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15. A discourse of mercifulness
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
These verses, like the stairs of Solomon’s temple, cause our ascent to the holy of holies. We are now mounting up a step higher. ‘Blessed are the merciful . . ’. There was never more need to preach of mercifulness than in these unmerciful times wherein we live. It is reported in the life of Chrysostom that he preached much on this subject of mercifulness, and for his much pressing Christians to mercy, he was called of many, ‘the alms-preacher, or ‘the preacher for mercy’. Our times need many Chrysostoms.
‘Blessed are the merciful’. Mercy stands both in the van and rear of the text. In the beginning of the text it stands as a duty. In the end of the text it stands as a reward. The Hebrew word for ‘godly’ signifies ‘merciful’: the more godly, the more merciful. The doctrine I shall gather out of the words, which will comprehend and bring in the whole, is this:
That the merciful man is a blessed man; as there is a curse hangs over the head of the unmerciful man. ‘Let Satan stand at his right hand; when he shall be judged let him be condemned, and let his prayer become sin; let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow; let his children be continually vagabonds and beg; let the extortioner catch all that he hath, and let strangers spoil his labour; let there be none to extend mercy to him. Let his posterity be cut off, and in the generation following let their name be blotted out. Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out’ (Psalm 109:69). Why, what is this crime? ‘Because he remembered not to show mercy’ (verse 16). See what a long vial full of the plagues of God is poured out upon the unmerciful man! So by the rule of contraries, the blessings of the Almighty crown and encompass the merciful man. ‘The merciful man is a blessed man’ (2 Samuel 22:26; Psalm 37:26; Psalm 41:1). For the illustrating this I shall show, first, what is meant by mercifulness; second, the several kinds of mercy.
1 What is meant by mercifulness? I answer, it is a melting disposition whereby we lay to heart the miseries of others and are ready on all occasions to be instrumental for their good.
How do mercy and love differ?
In some things they agree, in some things they differ, like waters that may have two different spring-heads, but meet in the stream. Love and mercy differ thus: love is more extensive. The diocese that love walks and visits in is larger. Mercy properly respects them that are miserable. Love is of a larger consideration. Love is like a friend that visits them that are well. Mercy is like a physician that visits only them that are sick. Again, love acts more out of affection. Mercy acts out of a principle of conscience. Mercy lends its help to another. Love gives its heart to another. Thus they differ, but love and mercy agree in this, they are both ready to do good offices. Both of them have soundings of bowels, and healing under their wings.
Whence does mercy spring?
Its spring-head rises higher than nature. Mercy taken in its full latitude proceeds from a work of grace in the heart. Naturally we are far enough from mercy. The sinner is a bramble, not a fig tree yielding sweet fruit. It is the character and sign of a natural man to be ‘unmerciful’ (Romans 1:31). A wicked man, like Jehoram, has ‘his bowels fallen out’ (2 Chronicles 21:19). Therefore he is compared to an adamant (Zechariah 7:12) because his heart does not melt in mercy. Before conversion the sinner is compared to a wolf for his savageness, to a lion for his fierceness (Isaiah 11:6), to a bee for his sting (Psalm 118:12), to an adder for his poison (Psalm 140:3). By nature we do not send forth oil, but poison; not the oil of mercifulness, but the poison of maliciousness.
Besides that inbred unmercifulness which is in us, there is something infused too by Satan. ‘The prince of the air works in men’ (Ephesians 2:2). He is a fierce spirit, therefore called ‘the Red Dragon’ (Revelation 12:3). And if he possesses men no wonder if they are implacable and without mercy. What mercy can be expected from hell? So that, if the heart be tuned into mercifulness, it is from the change that grace has made (Colossians 3:12). When the sun shines the ice melts. When the Sun of righteousness once shines with beams of grace upon the soul, then it melts in mercy and tenderness. You must first be a new man before a merciful man. You cannot help a member of Christ till you yourself are a member.
2 The several kinds of mercy, or how many ways a man may be said to be merciful. Mercy is a fountain that runs in five streams. We must be merciful to the souls, names, estates, offences, wants of others.
We must be merciful to the souls of others. This is a spiritual alms. Indeed soul-mercy is the chief of mercies. The soul is the most precious thing; it is a vessel of honour; it is a bud of eternity; it is a sparkle lighted by the breath of God; it is a rich diamond set in a ring of clay. The soul has the blood of God to redeem it, the image of God to beautify it. It being therefore of so high a descent, sprung from the Ancient of days, that mercy which is shown to the soul must needs be the greatest. This soul-mercy to others stands in four things.
1 In pitying them. If I weep, says Augustine, for that body from which the soul is departed, how should I weep for that soul from which God is departed? Had we seen that man in the gospel cutting himself with stones and fetching blood of himself it would have moved our pity (Mark 5:5). To see a sinner stabbing himself and having his hands imbrued in his own blood should cause relenting in our bowels. Our eye should affect our heart. God was angry with Edom because he ‘cast off all pity (Amos 1:11).
2 Soul-mercy is in advising and exhorting sinners. Tell them in what a sad condition they are, even ‘in the gall of bitterness’. Show them their danger. They tread upon the banks of the bottomless pit. If death gives them a jog they tumble in. And we must dip our words in honey; use all the mildness we can: ‘In meekness instructing those . . .’ (2 Timothy 2:25). Fire melts; ointment mollifies. Words of love may melt hard hearts into repentance. This is soul-mercy. God made a law that whosoever saw ‘his enemy’s ass lying under a burden, he should help him’ (Exodus 23:5). On which words, says Chrysostom, we will help a beast that is fallen under a burden; and shall we not extend relief to those who are fallen under a worse burden of sin?
3 Soul-mercy is in reproving refractory sinners. There is a cruel mercy when we see men go on in sin and we let them alone, and there is a merciful cruelty when we are sharp against men’s sins and will not let them go to hell quietly. ‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart; thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour and not suffer sin upon him’ (Leviticus 19:17). Fond pity is no better than cruelty. ‘Rebuke them sharply’, cuttingly (Titus 1:13). The surgeon cuts and lances the flesh, but it is in order to a cure. They are healing wounds. So by cutting reproof when we lance men’s consciences and let out the blood of sin, we exercise spiritual surgery. This is showing mercy. ‘Others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire’ (Jude 23). If a man were in the fire, though you did hurt him a little in pulling him out, he would be thankful and take it as a kindness. Some men, when we tell them of sin say, ‘O this is bitterness’. No, it is showing mercy. If a man’s house were on fire, and another should see it and not tell him of it for fear of waking him, were not this cruelty? When we see others ’sleeping the sleep of death’ and the fire of God’s wrath ready to burn about their ears, and we are silent, is not this to be accessory to their death?
4 Soul-mercy is in praying for others. This is like physic used in a desperate case and often it recovers the sick patient. ‘The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much’ (James 5:16). As it cures the sick body, so also the sin-sick soul. There is a story of one who gave his soul to the devil, who was saved through the prayers of Luther. When ‘Eutychus fell down from an high loft and was taken up dead, Paul fell on him’, that is, he effectually prayed over him and he prayed him alive (Acts 20:9-12). By sin the soul is fallen from an high loft, namely, a state of innocence. Now fervent prayer oftentimes fetcheth life in such a dead soul.
