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Nazareth Revisited


The "Sermon on the Mount."

The last chapter introduced this subject. The "blessedness" pronounced on the "poor in spirit," the "mournful," the "meek," and those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness," is also proclaimed by Jesus, on behalf of "the merciful," "the pure in heart," "the peacemakers," and "the persecuted," implying characteristics of kin with those already noticed. It was something new to extol such qualities; and their glorification by Christ has done much to disseminate them, even in the present chaotic phase of the work of God upon the earth. The manners and practices of civilised mankind are much milder and more humane since these words of Christ were uttered and recorded. The sentiment of mercy was comparatively unknown in the times of Greek and Roman paganism. Purity, peace, and submission to maltreatment have been practiced only where Christ's doctrine has been influential. The eulogy of them and the declaration of a blessing on those who practice them, implies that without them, saivation will not be attained. And this is indeed what is taught expressly in other parts of the apostolic writings, such as "He shall have judgment without mercy that hath shown no mercy" (Jas. ii. 13), "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. xii. 14), "Woe unto you when all men speak well of you" (Luke iv. 26).

But if the eulogy of mercy, purity, and peace distinguished Jesus from all who went before him, how much more was he marked off as a new and revolutionary teacher by his command to "Resist not evil," to "love those who hate," and submit to the compulsions of evil men, yea, even go beyond their desires in our compliances. Such precepts were opposed to the radical impulses of flesh and blood. The injunction of them is one of the strongest proofs of what Christ asserted when he said to the Pharisees: "Ye are from beneath. I am pore above. Ye are of of this world, I am not of this world, I proceeded forth and came from God: neither came I of myself, but he sent me ... He that sent me is true, and I speak to the world those things that I heard of him." -- (Jno. viii. 23, 42, 26). Had Jesus been a natural thinker, he would have taught in harmony with nature's impressions and instincts, as do the "philosophers," so-called, of every age and country. He would, therefore, have inculcated self-defence, and would have glorified the virtues of "patriotism" as appreciated and applauded by flesh and blood everywhere. He would have scouted principles and practices which, apart from their special objects, are pusillanimous, cowardly, and contemptible. But he did none of these. He deprecated the class of character in highest repute among the Greeks and Romans, and Britons too; and enjoined that which is with them convertible with poltroonery. And he did so, not as the result of a moral philosophy he had embraced or conceived. He did not enjoin the maxim of non resistance on the ground of its tendency to conciliate a foe or develop control. It was simply a matter of command resting on authority. "These things I command you" (Jno. xv. 17). And the authority of the command rested with the Father. "The Father who sent me, he gave me a commandment what I should say" (Jno. xii. 49). And the commandment simply called for obedience and left no room for anything else. "Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you" (Jno. xv. 14). "When ye have done all say, Behold we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do" (Luke xvii. 10). In this, we learn the object of the command -- the performance of duty: and on this hangs the question of acceptance. "He that doeth the will of my Father shall enter into the Kingdom of heaven" (Matt. vii. 21). "He that heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, shall be likened unto a man that built his house upon a rock" (Matt. vii. 24).

When this is apprehended, all mystery and difficulty vanish from "the Sermon on the Mount." The commandments it contains were not uttered as moral maxims best fitted for the regulation of the world, but for the test of obedience, and for the restraint and discipline of the natural man in those who are called to share and reflect the glory of God in a future state of existence (on the earth by resurrection). Their inconvenience and their hardness, instead of being enigmatical, become transparent in the wisdom of their adaptation to the object in view. How is a man tested but by a difficult feat? How is he trained but by difficult exercises? When God would prove Abraham, did he ask him to make a feast for his servants? No; he asked him to "offer up his only son Isaac whom he loved." When God would prove men in advance for the unspeakable exaltation of His kingdom, should it be by exercises that leave pride and wilfulness untouched, or by those which test obedience to the utmost, and give opportunity for that humbling of ourselves as little children, without which Jesus said we shall in no case enter into the kingdom? Reason cannot falter in the answer, and the answer justifies to the utmost those very features in "The Sermon on the Mount," which are stumbling blocks to the wise of this world. It is all a question of faith in the declared purpose of God. Will God set up a kingdom? (Dan. ii. 44). Is Jesus the appointed king? (Acts xvii. 7). Has Jesus "called" for associates from among the world ? (Rev. xvii. 14; Jno. xv. 16-21). Does he, in the choosing of them, adopt a process of "purifying them unto himself a peculiar people?" (Tit. ii. 14; Rev. iii. 19). When a man is sufficiently enlightened to give a bold "Yes" in answer to these questions, he will have no difficulty in recognizing the perfection of wisdom in those commandments in "The Sermon on the Mount," which, with nearly all men, are impossible rules of life, but which with Christ in view, become habitual principles of action.

