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“He was angry, and would not go in.”—LUKE xv. 28.
THE ELDER BROTHER
THOSE who have studied the paintings of Sir Noel Paton must have observed that part of their peculiar beauty lies, by a trick of art, in their partial ugliness. There are flowers and birds, knights and ladies, gossamer-winged fairies and children of seraphic beauty; but in the corner of the canvas, or just at their feet, some uncouth and loathsome form—a toad, a lizard, a slimy snail—to lend, by contrast with its repulsiveness, a lovelier beauty to the rest. So in ancient sculpture the griffin and the dragon grin among the angel faces on the cathedral front, heightening the surrounding beauty by their deformity.
Many of the literary situations of the New Testament powerfully exhibit this species of contrast. The twelve disciples—one of them is a devil. Jesus upon the Cross, pure and regal—on either side a thief. And here, as conspicuously, in this fifteenth chapter of Luke, the most exquisite painting in the Bible touched off at the foot with the black thundercloud of the elder brother—perfect, as a mere dramatic situation.
But this conjunction, of course, is more than artistic. Apart from its reference to the Pharisees, the association of these two characters—the prodigal and his brother—side by side has a deep moral significance.
When we look into Sin, not in its theological aspects, but in its everyday clothes, we find that it divides itself into two kinds. We find that there are sins of the body and sins of the disposition. Or more narrowly, sins of the passions, including all forms of lust and selfishness, and sins of the temper. The prodigal is the instance in the New Testament of sins of passion; the elder brother, of sins of temper.
One would say, at a first glance, that it was the younger brother in this picture who was the thundercloud. It was he who had dimmed all the virtues, and covered himself and his home with shame. And men have always pointed to the runaway son in contrast with his domestic brother, as the type of all that is worst in human character. Possibly the estimate is wrong. Possibly the elder brother is the worse. We judge of sins, as we judge of most things, by their outward form. We arrange the vices of our neighbours according to a scale which society has tacitly adopted, placing the more gross and public at the foot, the slightly less gross higher up, and then by some strange process the scale becomes obliterated. Finally it vanishes into space, leaving lengths of itself unexplored, its sins unnamed, unheeded, and unshunned. But we have no balance to weigh sins. Coarser and finer are but words of our own. The chances are, if anything, that the finer are the lower. The very fact that the world sees the coarser sins so well is against the belief that they are the worst. The subtle and unseen sin, that sin in the part of the nature most near to the spiritual, ought to be more degrading than any other. Yet for many of the finer forms of sin society has yet no brand. This sin of the elder brother is a mere trifle, only a little bit of temper, and scarcely worthy the recording.
Now what was this little bit of temper? For Christ saw fit to record it. The elder brother, hard-working, patient, dutiful—let him get full credit for his virtues—comes in from his long day’s work in the fields. Every night for years he has plodded home like this, heavy-limbed but light-hearted, for he has done his duty and honest sweat is on his brow. But a man’s sense of responsibility for his character ends too often with the day’s work. And we always meet the temptation which is to expose us when we least expect it. To-night, as he nears the old homestead, he hears the noise of mirth and music. He makes out the strain of a dancing measure—a novel sound, surely, for the dull farm. “Thy brother is come,” the servant says, “and they have killed the fatted calf.” His brother! Happy hour! how long they mourned for him! How glad the old man would be! How the family prayer has found him out at last and brought the erring boy to his parents’ roof! But no—there is no joy on that face, it is the thundercloud. “Brother, indeed,” he mutters; “the scapegrace! Killed the fatted calf, have they? More than they ever did for me. I can teach them what I think of their merry-making. And talk of the reward of virtue! Here have I been all these years unhonoured and ignored, and this young roue from the swine-troughs assembles the whole country-side to do him homage.” “And he was angry, and would not go in.”
“Oh, the baby!” one inclines to say at first; but it is more than this. It is the thundercloud, a thundercloud which has been brewing under all his virtues all his life. It is the thundercloud. The subtle fluids from a dozen sins have come together for once, and now they are scorching his soul. Jealousy, anger pride, uncharity, cruelty, self-righteousness, sulkiness, touchiness, doggedness, all mixed up together into one—Ill-Temper. This is a fair analysis. Jealousy, anger, pride, uncharity, cruelty, self-righteousness, sulkiness, touchiness, doggedness,—these are the staple ingredients of Ill-Temper. And yet, men laugh over it. “Only temper,” they call it: a little hot-headedness, a momentary ruffling of the surface, a mere passing cloud. But the passing cloud is composed of drops, and the drops here betoken an ocean, foul and rancorous, seething somewhere within the life—an ocean made up of jealousy, anger, pride, uncharity, cruelty, self-righteousness, sulkiness, touchiness, doggedness, lashed into a raging storm.