See what a blessed work the work of the ministry is! The preaching of the Word is nothing but showing mercy to souls. This is a mighty and glorious engine in the hand of the Lord of hosts for the beating down of the devil’s strongholds. The ministry of the Word not only brings light with it, but eye-salve, anointing the eyes to see that light. It is a sin-killing and soul-quickening ordinance. It is the ‘power of God to salvation’. What enemies are they to their own souls that oppugn the ministry! They say, the people that live ‘under the line’, curse the sun and are glad when the sun sets because of its burning heat. Foolish sinners curse the sun-rising of the ministry and are offended at the light of it because it comes near their sins and scorches their consciences, though in the end it saves their souls.
It reproves them that have no mercy to souls: evil magistrates; evil ministers.
Evil magistrates who either ‘take away the key of knowledge’ (Luke 11:52), or give a toleration to wickedness, suffering men to sin by a licence. The meaning of toleration is this, that if men will themselves to hell none shall stop them. Is not nature enough poisoned? Do not men sin fast enough, but must have such political engines as serve them up higher in wickedness? Must they have such favourable gales from the breath of great ones as serve to carry them full sail to the devil? This is far from soul-mercy. What an heavy reckoning will these ’statists’ have in the day of the Lord!
Evil ministers are such as have no bowels to the souls of their people. They do not pity them or pray for them. They seek not them but theirs. They preach not for love but lucre. Their care is more for tithes than souls. How can they be called spiritual fathers, who are without bowels? These are mercenaries, not ministers.
Such men feed not the souls of their people with solid truths. When Christ sent out his apostles, he gave them their text, and told them what they must preach, ‘Preach, saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 10:7). Upon which place, says Luther, the ministers of Christ must preach ‘things that pertain to the kingdom of God’ — pardon of sin, sanctification, living by faith not otherwise, at the bidding of the church. They are unmerciful to souls who, instead of breaking the bread of life, fill their people’s heads with airy speculations and notions; who rather tickle the fancy than touch the conscience and give precious souls rather music than food.
Some there are who darken knowledge with words, and preach as if they were speaking in ‘an unknown tongue’. Some ministers love to soar aloft like the eagle and fly above their people’s capacities, endeavouring rather to be admired than understood. They are like some crabbed authors which cannot be read without a comment. Indeed God calls his ministers ‘ambassadors’ (2 Corinthians 5:20), but they must not be like those outlandish ambassadors that cannot be understood without an interpreter. It is unmercifulness to souls to preach so as not to be understood. Ministers should be stars to give light, not clouds to obscure the truth. Saint Paul was learned, yet plain. Clearness and perspicuity is the grace of speech. It is cruelty to souls when we go about to make easy things hard. This many are guilty of in our age, who go into the pulpit only to tie knots, and think it their glory to amuse the people. This savours more of pride than mercifulness.
Such there are, too, as see others going on in sin but do not tell them of it. When men declare their sin as Sodom, it is the minister’s duty to ‘lift up his voice like a trumpet and show the house of Jacob their sin’ (Isaiah 58:1). Zeal in the ministry is as proper as fire on the altar. He who lets another sin and holds his peace is a man-slayer. That sentinel deserves death who sees the enemy approaching, and gives not warning (Ezekiel 3:20).
Some ministers poison souls with error. How dangerous is the leprosy of the head! A frenzy is worse than a fever. What shall we say to such ministers as give poison to their people in a golden cup? Are not these unmerciful? Others there are (unworthy the name of ministers), itineraries, the devil’s journeymen, who ride up and down, and with Satan compass the earth to devour souls. It would pity one’s heart to see poor unstable creatures misled by rude and illiterate men, who diet the people with blasphemy and nonsense, and make them fitter for bedlam than the New Jerusalem. All these are unmerciful to souls.
Let me beseech all that fear God to show soul-mercy. Strengthen the weak; reduce the wandering; raise up them that are fallen. ‘He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death’ (James 5:20).
We must be merciful to the names of others. A good name is one of the greatest blessings upon earth. No chain of pearl so adorns as this. It being so, we ought to be very tender of names. They are to be accounted in an high degree unmerciful, who make no conscience of taking away the good names of their brethren. Their throats are open sepulchres to bury the fame and renown of men (Romans 3:13). It is a great cruelty to murder a man in his name. ‘The keepers of the walls took away my vail from me’ (Canticles 5:7). Some expositors interpret it of her honour and fame which covered her as a beautiful vail. The ground of this unmercifulness to names is
1 Pride. Pride is such a thing as cannot endure to be out-shined. It loves not to see itself exceeded in parts and eminency; therefore it will behead another in his good name that he may appear something lower. The proud man will be pulling down of others in their reputation, and so by their eclipse he thinks he shall shine the brighter. The breath of a proud man causes a blast or mildew upon fame.
2 Envy (1 Peter 2:1). An envious man maligns the dignity of another, therefore seeks to mischief him in his name. Religion teaches us to rejoice in the esteem and fame of others. ‘I thank my God for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world’; it is ‘divulged with fame’ (Romans 1:8). A good report is a credit to religion (Hebrews 11:2). If persons professing godliness do not have a good name, religion will not have a very good name, but envy consulting with the devil lays a train and fetches fire from hell to blow up the good name of another.
In how many ways may we be unmerciful to the names of others?
Divers ways. First, by mis-reporting them, a sin forbidden. ‘Thou shalt not raise a false report’ (Exodus 23:1). Eminency is commonly blasted by slander. ‘Their tongues are as arrows shot out’ (Psalm 64:3). The tongue of a slanderer shoots out words to wound the fame of another and make it bleed to death. The saints of God in all ages have met with unmerciful men who have fathered things upon them that they have not been guilty of. Surius, the Jesuit, reported of Luther that he learned his divinity of the Devil and that he died drunk; but Melanchthon, who wrote his life, affirms that he died in a most pious holy manner and made a most excellent prayer before his death. It was David’s complaint, ‘They laid to my charge things which I knew not’ (Psalm 35:11). The Greek word for ‘devil, signifies slanderer (1 Timothy 3:11). ‘Not slanderers’ — in the Greek it is ‘not devils’. Some think that it is no great maker to defame and traduce another, but know, this is to act the part of a devil. O how many unmerciful men are there, who indeed pass for Christians, but play the devil in venting their lies and calumnies! Wicked men in Scripture are called ‘dogs’ (Psalm 22:16). Slanderers are not like those dogs which licked Lazarus, sores to heal them, but like the dogs which ate Jezebel. They rend and tear the precious names of men. Valentinian the Emperor decreed that he who was openly convicted of this crime of slander should die for it. And Pope Gregory decreed that such a person should be excommunicate, and not have the communion given him. I think it was a just decree.
