounds, on our own experience of what Christ has done for us, and on nineteen centuries of growing power and unfolding wisdom, let us thankfully welcome all that modern thought may supply for the correction of errors in belief, in organisation, and in life, that may have gathered round His perfect and eternal gospel—being assured, as we have a right to be, that all will but lift higher the Name which is above every name, and set forth more plainly that Cross which is the true tree of life to all the families of men. Let us cast ourselves before Him with penitent confession, and say,—O Lord, our strength! we have not wrought any deliverance on earth; we have been weak when all Thy power was at our command; we have spoken Thy word as if it were an experiment and a peradventure whether it had might; we have let go Thy hand and lost Thy garment's hem from our slack grasp; we have been prayerless and self-indulgent. Therefore Thou hast put us to shame before our foes, and 'our enemies laugh among themselves. Thou that dwellest between the cherubim, shine forth; stir up Thy strength and come and save us!' Then will the last words that He spoke on earth ring out again from the throne: 'All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and teach all nations; and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.'
THE COIN IN THE FISH'S MOUTH
'And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest them, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? 26. Peter saith unto Him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.'—MATT. xvii. 25, 26.
All our Lord's miracles are 'signs' as well as 'wonders.' They have a meaning. They not only authenticate His teaching, but they are themselves no inconsiderable portion of the teaching. They are not only 'the great bell before His sermon,' but they are also a portion of the sermon.
That doctrinal or dogmatic purpose characterises all the miracles in varying degrees. It is the only purpose of the one before us. This singular miracle of finding the coin in the fish's mouth and giving it for the tribute-money is unlike our Lord's other works in several particulars. It is the only miracle—with the exception of the cursing of the barren fig-tree, and the episode of the unclean spirits entering into the swine—in which there is no message of love or blessing for man's sorrow and pain. It is the only miracle in which our Lord uses His power for His own service or help, and it is like the whole brood of legendary miracles, and unlike all the rest of Christ's in that, at first sight, it seems done for a very trivial end—the providing of some three shillings of our money.
Now, if we put all these things together, the absence of any alleviation of man's sorrow, the presence of a personal end, and the apparent triviality of the result secured, I think we shall see that the only explanation of the miracle is given by regarding it as being what I may call a teaching one, full of instruction with regard to our Lord's character, person, and work. It is a parable as well as a miracle, and it is in that aspect that I wish to look at it now, and try to bring out its lessons.
I. We have here, first, the freedom of the Son.
The whole point of the story depends upon the fact that this tribute-money was not a civil, but an ecclesiastical impost. It had originally been levied in the Wilderness, at the time of the numbering of the people, and was enjoined to be repeated at each census, when every male Israelite was to pay half a shekel for 'a ransom for his soul,' an acknowledgment that his life was forfeited by sin. In later years it came to be levied as an annual payment for the support of the temple and its ceremonial. It was never compulsory, there was no power to exact it. The question of the collectors, 'Doth not your Master pay tribute?' does not sound like the imperative demand which a 'publican' would have made for payment of an impost due to the Roman Government. It was an 'optional church-rate,' and the very fact that it was so, would make Jews who were, or wished to be considered, patriotic or religious, the more punctilious in paying it.
The question put to Peter possibly implies a doubt whether this Rabbi, who held lax views on so many points of Pharisaical righteousness, would be likely to recognise the obligation of the tax. Peter's quick answer seems to be prompted by zeal for his Master's honour, on which the question appears to him to cast a slur. It was perhaps too quick, but the apostle has been too much blamed for his answer, which was in fact correct, and for which our Lord does not blame him. When he comes to Christ to tell what has happened, before he can speak, Christ puts to him this little parable which I have taken as part of my text: 'How thinkest thou? Do kings of this world take custom?'—meaning thereby not imports or exports, but taxes of all kinds of things,—'or tribute,'—meaning thereby taxes on persons—'from their own children, or from subjects who are not their children?' The answer, of course, is, 'From the latter.' So the answer comes, 'Then are the children free.'
Christ then here claims in some sense, Sonship to Him to whom the tribute is paid, that is, to God, and therefore freedom from the obligation to pay the tribute. But notice, for this is an important point in the explanation of the words, that the plural in our Lord's words, 'Then are the children free,' is not intended to include Peter and the others in the same category as Himself. The only question in hand is as to His obligation to pay a certain tax; and to include any one else would have been irrelevant, as well as erroneous. The plural belongs to the illustration, not to its application, and corresponds with the plural in the question, 'Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom?' The kings of the earth are contrasted with the one King of the heavens, the supreme and sole Sovereign; and the children of the kings of the earth are contrasted with the only begotten Son of the only King of kings and Lord of lords.
So that here there is no mixing up of Himself with others, or of others with Himself, but the claiming of an unique position, singular and sole, belonging to Him only, in which He stands as the Son of the mighty Monarch to whom the tribute is paid. He claims to have the divine nature, the divine prerogatives, to bear a specific relationship to God Himself, and to be, as other words in Scripture put it, 'the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person.'
If there is anything certain about Jesus Christ's teaching, this is certain about it, that He proclaimed Himself to be the Son of God, in such a sense as no man shared with Him, and in such a sense as vindicated the attitude which He took up, the demands which He made, and the gifts which He offered to men.
What a deduction must be made from the wisdom of His teaching, and from the meekness of His Spirit, if that claim was an illusion! What shall we say of the sanity of a man who poses himself before the whole race, claiming to be the Son of God, and whose continual teaching to them therefore is, not, 'Believe in goodness'; 'Believe in virtue'; 'Believe in truth'; 'Believe in My word'; but 'Believe in Me'? Was there ever anywhere else a religious teacher, all of whose words were gracious and wise and sweet, but who—
'Make the important stumble, Of saying that he, the sage and humble, Was likewise—one with the Creator'?
But now what is the freedom based on sonship which our Lord here claims?
I have said that this tax was levied with a double meaning; first, it was an atonement or ransom for the soul; second, it was devoted to the temple and its worship. And now, mark, that in both these aspects our Lord alleges His true sonship as the reason why He is exempt from it.
