|« Prev||Lecture IV||Next »|
WE last spoke of Jesus’ message in so far as it proclaimed the kingdom of God and its coining. We saw that it runs through all the forms in which the prophecy of the day of judgment is expressed in the Old Testament, up to the idea of an inward coming of the kingdom then beginning. Finally we tried to show why the latter idea is to be regarded as the dominant one. Before examining it more closely, however, I should like to draw your attention to two particularly important expressions of it, lying between the extremes of the “day of judgment” and the “inner coming.”
In the first of them, the coming of the kingdom of God signifies that the kingdom of the devil is destroyed and the demons vanquished. Hitherto it is they who have been ruling; they have taken possession of men and even of whole nations, and forced them to their will. Jesus not only declares that he is come to destroy the works of the devil, but he actually drives out the demons and releases men from their power.
Let me here digress a little from our subject. 63Nothing in the Gospels strikes us as stranger than the frequently recurring stories of demons, and the great importance which the evangelists attach to them. For many among us the very fact that these writings report such absurdities is sufficient reason for declining to accept them. Now in this connexion it is well to know that absolutely similar stories are to be found in numerous writings of that age, Greek, Roman, and Jewish. The notion of people being “possessed” was current everywhere; nay, even the science of the time looked upon a whole section of morbid phenomena in this light. But the consequence of these phenomena being explained as meaning that some evil and invisible power had taken possession of a man was that mental affections took forms which looked as if an alien being had really entered into the soul. There is nothing paradoxical in this. If modern science were to declare nervous disease to consist, in great part, of “possession,” and the newspapers were to spread this announcement amongst the public, the same thing would recur. We should soon have numerous cases in which nervous patients looked as if they were in the grip of an evil spirit and themselves believed that they were so. Theory and belief would work by suggestion and again create a class of “demoniacs” amongst the insane, just as they created them hundreds, nay, thousands, of years ago. It is 64unhistorical and foolish to attribute any peculiar notion or “theory” about demons and the demoniac to the Gospels and the evangelists. They only shared the general notions of their time. The forms of mental disease in question are of rare occurrence nowadays, but nevertheless they are not yet quite extinct. Where they occur the best means of encountering them is to-day, as it was formerly, the influence of a strong personality. It manages to threaten and subdue the “devil” and so heal the patient. In Palestine “demoniacs” must have been particularly numerous. Jesus saw in them the forces of evil and mischief, and by his marvellous power over the souls of those who trusted him he banished the disease. This brings us to the second point.
When John the Baptist in prison was disturbed by doubts as to whether Jesus was “he who was to come,” he sent two of his own disciples to him to ask him himself. There is nothing more touching than this question of the Baptist’s, nothing more edifying than the Lord’s answer. But we will not dwell upon the scene. What was the answer? “Go and shew John again those things which you do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” That is what the 65“coming of the kingdom” means, or, rather, it is there already in this saving activity. By vanquishing and banishing misery, need and disease, by the actual influence which Jesus was exerting, John was to see that a new day had dawned. The healing of the possessed was only a part of this saving activity; the activity itself, however, was what Jesus denoted as the meaning and the seal of his mission. It was, then, to the wretched, to the sick, and to the poor, that he addressed himself; but not as a moralist and without any trace of, weak-minded sentimentality. He makes no division of evils into departments and groups; he spends no time in asking whether the sick one “deserves” to be healed; he is far, too, from having any sympathy for pain and death. He nowhere says that disease is salutary and that evil is a blessing. No! disease he calls disease, and health he calls health. To him all evil, all misery, is something terrible; it is part of the great realm of Satan. But he feels the power of the Saviour within him. He knows that progress is possible only by overcoming weakness and healing disease.
But he goes further. It is by his healing, above all by his forgiving sin, that the kingdom of God comes. This is the first complete transition to the conception of the kingdom of God as the power that works inwardly. As he calls the sick and the poor 66to him, so he calls sinners also, and it is this call which is all-important. “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Here for the first time everything that is external and merely future is abandoned: it is the individual, not the nation or the state, which is redeemed; it is new men who are to arise, and the kingdom of God is to be at once their strength and the goal at which they aim. They search for the treasure hidden in the field and find it; they sell all that they have and buy the pearl of great price; they are converted and become as children; but thereby they are redeemed and made God’s children and God’s champions.
It was in this connexion that Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God which the violent take by force, and, again, of the kingdom of God which grows steadily and silently like a seed and bears fruit. It is in the nature of spiritual force, a power which sinks into a man within, and can be understood only from within. Thus, although the kingdom is also in heaven; although it will come with the day of judgment, he can still say of it: “It is not here or there, it is within you.”