Second, we are unmerciful to the names of others when we receive a slander, and then report what we hear. ‘Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people’ (Leviticus 19:16). A good man is one that ‘doeth not evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour’ (Psalm 15:3). We must not only not raise a false report, but not take it up. To divulge a report before we speak with the party and know the truth of it is unmercifulness and cannot acquit itself of sin. The same word in the Hebrew, ‘to raise a slander’, signifies to receive it (Exodus 23:1). The receiver is even as bad as the thief. It is well if none of us have (in this sense) received stolen goods. When others have stolen away the good names of their brethren, have not we received these stolen goods? There would not be so many to broach false rumours, but that they see this liquor pleases other men’s taste.
Third, we deal unmercifully with the names of others when we diminish from their just worth and dignity; when we make more of their infirmities and less of their virtues. ‘Speak not evil one of another’ (James 4:11). I have read a story of one, Idor, an abbot, that he was never heard to speak evil of any man. Augustine could not endure that any should eclipse and lessen the fame of others, therefore he wrote those two verses upon his table:
Whoever loves another’s name to blast,
This table’s not for him; so let him fast.
Wicked men are still paring off the credit of their neighbours, and they make thick parings. They pare off all that is good. Nothing is left but the core, something that may tend to their disparagement. Unmerciful men know how to boil a quart to a pint. They have a devilish art so to extenuate and lessen the merit of others, that it is even boiled away to nothing. Some, though they have not the power of creation, yet they have the power of annihilation. They can sooner annihilate the good which is in others than imitate it.
Fourth, we are unmerciful to the names of others when we know them to be calumniated yet do not vindicate them. A man may sometimes as well wrong another by silence as slander. He who is merciful to his brother is an advocate to plead in his behalf when he is injuriously traduced. When the apostles, who were filled with the wine of the Spirit, were charged with drunkenness, Peter vindicated them openly (Acts 2:15). A merciful man will take the dead fly out of the box of ointment.
Fifth, they are in an high degree unmerciful to the names of others who ‘bear false witness against, them (Psalm 27:12). ‘Put not thy hand with the wicked to be a false witness’ (Exodus 23:1). ‘Putting the hand, is taking an oath falsely, as when a man puts his hand upon the book and swears to a lie. So Tostatus expounds it. This ‘false-witness’ is a two-edged sword. The party forsworn wounds another’s name and his own soul. A false witness is compared to a maul or hammer (Proverbs 25:18). It is true in this sense, because he is hardened in impudence he blushes at nothing and in unmercifulness. There is no softness in a maul or hammer, nor is there any relenting or bowels to be found in a false witness. In all these ways men are unmerciful to the names of others.
Let me persuade all Christians, as they make conscience of religion, so to show mercy to the names of others. Be very chary and tender of men’s good name.
Consider what a sin it is to defame any man. ‘Laying aside all envies and evil speakings’ (Titus 3:2; 1 Peter 2:1). Envy and evil speaking are put together: ‘laying aside’, ‘putting away’, as a man would put away a thing from him with indignation; as Paul shook off the viper (Acts 28:5).
Consider also the injuriousness of it. You, who take away the good name of another, wound him in that which is most dear to him. Better take away a man’s life than his name. By eclipsing his name you bury him alive. It is an irreparable injury; something will remain. A wound in the name is like a flaw in a diamond or a stain in azure, which will never die out. No physician can heal the wounds of the tongue.
God will require it at men’s hands. If idle words must be accountable for, shall not reproachful slanders? God will make inquisition one day as well for names as for blood. Let all this persuade to caution and circumspection. You would be loath to steal the goods of others. A man’s name is of more worth, and he that takes away the good name of another sins more than if he had taken the corn out of his field or the wares out of his shop.
Especially take heed of wounding the names of the godly. God has set a crown of honour on their head, and will you take it off? ‘Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’ (Numbers 12:8). To defame the saints is no less than the defaming God himself, they having his picture drawn upon them and being members of Christ. Oh think how ill Christ will take this at your hand another day! It was under the old law a sin to defame a virgin, and what is it to calumniate Christ’s spouse? Are the names of the saints written in heaven, and will you blot them out upon earth? Be merciful to the names of others.
Be merciful to the estates of others. If a man be your debtor and providence has frowned upon him that he has not wherewithal to pay, do not crush him when he is sinking, but remit something of the rigour of the law. ‘Blessed are the merciful’. The wicked are compared to beasts of prey that live upon rapine and spoil. They do not care what mischief they do. ‘He lieth in wait secretly as a lion in his den; he doth catch the poor when he draweth him into his net’ (Psalm 10:9). Chrysostom says the drawing into the net is when the rich draw the poor into bonds, and in case of non-payment at the day, the bond being forfeited, seize upon all they have. It is not justice but cruelty, when others lie at our mercy, to be like that hardhearted creditor in the gospel who took his debtor by the throat saying, ‘Pay me what thou owest’ (Matthew 18:28). God made a law, ‘No man shall take the nether or the upper millstone to pledge, for he taketh a man’s life to pledge’ (Deuteronomy 24:6). If a man had lent another money, he must not take both his millstones for a pawn. He must show mercy and leave the man something to get a livelihood with. We should in this imitate God who in the midst of anger remembers mercy. God does not take the extremity of the law upon us, but when we have not to pay, if we confess the debt, he freely forgives (Proverbs 28:13; Matthew 18:27).
Not but that we may justly seek what is our own, but if others be brought low and submit, we ought in conscience to remit something of the debt. ‘Blessed are the merciful.’
We must be merciful to the offences of others. Be ready to show mercy to them which have injured you. Thus Stephen the proto-martyr, ‘He kneeled down and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’ (Acts 7:60). When he prayed for himself he stood, but when he came to pray for his enemies, he kneeled down, to show, says Bernard, his earnestness in prayer and how greatly he desired that God would forgive them. This is a rare kind of mercy. ‘It is a man’s glory to pass over a transgression’ (Proverbs 19:11). Mercy in forgiving injuries, as it is the touchstone, so the crown of Christianity. Bishop Cranmer was of a merciful disposition. If any who had wronged him came to desire a courtesy from him, he would do all that lay in his power for him, insomuch that it grew to a proverb: Do Cranmer an injury and he will be your friend as long as he lives. To ‘overcome evil with good’, and answer malice with mercy is truly heroic and renders religion glorious in the eyes of all. But I leave this and proceed.
We must be merciful to the wants of others. This the text chiefly intends. A good man does not, like the snake, twist within himself. His motion is direct, not circular. He is ever merciful and lendeth (Psalm 37:26). This merciful charity to the wants of others stands in three things.
1 A judicious consideration. ‘Blessed is he that considereth the poor’ (Psalm 41:1); and you must consider four things.
(i) It might have been your own case. You yourselves might have stood in need of another’s charity and then how welcome and refreshing would those streams have been to you!
(ii) Consider how sad a condition poverty is. Though Chrysostom calls poverty the highway to heaven, yet he that keeps this road will go weeping thither. Consider the poor; behold their tears, their sighs, their dying groans. Look upon the deep furrows made in their faces, and consider if there be not reason why you should scatter your seed of mercy in these furrows. ‘For a cloak he has a tattered vesture, for a couch a stone.’ The poor man feeds upon sorrow; he drinks tears’ (Psalm 80:5). Like Jacob, in a windy night he has the clouds for his canopy and a stone for his pillow.
