Consider helping today!
The word "brother" is not to be read in a limited sense, as if referring to a relation by blood. That is evident from the expression in the second verse: "if thou know him not." The reference is general to a brother-man. In Exodus, as we have seen, the term used is not brother, but "enemy": "If thine enemy's ox, or ass, or sheep ." It is needful to understand this clearly, lest we suppose that the directions given in the Bible are merely of a domestic and limited kind. "Thou shalt not see thy brother's ox or his sheep go astray." That is not the literal rendering of the term; the literal rendering would be, "Thou shalt not see thy brother's ox or his sheep driven away " another man behind them, and driving them on as if he were taking them to his own field. The term, therefore, is much stronger than the term which is thus rendered in English. Not only is the animal going astray, as if by misadventure, but it is being driven away carried off, feloniously claimed by some other man. We are not to see actions of this kind and be quiet: there is a time to speak; and of all times calling for indignant eloquence and protest there are none like those which are marked by acts of oppression and wrong-doing: "Thou shalt not hide thyself" thou shalt stand up, go to the front, play the man, accost the wrong-doer in a tone he cannot misunderstand, and insist upon right being done to brother, friend, or enemy. This is the tone of the Bible; this is the moral inspiration of the Holy Book: it speaks up for right, it never countenances wrong-doing, it never crowns a felon: it hangs its Iscariot, it drowns its blasphemers.
We are now upon familiar ground, these sentiments having come under our observation in earlier readings. As the sentiments are the same, their applications must not be substantially varied. What are those applications? The argument must proceed from the lower to the higher. We must reason thus: If a certain line of action is to be adopted under such and such temporary circumstances and within such and such limited scope what action will be appropriate to higher occasions and within larger boundaries? This is the divine method of revelation; this is the only method which God himself could adopt in coming near to us. He tabernacled in the idea of fatherhood; he said in effect, The people understand the word FATHER: amid all their wrong they still cling to the fatherly idea with some measure of fondness and loyalty: I, therefore, will be as a father to them, and will instruct my servants to say, "like as a father;" and I will instruct my Son to say, "how much more shall your Father!" and when the disciples gather around him that they may ask concerning the mystery of prayer and request him to hand them the key of heaven, I will teach them to say, "Our Father." This is a principle of Biblical interpretation namely, movement from the lower to the higher, from the contracted to the boundless, from human tears to the infinite compassion of God.
Adopting this principle, how does the passage open itself to our inquiry? Thus: If we must not see our brother's ox being driven away, can we stand back and behold his mind being forced into wrong or evil directions? It were an immoral morality to contend that we must be anxious about the man's ox but care nothing about the man's understanding. We do not live in Deuteronomy: we revert to it as men revert to ancient history, inquiring into the roots and origins of things: we live within the circle of the Cross: we are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; our morality or our philanthropy, therefore, does not end in solicitude regarding ox, or sheep, or ass: we are called to the broader concern, the tenderer interest, which relates to the human mind and the human soul. Are not minds driven away? Some minds are stronger than others: and is not dominance sometimes used to compel inferior judgments to accept sophistical or even immoral conclusions? Is there no man to whom the truth has been given as a sacred trust and in whom it burns so that he cannot run away when he sees other minds being driven into darkness, or attempts made to debase and prostitute the intelligence of the soul? There need not be any dogmatism in the man's manner or tone; but, in proportion as he has a sense of right, will he speak emphatically, clearly, in round and penetrating tones, so that his exercises of a philanthropic description may not be taken as efforts that cost nothing interpositions which express officiousness rather than the earnestness of the Cross of Christ. It would be singular indeed, amounting to an irony intolerable, were we taught to be solicitous about oxen and sheep and cattle of every name, but to care nothing about the man himself. How contradictory! How painfully ironical could we read such words as these: If thou seest thy brother's ox driven away, stand up, insist upon the ox being taken back, speak a word for honesty; but if thou shalt see thy brother himself being driven into slavery, pass by on the other side, take no heed of an action of that sort, confine solicitude to the ox, remit concerns in relation to the individual man! Evidently the argument must run in the other direction: If careful about the ox, how much more about the mind! If careful about the sheep, how much more careful about the owner! Reasoning in this direction, we soon find ourselves approaching the mystery of the Cross: all this neighbourliness, philanthropy, tender, anxious solicitude about cattle and property leads by a straight and open road to the mystery of the divine concern for the soul of man, as revealed in the Cross of him who died the just for the unjust.