That is to say, first, Jesus Christ claims to have no need of a ransom for His soul. Never one word dropped from His lips which indicated the smallest consciousness of flaw or failure, of defect or imperfection, still less of actual transgression. He takes His position outside the circle of sinful men which includes all others. It is a strange characteristic in a religious teacher, very unlike the usual tone of devout men. And stranger still is the fact that the absence of this consciousness of evil has never been felt to be itself evil and a blot. Think of a David's agony of penitence. Think of a Paul's, 'Of whom I am chief!' Think of the long wail of an Augustine's confessions. Think of the stormy self-accusations of a Luther; and then think that He who inspired them all, never, by word or deed, betrayed the slightest consciousness that in Himself there was the smallest deflection from the perfect line of right, the least speck or stain on the perfect gold of His purity. And remember, too, that when He challenges the world with, 'Which of you convinceth Me of sin?' with the exception of half a dozen men, of whom we can scarcely say whether their want of spiritual insight or their arrogance of self-importance is the most flagrant, who, in the course of nineteen centuries, have ventured to fling their little handfuls of mud at Him, the whole world has answered, 'Thou art fairer than the children of men; grace is poured into Thy lips.'
The Son needs no 'ransom for His soul,' which, being translated, is but this: the purity and the innocence of Jesus Christ, which is a manifest fact in His biography, is only explicable when we believe that we have before us the Incarnate God, and therefore the Perfect Man. And the Son needs no temple for His worship. His whole life, as human, was a life of communion and prayer with His Father in heaven. And just because He 'dwelt in' God's 'bosom all the year,' for Him ritual and temple were nought. Sense-bound men needed them; He needed them not. 'In this place,' said He, 'is one greater than the temple.' He was all which the temple symbolised. Was it the dwelling-place of God, the place of sacrifice, the meeting-place of man with God, the place of divine manifestation? 'The temple of His body' was in deepest reality all these. In it dwelt the whole fulness of the Godhead. It was at once sacrifice and place of sacrifice, even as He is the true everlasting Priest. In Him men see God, and meet with God. He is greater than the temple because He is the true temple, and He is the true temple because He is the Son. And because He is the Son, therefore He is free from all dependence upon, and connection with, the outward worship of ceremony and sacrifice and priest and ritual.
Now, dear brethren, let me pause for one moment to press upon you and upon myself this question: Do I welcome that Christ with the full conviction that He is the Son of God? It seems to me that, in this generation, the question of questions, as far as religion is concerned, is the old one which Christ asked of His disciples by the fountains and woods of Caesarea Philippi: 'Whom say ye that I, the Son of Man, am?' Can you lift up your face to meet His clear and all-searching eye, and say: 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God'? If you can, you are on the way to understanding Him and His work; if you cannot, His life and work are all wrapped in darkness for you, His death robbed of its truest power, and your life deprived of its surest anchor.
II. Now, there is a second lesson that I would gather from this miracle—the voluntary submission of the Son to the bonds from which He is free.
He bids His disciple pay the tribute for Him, for a specific reason: 'Lest we should offend them.' That, of course, is simply a piece of practical wisdom, to prevent any narrow or purblind souls from stumbling at His teaching, by reason of His neglect of this trivial matter. The question of how far religious teachers or any others are at liberty, when they are not actuated by personal motives, to render compliance with ceremonies which are of no value to them, is a wide one, which I have no need to dwell upon here. But, turning from that specific aspect of the incident, I think we may look upon it as being an illustration, in regard to a very small matter, of what is really the essence of our Lord's relation to the whole world and ourselves—His voluntary taking upon Himself of bonds from which He is free.
Is it not a symbol of the very heart of the meaning of His Incarnation? 'For as much as the children are partakers of flesh and blood He also Himself likewise takes part of the same.' 'He is found in fashion as a man.' He chooses to enter within the limits and the obligations of humanity. Round the radiant glories of the divinity, He gathers the folds of the veil of human flesh. He immerses the pillar of fire in a cloud of smoke. He comes amongst us, taking on His own wrists the fetters that bind us, suffering Himself to be 'cribbed, cabined, and confined' within the narrow limits of our manhood, in order that by His voluntary acceptance of it we may be redeemed from our corruption.
Is it not a parable of His life and lowly obedience? He proclaimed the same principle as the guide for all His conduct, when, sinless, He presented Himself to John for the 'baptism of repentance,' and overcame the baptiser's scruples with the words, 'Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.' He comes under the law. Bound to no such service, He binds Himself to all human duties that He may hallow the bonds which He has worn, may set us the pattern of perfect obedience, and may know a servant's heart.
The Prince is free, but King's Son though He be, He goes among His Father's poor subjects, lives their squalid lives, makes experience of their poverty, and hardens His hands by labouring like them. Sympathy He 'learned in huts where poor men lie.'
Is it not the rehearsal in parable of His death? He was free from the bonds of mortality, and He took upon Him our human flesh. He was free from the necessity of death, even after He had taken our flesh upon Him. But, being free from the necessity, He submitted to the actuality, and laid down His life of Himself, because of His loving will, to save and help each of us. Oh, dear friends! we never can understand the meaning and the beauty, either of the life or of the death of our Master, unless we look at each from this point of view, that it is His willing acceptance of the bonds that bind us. His own loving will brought Him here; His own loving will kept Him here; His own loving will impelled Him along the path of life, though at every step of it He trod as with naked feet upon burning iron; His own loving Will brought Him to the Cross; His own loving will, and not the Roman soldiers' nails, fastened Him to it. Let us look, then, to Him with thankfulness, and recognise in that death His thorough identification with all the bonds and miseries of our condition. He 'took part of the same that through death He might deliver them that by fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.'
III. Then there is another lesson which I think we may fairly gather from this miracle, viz. that we have here the supernatural glory which ever accompanies the humiliation of the Son.
The miracle, at first sight, appears to be for a very trivial end. Men have made merry with it by reason of that very triviality. But the miracle is vindicated, peculiar as it is, by a deep divine congruity and decorum. He will submit, Son though He be, to this complete identification of Himself with us. But He will so submit as, even in submitting, to assert His divine dignity. As has been well said, 'In the midst of the act of submission majesty flashes forth.' A multiform miracle—containing many miracles in one—a miracle of omniscience, and a miracle of influence over the lower creatures is wrought. The first fish that rises carries in its mouth the exact sum needed.
Here, therefore, we have another illustration of that remarkable blending of humiliation and glory, which is a characteristic of our Lord's life. These two strands are always twined together, like a twisted line of gold and black. At each moment of special abasement there is some special coruscation of the brightness of His glory. Whensoever He stoops there is something accompanying the stooping, to tell how great and how merciful He is who bows. Out of the deepest darkness there flashes some light. So at His cradle, which seems to be the identifying of Him with humanity in its most helpless and lowest condition, there shall be angels, and the stars in their courses shall bow and move to guide wise men from afar with offerings to His feet. And at His Cross, where He sounds the very bass string and touches the lowest point of humiliation and defeat, a clearer vision sees in that humiliation the highest glory.