Nay further, consider that oftentimes poverty becomes not only a cross but a snare. It exposes to much evil, which made Agur pray, ‘Give me not poverty’ (Proverbs 30:8). Want puts men upon indirect courses. The poor will venture their souls for money, which is like throwing diamonds at pear-trees. If the rich would wisely consider this, their alms might prevent much sin.
Consider why the wise God has suffered an inequality in the world. It is for this very reason, because he would have mercy exercised. If all were rich, there were no need of alms, nor could the merciful man have been so well known. If he that travelled to Jericho had not been wounded and left half dead, the good Samaritan who poured oil and wine into his wounds had not been known.
‘Had ilium stood, who’d known of Hector’s name’?
Consider how quickly the balance of providence may turn. We ourselves may be brought to poverty and then it will be no small comfort to us that we relieved others while we were in a capacity to do it. ‘Give a portion to seven and also to eight, for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth’ (Ecclesiastes 11:2). We cannot promise ourselves always halcyon days. God knows how soon many of us may change our pasture. The cup which now runs over with wine may be filled with the waters of Marah. ‘I went out full and the Lord hath brought me home again empty’ (Ruth 1:21). How many have we seen like Bajazet and Belisarius invested with great lordships and possessions who have on a sudden brought their manor to a morsel?
‘Suddenly he becomes Irus, he who was formerly a Croesus for wealth.’
So that it is wisdom (in this sense) to consider the wants of others. Remember how soon the scene may alter. We may be put in the poor’s dress and, if adversity come, it will be no trouble of mind to us to think that while we had an estate we laid it out upon Christ’s indigent members. This is the first thing in mercifulness, a judicious consideration
2 A tender commiseration. ‘If thou draw out thy soul to the hungry’ (Isaiah 58:10). Bounty begins in pity. The Hebrew word for ‘mercy’ signifies ‘bowels’. Christ first ‘had compassion on the multitude’. Then he wrought a miracle to feed them (Matthew 15:32). Charity which lacks compassion is brutish. The brute creatures can relieve us in many ways, but cannot pity us. It is a kind of cruelty (says Quintilian) to feed one in want and not to sympathise with him. True religion begets tenderness. As it melts the heart in tears of contrition towards God, so in bowels of compassion towards others. ‘My bowels shall sound as an harp’ (Isaiah 16:11). Likewise, when our bowels of pity sound, then our alms make sweet music in the ears of God.
3 Mercifulness consists in a liberal contribution. ‘If there be a poor man within thy gates, thou shalt open thy hand wide unto him’ (Deuteronomy 15:7, 8). The Hebrew word to ‘disperse’ (Psalm 112:9) signifies ‘a largeness of bounty’. It must be like water that overflows the banks. ‘Not a meagre dispersing of a mere trifle’. If God has enriched men with estates and made ‘his candle (as Job says) to shine upon their tabernacle’, they must not encircle and engross all to themselves but be as the moon which, having received its light from the sun, lets it shine to the world. The ancients, as Basil and Lorinus observe, made oil to be the emblem of charity. The golden oil of mercy must, like Aaron’s oil, run down upon the poor which are the lower skirts of the garment. This liberal disbursement to the wants and necessities of others God commands and grace compels.
God Commands. There is an express statute law, ‘If thy brother be waxen poor and fallen in decay with thee, then thou shalt relieve him’ (Leviticus 25:35). The Hebrew word is ‘Thou shalt strengthen him’; put under him a silver crutch when he is falling. It is worth our observation what great care God took of the poor, besides what was given them privately. God made many laws for the public and visible relief of the poor. ‘The seventh year thou shalt let the land rest and lie still, that the poor of the people may eat’ (Exodus 23:11). God’s intention in his law was that the poor should be liberally provided for. They might freely eat of any thing which grew of itself this seventh year, whether of herbs, vines or olive trees. If it be asked how the poor could live only on these fruits, there being (as it is probable) no corn growing then, for answer Cajetan is of opinion that they lived by selling these fruits and, so converting them into money, lived upon the price of the fruits.
There is another law made: ‘And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest’ (Leviticus 19:9). See how God indulged the poor. Some corners of the field were for the poor’s sake to be left uncut, and when the owners reaped they must not go too near the earth with their sickle. The Vulgate Latin reads it, ‘Thou shalt not shear to the very ground’. Something like an after-crop must be left. The shorter ears of corn and such as lay bending to the ground, were to be reserved for the poor, says Tostatus.
And God made another law in favour of the poor. ‘At the end of three years thou shalt bring forth the tithe of thy increase the same year, and thou shalt lay it up in thy gates: and the Levite and the fatherless and the widow which are within thy gates shall come and shall eat and be satisfied’ (Deuteronomy 14:28, 29). The Hebrews write that every third year, besides the first tithe given to Levi which was called the perpetual tithe (Numbers 18:21), the Jews set apart another tithe of their increase for the use of the widows and orphans, and that was called ‘the tithe of the poor’. Besides, at the Jews, solemn festivals, the poor were to have a share (Deuteronomy 16:11).
And as relieving the necessitous was commanded under the law, so it stands in force under the gospel. ‘Charge them that are rich in this world that they do good, that they be rich in good works ...’ (1 Timothy 6:17, 18). It is not only a counsel but a charge, and non-attendance to it runs men into a gospel-praemunire. Thus we have seen the mind of God in this particular of charity. Let all good Christians comment upon it in their practice. What benefit is there of gold while it is embowelled and locked up in the mine? And what is it the better to have a great estate if it be so hoarded and cloistered up as never to see the light?
As God commands, so grace compels to works of mercy and beneficence. ‘The love of Christ constraineth’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). Grace comes with majesty upon the heart. Grace does not lie as a sleepy habit in the soul but will put forth itself in vigorous and glorious actings. Grace can no more be concealed than fire. Like new wine it will have vent. Grace does not lie in the heart as a stone in the earth, but as seed in the earth. It will spring up into good works.
This doctrine may serve to justify the Church of England against the calumny of malevolent men. Julian upbraided the Christians that they were Solifidians, and the Church of Rome lays upon us this aspersion, that we are against good works. Indeed we plead not for the merit of them but we are for the use of them. ‘Let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses’ (Titus 3:14). We preach that they are needful both as they are enforced by the precept and as they are needful for the general good of men. We read that the angels had wings, and hands under their wings (Ezekiel 1:8). It may be emblematic of this truth. Christians must not only have the wings of faith to fly, but hands under their wings to work the works of mercy. ‘This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works’ (Titus 3:8). The lamp of faith must be filled with the oil of charity. Faith alone justifies but justifying faith is not alone. You may as well separate weight from lead or heat from fire as works from faith. Good works, though they are not the causes of salvation, yet they are evidences. Though they are not the foundation yet they are the superstructure. Faith must not be built upon works, but works must be built upon faith. ‘Ye are married to another that we should bring forth fruit unto God’ (Romans 7:4). Faith is the grace which marries Christ and good works are the children which faith bears. For the vindication of the doctrine of our Church, and in honour of good works, I shall lay down four aphorisms.
1 Works are distinct from faith. It is vain to imagine that works are included in faith as the diamond is enclosed in the ring. No, they are distinct, as the sap in the vine is different from the clusters that grow upon it.