At a later period the view of the kingdom, according to which it was already come and still comes in Jesus’ saving activity, was not kept up by his disciples: nay, they continued to speak of it as of something that was solely in the future. But the 67thing itself retained its force; it was only given another title. It underwent the same experience as the conception of the “Messiah.” As we shall see hereafter, there was scarcely anyone in the Church of the Gentiles who sought to explain Jesus’ significance by regarding him as the “Messiah.” But the thing itself did not perish.
The essential elements in the message of the kingdom were preserved. The kingdom has a triple meaning. Firstly, it is something supernatural, a gift from above, not a product of ordinary life. Secondly, it is a purely religious blessing, the inner link with the living God; thirdly, it is the most important experience that a. man can have, that on which everything else depends; it permeates and dominates his whole existence, because sin is forgiven and misery banished.
This kingdom, which comes to the humble and makes them new men and joyful, is the key that first unlocks the meaning and the aim of life. This was what Jesus himself found, and what his disciples found. It is a supernatural element alone that ever enables us to get at the meaning of life; for natural existence ends in death. But a life that is bound up with death can have no meaning; it is only sophisms that can blind us to this fact. But here the kingdom of God, the Eternal, entered into time. “Eternal light came in and made the world 68look new.” This is Jesus’ message of the kingdom. Everything else that he proclaimed can be brought into connexion with this; his whole “doctrine” can be conceived as a message of the kingdom. But we shall recognise this, and the blessing which he means, still more clearly, if we turn to the sec and of the sections indicated in the previous lecture, and thereby progressively acquaint ourselves with the fundamental features of Jesus’ message.
II.—God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul.
To our modern way of thinking and feeling, Christ’s message appears in the clearest and most direct light when grasped in connexion with the idea of God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul. Here the elements which I would describe as the restful and restgiving in Jesus’ message, and which are comprehended in the idea of our being children of God, find expression. I call them restful in contrast with the impulsive and stirring elements; although it is just they that are informed with a special strength. But the fact that the whole of Jesus’ message may be reduced to these two heads God as the Father, and the human soul so ennobled that it can and does unite with him—shows us that the Gospel is in nowise a positive religion like the rest; that it contains no statutory 69or particularistic elements; that it is, therefore, religion itself. It is superior to all antithesis and tension between this world and a world to come, between reason and ecstasy, between work and isolation from the world, between Judaism and Hellenism. It can dominate them all, and there is no factor of earthly life to which it is confined or necessarily tied down. Let us, however, get a clearer idea of what being children of God, in Jesus’ sense, means, by briefly considering four groups containing sayings of his, or, as the case may be, a single saying, viz.:—(1) The Lord’s Prayer; (2) that utterance, “Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven”; (3) the saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all. numbered”; (4) the utterance, “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul”?
Let us take the Lord’s Prayer first. It was communicated by Jesus to his disciples at a particularly solemn moment. They had asked him to teach them how to pray, as John the Baptist had taught his disciples. Thereupon he uttered the Lord’s Prayer. It is by their prayers that the character of the higher religions is determined. But this prayer was spoken—as everyone must feel who has ever 70given it a thought in his soul by one who has overcome all inner unrest, or overcomes it the moment that he goes before God. The very apostrophe of the prayer, “Our Father,” exhibits the steady faith of the man who knows that he is safe in God, and it tells us that he is certain of being heard. Not to hurl violent desires at heaven or to obtain this or that earthly blessing does he pray, but to preserve the power which he already possesses and strengthen the union with God in which he lives. No one, then, can utter this prayer unless his heart is in profound peace and his mind wholly concentrated on the inner relation of the soul with God. All other prayers are of a lower order, for they contain particularistic elements, or . are so framed that in some way or other they stir the imagination in regard to the things of sense as well; whilst this prayer leads us away from everything to the height where the soul is alone with its God. And yet the earthly element is not absent. The whole of the second half of the prayer deals with earthly relations, but they are placed in the light of the Eternal. In vain will you look for any request for particular gifts of grace, or special blessings, even of a spiritual kind. “All else shall be added unto you.” The name of God, His will, and His kingdom—these elements of rest and permanence are poured out over the earthly relations as well. 71Everything that is small and selfish melts away, and only four things are left with regard to which it is worth while to pray—the daily bread, the daily trespass, the daily temptations, and the evil in life. There is nothing in the Gospels that tells us more certainly what the Gospel is, and what sort of disposition and temper it produces, than the Lord’s Prayer. With this prayer we ought also to confront all those who disparage the Gospel by representing it as an ascetic or ecstatic or sociological pronouncement. It shows the Gospel to be the Fatherhood of God applied to the whole of life; to be an inner, union with God’s will and God’s kingdom, and a joyous certainty of the possession of eternal blessings and protection from evil.