And thus, here, He will not only identify Himself with sinful men who need a ransom, and with sense-bound men who need a sacrifice and a temple, but He will so identify Himself with them as that He shall send His power into the recesses of the lake, where His knowledge sees, as clearly as our eyes see the men that stand beside us, and obedient to an unconscious impulse from Him, the dumb creature that had swallowed, as it sunk, the shining stater that had dropped out of the girdle of some fisherman, shall rise first to the hook; in token that not only in His Father's house does He rule as a Son over His own house, but that He 'doeth as He hath pleased, in all deep places,' and that in Him the ancient hope is fulfilled of a Son of Man who 'hath dominion over the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the sea.' The miracle was for a trivial end in appearance, but it was a demonstration, though to one man only at first, yet through him to all the world, that this Christ, in His lowliness, is the Everlasting Son of the Father.
IV. And so, lastly, we have here also the lesson of the sufficiency for us all of what He provides.
'That take, and give unto them for Me and for thee. He does not say 'For us.' He and Peter do not stand on the game level. He has chosen to submit Himself to the obligations, Peter was necessarily under them. That which is found by miracle in the fish's mouth is precisely the amount required for both the one and the other. It is rendered, as the original has it, 'Instead of thee and Me,' putting emphasis upon the characteristic of the tribute as being ransom, or payment, for a man's soul.
And so, although this thought is not part of the original purpose of the miracle, and, therefore, is different from those which I have already been dwelling on, which are part of that purpose, I think we may fairly see here this great truth,—that that which Christ brings to us by supernatural act, far greater than the miracle here, is enough for all the claims and obligations that God, or man, or law, or conscience have upon any of us. His perfect obedience and stainless life discharged for Himself all the obligations to law and righteousness under which He came as a Man; His perfect life and His mighty death are for us the full discharge of all that can be brought against us.
There are many and solemn claims and claimants upon each of us. Law and duty, that awful 'ought' which should rule our lives and which we have broken thousands of times, come to each of us in many an hour of clear vision, and take us by the throat, and say, 'Pay us what thou owest!' And there is a Judgment Day before all of us; which is no mere bugbear to frighten children, but will be a fact of experience in our case. Friend! how are you going to meet your obligations? You owe God all your love, all your heart, will, strength, service. What an awful score of unpaid debts, with accumulated interest, there stands against each of our names! Think of some bankrupt sitting in his counting-house with a balance-sheet before him that shows his hopeless insolvency. He sits and broods, and broods, and does not know what in the world he is going to do. The door opens—a messenger enters and gives him an envelope. He tears it open, and there flutters out a cheque that more than pays it all. The illustration is a very low one; it does not cover the whole ground of Christ's work for you. It puts a possibly commercial aspect into it, which we have to take care of lest it become the exclusive one; but it is true for all that. You are the bankrupt. What have you to pay? Oh, behold that precious treasure of gold tried in the fire, which is Christ's righteousness and Christ's death; and by faith in Him, 'that take and give' and all the debt will be discharged, and you will be set free and made a son by that Son who has taken upon Himself all our bonds, and so has broken them; who has taken upon Himself all our debts, and so has cancelled them every one.
EXPOSITIONS OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
ALEXANDER MACLAREN, D. D., Litt. D.
Chaps. XVIII to XXVIII
THE LAW OF PRECEDENCE IN THE KINGDOM (Matt. xviii. 1-14)
SELF-MUTILATION FOR SELF-PRESERVATION (Matt. xviii. 8, R.V.)
THE LOST SHEEP AND THE SEEKING SHEPHERD (Matt. xviii. 12)
THE PERSISTENCE OF THWARTED LOVE (Matt. xviii. 13; Luke xv. 4)
FORGIVEN AND UNFORGIVING (Matt. xviii. 22)
THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE KING (Matt. xix. 16-26)
NEAREST TO CHRIST (Matt. xx. 23)
THE SERVANT-LORD AND HIS SERVANTS (Matt. xx. 28)
WHAT THE HISTORIC CHRIST TAUGHT ABOUT HIS DEATH (Matt. xx. 28)
THE COMING OF THE KING TO HIS PALACE (Matt. xxi. 1-16)
A NEW KIND OF KING (Matt. xxi. 4, 5)
THE VINEYARD AND ITS KEEPERS (Matt. xxi. 33-46)
THE STONE OF STUMBLING (Matt. xxi. 44)
TWO WAYS OF DESPISING GOD'S FEAST (Matt. xxii. 1-14)
THE TABLES TURNED: THE QUESTIONERS QUESTIONED (Matt. xxii. 34-46)
THE KING'S FAREWELL (Matt. xxiii. 27-39)
TWO FORMS OF ONE SAYING (Matt. xxiv. 13, R.V.; Luke xxi. 19)
THE CARRION AND THE VULTURES (Matt. xxiv. 28)
WATCHING FOR THE KING (Matt. xxiv. 42-51)
THE WAITING MAIDENS (Matt. xxv. 1-13)
DYING LAMPS (Matt. xxv. 8)
'THEY THAT WERE READY' (Matt. xxv. 10)
TRADERS FOR THE MASTER (Matt. xxv. 14-30)
WHY THE TALENT WAS BURIED (Matt. xxv. 24, 25)
THE KING ON HIS JUDGMENT THRONE (Matt. xxv. 31-46)
THB DEFENCE OF UNCALCULATING LOVE (Matt. xxvi. 6-16)
THE NEW PASSOVER (Matt. xxvi. 17-30)
'IS IT I?' (Matt. xxvi. 22, 25; John xiii. 25)
'THIS CUP' (Matt. xxvi. 27, 28)
'UNTIL THAT DAY' (Matt. xxvi. 29)
GETHSEMANE, THE OIL-PRESS (Matt. xxvi. 36-46)
THE LAST PLEADING OF LOVE (Matt. xxvi. 50)
THE REAL HIGH PRIEST AND HIS COUNTERFEIT (Matt. xxvi. 57-68)
JESUS CHARGED WITH BLASPHEMY (Matt. xxvi. 35)
'SEE THOU TO THAT!' (Matt. xxvii. 4, 24)
THE SENTENCE WHICH CONDEMNED THE JUDGES (Matt. xxvii. 11-26)
THE CRUCIFIXION (Matt. xxvii. 33-50)
THE BLIND WATCHERS AT THE CROSS (MATT. xxvii. 36)
TAUNTS TURNING TO TESTIMONIES (Matt. xxvii. 41-43)
THE VEIL RENT (Matt. xxvii. 51)
THE PRINCE OF LIFE (Matt. xxviii. 1-15)
THE RISEN LORD'S GREETINGS AND GIFTS (Matt. xxviii. 9; John xx. 19)
ON THE MOUNTAIN (Matt. xxviii, 16, 17; 1 Cor. xv. 6)
THE LAW OF PRECEDENCE IN THE KINGDOM
'At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? 2. And Jesus called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of them, 3. And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. 4. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5. And whoso shall receive one such little child in My name receiveth Me. 6. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! 8. Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. 9. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. 10. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven. 11. For the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost. 12. How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? 13. And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. 14. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.' —MATT. xviii. 1-14.