2 Works are the touchstone of faith. ‘Show me thy faith by thy works’ (James 2:18). Works are faith’s letters of credence to show. If, says Saint Bernard, you see a man full of good works, then by the rule of charity you are not to doubt of his faith. We judge the health of the body by the pulse where the blood stirs and operates. O Christian, judge of the health of your faith by the pulse of mercy and charitableness. It is with faith as with a deed in law. To make a deed valid, there are three things requisite the writing, the seal, the witnesses. So for the trial and confirmation of faith there must be these three things the writing, the Word of God; the seal, the Spirit of God; the witnesses, good works. Bring your faith to this Scripture touchstone. Faith justifies works; works testify faith.
3 Works honour faith. These fruits adorn the ‘trees of righteousness’. Let the liberality of your hand (says Clemens Alexandrinus) be the ornament of your faith, and wear it as an holy bracelet about your wrists. ‘I was eyes to the blind and feet was I to the lame. I put on righteousness and it clothed me. My judgement was as a robe and a diadem’ (Job 29:14-15). While Job was the poor’s benefactor and advocate, this was the ensign of his honour; it clothed him as a robe and crowned him as a diadem. This is that which takes off the odium and obloquy and makes others speak well of religion when they see good works as handmaids waiting upon this queen.
4 Good works are in some sense more excellent than faith; in two respects:
Because they are of a more noble diffusive nature. Though faith be more needful for ourselves, yet good works are more beneficial to others. Faith is a receptive grace. It is all for self-interest. It moves within its own sphere. Works are for the good of others, and it is a more blessed thing to give, than to receive.
Good works are more visible and conspicuous than faith. Faith is a more occult grace. It may lie hidden in the heart and not be seen, but when works are joined with it, now it shines forth in its native beauty. Though a garden be never so decked with flowers, yet they are not seen till the light comes. So the heart of a Christian may be enriched with faith, but it is like a flower in the night. It is not seen till works come. When this light shines before men, then faith appears in its orient colours.
If this be the effigy of a good man, that he is of a merciful disposition, then it sharply reproves those that are far from this temper. Their hearts are like the scales of the Leviathan, ’shut up together as with a close seal’ (Job 41:15). They move only within their own circle, but do not indulge the necessities of others. They have a flourishing estate, but like the man in the gospel, they have a withered hand and cannot stretch it out to good uses. They have all as for themselves, not for Christ. These are akin to the churl Nabal. ‘Shall I take my bread and my water and give it unto men, whom I know not whence they be?’ (1 Samuel 25:11). It was said of the emperor Pertinax, that he had a large empire but a narrow scanty heart.
There was a temple at Athens which was called the Temple of Mercy. It was dedicated to charitable uses; and it was the greatest reproach to upbraid one with this, that he had never been in the Temple of Mercy. It is the greatest disgrace to a Christian to be unmerciful. Covetous men, while they enrich themselves, debase themselves, setting up a monopoly and committing idolatry with Mammon, thus making themselves lower than their angels, as God made them lower than his angels. In the time of pestilence, it is sad to have your houses shut up, but it is worse to have your hearts shut up. How miserable is it to have a sea of sin and not a drop of mercy! Covetous hearts, like the Leviathan, are ‘firm as a stone’ (Job 41:24). One may as well extract oil out of a flint, as the golden oil of charity out of their flinty hearts. The philosopher says that the coldness of the heart is a presage of death. When men’s affections to works of mercy are frozen, this coldness of heart is ominous and sadly portends that they are dead in sin. We read in the law that the shellfish was accounted unclean. This might probably be one reason, because the meat of it was enclosed in the shell and it was hard to come by. They are to be reckoned among the unclean who enclose all their estate within the shell of their own cabinet and will not let others be the better for it. How many have lost their souls by being so saving!
There are some who perhaps will give the poor good words and that is all. ‘If a brother or sister be naked and destitute of food and one of you say to them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profit?’ (James 2:15). Good words are but a cold kind of charity. The poor cannot live as the chameleon upon this air.’ Let your words be as smooth as oil, they will not heal the wounded. Let them drop as the honeycomb, they will not feed the hungry. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of angels and have not charity, I am but as a tinkling cymbal’ (1 Corinthians 13:1). It is better to be charitable as a saint than eloquent as an angel. Such as are cruel to the poor, let me tell you, you unchristian yourselves. Unmercifulness is the sin of the heathen (Romans 1:31). While you put off the bowels of mercy you put off the badge of Christianity. Saint Ambrose says that when we do not relieve one whom we see ready to perish with hunger, we are guilty of his death. If this rule hold true there are more guilty of the breach of the sixth commandment than we are aware of. St James speaks a sad word: ‘For he shall have judgement without mercy that hath showed no mercy’ (James 2:13). How do they think to find mercy from Christ, who never showed mercy to Christ in his members? Dives denied Lazarus a crumb of bread and Dives was denied a drop of water. At the last day behold the sinner’s indictment, ‘I was an hungered and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me no drink’ (Matthew 25:42). Christ does not say, ‘Ye took away my meat’, but ‘Ye gave me none; ye did not feed my members’. Then follows the sentence, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed’. When Christ’s poor come to your doors and you bid them depart from you, the time may come when you shall knock at heaven’s gate, and Christ will say, Go from my door, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed’.
In short, covetousness is a foolish sin. God gave the rich man in the gospel that appellation, ‘Thou fool’ (Luke 12:20). The covetous man does not enjoy what he possesses. He embitters his own life. He discruciates himself with care either how to get or how to increase or how to secure an estate. And what is the issue and result? Often as a just reward of sordid penuriousness, God blasts and withers him in his outward estate. That saying of Gregory Nazianzen is to be seriously weighed: God many times lets the thief take away and the moth consume that which is injuriously and unmercifully withheld from the poor.
Before I leave this matter, I am sorry that any who pass for honest men should be brought into the indictment. I mean, sorry that any who profess Christianity should be impeached as guilty of this sin of covetousness and unmercifulness. Sure I am that God’s elect put on ‘bowels of mercies’ (Colossians 3:12); but I tell you that devout misers are the reproach of Christianity. They are wens and spots in the face of religion. I remember Aelian in his History reports that in India there is a griffin having four feet and wings, his bill like the eagle’s. It is hard whether to rank him among the beasts or the fowl. So I may say of penurious votaries, they have the wings of profession by which they seem to fly to heaven, but the feet of beasts, walking on earth and even licking the dust. It is hard where to rank these, whether among the godly or the wicked. Oh take heed that, seeing your religion will not destroy your covetousness, at last your covetousness does not destroy your religion. The fabulist tells a story of the hedgehog that came to the cony-burrows in stormy weather and desired harbour, promising that he would be a quiet guest, but when once he had gotten entertainment, he set up his prickles and never left till he had thrust the poor conies out of their burrows. So covetousness, though it has many fair pleas to insinuate and wind itself into the heart, yet as soon as you have let it in, this thorn will never leave pricking till it has choked all good beginnings and thrust all religion out of your hearts.