Take it from another point of view. If careful about the sheep, is there to be no care concerning the man's good name? Are we permitted to stand by and see the man's fame and reputation driven away without protest upon our part? We could not see one sheep taken from his flock without instantly being excited and hastening to the owner to tell him that some petty felony had been committed; we might even be more courageous, and, assured that others were looking on and were near at hand to help us, we might venture to protest to the felon himself and insist upon the property being returned. We are courageous when we are in considerable numbers. The individual and solitary observer might not have courage to protest, but the most timid of hearts acquires boldness in the assured presence and society of others. Can we, then, see the good name driven away without jealousy for our brother's fame, without concern for that quality of reputation without which life is not worth living? We are told that to steal the purse is to steal trash it is something nothing; 'twas mine, 'tis his a mere rearrangement of property; "but he that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed." Do we leave the poets to express this high sentiment in golden terms, whilst we engage ourselves with the small solicitude which is satisfied with the fate of oxen and sheep? We are the keepers of our brother: his good name is ours. When the reputation of a Christian man goes down or is being driven away, the sum-total of Christian influence is diminished; in this sense we are not to live unto ourselves or for ourselves: every soul is part of the common stock of humanity, and when one member is exalted the whole body is raised in a worthy ascension, and when one member is debased or wronged or robbed a felony has been committed upon the consolidated property of the Church. Thus we are led into philanthropic relations, social trusteeships, and are bound for one another; and if we see a man's reputation driven away by some cruel hand even though the reputation be that of an enemy we are to say, "Be just and fear not" let us know both sides of the case; there must be no immoral partiality; surely in the worst of cases there must be some redeeming points. When the Church cares for itself in this way the hireling will be afraid to approach the fold: even the wolf will know that the flock is well sheltered.
Take it from another point. "In like manner shalt thou do with... his raiment." And are we to be careful about the man's raiment, and care nothing about his aspirations? Is it nothing to us that the man never lifts his head towards the wider spaces and wonders what the lights are that glitter in the distant arch? Is it nothing to us that the man never sighs after some larger sphere, or ponders concerning some nobler possibility of life? Finding a man driving himself away, we arc bound to arouse him in the Creator's name and to accuse him of the worst species of suicide. Aspirations are the beginning of great character: they express discontentment: being turned into our mother tongue they might be thus read: This world is not enough: I beat my hands against its narrow boundaries: my soul longs for something broader, brighter, grander: I know these glittering points are not nails driven into a door to prevent its being opened these glittering points are invitations, calls, allurements; I would respond, Is there no God in all the void? Hear a man talking so, and instantly leap upon his chariot, join him, and ask him if he understands what he says, and when he tells you that he has no understanding but is sighing after solutions of mysteries, read to him the great words of Christ the solemn Gospel of the Son of God and as you speak, in Christ's name and in Christ's tone, his heart will burn within him, and at eventide he will say, Abide with me. Man knows the truth when he hears it: there is an answering voice in the constitution of man. There are some words which cannot be palmed off upon man as true; when he himself is really in the agony of earnestness there are other words which come into his darkness like great lights. The light proves itself. Light instantly chases away the creatures of darkness; one little flame sends a vibration of light into every corner of the building. How light troubles darkness! how the darkness writhes under the gleam of light! it is in sore distress. So the soul knows the light as the flowers know the sun.