Mark tells us that the disciples, as they journeyed, had been squabbling about pre-eminence in the kingdom, and that this conversation was brought on by our Lord's question as to the subject of their dispute. It seems at first sight to argue singular insensibility that the first effect of His reiterated announcement of His sufferings should have been their quarrelling for the lead; but their behaviour is intelligible if we suppose that they regarded the half-understood prophecies of His passion as indicating the commencement of the short conflict which was to end in His Messianic reign. So it was time for them to be getting ready and settling precedence. The form of their question, in Matthew, connects it with the miracle of the coin in the fish's mouth, in which there was a very plain assertion of Christ's royal dignity, and a distinguishing honour given to Peter. Probably the 'then' of the question means, Since Peter is thus selected, are we to look to him as foremost? Their conception of the kingdom and of rank in it is frankly and entirely earthly. There are to be graded dignities, and these are to depend on His mere will. Our Lord not only answers the letter of their question, but cuts at the root of the temper which inspired it.
I. He shows the conditions of entrance into and eminence in His kingdom by a living example. There were always children at hand round Him, when He wanted them. Their quick instinct for pure and loving souls drew them to Him; and this little one was not afraid to be taken by the hand, and to be afterwards caught up in His arms, and pressed to His heart. One does not wonder that the legend that he was Ignatius the martyr should have been current; for surely the remembrance of that tender clasping arm and gentle breast would not fade nor be fruitless. The disciples had made very sure that they were to be in the kingdom, and that the only question concerning them was how high up in it they were each to be. Christ's answer is like a dash of cold water to that confidence. It is, in effect, 'Greatest in the kingdom! Make sure that you go in at all, first; which you will never do, so long as you keep your present ambitious minds.'
Verse 3 lays down the condition of entrance into the kingdom, from which necessarily follows the condition of supremacy in it. What a child is naturally, and without effort or merit, by reason of age and position, we must become, if we are to pass the narrow portal which admits into the large room. That 'becoming' is impossible without a revolution in us. 'Be converted' is corrected, in the Revised Version, into 'turn,' and rightly; for there is in the word a distinct reference to the temper of the disciples as displayed by their question. As long as they cherished it they could not even get inside, to say nothing of winning promotion to dignities in the kingdom. Their very question condemned them as incapable of entrance. So there must be a radical change, not unaccompanied, of course, with repentance, but mainly consisting in the substitution of the child's temper for theirs. What is the temper thus enjoined? We are to see here neither the entirely modern and shallow sentimental way of looking at childhood, in which popular writers indulge, nor the doctrine of its innocence. It is not Christ's teaching, either that children are innocent, or that men enter the kingdom by making themselves so. But the child is, by its very position, lowly and modest, and makes no claims, and lives by instinctive confidence, and does not care about honours, and has these qualities which in us are virtues, and is not puffed up by possessing them. That is the ideal which is realised more generally in the child than analogous ideals are in mature manhood. Such simplicity, modesty, humility, must be ours. We must be made small ere we can enter that door. And as is the requirement for entrance, so is it for eminence. The child does not humble himself, but is humble by nature; but we must humble ourselves if we would be great.
Christ implies that there are degrees in the kingdom. It has a nobility, but of such a kind that there may be many greatest; for the principle of rank there is lowliness. We rise by sinking. The deeper our consciousness of our own unworthiness and weakness, the more capable are we of receiving the divine gifts, and therefore the more fully shall we receive them. Rivers run in the hollows; the mountain-tops are dry. God works with broken reeds, and the princes in His realm are beggars taken from the dunghill. A lowliness which made itself lowly for the sake of eminence would miss its aim, for it would not be lowliness. The desire to be foremost must be cast out, in order that it may be fulfilled.
II. The question has been answered, and our Lord passes to other thoughts rising out of His answer. Verses 5 and 6 set forth antithetically our duties to His little ones. He is not now speaking of the child who served as a living parable to answer the question, but of men who have made themselves like the child, as is plain from the emphatic 'one such child,' and from verse 6 ('which believe on Me').
The subject, then, of these verses is the blessedness of recognising and welcoming Christlike lowly believers, and the fatal effect of the opposite conduct. To 'receive one such little child in My name' is just to have a sympathetic appreciation of, and to be ready to welcome to heart and home, those who are lowly in their own and in the world's estimate, but princes of Christ's court and kingdom. Such welcome and furtherance will only be given by one who himself has the same type of character in some degree. He who honours and admires a certain kind of excellence has the roots of it in himself. A possible artist lies in him who thrills at the sight or hearing of fair things painted or sung. Our admiration is an index of our aspiration, and our aspiration is a prophecy of our attainment. So it will be a little one's heart which will welcome the little ones, and a lover of Christ who receives them in His name. The reception includes all forms of sympathy and aid. 'In My name' is equivalent to 'for the sake of My revealed character,' and refers both to the receiver and to the received. The blessedness of such reception, so far as the receiver is concerned, is not merely that he thereby comes into happy relations with Christ's foremost servants, but that he gets Christ Himself into his heart. If with true appreciation of the beauty of such a childlike disposition, I open my heart or my hand to its possessor, I do thereby enlarge my capacity for my own possession of Christ, who dwells in His child, and who comes with him where He is welcomed. There is no surer way of securing Him for our own than the loving reception of His children. Whoso lodges the King's favourites will not be left unvisited by the King. To recognise and reverence the greatest in the kingdom is to be oneself a member of their company, and a sharer in their prerogatives.