I proceed next to the exhortation to beseech all Christians to put on ‘bowels of mercies’. Be ready to indulge the miseries and necessities of others. Saint Ambrose calls charity the sum of Christianity, and the apostle makes it the very definition of religion. ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction’ (James 1:27). The Hebrew word for ‘poor’ signifies ‘one that is empty’ or ‘drawn dry’. So the poor are exhausted of their strength, beauty, substance; like ponds they are dried up. Therefore let them be filled again with the silver streams of charity. The poor are as it were in the grave. The comfort of their life is buried. Oh Christians, help with your merciful hands to raise them out of the sepulchre. God ’sendeth his springs into the valleys’ (Psalm 104:10). Let the springs of your liberality run among the valleys of poverty. Your sweetest and most benign influence should fall upon the lower grounds. What is all your seeming devotion without bounty and mercifulness? I have known many, says Basil, pray and fast, but relieve not such as are in distress. They are for a zeal that will put them to no charges. What are they the better (says he) for all their seeming virtue? We read that the incense was to be laid upon the fire (Leviticus 16:13). The flame of devotion must be perfumed with the incense of charity. Aaron was to have a bell and a pomegranate. The pomegranate, as some of the learned observe, was a symbol of good works. They lack the pomegranate (says Gregory Nazianzen) who have no good works. The wise men not only bowed the knee to Christ, but presented him with gold, myrrh and frankincense (Matthew 2:11). Pretences of zeal are insufficient. We must not only worship Christ but bestow something upon his members. This is to present Christ with gold and frankincense. Isaac would not bless Jacob by the voice, but he feels and handles him, and supposing them to be Esau’s hands, he blessed him. God will not bless men by their voice, their loud prayers, their devout discourses, but if he feel Esau’s hands, if their hands have wrought good works, then he blesses them.
Let me exhort you therefore to deeds of mercy. Let your fingers drop with the myrrh of liberality. Sow your golden seed. In this sense it is lawful to put out your money to use when you lay it out for good uses. Remember that excellent saying of Augustine, Give those things to the poor which you cannot keep that you may receive those things which you cannot lose. There are many occasions of exercising your mercifulness. ‘The poor goes to the wall.’ Hear the orphans’ cry; pity the widows’ tears. Some there are who want employment. It would do well to set their wheel a-going. Others who are past employment: be as eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. In some cases whole families are sinking if some merciful hand does not help to shore them up. Before I press arguments to liberality and munificence, there are three objections lie in the way which I shall endeavour to remove:
1 We may give and so in time come ourselves to want.
Let Basil answer this. Wells (says he), which have their water drawn, spring ever more freely. ‘The liberal soul shall be made fat ’ (Proverbs 11:25). Luther speaks of a monastery in Austria which was very rich while it gave annually to the poor, but when it left off giving the monastery began to decay. There is nothing lost by doing our duty. An estate may be imparted, yet not impaired. The flowers yield honey to the bee yet do not hurt their own fruit. When the candle of prosperity shines upon us we may light our neighbour that is in the dark and have never the less light ourselves. Whatever is disbursed to pious uses, God brings it in some other way. As the loaves in breaking multiplied or as the widow’s oil increased by pouring out (1 Kings 17:10).
2 I cannot do so much as others — erect churches, build hospitals, augment libraries, maintain scholars at the university.
If you cannot do so much, yet do something. Let there be much goodwill though there be not much wealth to go with it. The widow’s two mites cast into the treasury were accepted (Luke 21:14). God (as Chrysostom observes) looked not at the smallest of her gift, but at the largeness of her heart. In the law, he that could not bring a lamb for an offering, if he brought but two turtledoves, it sufficed. We read that the people brought ‘gold and silver, and goats, hair, to the building of the tabernacle’ (Exodus 35:22-24); on which place (says Origen), ‘I desire, Lord, to bring something to the building of thy temple, if not gold to make the mercy-seat on, if not silk to make the curtains on, yet a little goats’ hair, that I may not be found in the number of those that have brought nothing to thy temple’.
3 But I do not have anything to bestow upon the necessities of others.
Have you anything to bestow upon your lusts? Have you money to feed your pride, your Epicurism? And can you find nothing to relieve the poor members of Christ?
Admit this excuse to be real, that you do not have such an estate; yet you may do something wherein you may express your mercy to the poor. You may sympathise with them, pray for them, speak a word of comfort to them. ‘Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 40:2). If you can give them no gold, you may speak a word in season which may be as ‘apples of gold in pictures of silver’. Nay more, you may be helpful to the poor in stirring up others who have estates to relieve them. As it is with the wind, if a man be hungry the wind will not fill him, but it can blow the sails of the mill and make it grind corn for the use of man. So though you do not have an estate yourself to help him who is in want, yet you may stir up others to help him. You may blow the sails of their affections, causing them to show mercy, and so you may help your brother by a proxy.
Having answered these objections let me now pursue the exhortation to mercifulness. I shall lay down several arguments which I desire may be weighed in the balance of reason and conscience.
1 To be diffusively good is the great end of our creation. ‘Created in Christ Jesus unto good works’ (Ephesians 2:10). Every creature answers the end of its creation. The star shines, the bird sings, the plant bears; the end of life is service. He that does not answer his end in respect of usefulness, cannot enjoy his end in respect of happiness. Many, says Seneca, have been long in the world, but have not lived. They have done no good: ‘a useless weight of earth’. A useless person serves for nothing but to ‘cumber the ground’. And because he is barren in figs he shall be fruitful in curses (Hebrews 6:8).
2 By mercifulness we resemble God who is a God of mercy. He is said to ‘delight in mercy’ (Micah 7:18). ‘His tender mercies are over all his works, (Psalm 145:9). He requires good for evil, like the clouds which receive ill vapours from us but return them to us again in sweet showers. There is not a creature lives but tastes of the mercies of God. Every bird, says Ambrose, in its kind sings hymns of praise to God for his bounty, but men and angels in a more particular manner taste the cream and quintessence of God’s mercies.
What temporal mercies have you received! Every time you draw your breath you suck in mercy. Every bit of bread you eat, the hand of mercy carves it to you. You never drink but in a golden cup of mercy.
What spiritual mercies has God enriched some of you with! Pardoning, adopting, saving mercy! The picture of God’s mercy can never be drawn to the full. You cannot take the breadth of his mercy, for it is infinite, nor the height of it, for it ‘reacheth above the clouds’, nor the length of it, for it is ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ (Psalm 103:17). The works of mercy are the glory of the Godhead. Moses prays, ‘Lord, show me thy glory’ (Exodus 33:18). Says God, ‘I will make all my goodness to pass before thee’ (verse 19). God accounts himself most glorious in the shining robes of his mercy. Now by works of mercy we resemble the God of mercy. We are bid to draw our lines according to this copy. ‘Be ye merciful, as your Father also is merciful’ (Luke 6:36).
3 Alms are a sacrifice. ‘To do good and to communicate, forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’ (Hebrews 13:16). When you are distributing to the poor, it is as if you were praying, as if you were worshipping God. There are two sorts of sacrifices; expiatory the sacrifice of Christ’s blood; and gratulatory the sacrifice of alms. This (says holy Greenham) is more acceptable to God than any other sacrifice. The angel said to Cornelius, ‘Thy alms are come up for a memorial before God’ (Acts 10:4). The backs of the poor are the altar on which this sacrifice is to be offered.