This is why temper is significant. It is not in what it is that its significance lies, but in what it reveals. But for this it were not worth notice. It is the intermittent fever which tells of unintermittent disease; the occasional bubble escaping to the surface, betraying the rottenness underneath; a hastily prepared specimen of the hidden products of the soul, dropped involuntarily when you are off your guard. In one word, it is the lightning-form of a dozen hideous and unchristian sins.
One of the first things to startle us—leaving now mere definition—about sins of temper, is their strange compatibility with high moral character. The elder brother, without doubt, was a man of high principle. Years ago, when his father divided unto them his living, he had the chance to sow his wild oats if he liked. As the elder brother, there fell to him the larger portion. Now was his time to see the world, to enjoy life, and break with the monotony of home. Like a dutiful son he chose his career. The old home should be his world, the old people his society. He would be his father’s right hand, and cheer and comfort his declining years. So to the servants he became a pattern of industry; to the neighbours an example of thrift and faithfulness; a model young man to all the country, and the more so by contrast with his vagabond brother. For association with lofty character is a painful circumstance of this deformity. And it suggests strange doubts as to the real virtue of much that is reckoned virtue and gets credit for the name. In reality we have no criterion for estimating at their true worth men who figure as models of all the virtues. Everything depends on motive. The virtues may be real or only apparent, even as the vices may be real though not apparent. Some men, for instance, are kept from going astray by mere cowardice. They have not character enough to lose their character. For it often requires a strong character to go wrong. It demands a certain originality and courage, a pocketing of pride of which all are not capable, before a man can make up his mind to fall out of step with Society and scatter his reputation to the winds. So it comes to pass that many very mean men retain their outward virtue. Conversely among the prodigal sons of the world are often found characters of singular beauty. The prodigal, no doubt, was a better man to meet and spend an hour with than his immaculate brother. A wealth of tenderness and generosity, truly sweet and noble dispositions, constantly surprise us in characters hopelessly under the ban of men. But it is an instance of misconception as to the nature of sin that with most men this counts for nothing; although in those whose defalcation is in the lower region it counts, and counts almost for everything. Many of those who sow to the flesh regard their form of sin as trifling compared with the inconsistent and unchristian graces of those who profess to sow to the spirit. Many a man, for example, who thinks nothing of getting drunk would scorn to do an ungenerous deed or speak a withering word. And, as already said, it is really a question whether he is not right. One man sins high up in his nature, the other low down; and the vinous spendthrift, on the whole may be a better man than the acid Christian. “Verily, I say unto you,” said Jesus to the priests, “the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”
The fact, then, that there are these two distinct sets of sins, and that few of us indulge both, but most of us indulge the one or the other, explains the compatibility of virtuous conduct with much unloveliness of disposition. Now it is this very association which makes sins of temper appear so harmless. There cannot be much wrong, we fancy, where there is so much general good. How often it is urged as an apology for garrulous people, that they are the soul of kindness if we only knew them better. And how often it is maintained, as a set-off against crossness and pitiable explosions of small distempers, that those who exhibit them are, in their normal mood, above the average in demonstrative tenderness. And it is this which makes the cure so hard. We excuse the partial failure of our characters on the ground of their general success. We can afford to be a little bad who are so good. A true logic would say we can only afford to be a little better. If the fly in the ointment is a very small fly, why have a very small fly? Temper is the vice of the virtuous. Christ’s sermon on the “Elder brother” is evidently a sermon pointedly to the virtuous—not to make bad people good but to make good people perfect.
Passing now from the nature and relations of sins of this peculiar class, we come briefly to look at their effects. And these are of two kinds—the influence of temper on the intellect, and on the moral and religious nature.
With reference to the first, it has sometimes been taken for granted that a bad temper is a positive acquisition to the intellect. Its fieriness is supposed to communicate combustion to surrounding faculties, and to kindle the system into intense and vigorous life. “A man, when excessively jaded,” says Darwin, “will sometimes invent imaginary offences, and put himself into a passion unconsciously, for the sake of re-invigorating himself.” Now, of course, passion has its legitimate place in human nature, and when really controlled instead of controlling, becomes the most powerful stimulus to the intellectual faculties. Thus it is this to which Luther refers when he says, “I never work better than when I am inspired by anger. When I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well; for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.”
The point, however, at which temper interferes with the intellect is in all matters of judgment. A quick temper really incapacitates for sound judgment. Decisions are struck off at a white heat, without time to collect grounds or hear explanations. Then it takes a humbler spirit than most of us possess to reverse them when once they are made. We ourselves are prejudiced in their favour simply because we have made them, and subsequent courses must generally do homage to our first precipitancy. No doubt the elder brother secretly confessed himself a fool the moment after his back was turned on the door. But he had taken his stand; he had said “I will not go in,” and neither his father’s entreaties nor his own sense of the growing absurdity of the situation—think of the man standing outside his own door—were able to shake him. Temptation betraying a man into an immature judgment, that quickly followed by an irrelevant action, and the whole having to be defended by subsequent conduct, after making such a fuss about it—such is the natural history on the side of intellect of a sin of temper.