The superhuman character of the discourse is manifest from other features. Who, for example, as a matter of mere moral philosophy, would have thought of addressing disciples as "the salt of the earth," and "the light of the world?" (Matt. v. 13, 14). Mere moral philosophy -- alias, the speculations of mortal flesh as to the ways of God -- places all men on a level in the operation of its laws and principles. But here is a declaration which assumes that all men outside the narrow circle addressed are in corruption and darkness. This, indeed, is the express teaching of the Spirit of Christ elsewhere -- that without him there is no hope (Jno. vi. 53-57, Eph. ii. 12): that the way is narrow and the gate strait that leads to life, and the finders of the way few (Matt. vii. 14). It is this exclusive claim that is at once the stumbling-block of the naturally-minded, and the evidence of the divinity of the work of Christ. It is not in man to put forth such claims, except in madness; and even when occasionally put forth by madmen, it is the aberrated refraction of Christ in a distempered mind. It is not original, as in the case of Christ: nor has it the dignity and self-evident truth that it has in the case of Christ. There are not in any case the proofs that there are in the case of Christ. No man can maintain that Christ was mad in view of his teaching, his miracles, and his resurrection. Not being mad, such claims are in themselves evidence of the truth of what he said -- that God was in him, and that God sent him, and that his words were the words of God (Jno. xiv. 10; xii. 49; viii. 42).

His disciples -- i.e., those who fully receive and faithfully re-echo his teaching, which is the truth as nothing else is -- are "the light of the world" in so far as they reflect his light; for, primarily, it is he who is "the light of the world," as he said (Jno. viii. 12), and away from the truth, all is the darkness of nature. Jesus therefore commands them to let their light shine that men may see it. Hence it is their duty to let it be manifest to those among whom they are situated, that they are children of the light -- believers, lovers, and performers of the truth. This is done when the hope is professed according to seasonable opportunity, and its invitation pressed upon attention, and its power shown in the effect it has upon action. This attitude is intensely odious to those who are not disciples of Christ. It is the attitude of obedience and wisdom for all that, and will be acknowledged and rewarded openly at a time when the mightiest of natural men will be glad to stoop at the feet of the meanest of Christ's accepted disciples.

Jesus supplies the key to his mission in the next statement. People were supposing that he had come to set up "a new religion" -- disjoined from all that God had done and said to Israel by Moses and the prophets. He gives the death blow to this misconception in the words: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy but to fulfil" (Matt. v. 17). The Christ of the New Testament as distinguished from Christ of modern theology and philosophy is -- Christ the Fulfilment of Moses and the Prophets. This puts "the Old Testament" in its right place, and brings to bear the true light in which Jesus is to be regarded. If we cannot understand Jesus in harmony with Moses and the prophets, we have not got hold of the scriptural Jesus, but "another Jesus" than that preached by the apostles. This is indeed the position of the professing Christian world. They hold and promulgate a conception of Jesus which either compels them to put aside Moses and the prophets, or at least renders that preponderating section of the Holy Scriptures utterly useless to them. Hence, all classes of so-called "Christians" deal very loosely with the Old Testament Scriptures, and in many cases surrender them altogether. Jesus declares that not "one jot or one tittle" of them should remain unfulfilled. It was his mission to fulfil them, and to fulfil them all. He has already done much in their fulfilment. In what he has done, he laid the basis of a complete fulfilment. The complete fulfilment awaits his second coming, when, as he afterwards caused to be proclaimed by John in Patmos to all his disciples throughout the ages, "The mystery of God shall be finished, as he hath declared to His servants' prophets (Rev. x. 7).

He next exhibits an aspect of his teaching which is exactly nullified by the "evangelical" and other preachings of the day: "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. v. 20). "Only believe," is the cry of preachers of all kinds. It is an easy, pleasant doctrine, but false. Believing on Christ will commend us to God, but it will not secure salvation unless it is accompanied by obedience of what God by Christ commands. Jesus says so in this very discourse: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. vii. 2). The will of the Father is expressed in the commandments of the Son; and the righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness that consists of doing those commandments. The seed of the woman are defined as those who "keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev. xii. 17). As Jesus says, "Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you" (Jno. IV. 14). It is in view of this that the commandments in "The Sermon on the Mount" become so important.