On the other hand, the antithesis of 'receiving' is 'causing to stumble,' by which is meant giving occasion for moral fall. That would be done by contests about pre-eminence, by arrogance, by non-recognition. The atmosphere of carnality and selfishness in which the disciples were moving, as their question showed, would stifle the tender life of any lowly believer who found himself in it; and they were not only injuring themselves, but becoming stumbling-blocks to others, by their ambition. How much of the present life of average Christians is condemned on the same ground! It is a good test of our Christian character to ask—would it help or hinder a lowly believer to live beside us? How many professing Christians are really, though unconsciously, doing their utmost to pull down their more Christlike brethren to their own low level! The worldliness and selfish ambitions of the Church are responsible for the stumbling of many who would else have been of Christ's 'little ones.' But perhaps we are rather to think of deliberate and consciously laid stumbling-blocks. Knowingly to try to make a good man fall, or to stain a more than usually pure Christian character, is surely the very height of malice, and presupposes such a deadly hatred of goodness and of Christ that no fate can be worse than the possession of such a temper. To be flung into the sea, like a dog, with a stone round his neck, would be better for a man than to live to do such a thing. The deed itself, apart from any other future retribution, is its own punishment; yet our Lord's solemn words not only point to such a future retribution, which is infinitely more terrible than the miserable fate described would be for the body, but to the consequences of the act, as so bad in its blind hatred of the highest type of character, and in its conscious preference of evil, as well as so fatal in its consequences, that it were better to die drowned than to live so.
III. Verses 10-14 set forth the honour and dignity of Christ's 'little ones.' Clearly the application of the designation in these closing verses is exclusively to His lowly followers. The warning not to despise them is needed at all times, and, perhaps, seldom more, even by Christians, than now, when so many causes induce a far too high estimate of the world's great ones, and modest, humble godliness looks as dull and sober as some russet-coated little bird among gorgeous cockatoos and birds of paradise. The world's standard is only too current in the Church; and it needs a spirit kept in harmony with Christ's spirit, and some degree of the child-nature in ourselves, to preserve us from overlooking the delicate hidden beauties and unworldly greatness of His truest disciples.
The exhortation is enforced by two considerations,—a glimpse into heaven, and a parable. Fair interpretation can scarcely deny that Christ here teaches that His children are under angel-guardianship. We should neither busy ourselves in curious inferences from His reticent words, nor try to blink their plain meaning, but rather mark their connection and purpose here. He has been teaching that pre-eminence belongs to the childlike spirit. He here opens a door into the court of the heavenly King, and shows us that, as the little ones are foremost in the kingdom of heaven, so the angels who watch over them are nearest the throne in heaven itself. The representation is moulded on the usages of Eastern courts, and similar language in the Old Testament describes the principal courtiers as 'the men who see the King's face continually.' So high is the honour in which the little ones are held, that the highest angels are set to guard them, and whatever may be thought of them on earth, the loftiest of creatures are glad to serve and keep them.
Following the Revised Version we omit verse 11. If it were genuine, the connection would be that such despising contradicted the purpose of Christ's mission; and the 'for' would refer back to the injunction, not to the glimpse into heaven which enforced it.
The exhortation is further confirmed by the parable of the ninety and nine, which is found, slightly modified in form and in another connection, in Luke xv. Its point here is to show the importance of the little ones as the objects of the seeking love of God, and as so precious to Him that their recovery rejoices His heart. Of course, if verse 11 be genuine, the Shepherd is Christ; but, if we omit it, the application of the parable in verse 14 as illustrating the loving will of God becomes more direct. In that case God is the owner of the sheep. Christ does not emphasise His own love or share in the work, reference to which was not relevant to His purpose, but, leaving that in shadow, casts all the light on the loving divine will, which counts the little ones as so precious that, if even one of them wanders, all heaven's powers are sent forth to find and recover it. The reference does not seem to be so much to the one great act by which, in Christ's incarnation and sacrifice, a sinful world has been sought and redeemed, as to the numberless acts by which God, in His providence and grace, restores the souls of those humble ones if ever they go astray. For the connection requires that the wandering sheep here should, when it wanders, be 'one of these little ones'; and the parable is introduced to illustrate the truth that, because they belong to that number, the least of them is too precious to God to be allowed to wander away and be lost. They have for their keepers the angels of the presence; they have God Himself, in His yearning love and manifold methods of restoration, to look for them, if ever they are lost, and to bring them back to the fold. Therefore, 'see that ye despise not one of these little ones,' each of whom is held by the divine will in the grasp of an individualising love which nothing can loosen.
SELF-MUTILATION FOR SELF-PRESERVATION
'If thy hand or thy foot causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee.'-MATT. xviii. 8, R.V.
No person or thing can do our characters as much harm as we ourselves can do. Indeed, none can do them any harm but ourselves. For men may put stumbling-blocks in our way, but it is we who make them stumbling-blocks. The obstacle in the path would do us no hurt if it were not for the erring foot, nor the attractive prize if it were not for the hand that itched to lay hold of it, nor the glittering bauble if it were not for the eye that kindled at the sight of it. So our Lord here, having been speaking of the men that put stumbling-blocks in the way of His little ones, draws the net closer and bids us look at home. A solemn woe of divine judgment is denounced on those who cause His followers to stumble; let us leave God to execute that, and be sure that we have no share in their guilt, but let us ourselves be the executioners of the judgment upon the things in ourselves which alone give the stumbling-blocks, which others put before us, their fatal power.
There is extraordinary energy in these words. Solemnly they are repeated twice here, verbatim; solemnly they are repeated verbatim three times in Mark's edition. The urgent stringency of the command, the terrible plainness of the alternative put forth by the lips that could say nothing harsh, and the fact that the very same injunction appears in a wholly different connection in the Sermon on the Mount, show us how profoundly important our Lord felt the principle to be which He was here laying down.
We mark these three points. First, the case supposed, 'If thy hand or thy foot cause thee to stumble.' Then the sharp, prompt remedy enjoined, 'Cut them off and cast them from thee.' Then the solemn motive by which it is enforced, 'It is better for thee to enter into life maimed than, being a whole man, to be cast into hell-fire.'
I. First, then, as to the case supposed.
Hand and foot and eye are, of course, regarded as organs of the inward self, and symbols of its tastes and capacities. We may perhaps see in them the familiar distinction between the practical and the theoretical:—hand and foot being instruments of action, and the eye the organ of perception. Our Lord takes an extreme case. If members of the body are to be amputated and plucked out should they cause us to stumble, much more are associations to be abandoned and occupations to be relinquished and pleasures to be forsaken, if these draw us away. But it is to be noticed that the whole stringency of the commandment rests upon that if. 'If they cause thee to stumble,' then, and not else, amputate. The powers are natural, the operation of them is perfectly innocent, but a man may be ruined by innocent things. And, says Christ, if that process is begun, then, and only then, does My exhortation come into force.