Amongst the scum left behind by such an action, apart from the consequences to the individual, are results always disastrous to others. For this is another peculiarity of sins of temper, that their worst influence is upon others. It is generally, too, the weak who are the sufferers; for temper is the prerogative of superiors and inferiors, down to the bottom of the scale, have not only to bear the brunt of the storm, but to sink their own judgment and spend their lives in ministering to what they know to be caprice. So their whole training is systematically false, and their own mental habits become disorganised and ruined. When the young, again, are disciplined by the iron instead of by the golden rule, the consequences are still more fatal. They feel that they do not get a fair hearing. Their case is summarily dismissed untried; and that sort of nursery lynch law to which they are constantly subjected carries with it no explanation of moral principles, muzzles legitimate feelings, and really inflicts a punishment infinitely more serious than is intended, in crushing out all sense of justice.
But it is in their moral and social effects that the chief evil lies. It is astonishing how large a part of Christ’s precepts is devoted solely to the inculcation of happiness. How much of His life, too, was spent simply in making people happy! There was no word more often on His lips than “blessed,” and it is recognised by Him as a distinct end in life, the end for this life, to secure the happiness of others. This simple grace, too, needs little equipment. Christ had little. One need scarcely even be happy one’s self. Holiness, of course, is a greater word, but we cannot produce that in others. That is reserved for God Himself, but what is put in our power is happiness, and for that each man is his brother’s keeper. Now society is an arrangement for producing and sustaining human happiness, and temper is an agent for thwarting and destroying it. Look at the parable for a moment, and see how the elder brother’s wretched pettishness, explosion of temper, churlishness, spoiled the happiness of a whole circle. First, it certainly spoiled his own. How ashamed of himself he must have been when the fit was over, one can well guess. Yet these things are never so quickly over as they seem. Self-disgust and humiliation may come at once, but a good deal else within has to wait till the spirit is tuned again. For instance, prayer must wait. A man cannot pray till the sourness is out of his soul. He must first forgive his brother who trespassed against him before he can go to God to have his own trespasses forgiven.
Then look at the effect on the father, or on the guests, or even on the servants—that scene outside had cast its miserable gloom on the entire company. But there was one other who felt it with a tenfold keenness—the prodigal son. We can imagine the effect on him. This was home, was it? Then, it was a pity he ever came. If this was to be the sort of thing, he had better go. Happier a thousand times among the swine than to endure the boorishness of his self-contained, self-righteous brother. Yes, we drive men from Christ’s door many a time by our sorry entertainment. The Church is not spiritualized enough yet to entertain the world. We have no spiritual courtesies. We cultivate our faith and proclaim our hope, but forget that a greater than these is charity. Till men can say of us, “They suffer long and are kind, they are not easily provoked, do not behave themselves unseemly, bear all things, think no evil,” we have no chance against the world. One repulsive Christian will drive away a score of prodigals. God’s love for poor sinners is very wonderful, but God’s patience with ill-natured saints is a deeper mystery.
The worst of the misery caused by ill-temper is that it does no good. Some misery is beneficial, but this is gratuitous woe. Nothing in the world causes such rankling, abiding, unnecessary and unblessed pain. And Christ’s words, therefore, when He refers to the breach of the law of love, are most severe; “If any man offend one of these little ones,” He says, “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were cast into the depths of the sea.” That is to say, it is Christ’s deliberate verdict that it is better not to live than not to love.
In its ultimate nature Distemper is a sin against love. And however impossible it may be to realize that now, however we may condone it as a pardonable weakness or small infirmity, there is no greater sin. A sin against love is a sin against God, for God is love. He that sinneth against love, sinneth against God.
This tracing of the sin to its root now suggests this further topic—its cure. Christianity professes to cure anything. The process may be slow, the discipline may be severe, but it can be done. But is not temper a constitutional thing? Is it not hereditary, a family failing, a matter of temperament, and can that be cured? Yes, if there is anything in Christianity. If there is no provision for that, then Christianity stands convicted of being unequal to human need. What course then did the father take, in the case before us, to pacify the angry passions of his ill-natured son? Mark that he made no attempt in the first instance to reason with him To do so is a common mistake, and utterly useless both with ourselves and others. We are perfectly convinced of the puerility of it all, but that does not help us in the least to mend it. The malady has its seat in the affections, and therefore the father went there at once. Reason came in its place, and the son was supplied with valid arguments —stated in the last verse of the chapter—against his conduct, but he was first plied with love.