He proceeds to rehearse them: the chief of them we have already glanced at. He goes on to prohibit unjust anger, contemptuous epithets, the nursing of wrath, lustful contemplations, swearing, the resistance of encroachment, the refusal of alms. He enjoins merciful liberality, the returning of good for evil, anonymousness of almsgiving, secrecy and brevity of prayer, the cheerful and unmurmuring endurance of affliction, abstinence from hoarding (in connection with which he makes the pointed declaration: "Ye cannot serve God and mammon.") He deprecates anxiety as to livelihood, positively forbidding the questions, "What shall we eat? What shall we drink? or wherewithal shall we be clothed?" "After all these things," says he, "the Gentiles seek. Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of those things. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." He condemns the hypercriticism that hunts after blemishes in a neighbour's character; forbids the "judgment" which is his prerogative alone; (as Paul says, "Judge nothing before the time until The Lord come, who will make manifest the hidden things of darkness" -- I Cor. iv. 5); recommends care in the exhibition of holy things; boldness in prayer, and a sympathetic regard for our neighbour's point of view in all transactions -- doing unto him as we would that he should do to us. Reminding disciples of the difficulty of being saved, he warns them against false prophets, who always teach an easy way for the pleasing of men. He tells them that such are to be discerned by their anti-scriptural characteristics. He assures them that a nominal or theoretical acknowledgment of his lordship will be of no value to any man at last: that only those are acceptable who do what he has required, and that many at last will claim his favour on the score of preaching and prophesying, and even miracle working, whom he will reject as in reality workers of iniquity. He concludes with the well-known house-building illustration of the folly of admiring his teaching without acting it out: the house built on the sand comes down on the day of flood.

Of the immense audience who listened to him, we are told, they were "astounded at his doctrine" -- not so much at the matter as the manner; "for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes." The scribes were uncertain, timid, and formal: Jesus was earnest, clear, unhesitating, authoritative. The scribes feared and taught by a human standard -- the tradition of the elders. They taught thus, not as a matter of individual conviction, but as the accepted rule with which it was convenient to comply: Jesus taught with the emphasis of knowledge, divinely derived, and with the ardour of a pure love, and the clearness and dignity of a noble purpose. Jesus knew what he was about: the others did not. Solomon says, "knowledge causeth a man's face to shine."

There is a great difference between imitators and men that speak from the heart: between such as aim to please men and those who seek to please God: between conventional garnishers of accepted principles, and those who draw truth as living water from the hidden primeval rocks. Such was the difference between Jesus and the scribes -- a difference which the people could see in his manner.

The situation is somewhat reversed now. It is in writing and not in speaking that we have to make the acquaintance of the words of Christ -- by reading, not by hearing. It is the matter rather than the manner by which we have to judge, and a right judgment on this head will engender the same astonishment that the listener felt at his manner. The matter is truly sublime. The difficulty of estimating it aright, arises from familiarity. The "Sermon on the Mount" has been so long before the world as to have become an obsolete and worn out form of speech with the fastidious Athenians whose taste is always itching for a new sensation. It requires an effort of the understanding -- (an effort which repetition will reward with success) -- to disentangle it from the smothering associations of modern life, and go back and see it as it appeared when it came from his lips on that picturesque day in the open air on the mountain side. It came forth then as a constellation of electric brightness against the dark sky of human sterility and insignificance. And it shines still with glory undiminished for the eyes of those who can see. The smoke of a bonfire will hide the stars from the people heaping on the fagots: but the stars shine all the same, and reveal their stupendous form and splendour to a telescope in the next street. The people are all engaged in bonfires of one kind and another, and they cannot see the glory of the "Sermon on the Mount" for the smoke they make: but it is all there for those who will apply the instruments of spiritual eyesight.

Here is no uncertain human philosophy, bewildering with its cloudy vagueness, and fatiguing the mind with futile abstractions. Here we have an authoritative rule of life -- simple as the alphabet, and reliable as the guidance of the pole star to ships at sea: -- a straight, definite, dogmaticenunciation of duty in the practical relations of this mortal life, -- authoritative because divine -- and bringing with it the most beautifying moral results whether as character seen by the observer, or mental state as experienced by the man who obeys. Its excellency will be seen in the beautiful results necessarily developed where it is accepted and practised as the rule of life, -- especially when these results are compared with the moral and intellectual stolidity of Greek and Roman paganism.