Can we see our brother's ass being driven away and care nothing what becomes of his child? Save the children, and begin your work as soon as possible. The traveller who wants to get home does not wait until the sun is high up in the sky: the moment he sees a little whitening line in the east he grasps his staff and stands up ready to go onward to his home and the sanctuary of his love. Were we more anxious about the children we should do a greater work of a Christian kind. The old man seems to be beyond our reach, but the little child seems to be made for Christ. It would seem do not let us shrink from the term natural for every little child to put out his arms to cling to the Child of Bethlehem. Save the children, and you will purify society; expend your solicitude upon young, opening, tender life, and you shall see the result of your concern after many days. Services should be constituted for children; the old people have had the sanctuary too long: their ears are sated with eloquence: their minds are stored with names which never turn into inspirations; churches might be built for children, and preachers trained to speak to them alone. We have reversed all things, and thus have gone astray. Baptism is for the little speechless child a great mystery of life: a throb that has in it immortality; and that other sacrament of blood, that mystery of pain, that apocalypse of love might be given to little children; when we touch it with our reason, we profane it: when we claim it because we understand it, we become idolaters: "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." See a little child without knowledge, and do not "hide" yourself, but say, That little child is mine. We hold our knowledge for the benefit of the ignorant; we are trustees of our strength that we may save the weak from oppression. It is sad to see the little children left to themselves; and therefore ineffably beautiful to mark the concern which interests itself in the education and redemption of the young. A poet says he was nearer heaven in his childhood than he ever was in after-days, and he sweetly prayed that he might return through his yesterdays and through his childhood back to God. That is chronologically impossible locally and physically not to be done; and yet that is the very miracle which is to be performed in the soul in the spirit; we must be "born again."
It is a coward's trick to close the eyes whilst wrong is being done in order that we may not see it. It is easy to escape distress, perplexity, and to flee away from the burdens of other men; but the whole word is, "Thou shalt not hide thyself" but "Thou shalt surely help him." Who can undervalue a Bible which speaks in such a tone? The proverb, "Every man must take care of himself," has no place in the Book of God. We must take care of one another: "Whoso hath this world's goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" If thou sayest, Behold, I knew it not, will not he who makes inquisition for blood bring the matter to a positive and inevitable test? Christians are not called upon to close their eyes, to run away from danger, and to lay down some narrow doctrine of mine and thine. Christianity means nothing if it does not mean the unity of the human race, the common rights of humanity: and he who fails to interpose in all cases of injustice and wrong-doing, or suffering which he can relieve, may be a great theologian, but he is not a Christian.
Almighty God, we cry unto thee, each for himself, "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." The leprosy is in the heart; the flesh is good and sound and right, but our hearts are full of sin and evil and bitterness. "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean." But thou dost ask us to be willing in this case: Lord, we are willing; we would be clean; we would know the mystery of holiness, the rest of purity, the music of unity with God. We do not know what cleanness is; we cannot wash our own hearts. Thou alone canst cleanse the spirit and sanctify the whole will, making every passion a pure flame, and the outgoing of the soul a sacred yearning after larger knowledge. We cannot do the miracles of God. Work in us mightily, and show thy great power in the cleansing of hearts that are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. This is the purpose of thy Cross, O Christ, this is the meaning of the blood that was shed, to take away all sin, to cleanse the sinner, to make the evil-doer a right-doer, so that not only shall the works be changed, but the worker shall be transformed. We bless thee for this revelation of thy purpose; it enables us to seize the Book in which it is written, and to lay hold upon it with our judgment and affection, and to expect from it further light, more ardent warmth, and larger hospitality. Thou wouldst have all hearts clean; from the great heaven thou hast written this word, addressed to all the sons of men: "Be ye holy, as your Father in heaven is holy." Thou dost call us to no minor character; thou hast not set before us that which is uncertain, incomplete, fickle, and changeable; thou art thyself the standard of holiness, the character to whose grandeur we