4 We ourselves live upon alms. Other creatures liberally contribute to our necessities. The sun does not have its light for itself but for us; it enriches us with its golden beams. The earth brings us a fruitful crop, and to show how joyful a mother she is in bringing forth, the psalmist says ‘The valleys are covered over with corn, they shout for joy, they also sing’ (Psalm 65:13). One creature gives us wool, another oil, another silk. We are fain to go a-begging to the creation. Shall every creature be for the good of man and man only be for himself? How absurd and irrational is this!
5 We are to extend our liberality by virtue of a membership: ‘That thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh’ (Isaiah 50:7). The poor are ‘of the same clay’. The members by a law of equity and sympathy contribute one to another. The eye conveys light to the body, the heart blood, the head spirits. That is a dead member in the body which does not communicate to the rest. Thus it is in the body politic. Let no man think it is too far below him to mind the wants and necessities of others. It is pity but that hand should be cut off which disdains to pluck a thorn out of the foot. It is spoken in the honour of that renowned princess, the Empress of Theodosius the Great, that she herself visited the sick and prepared relief for them with her own imperial hands.
6 We are not lords of an estate, but stewards, and how soon may we hear the word, ‘Give an account of thy stewardship, for thou mayest be no longer steward!’ (Luke 16:2). An estate is a talent to trade with. It is as dangerous to hide our talent as to spend it (Matthew 25:25, 30). If the covetous man keeps his gold too long, it will begin to rust, and the rust of it will witness against him (James 5:3).
7 The examples of others who have been renowned for acts of mercy and munificence.
Our Lord Christ is a great example of charity, he was not more full of merit than bounty. Trajan the Emperor rent off a piece of his own robe to wrap his soldiers’ wounds. Christ did more. He rent his flesh; He made a medicine of his body and blood to heal us. ‘By his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5). Here was a pattern of charity without a parallel.
The Jews are noted in this kind. It is a rabbinical observation that those who live devoutly among the Jews distribute a tenth part of their estate among the poor, and they give so freely (says Philo the Jew) as if by giving they hope to receive some great gratuity. Now if the Jews are so devoted to works of mercy, who live without priest, without temple, without Messiah, shall not we much more profess our faith in the blessed Messiah!
Let me tell you of heathens. I have read of Titus Vespasian, he was so inured to works of mercy that remembering he had given nothing that day, cried out, ‘I have lost a day’. It is reported of some of the Turks that they have servants whom they employ on purpose to enquire what poor they have and they send relief to them. And the Turks have a saying in their Alcoran, that if men knew what a blessed thing it were to distribute alms, rather than spare, they would give some of their own flesh to relieve the poor. And shall not a Christian’s creed be better than a Turk’s Alcoran?
Let all this persuade to works of mercy. ‘Believe me, it is a royal deed to succour the fallen.’
When poor indigent creatures like Moses are laid in the ark of bulrushes weeping and ready to sink in the waters of affliction, be as temporal saviours to them and draw them out of the waters with a golden cord. Let the breasts of your mercy nurse the poor. Be like the trees of the sanctuary both for food and medicine (Ezekiel 47:12). When distressed and even starved souls are fainting, let your costly ingredients revive and fetch spirits in them. Let others see the coats and garments which you have made for the poor (Acts 9:39).
8 The sin of unmercifulness. The unmerciful man is an unthankful man, and what can be said worse? You to whom the Lord has given an estate, your cup runs over, but you have a miserly heart and will not part with anything for good uses; it is death to you to relieve them that are dying. Know that you are in the highest degree ungrateful; you are not fit for human society. The Scripture has put these two together ‘unthankful, without natural affection’ (2 Timothy 3:2, 3). God may repent that ever he gave such men estates, and may say as Hosea 2:9: ‘Therefore will I return and take away my corn and my wine in the season thereof and will recover my wool and my flax.’
The unmerciful man lacks love to Christ. All men would be thought to love Christ and would be very angry with them that should question their love; but do they love Christ who let the members of Christ starve? No, these love their money more than Christ, and come under that fearful ‘Anathema’ (1 Corinthians 16:22).
9 Lastly, I shall use but one argument more to persuade to works of mercy, and that is the reward which follows alms-deeds. Giving of alms is a glorious work, and let me assure you it is not unfruitful work. Whatsoever is disbursed to the poor is given to Christ. ‘Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ (Matthew 25:40). The poor man’s hand is Christ’s treasury, and there is nothing lost that is put there. ‘Whatsoever you give by stretching forth your hand on earth is as it were given in heaven’. The text says, ‘the merciful shall obtain mercy’. In the Greek it is, ‘they shall be bemercied’. What is it we need most? Is it not mercy? Pardoning and saving mercy? What is it we desire on our deathbed? Is it not mercy? You that show mercy shall find mercy. You that pour in the oil of compassion to others, God will pour in the golden oil of salvation unto you (Matthew 7:2). The Shunammite woman showed mercy to the prophet and she received kindness from him another way (2 Kings 4:8-37). She welcomed him to her house, and he restored her dead child to life. They that sow mercy shall reap in kind; ‘they shall obtain mercy’. Such is the sweetness and mercifulness of God’s nature, that he will not suffer any man to be a loser. No kindness shown to him shall be unregarded or unrewarded. God will be in no man’s debt. For a cup of cold water he shall have a draught of Christ’s warm blood to refresh his soul. ‘For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which you have shown toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints . . .’ (Hebrews 6:10). God’s mercy is a tender mercy, a pure mercy, a rich mercy. Mercy shall follow and overtake the merciful man. He shall be rewarded in this life and in the life to come.
The merciful man shall be rewarded in this life. He shall be blessed —
In his person: ‘Blessed is he that considers the poor’ (Psalm 41:1). Let him go whither he will, a blessing goes along with him. He is in favour with God. God casts a smiling aspect upon him.
Blessed in his name: ‘He shall be had in everlasting remembrance’ (Psalm 112:6). When the niggard’s name shall rot, the name of a merciful man shall be embalmed with honour, and give forth its scent as the wine of Lebanon.
Blessed in his estate: ‘He shall abound in all things’. ‘The liberal soul shall be made fat’ (Proverbs 2:25). He shall have the fat of the earth and the dew of heaven. He shall not only have the venison, but the blessing.
Blessed in his posterity: ‘He is ever merciful and lendeth; and his seed is blessed’ (Psalm 37:26). He shall not only leave an estate behind, but a blessing behind to his children, and God will see that the entail of that blessing shall not be cut off.
Blessed in his negotiations: ‘For this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto’ (Deuteronomy 15:10). The merciful man shall be blessed in his building, planting, journeying. Whatever he is about, a blessing shall empty itself upon him. ‘Wherever he treads there shall be a rose’. He shall be a prosperous man. The honeycomb of a blessing shall be still dropping upon him.
Blessed with long life: ‘The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive’ (Psalm 41:2). He has helped to keep others alive, and God will keep him alive. Is there anything then lost by mercifulness? It spins out the silver thread of life. Many are taken away the sooner for their unmercifulness. Because their hearts are straitened, their lives are shortened.