“Son,” said the father, “thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” Analyse these words, and underneath them you will find the rallying cries of all great communities. There lie Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity—the happy symbols with which men have sought to maintain governments and establish kingdoms. “Son”—there is Liberty. “Thou art ever with me”—there is Unity, Fraternity. “All that I have is thine”—there is Equality. If any appeal could rouse a man to give up himself, to abandon selfish ends, under the strong throb of a common sympathy, it is this formula of the Christian Republic. Take the last, Equality, alone—“All that I have is thine.” It is absurd to talk of your rights here and your rights there. You have all rights. “All that I have is thine.” There is no room for selfishness if there is nothing more that one can possess. And God has made the Equality. God has given us all, and if the memory of His great kindness, His particular kindness to us, be once moved within, the heart must melt to Him, and flow out to all mankind as brothers.
It is quite idle, by force of will, to seek to empty the angry passions out of our life. Who has not made a thousand resolutions in this direction, only and with unutterable mortification to behold them dashed to pieces with the first temptation? The soul is to be made sweet not by taking the acidulous fluids out, but by putting something in—a great love, God’s great love. This is to work a chemical change upon them, to renovate and regenerate them, to dissolve them in its own rich fragrant substance. If a man let this into his life, his cure is complete; if not, it is hopeless.
The character most hard to comprehend in the New Testament is the unmerciful servant. For his base extravagance his wife and children were to be sold, and himself imprisoned. He cries for mercy on his knees, and the 10,000 talents, hopeless and enormous debt, is freely cancelled. He goes straight from the kind presence of his lord, and, meeting some poor wretch who owes him a hundred pence, seizes him by the throat and hales him to the prison-cell, from which he himself had just escaped. How a man can rise from his knees, where, forgiven much already, he has just been forgiven more, and go straight from the audience chamber of his God to speak hard words and do hard things, is all but incredible. This servant truly in wasting his master’s money must have wasted away his own soul. But grant a man any soul at all, love must follow forgiveness.
Being forgiven much, he must love much, not as a duty, but as a necessary consequence; he must become a humbler, tenderer man, generous and brotherly. Rooted and grounded in love, his love will grow till it embraces the earth. Then only he dimly begins to understand his father’s gift—“All that I have is thine.” The world is his: he cannot injure his own. The ground of benevolence is proprietorship. And all who love God are the proprietors of the world. The meek inherit the earth—all that He has is theirs. All that God has—what is that? Mountain and field, tree and sky, castle and cottage, white man, black man, genius and dullard, prisoner and pauper, sick and aged—all these are mine. If noble and happy, I must enjoy them; if great and beautiful, I must delight in them; if poor and hungry, I must clothe them; if sick and in prison, I must visit them. For they are all mine, all these, and all that God has beside, and I must love all and give myself for all.
Here the theme widens. From Plato to Herbert Spencer reformers have toiled to frame new schemes of Sociology. There is none so grand as the Sociology of Jesus. But we have not found out the New Testament Sociology yet; we have spent the centuries over its theology. Surely man’s relation to God may be held as settled now. It is time to take up the other problem, man’s relation to man. With a former theology, man as man, as a human being, was of no account. He was a mere theological unit, the x of doctrine, an unknown quantity. He was taught to believe, therefore, not to love. Now we are learning slowly that to believe is to love; that the first commandment is to love God, and the second like unto it—another version of it—is to love man. Not only the happiness but the efficiency of the passive virtues, love as a power, as a practical success in the world, is coming to be recognised. The fact that Christ led no army, that He wrote no book, built no church, spent no money, but that He loved, and so conquered, this is beginning to strike men. And Paul’s argument is gaining adherents that when all prophecies are fulfilled, and all our knowledge becomes obsolete, and all tongues grow unintelligible, this thing, Love, will abide and see them all out one by one into the oblivious past. This is the hope for the world, that we shall learn to love, and in learning that, unlearn all anger and wrath and evil-speaking and malice and bitterness.
And this will indeed be the world’s future. This is heaven. The curtain drops on the story of the prodigal, leaving him in, but the elder brother out. And why is obvious. It is impossible for such a man to be in heaven. He would spoil heaven for all who were there. Except such a man be born again he cannot enter the kingdom of God. To get to heaven we must take it in with us.
There are many heavens in the world even now from which we all shut ourselves out by our own exclusiveness—heavens of friendship, of family life, of Christian work, of benevolent ministrations to the poor and ignorant and distressed. Because of some personal pique, some disapproval of methods, because the lines of work or some of the workers are not exactly to our taste, we play the elder brother, we are angry and will not go in. This is the naked truth of it, we are simply angry and will not go in. And this bears, if we could see it, its own worst penalty; for there is no severer punishment than just to be left outside, perhaps, to grow old alone, unripe, loveless and unloved. We are angry and will not go in. All sins mar God’s image, but sins of temper mar God’s image and God’s work and man’s happiness.
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