Now, all that solemn thought of a possible injurious issue of innocent occupations, rests upon the principles that our nature has an ideal order, so as that some parts of it are to be suppressed and some are to rule, and that there are degrees of importance in men's pursuits, and that where the lower interfere and clog the operations of the higher, there they are harmful. And so the only wisdom is to excise and cut them off.
We see illustrations in abundance every day. There are many people who are being ruined in regard to the highest purposes of their lives, simply by an over-indulgence in lower occupations which in themselves may be perfectly right. Here is a young woman that spends so much of her day in reading novels that she has no time to look after the house and help her mother. Here is a young man so given to athletics that his studies are neglected—and so you may go all round the circle, and find instances of the way in which innocent things, and the excessive or unwise exercise of natural faculties, are destroying men. And much more is that the case in regard to religion, which is the highest object of pursuit, and in regard to those capacities and powers by which we lay hold of God. These are to be ministered to by the rest, and if there be in my nature or in the order of my life something which is drawing away to itself the energy that ought to go in that other direction, then, howsoever innocent it may be, per se, it is harming me. It is a wen that is sucking all the vital force into itself, and turning it into poison. And there is only one cure for it, and that is the knife.
Then there is another point to be observed in this case supposed, and that is that the whole matter is left to the determination of personal experience. No one else has the right to decide for you what it is safe and wise for you to do in regard to things which are not in themselves wrong. If they are wrong in themselves, of course the consideration of consequences is out of place altogether; but if they be not wrong in themselves, then it is you that must settle whether they are legitimate for you or not. Do not let your Christian liberty be interfered with by other people's dictation in regard to this matter. How often you hear people say, 'I could not do it'; meaning thereby, 'therefore he ought not to do it!' But that inference is altogether illegitimate. True, there are limitations of our Christian liberty in regard to things indifferent and innocent. Paul lays down the most important of these in three sentences. 'All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient.' 'All things are lawful for me, but all things edify not';—you must think of your brethren as well as of yourself. 'All things are lawful for me, yet will I not be brought under the power of any'; keep master of them, and rather abstain altogether than become their slave. But these three limitations being observed, then, in regard to all such matters, nobody else can prescribe for you or me. 'To his own Master he standeth or falleth.'
But, on the other hand, do not you be led away into things that damage you, because some other man does them, as he supposes, without injury. 'Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.' There are some Christian people who are simply very unscrupulous and think themselves very strong; and whose consciences are not more enlightened, but less sensitive, than those of the 'narrow-minded brethren' upon whom they look askance.
And so, dear friend, you ought to take the world—to inhale it, if I may so say, as patients do chloroform; only you must be your own doctor and keep your own fingers on your pulse, and watch the first sign of failure there, and take no more. When the safety lamps begin to burn blue you may be quite sure there is choke-damp about; and when Christian men and women begin to find prayer wearisome, and religious thoughts dull, and the remembrance of God an effort or a pain, then, whatever anybody else may do, it is time for them to pull up. 'If thy hand offend thee,' never mind though your brother's hand is not offending him, do the necessary thing for your health, 'cut it off and cast it from you.'
But of course there must be caution and common-sense in the application of such a principle. It does not mean that we are to abandon all things that are susceptible of abuse, for everything is so; and if we are to regulate our conduct by such a rule, it is not the amputation of a hand that will be sufficient. We may as well cut off our heads at once, and go out of the world altogether; for everything is capable of being thus abused.
Nor does the injunction mean that unconditionally we are to abandon all occupations in which there is danger. It can never be a duty to shirk a duty because it is dangerous. And sometimes it is as much a Christian man's duty to go into, and to stand in, positions that are full of temptation and danger, as it is a fireman's business to go into a burning house at the risk of suffocation. There were saints in Caesar's household, flowers that grew on a dunghill, and they were not bidden to abandon their place because it was full of possible danger to their souls. Sometimes Christ sets His sentinels in places where the bullets fly very thick; and if we are posted in such a place—and we all are so some time or other in our lives—the only course for us is to stand our ground until the relieving guard comes, and to trust that He said a truth that was always to be true, when He sent out His servants to their dangerous work, with the assurance that if they drank any deadly thing it should not hurt them.
II. So much, then, for the first of the points here. Now a word, in the second place, as to the sharp remedy enjoined.
'Cut it off and cast it from thee.' Entire excision is the only safety. I myself am to be the operator in that surgery. I am to lay my hand upon the block, and with the other hand to grasp the axe and strike. That is to say, we are to suppress capacities, to abandon pursuits, to break with associates, when we find that they are damaging our spiritual life and hindering our likeness to Jesus Christ.
That is plain common-sense. In regard to physical intoxication, it is a great deal easier to abstain altogether than to take a very little and then stop. The very fumes of alcohol will sometimes drive a reclaimed drunkard into a bout of dissipation that will last for weeks; therefore, the only safety is in entire abstinence. The rule holds in regard to everyday life. Every man has to give up a great many things if he means to succeed in one, and has to be a man of one pursuit if anything worth doing is to be done. Christian men especially have to adopt that principle, and shear off a great deal that is perfectly legitimate, in order that they may keep a reserve of strength for the highest things.
True, all forms of life are capable of being made Christian service and Christian discipline, but in practice we shall find that if we are earnestly seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness, not only shall we lose our taste for a great deal that is innocent, but we shall have, whether we lose our taste for them or not—and more imperatively if we have not lost our taste for them than if we have—to give up allowable things in order that with all our heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, we may love and serve our Master. There are no half-measures to be kept; the only thing to do with the viper is to shake it off into the fire and let it burn there. We have to empty our hands of earth's trivialities if we would grasp Christ with them. We have to turn away our eyes from earth if we would behold the Master, and rigidly to apply this principle of excision in order that we may advance in the divine life. It is the only way to ensure progress. There is no such certain method of securing an adequate flow of sap up the trunk as to cut off all the suckers. If you wish to have a current going down the main bed of the stream, sufficient to keep it clear, you must dam up all the side channels.