Again, the merciful man shall be rewarded in the life to come. Aristotle joins these two together, liberality and utility. God will reward the merciful man hereafter, though not for his works, yet according to his works. ‘I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God, and the books were opened, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works’ (Revelation 20:12). As God has a bottle to put our tears in, so he has a book to write our alms in. As God will put a veil over his people’s sins, so he will in free grace set a crown upon their works. The way to lay up is to lay out. Other parts of our estate are left behind (Ecclesiastes 2:18), but that which is given to Christ’s poor is hoarded up in heaven. That is a blessed kind of giving which though it makes the purse lighter, it makes the crown heavier.
You that are mercifully inclined, remember whatever alms you distribute:
You shall have good security. ‘He that gives to the poor lends to the Lord; and that which he hath given will he pay him again’ (Ecclesiastes 11:1; Luke 6:38; Proverbs 19:17). There is God’s counter-band to save you harmless, which is better security than any public faith. Yet here is our unbelief and atheism; we will not take God’s bond. We commonly put our deeds of mercy among our desperate debts.
You shall be paid with over-plus. For a wedge of gold which you have parted with you shall have a weight of glory. For a cup of cold water you shall have rivers of pleasure, which run at God’s right hand for evermore. The interest comes to infinitely more than the principal. Pliny writes of a country in Africa where the people for every bushel of seed they sow receive an hundred and fifty-fold increase. For every penny you drop into Christ’s treasury, you shall receive above a thousand-fold increase. Your after-crop of glory will be so great that, though you are still reaping, you will never be able to inn the whole harvest. Let all this persuade rich men to honour the Lord with their substance
Before I conclude this subject, let me lay down some rules briefly concerning works of mercy.
1 Charity must be free. ‘Thou shalt give, and thy heart must not be grieved . ..’ (Deuteronomy 15:10). That is, you must not be troubled at parting with your money. He that gives grievingly, gives grudgingly. It is not a gift, but a tax. Charity must flow like spring-water. The heart must be the spring, the hand the pipe, the poor the cistern. God loves a cheerful giver. Do not be like the crab which has all the ver-juice squeezed and pressed out. You must not give to the poor as if you were delivering your purse on the highway. Charity without alacrity is rather a fine than an offering. It is rather doing of penance than giving of alms. Charity must be like the myrrh which drops from the tree without cutting or forcing.
2 We must give that which is our own (Isaiah 58:7). To deal bread to the hungry, it must be ‘thy bread’. The word for ‘alms, in the Syriac signifies ‘justice’, to show that alms must be of that which is justly gotten. The Scripture puts them together, ‘To do justice, to love mercy.’ (Micah 6:8). We must not make ‘a sacrifice out of robbery’, a sacrifice of sacrilege. ‘For I the Lord love judgement, I hate robbery for burnt offering’ (Isaiah 61:8). He that shall build an almshouse or hospital with goods ill-gotten displays the ensign of his pride and sets up the monument of his shame.
3 Do all in Christ and for Christ.
Do all in Christ. Labour that your persons may be in Christ. We are ‘accepted in him’ (Ephesians 1:6). Origen, Chrysostom, and Peter Martyr affirm that the best works not springing from faith are lost. The Pelagians thought to have posed Augustine with that question, Whether it was sin in the heathen to clothe the naked? Augustine answered rightly: ‘The doing of good is not in itself simply evil, but proceeding from infidelity it becomes evil’. ‘To them that are unbelieving is nothing pure’ (Titus 1:15). That fruit is most sweet and genuine which is brought forth in the vine (John 15:4). Out of Christ all our alms-deeds are but the fruit of the wild olive. They are not good works but dead works.
Do all for Christ, namely, for his sake, that you may testify your love to him. Love mellows and ripens our alms-deeds. It makes them a precious perfume to God. As Mary did out of love bring her ointments and sweet spices to anoint Christ’s dead body, so out of love to Christ bring your ointments and anoint his living body, viz., saints and members.
4 Works of mercy are to be done in humility. Away with ostentation! The worm breeds in the fairest fruit, the moth in the finest cloth. Pride will be creeping into our best things. Beware of this dead fly in the box of ointment. When Moses’ face shone, he put a veil over it. So while your light shines before men and they see your good works, cover yourselves with the veil of humility. As the silkworm, while she weaves her curious works, hides herself within the silk and is not seen, so we should hide ourselves from pride and vainglory.
It was the sin of the Pharisees while they were distributing alms that they blew the trumpet (Matthew 6:2). They did not give their alms, but sold them for applause. A proud man ‘casts his bread upon the waters’, as a fisherman casts his angle upon the waters. He angles for vainglory. I have read of one Cosmus Medices, a rich citizen of Florence, that he confessed to a near friend of his, he built so many magnificent structures, and spent so much on scholars and libraries, not for any love to learning but to raise up to himself trophies of fame and renown. An humble soul denies himself, yes, even annihilates himself. He thinks how little it is he can do for God, and if he could do more, it were but a due debt. Therefore he looks upon all his works as if he had done nothing. The saints are brought in at the last day as disowning their works of charity. ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungered and fed thee . . .?’ (Matthew 25:37). A good Christian not only empties his hand of alms, but empties his heart of pride. While he raises the poor out of the dust, he lays himself in the dust. Works of mercy must be like the cassia which is a sweet spice, but grows low.
5 Dispose your alms prudentially. It is said of the merciful man, ‘He orders his affairs with discretion’ (Psalm 112:5). There is a great deal of wisdom in distinguishing between those that have sinned themselves into poverty, and those who by the hand of God are brought into poverty. Discretion in the distribution of alms consists of two things: in finding out a fit object; in taking a fit season.
The finding out a fit object comes under a double notion. Give to those who are in most need. Raise the hedge where it is lowest. Feed the lamp which is going out. Give to those who may probably be more serviceable. Though we bestow cost and dressing upon a weak plant, yet not upon a dead plant. Breed up such as may help to build the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11), that may be pillars in church and state, not caterpillars making your charity to blush.
Discretion in giving alms is in taking the fit season. Give to charitable uses in time of health and prosperity. Distribute your silver and gold to the poor before ‘the silver cord be loosed or the golden bowl be broken’ (Ecclesiastes 12:6). ‘He who gives quickly gives double’. Make your hands your executors; not as some who reserve all they give till the term of life is ready to expire, and truly what is then bestowed is not given away, but taken away by death. It is not charity, but necessity. Oh do not so marry yourselves to money that you are resolved nothing shall part you but death. Be not like the medlar which is never good till it be rotten. A covetous man may be compared to a Christmas-box. He receives money, but parts with none till death breaks this box in pieces. Then the silver and the gold come tumbling out. Give in time of health. These are the alms which God takes notice of, and (as Calvin says) puts in his book of accounts.
6 Give thankfully. They should be more thankful that give an alms than they that receive it. We should (says Nazianzen) give a thank-offering to God that we are in the number of givers and not receivers. Bless God for a willing mind. To have not only an estate, but an heart, is matter of gratulation.
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