must aspire. To God all things are possible. In that consolation we rest, and from that point we begin our poor endeavour, knowing that our weakness shall be perfected by the divine power, and what we cannot do, God will abundantly accomplish. We have been a long time at school; we are poor scholars; we misspell the simplest words, and misapply the deepest, and in the midst of our reading we burn with unholy passion. When we are at church, we bring with us forbidden guests. When we read thy Book, we think of other music and fascination. Life is difficult, the discipline is hard; every day smites with its own fist, and we spend our time in vainly trying to get up again. But it is thy life, not ours; thy way of doing things, and therefore it is right: we accept it; even when the burden is heaviest, we do not pray that it may be destroyed, but that our strength may be equal to it. Thou hast carried thy servants through many a mile of the life-journey; some of them are willing to turn right back again, and begin all the road once more, thinking they would avoid the mistakes, and never repeat the errors which have filled the life-way with difficulty and judgment. Some are in a strait betwixt two: wanting to stay, willing to go; wanting to go, willing to stay; having no will in the matter, but waiting thy revelation. Others are impatient to go, for they have seen the end of things; they have heard all the roaring wind, and have tasted its emptiness, and now they long to be in the better land, where every day is harvest, and where there is no black night. We pray for one another: for the little child and the old man, for the sick heart, for the wounded spirit, for those whose hopes are dead, and whose best trusts are blighted. We remember those whose sin cannot be spoken, whose suffering lies beyond the reach of words, who die in secret, and waste away whilst they are deceiving their friends with smiles. Thou knowest us altogether: in our robustness and force and great strength, in our weakness and delicateness, in our pining and fear, in our richness, in our wealth and poverty, in all our relations thou knowest us wholly; there is not a word upon our tongue, there is not a thought in our heart, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thy knowledge is mercy: to know is to pity, to know is to look with inward kindness on the objects of suffering and despair. The Lord send messages to us, every one; make the reading of his Word like the dawning of a birthday; and may there be festival in the house, eating and drinking abundantly at God's great table, and may all the guests rise from the feast, saying, Blessed be the Master, and to the King be the loyalty of every heart. Amen.
A singular word to be in a Book which we might have expected to be wholly occupied with spiritual revelation. Men are anxious to know something about the unseen worlds, and the mystery which lies at the heart of things and palpitates throughout the whole circle of observable nature, and yet they are called upon to pay attention to the treatment of birds' nests. Is this any departure from the benevolent and redeeming spirit of the Book? On the contrary, this is a vivid illustration of the minuteness of divine government, and as such it affords the beginning of an argument which must for ever accumulate in volume and force, on the ground that if God is so careful of a bird's nest he must be proportionately careful of all things of higher quality. Jesus Christ so used nature. "If then God so clothe the grass," said he, "how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?" So we may add, If God is so careful of birds' nests, what must he be of human hearts, and human homes, and the destinies of the human family? It is not enough to keep the law in great aspects, such as appeal to the public eye, and by keeping which reputation is sometimes unjustly gained. We are called upon to pay attention to minute and hardly discernible features of character, for these often indicate the real quality of the man. God's beneficence is wonderfully displayed in the care of the birds' nests. God is kind in little things as well as in great. The quality of his love is one, whether it be shown in the redemption of the race, in numbering the hairs of our head, in ordering our steps, or giving his beloved sleep. Did we but know it we should find that all law is beneficent the law of restriction as well as the law of liberty. The law which would keep a man from doing injury to himself, though it may appear to impair the prerogative of human will, is profoundly beneficent. Was not man to have dominion over the fowls of the air? Truly so; but dominion is to be exercised in mercy. Power that is uncontrolled by kindness soon becomes despotism. The psalmist heard that power belonged unto God; at that point he might have trembled with awe or bowed himself down in servile fear, for little and frail is the strength of man; but the psalmist seems to have heard at the same time the other and comforting truth namely, "Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy." This is completeness of sovereignty: this is not only a hand that can rule but a heart that can