As to the second utterance: when Jesus says “Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you, but rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven,” it is another way of laying special emphasis on the idea that the all-important element in this religion is the consciousness of being safe in God. The greatest achievements, nay, the very works which are done in the strength of this religion, fall below the assurance, at once humble and proud, of resting for time and eternity under the fatherly care of God. Moreover, the genuineness, nay, the actual existence, of religious experience is to be measured, not by any transcendency of feeling 72nor by great deeds that all men can see, but by the joy and the peace which are diffused through the soul that can say “My Father.”
How far did Christ carry this idea of the fatherly providence of God? Here we come to the third saying: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” The assurance that God rules is to go as far as our fears go, nay, as far as life itself—life down even to its smallest manifestations in the order of Nature. It was to disabuse his disciples of the fear of evil and the terrors of death that he gave them the sayings about the sparrows and the flowers of the field; they are to learn how to see the hand of the living God everywhere in life, and in death too.
Finally, in asking—and after what has gone before the question will not sound surprising—“What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” he put a man’s value as high as it can be put. The man who can say “My Father” to the Being who rules heaven and earth, is thereby raised above heaven and earth, and himself has a value which is higher than all the fabric of this world. But this great saying took the stern tone of a warning. He offered them a gift and with it set them a task. How different was the Greek 73doctrine! Plato, it is true, had already sung the great hymn of the mind; he had distinguished it from the whole world of appearance and maintained its eternal origin. But the mind which he meant was the knowing mind; he contrasted it with blind, insensible matter; his message made its appeal to the wise. Jesus Christ calls to every poor soul; he calls to everyone who bears a human face: You are children of the living God, and not only better than many sparrows but of more value than the whole world. The value of a truly great man, as I saw it put lately, consists in his increasing the value of all mankind. It is here, truly, that the highest significance of great men lies: to have enhanced, that is, to have progressively given effect to human value, to the value of that race of men which has risen up out of the dull ground of Nature. But Jesus Christ was the first to bring the value of every human soul to light, and what he did no one can any more undo. We may take up what relation to him we will: in the history of the past no one can refuse to recognise that it was he who raised humanity to this level.
This highest estimate of a man’s value is based on a transvaluation of all values. To the man who boasts of his possessions he says: “Thou fool.” He confronts everyone with the thought: “Whosoever will lose his life shall save it.” He can even 74 say: “He that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” This is the transvaluation of values of which many before him had a dim idea; of which they perceived the truth as through a veil; the redeeming power of which—that blessed mystery—they felt in advance. He was the first to give it calm, simple, and fearless expression, as though it were a truth which grew on every tree. It was just this that stamped his peculiar genius, that he gave perfectly simple expression to profound and all-important truths, as though they could not be otherwise; as though he were uttering something that was self-evident; as though he were only reminding men of what they all know already, because it lives in the innermost part of their souls.
In the combination of these ideas—God the Father, Providence, the position of men as God’s children, the infinite value of the human soul—the whole Gospel is expressed. But we must recognise what a paradox it all is; nay, that the paradox of religion here for the first time finds its full expression. Measured by the experience of the senses and by exact knowledge, not only are the different religions a paradox, but so are all religious phenomena. They introduce an element, and pronounce it to be the most important of all, which is not cognisable by the senses and flies in the face of things as they are actually constituted. But all religions 75other than Christianity are in some way or other so bound up with the things of the world that they involve an element of earthly advantage, or, as the case may be, are akin in their substance to the intellectual and spiritual condition of a definite epoch. But what can be less obvious than the statement: the hairs of your head are all numbered; you have a supernatural value; you can put yourselves into the hands of a power which no one has seen? Either that is nonsense, or else it is the utmost development of which religion is capable; no longer a mere phenomenon accompanying the life of the senses, a coefficient, a transfiguration of certain parts of that life, but something which sets up a paramount title to be the first and the only fact that reveals the fundamental basis and meaning of life. Religion subordinates to itself the whole motley world of phenomena, and defies that world if it claims to be the only real one. Religion gives us only a single experience, but one which presents the world in a new light: the Eternal appears; time becomes means to an end; man is seen to be on the side of the Eternal. This was certainly Jesus’ meaning, and to take anything from it is to destroy it. In applying the idea of Providence to the whole of humanity and the world without any exception; in showing that humanity is rooted in the Eternal; in proclaiming the fact that we are 76God’s children as at once a gift and a task, he took a firm grip of all fumbling and stammering attempts at religion and brought them to their issuer Once more let it be said: we may assume what position we will in regard to him and his message, certain it is that thence onward the value of our race is enhanced; human lives, nay, we ourselves, have become dearer to one another. A man may know it or not, but a real reverence for humanity follows from the practical recognition of God as the Father of us all.