But it is not to be forgotten that this commandment, stringent and necessary as it is, is second best. The man is maimed, although it was for Christ's sake that he cut off his hand, or put out his eye. His hand was given him that with it he might serve God, and the highest thing would have been that in hand and foot and eye he should have been anointed, like the priests of old, for the service of his Master. But until he is strong enough to use the faculty for God, the wisest thing is not to use it at all. Abandon the outworks to keep the citadel. And just as men pull down the pretty houses on the outskirts of a fortified city when a siege is impending, in order that they may afford no cover to the enemy, so we have to sweep away a great deal in our lives that is innocent and fair, in order that the foes of our spirit may find no lodgment there. It is second best, but for all that it is absolutely needful. We must lay 'aside every weight,' as well as 'the sin which so easily besets us.' We must run lightly if we would run well. We must cast aside all burdens, even though they be burdens of treasure and delights, if we would 'run with patience the race that is set before us.' 'If thy foot offend thee,' do not hesitate, do not adopt half-measures, do not try moderation, do not seek to sanctify the use of the peccant member; all these may be possible and right in time, but for the present there is only one thing to do—down with it on the block, and off with it! 'Cut it off and cast it from thee.'
III. And now, lastly, a word as to the solemn exhortation by which this injunction is enforced.
Christ rests His command of self-denial and self-mutilation upon the highest ground of self-interest. 'It is better for thee.' We are told nowadays that this is a very low motive to appeal to, that Christianity is a religion of selfishness, because it says to men, 'Your life or your death depends upon your faith and your conduct.' Well, I think it will be time for us to listen to fantastic objections of this sort when the men that urge them refuse to turn down another street, if they are warned that in the road on which they are going they will meet their death. As long as they admit that it is a wise and a kind thing to say to a man, 'Do not go that way or your life will be endangered,' I think we may listen to our Master saying to us, 'Do not do that lest thou perish; do this, that thou may'st enter into life.'
And then, notice that a maimed man may enter into life, and a complete man may perish. The first may be a very poor creature, very ignorant, with a limited nature, undeveloped capacities, intellect and the like all but dormant in him, artistic sensibilities quite atrophied, and yet he may have got hold of Jesus Christ and His love, and be trying to love Him back again and serve Him, and so be entering into life even here, and be sure of a life more perfect yonder. And the complete man, cultured all round, with all his faculties polished and exercised to the full, may have one side of his nature undeveloped—that which connects him with God in Christ. And so he may be like some fair tree that stands out there in the open, on all sides extending its equal beauty, with its stem symmetrical, cylindrical, perfect in its green cloud of foliage, yet there may be a worm at the root of it, and it may be given up to rottenness and destruction. Cultivated men may perish, and uncultured men may have the life. The maimed man may touch Christ with his stump, and so receive life, and the complete man may lay hold of the world and the flesh and the devil with his hands, and so share in their destruction.
Ay! and in that case the maimed man has the best of it. It is a very plain axiom of the rudest common-sense, this of my text: 'It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than to go into hell-fire with both thy hands.' That is to say, it is better to live maimed than to die whole. A man comes into a hospital with gangrene in his leg; the doctor says it must come off; the man says, 'It shall not,' and he is dead to-morrow. Who is the fool—the man that says, 'Here, then, cut away; better life than limb,' or the man that says, 'I will keep it and I will die'?
'Better to enter into life maimed,' because you will not always be maimed. The life will overcome the maiming. There is a wonderful restoration of capacities and powers that have been sacrificed for Christ's sake, a restoration even here. As crustaceans will develop a new claw in place of one that they have thrown off in their peril to save their lives, so we, if we have for Christ's sake maimed ourselves, will find that in a large measure the suppression will be recompensed even here on earth.
And hereafter, as the Rabbis used to say, 'No man will rise from the grave a cripple.' All the limitations which we have imposed upon ourselves, for Christ's sake, will be removed then. 'Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf be unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.' 'Verily I say unto thee, there is no man that hath left any' of his possessions, affections, tastes, capacities, 'for My sake but he shall receive a hundredfold more in this life, and in the world to come, life everlasting.' No man is a loser by giving up anything for Jesus Christ.
And, on the other hand, the complete man, complete in everything except his spiritual nature, is a fragment in all his completeness; and yonder, there will for him be a solemn process of stripping. 'Take it from him, and give it to him that hath ten talents.' Ah! how much of that for which some of you are flinging away Jesus Christ will fade from you when you go yonder. 'His glory shall not descend after him'; 'as he came, so shall he go.' 'Tongues, they shall cease; knowledge, it shall vanish away'; gifts will fail, capacities will disappear when the opportunities for the exercise of them in a material world are at an end, and there will be little left to the man who would carry hands and feet and eyes all into the fire and forgot the 'one thing needful,' but a thin thread, if I may so say, of personality quivering with the sense of responsibility, and preyed upon by the gnawing worm of a too-late remorse.
My brother, the lips of Incarnate Love spoke those solemn words of my text, which it becomes not me to repeat to you as if they were mine; but I ask you to weigh this, His urgent commandment, and to listen to His solemn assurance, by which He enforces the wisdom of the self-suppression: 'It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to be cast into hell-fire.'
Give your hearts to Jesus Christ, and set the following in His footsteps and the keeping of His commandments high above all other aims. You will have to suppress much and give up much, but such suppression is the shortest road to becoming perfect men, complete in Him, and such surrender is the surest way to possess all things. 'He that loseth his life'—which is more than hand or eye—for Christ's sake,' the same shall find it.'
THE LOST SHEEP AND THE SEEKING SHEPHERD
If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth Into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray!—MATT. xviii. 12.
We find this simple parable, or germ of a parable, in a somewhat more expanded form, as the first of the incomparable three in the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel. Perhaps our Lord repeated the parable more than once. It is an unveiling of His inmost heart, and therein a revelation of the very heart of God. It touches the deepest things in His relation to men, and sets forth thoughts of Him, such as man never dared to dream. It does all this by the homeliest image and by an appeal to the simplest instincts. The most prosaic shepherd looks for lost sheep, and everybody has peculiar joy over lost things found. They may not be nearly so valuable as things that were not lost. The unstrayed may he many, and the strayed be but one. Still there is a keener joy in the recovery of the one than in the unbroken possession of the ninety-and-nine. That feeling in a man may be only selfishness, but homely as it is—when the loser is God, and the lost are men, it becomes the means of uttering and illustrating that truth concerning God which no religion but that of the Cross has ever been bold enough to proclaim, that He cares most for the wanderers, and rejoices over the return of the one that went astray more than over the ninety-and-nine who never wandered.