love. We are apt to think that right and wrong are terms which only apply to great concerns, and so we lose the element of morality in things that are comparatively insignificant in volume and temporary in duration. The Bible insists that right and wrong are terms which belong to everything in life. There is a right way of appropriating the contents of a bird's nest, and there is a way that is equally wrong. We may do the right thing in the wrong way. All men know what it is to speak the right word in the wrong tone, and so deprive the word of all its natural music and proper value as a moral instrument. There is a right way of chiding, and there is a chastisement which becomes mere malice or the wanton expression of superior physical force. The morality of the Bible goes down to every root and fibre of life. In offering a salutation, in opening a door, in uttering a wish, in writing a letter, in using titles of deference, in every possible exercise of human thought and power the moral element is present. Phebe was to be received by the Christians at Rome "as becometh saints." A New Testament injunction is "Be courteous." Charity itself is courteous, graceful, savoured with the highest degree of refinement, and expressive of the completest reach of dignity. So the Bible will not allow our life to fray itself out in loose ends, content if the middle portion of the web be comparatively well-connected and serviceable; every thread-end is to be attended to, every fibre is to be considered of value, and conscience is not satisfied until every question which righteousness can ask has been answered in a satisfactory manner. The treatment of birds' nests is a sure indication of the man's whole character. The act does not begin and end in itself. He who can wantonly destroy a bird's nest can wantonly do a hundred other things of the same kind. It is here that we see the value of all such moral restriction and injunction. To be cruel at all is to be cruel all through and through the substance and quality of the character. Men cannot be cruel to birds' nests and gentle to children's cradles. The man who can take care of a bird's nest because it is right to do so not because of any pleasure which he has in a bird's nest is a man who cannot be indifferent to the homes of children and the circumstances of his fellow-creatures generally. It is a mistake to suppose that we can be wanton up to a given point, and then begin to be considerate and benevolent. We are all apt scholars in a bad school, and learn more in one lesson there than we can learn through much discipline in the school of God. The little tyrannies of childhood often explain the great despotism of mature life. Is not kindness an influence that penetrates the whole life, having manifold expression, alike upward, downward, and laterally, touching all human things, all inferiors and dependants, and every harmless and defenceless life? On the other hand, we are to be most careful not to encourage any merely pedantic feeling. Hence the caution I have before given respecting the purpose for which a man considerately handles even a bird's nest. Every day we see how possible it is for a man to be very careful of his horse, and yet to hold the comfort of his servant very lightly. We have all seen, too, how possible it is for a man to be more careful of his dogs than of his children. But the care which is thus lavished upon horse or dog is not the care dictated by moral considerations, or inspired by benevolence; it is what I have termed a pedantic feeling, it is a mere expression of vanity, it is not an obedience to conscience or moral law. There are men who would not on any account break up a bird's nest in the garden who yet would allow a human creature to die of hunger. The bird's nest may be regarded as an ornament of the garden, or an object of interest, or a centre around which various influences may gather; so whatever care may be bestowed upon it, it is not to be regarded as concerning the conscience or the higher nature. We must beware of decorative morality; hand-painted feeling: calculated consideration for inferior things; for selfishness is very subtle in its operation, and sometimes it assumes with perfect hypocrisy the airs of benevolence and religion. What if in all our carefulness for dumb animals we think little of breaking a human heart by sternness or neglect? According to an ancient authority it was better to be Herod's pig than to be Herod's child; an anomaly which in literature is impossible, but in actual experience is an indisputable and tragical fact.
Kindness to the lower should become still tenderer kindness to the higher. This is Christ's own argument when he bids us behold the fowls of the air that in their life we may see our Father's kindness, he adds, "Are ye not much better than they?" When he points out how carefully a man would look after the life of his cattle, he adds, "How much then is a man better than a sheep?" It ought to be considered a presumptive argument in favour of any man's spirit that he is kind to the inferior creatures that are around him; if this presumption be not realised in his case, then is his kindness bitterest wrong.