III.—The higher righteousness and the commandment of love.
This is the third head, and the whole of the Gospel is embraced under it. To represent the Gospel as an ethical message is no depreciation of its value. The ethical system which Jesus found prevailing in his nation was both ample and profound. To judge the moral ideas of the Pharisees solely by their childish and casuistical aspects is not fair. By being bound up with religious worship and petrified in ritual observance, the morality of holiness had, indeed, been transformed into something that was the clean opposite of it. But all was not yet hard and dead; there was some life still left in the deeper parts of the system. To those who questioned him Jesus could still answer: “You have the law, keep 77it; you know best yourselves what you have to do; the sum of the law is, as you yourselves say, to love God and your neighbour.” Nevertheless, there is a sphere of ethical thought which is peculiarly expressive of Jesus’ Gospel. Let us make this clear by citing four points.
Firstly: Jesus severed the connexion existing in his day between ethics and the external forms of religious worship and technical observance. He would have absolutely nothing to do with the purposeful and self-seeking pursuit of “good works” in combination with the ritual of worship. He exhibited an indignant contempt for those who allow their neighbours, nay, even their parents, to starve, and on the other hand send gifts to the temple. He will have no compromise in the matter. Love and mercy are ends in themselves; they lose all value and are put to shame by having to be anything else than the service of one’s neighbour.
Secondly: in all questions of morality he goes straight to the root, that is, to the disposition and the intention. It is only thus that what he calls the “higher righteousness” can be understood. The “higher righteousness” is the righteousness that will stand when the depths of the heart are probed. Here, again, we have something that is seemingly very simple and self-evident. Yet the truth, as he uttered it, took the severe form: “It 78was said of old . . . but I say unto you.” After all, then, the truth was something new; he was aware that it had never yet been expressed in such a consistent form and with such claims to supremacy. A large portion of the so-called Sermon on the Mount is occupied with what he says when he goes in detail through the several departments of human relationships and human failings so as to bring the disposition and intention to light in each case, to judge a man’s works by them, and on them to hang heaven and hell.
Thirdly: what he freed from its connexion with self-seeking and ritual elements, and recognised as the moral principle, he reduces to one root and to one motive—love. He knows of no other, and love itself, whether it takes the form of love of one’s neighbour or of one’s enemy, or the love of the Samaritan, is of one kind only. It must completely fill the, soul; it is what remains when the soul dies to itself. In this sense of love is the new life already begun. But it is always the love which serves, and only in this function does it exist and live.
Fourthly: we saw that Jesus freed the moral element from all alien connexions, even from its alliance with the public religion. Therefore to say that the Gospel is a matter of ordinary morality is not to misunderstand him. And yet there is one all-important point where he combines religion and morality. 79It is a point which must be felt; it is not easy to define. In view of the Beatitudes it may, perhaps, best be described as humility. Jesus made love and humility one. Humility is not a virtue by itself; but it is pure receptivity, the expression of inner need, the prayer for God’s grace and forgiveness, in a word, the opening up of the heart to God. In Jesus’ view, this humility, which is the love of God of which we are capable—take, for instance, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican—is an abiding disposition towards the good, and that out of which everything that is good springs and grows. “Forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive them that trespass against us” is the prayer at once of humility and of love. This, then, is the source and origin of the love of one’s neighbour; the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are also the peacemakers and the merciful.
It was in this sense that Jesus combined religion and morality, and in this sense religion may be called the soul of morality, and morality the body of religion. We can thus understand how it was that Jesus could place the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour side by side; the love of one’s neighbour is the only practical proof on earth of that love of God which is strong in humility.
In thus expressing his message of the higher righteousness and the new commandment of love in 80these four leading thoughts, Jesus defined the sphere of the ethical in a way in which no one before him had ever defined it. But should we be threatened with doubts as to what he meant, we must steep ourselves again and again in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. They contain his ethics and his religion, united at the root, and freed from all external and particularistic elements.81
|« Prev||Lecture IV||Next »|