There are some significant differences between this edition of the parable and the form which it assumes in the Gospel according to Luke. There it is spoken in vindication of Christ's consorting with publicans and sinners; here it is spoken in order to point the lesson of not despising the least and most insignificant of the sons of men. There the seeking Shepherd is obviously Christ; here the seeking Shepherd is rather the Divine Father; as appears by the words of the next verse: 'For it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.' There the sheep is lost; here the sheep goes astray. There the Shepherd seeks till He find, here the Shepherd, perhaps, fails to find; for our Lord says, 'If so be that he find it.'
But I am not about to venture on all the thoughts which this parable suggests, nor even to deal with the main lesson which it teaches. I wish merely to look at the two figures—the wanderer and the seeker.
I. First, then, let us look at that figure of the one wanderer.
Of course I need scarcely remind you that in the immediate application of the parable in Luke's Gospel, the ninety-and-nine were the respectable people who thought the publicans and harlots altogether too dirty to touch, and regarded it as very doubtful conduct on the part of this young Rabbi from Nazareth to be mixed up with persons whom no one with a proper regard for whited sepulchres would have anything to do with. To them He answers, in effect—I am a shepherd; that is my vindication. Of course a shepherd goes after and cares for the lost sheep. He does not ask about its worth, or anything else. He simply follows the lost because it is lost. It may be a poor little creature after all, but it is lost, and that is enough. And so He vindicates Himself to the ninety-and-nine: 'You do not need Me, you are found. I take you on your own estimation of yourselves, and tell you that My mission is to the wanderers.'
I do not suppose, however, that any of us have need to be reminded that upon a closer and deeper examination of the facts of the case, every hoof of the ninety-and-nine belonged to a stray sheep too; and that in the wider application of the parable all men are wanderers. Remembering, then, this universal application, I would point out two or three things about the condition of these strayed sheep, which include the whole race. The ninety-and-nine may shadow for us a number of beings, in unfallen worlds, immensely greater than even the multitudes of wandering souls that have lived here through weary ages of sin and tears, but that does not concern us now.
The first thought I gather from the parable is that all men are Christ's sheep. That sounds a strange thing to say. What? all these men and women who, having run away from Him, are plunged in sin, like sheep mired in a black bog, the scoundrels and the profligates, the scum and the outcasts of great cities; people with narrow foreheads, and blighted, blasted lives, the despair of our modern civilisation—are they all His? And in those great wide-lying heathen lands where men know nothing of His name and of His love, are they all His too? Let Him answer, 'Other sheep I have'—though they look like goats to-day—'which are not of this fold, them also must I bring, and they shall hear My voice.' All men are Christ's, because He has been the Agent of divine creation, and the grand words of the hundredth Psalm are true about Him. 'It is He that hath made us, and we are His. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.' They are His, because His sacrifice has bought them for His. Erring, straying, lost, they still belong to the Shepherd.
Notice next, the picture of the sheep as wandering. The word is, literally, 'which goeth astray,' not 'which is gone astray.' It pictures the process of wandering, not the result as accomplished. We see the sheep, poor, silly creature, not going anywhere in particular, only there is a sweet tuft of grass here, and it crops that; and here is a bit of ground where there is soft walking, and it goes there; and so, step by step, not meaning anything, not knowing where it is going, or that it is going anywhere; it goes, and goes, and goes, and at last it finds out that it is away from its beat on the hillside—for sheep keep to one bit of hillside generally, as any shepherd will tell you—and then it begins to bleat, and most helpless of creatures, fluttering and excited, rushes about amongst the thorns and brambles, or gets mired in some quag or other, and it will never find its way back of itself until some one comes for it.
'So,' says Christ to us, 'there are a great many of you who do not mean to go wrong; you are not going anywhere in particular, you do not start on your course with any intentions either way, of doing right or wrong, of keeping near God, or going away from Him, but you simply go where the grass is sweetest, or the walking easiest. But look at the end of it; where you have got to. You have got away from Him.'
Now, if you take that series of parables in Luke xv., and note the metaphors there, you will see three different sides given of the process by which men's hearts stray away from God. There is the sheep that wanders. That is partly conscious, and voluntary, but in a large measure simply yielding to inclination and temptation. Then there is the coin that trundles away under some piece of furniture, and is lost—that is a picture of the manner in which a man, without volition, almost mechanically sometimes, slides into sins and disappears as it were, and gets covered over with the dust of evil. And then there is the worst of all, the lad that had full knowledge of what he was doing. 'I am going into a far-off country; I cannot stand this any longer—all restraint and no liberty, and no power of doing what I like with my own; and always obliged to obey and be dependent on my father for my pocket-money! Give me what belongs to me, for good and all, and let me go!' That is the picture of the worst kind of wandering, when a man knows what he is about, and looks at the merciful restraint of the law of God, and says: 'No! I had rather be far away; and my own master, and not always be "cribbed, cabined, and confined" with these limitations.'
The straying of the half-conscious sheep may seem more innocent, but it carries the poor creature away from the shepherd as completely as if it had been wholly intelligent and voluntary. Let us learn the lesson. In a world like this, if a man does not know very clearly where he is going, he is sure to go wrong. If you do not exercise a distinct determination to do God's will, and to follow in His footsteps who has set us an example; and if your main purpose is to get succulent grass to eat and soft places to walk in, you are certain before long to wander tragically from all that is right and noble and pure. It is no excuse for you to say: 'I never meant it'; 'I did not intend any harm, I only followed my own inclinations.' 'More mischief is wrought'—to the man himself, as well as to other people—'from want of thought than is wrought by' an evil will. And the sheep has strayed as effectually, though, when it set out on its journey, it never thought of straying. Young men and women beginning life, remember! and take this lesson.
But then there is another point that I must touch for a moment. In the Revised Version you will find a very tiny alteration in the words of my text, which, yet, makes a large difference in the sense. The last clause of my text, as it stands in our Bible, is, 'And seeketh that which is gone astray'; the Revised Version more correctly reads, 'And seeketh that which is going astray.' Now, look at the difference in these two renderings. In the former the process is represented as finished, in the correct rendering it is represented as going on. And that is what I would press on you, the awful, solemn, necessarily progressive character of our wanderings from God. A man never gets to the end of the distance that separates between him and the Father, if his face is turned away from God. Every moment the separation is increasing. Two lines start from each other at the acutest angle and diverge more the further they are produced, until at last the one may be away up by the side of God's throne, and the other away down in the deepest depths of hell. So accordingly my text carries with solemn pathos, in a syllable, the tremendous lesson: 'The sheep is not gone, but going astray.' Ah! there are some of my hearers who are daily and hourly increasing the distance between themselves and their merciful Father.