It is true that all such injunctions are not literally repeated in the Christian economy. We have not in the Christian Church to guard ourselves by sections and sub-sections of technical precepts. How then does the case stand with us who have come into a complete inheritance of so-called liberty? We have passed from the letter to the spirit; God has put within us a clean heart, so that we are no longer true, or kind, or noble, merely because of a literal direction which is guarded by solemn anction, but because the Holy Ghost has sanctified us, made our hearts his dwelling-place. It is utterly in vain for us to attempt to satisfy even our own sense of right by attending merely to what is known as duty or propriety. If we have not within us the Holy Spirit as our Teacher and Ruler, the efforts of our hand will but disappoint and mock our expectation. We cannot build a great character with the hand. At first the hand was called into active requisition, and was made to do a great deal in the way of moral industry, but he who called the hand into such service intended through it to find a way into the heart. Again and again we must repeat, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." If we pass by a bird's nest and forbear to destroy it simply because a law has forbidden its destruction, we are in our souls as if we had torn the little home to pieces and slain its helpless occupant. We do the things which we would do, even though they be not accomplished by the action of the hand. We pass through the wheat-field and do not touch a single ear of corn, yet if in our heart we covet the produce, or begrudge the farmer the result of his labour, we are in the sight of God spiritually guilty of having burned the wheat-field and thus destroyed the bread of man. The morality of Christianity is intensely spiritual. To hate is to murder. To covet is to steal. To desire is to appropriate. We are prone to measure things by vulgar aspects and broad appeals to human attention; consequently we have come to think that thieving can only be accomplished by the hand, whereas Christ teaches us that without laying our hands upon a single article of property belonging to another man we may in reality be guilty of the most wicked appropriation. Our prayer should continually be, "Create in me a clean heart, O God." The hand may commit mistakes, it is the heart that commits sin. No matter how pedantically we may fulfil the literal law, if the spirit of righteousness is not in us we are not credited with obedience: the light that is within us is darkness, and when that is the case, who can estimate the gloom of so terrible a night?
Almighty God, thou knowest what is good for us; we will not choose: to choose is to spoil the life when thou hast undertaken to choose for us. Do with us what thou wilt; thou canst not do wrong: God is Light; God is Love. We rest in God; we wait patiently for him. Let him come when he may: at the cock-crowing, or in the hot mid-day, or in the depth of the darkness. Come when thou wilt, as thou wilt; delay not thy coming is the one prayer upon which our faith and hope would venture; and thou hast permitted us to go thus far in our pleading with thee: thou hast not forbidden it to be written in thy Book, Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly. We know not what quickly means: it is a word that expresses our present failing, but we know not all that it contains. A thousand years are in thy sight as yesterday when it is past: one day is as a thousand years. Thou dost not reckon as we do. So we stand speaking our little language, uttering words which express only part of our thought, knowing that thy love will interpret our meaning and send an answer to itself rather than to our pleading. Thou dost permit us to pray. It relieves the heart to talk upward; the life is the better for the vision directed on high; there we see majesty, vastness, grandeur, points of light as tender as they are dazzling, and behold gates open upward into heaven, and we hope to enter the gleaming portals. We bless thee for the thought that is upward, for the aspiration that is like fire, for every wish of the heart that purifies the lips that utter it. These are thy creations; these are the testimonies of God to man; these are the proofs that thou hast not forsaken thy creatures. Pardon us wherein we have done wrong; grant unto us a sense of forgiveness; give us to feel as men feel who, staggering under great burdens, lose the way, and are permitted to spring forth into liberty. That will be early heaven; that will be a pledge of immortality; that will be the crown of Christ. O Christ! we bless thee. Our hearts know none other; they love thee: thou hast redeemed them. Our whole life is a tribute to thy power and thy grace. We come to thee, we rest upon thee; touching thy wounds, we say, These shall save us; opening thine hand to see the print of the nails, we say, This hand is mightier than all other; it will protect and deliver us; and to Christ shall be the praise of every age. Amen.