What, for example, can exceed the beauty or the comfort of the anticipation of ineffable good created in the mind of the believer by the assurance of "blessedness" as the upshot of a course of mercy, meekness, purity, and righteousness, pursued even in sorrow or persecution? What can induce a greater sense of circumspection than the information that Christ regards us as the light of the world and the salt of the earth? What can tend more powerfully to elevate and purify tile character than the intimation that righteousness only will secure an entrance into the Kingdom of God? What can more powerfully modify the harshness, or mollify the asperity of the natural character than the declaration that even anger is sin, and the use of terms of personal reproach an offence endangering salvation? What more conducive to chastity than the reprobation of impurity even in thought? Consider, also, the chasteness of speech engendered by the command to "Swear not at all:" the gentleness of character calculated to result from the command to resist not evil: the kindness and urbanity necessarily springing from the effort to give in to importunities, even of unreason, and even to return benefits for the harm done by those who hate us; the modesty and genuineness certain to result from the enjoined habit of doing good unseen and unknown, and praying in secret. How noble, also, the recommended cheerfulness that endures grief without parading it: and the industry that is busy without avarice; and the stewardship that is faithful without anxiety.

Such a model of perfect character was never conceived before the days of Christ. "Virtue" had been philosophically lauded, but the thing meant by that term was a nebulous abstraction, or else a quality attaching to only one or two limited excellencies. The "virtue" of pagan morality was as unlike the "new man" outlined in the precepts of Christ, as the works of man are unlike the works of nature. If there was courage in it, there was no compassion. If there was hardihood, there was no tenderness. If there was endurance, there was none of the patience that puts up with evil that can be dispensed with. If there was valour or friendship, there was none of the magnanimity that can pass over an injury or benefit a foe. Ambition, and not the love of God, was the ruling motive: to get gain, and not to do duty, was the recognised policy: to vanquish foes and not to relieve the afflicted, was the crowning glory. Truth was always held in subservience to interest.

There have been disparagements of "the Sermon on the Mount" that are not consistent with it as a whole. Cynical criticism has seized on isolated features, and exaggerated them to the exclusion or eclipse of other parts which give them symmetry of beauty. Enlarging on the pronounced blessedness of "the poor in spirit," or on the obligation to "resist not evil," or on the command to "take no thought for to-morrow," enmity has sought to represent the whole discourse as an emasculating and contemptible rule of life. Such tactics are very old, and will only be successful with those whose predispositions are in harmony with them. They Cannot prevail with those who exercise moral discernment on the word of Christ themselves.

Such discernment perceives a counterpoise operating in all parts of the discourse, with the result of preventing any of the moral imperfections that would spring from an isolated precept acting by itself. A perfect equilibrium comes from the action of the whole, and it was never intended that any part should be left out. A man of meekness, resisting not evil, and taking no thought for the morrow, will not degenerate into effeminacy and sloth, when he is called upon also to let his light shine before men, to exceed the Pharisees in righteous deeds, to be prompt in seeking reconciliation with the offended, to do good to those who hate him, and at the same time to have a quick eye for spiritual imposture. All this would indicate and foster an executiveness of character quite equal to that required in the affairs of the children of this world: only it would be executiveness tempered and mollified by the law that makes gentleness and non-resentfulness a matter of obligation. The sinners have the vigour and the executiveness without the oil of moral repression. Consequently, there is an undercurrent of harshness in their moral composition which is ready to flame into anger and destructiveness against any interference with their rights They know nothing about doing good and suffering for it and taking it patiently; because they lack that faith in God which is the inner light and inspiration of the whole "Sermon on the Mount." The "Sermon on the Mount" pre-supposes the recognition of "the Father who seeth in secret" (Matt. vi. 4), and who "knoweth that ye have need of all these things" (32). Take this away, and the discourse would fall shrunk and lustreless as a dead fish. In fact, the discourse would cease to exist if this element were withdrawn. Allusion to the bearing of the Father's recognition and power on actions commanded, runs throughout (not taking into account "The Lord's Prayer," in which it comes to brilliant focus). No true judgment of the discourse can be formed if this is left out of view. It is the beautiful underglow of the whole. A man who sees God, as this discourse requires: who loves him as the discourser did: who has the faith in Him that He commands, would be the last man on earth to be spiritless or vapid or slothful. There probably lives not the man whose conformity to it has been perfect in all particulars; but there are measures of attainment in the case: and it will remain an incontrovertible truth to the end of the world, that those who come most nearly to the commandments of Christ in the sermon on the mount, are the most interesting and lovable of the human race.

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