Not only is this an extraordinary instruction, it is the more extraordinary that it appears in a Book which is supposed to be devoted to spiritual revelations. But in calling it extraordinary, do we not mistake the meaning which ought to be attached to the term "spiritual revelations"? Are not more things spiritual than we have hitherto imagined? It is due to the spirit of the Bible, and indeed to the whole genius of the providence of life, to enlarge the term spiritual rather than to enlarge the word material. What if in the long run it should prove that things are in reality not material at all but intensely and eternally spiritual? It will be observed that according to this instruction man is not at liberty altogether to please himself even in the construction of a dwelling-place. What is there indeed in which a man is permitted altogether to consult himself or gratify his own desires? Self ought to have no place in human thinking. At first this may appear to be an impossibility, and indeed it is a natural impossibility, and is one of the miracles which can be wrought in human thought and life only by the spirit of the Son of God. This instruction recognises the social side of human life, and that side may be taken as in some sense representative of a divine claim; it is not the claim of one individual only, but of society; it may be taken as representing the sum-total of individuals; the larger individual the concrete humanity. Socialism has its beneficent as well as its dangerous side. Socialism indeed, when rightly interpreted, is never to be feared; it is only when perverted and prostituted to base uses, in which self becomes the supreme idol, that socialism is to be denounced and avoided. The social influences continually operating in life limit self-will, develop the most gracious side of human nature, and purify and establish all that is noblest and truest in friendship.
There are certain conditions under which an instruction such as is given in the text may excite obvious objections. Suppose, for example, that a man should plead that his neighbour calls upon him only occasionally, and should upon that circumstance raise the inquiry whether he should put up a permanent building to meet an exceptional circumstance. The inquiry would seem to be pertinent and reasonable. On the other hand, when closely looked into, it will be found that the whole scheme of human life is laid out with a view to circumstances which are called exceptional. The average temperature of the year may be mild, for most of the twelve months the wind may be low and the rain gentle; why then build a house with strong walls and heavy roofs? Could we be sure that there would be only one tempestuous day in the whole year if we did not know when that day might occur, the element of uncertainty being of great consequence in this argument we should build the house strongly in order to prepare for the advent of the stormy visitation. Thus in reality we do build our houses for exceptional circumstances. The ship-builder builds his vessels not for smooth waters and quiet days only, but for the roughest billows and the fiercest winds. He does not know when the tempest may come upon his vessel, and therefore he has prepared for it under all possible emergencies. The vessel would be absurdly too strong were it always to sail in unrippled water; but even if the navigator knew that for nine days out of ten the water would be without a ripple, and knew not on what particular day a great wind would arise to try the timbers of his ship, he would not stir an inch from port until he was sure the ship was so built as to be able in all probability to weather the most trying storm. Our neighbour may call to-morrow see then that the battlement be ready! Though his visits be uncertain, yet that very uncertainty constitutes a demand for a permanent arrangement on our part; as the uncertainty is permanent so also must be our means of meeting it. We are continually exhorted to be prepared for crises, to expect the unexpected, and be sure of the uncertain; he who is so defended for his neighbour's sake will be found to be equal to the most sudden emergencies of life.
A man who is anxious to save himself the expense of erecting a battlement for his roof may easily suggest reasons for evading the law which is laid down in the text. He might plead that it would be time enough to build the battlement when anything like danger is in prospect. Or he might suggest that it would be time enough to consider the desirableness of building the battlement after someone had proved the inadequacy of the roof to prevent accident or injury. but all these excuses are selfish and pointless. Life is to be regulated by the doctrine that prevention is better than cure. We are not at liberty to make experiments with the lives of people, for example, seeing whether they will in reality fall off the roof which we have built. Life is too short, too valuable, to justify such experiments. He who prevents a life being lost, actually saves a life. The preventive ministries of life are not indeed so heroic and impressive in their aspects as ministries of a more affirmative kind, yet are they set down in the Book of God as most acceptable services, often requiring his own eye to discern them, and requiring his own judgment to fix their proper estimate and value. To prevent a boy becoming a drunkard is better than to save him from extreme dissipation, though it will not carry with it so imposing an appearance before the eyes of society. All workers engaged in the holy service of prevention should be sustained and encouraged in their noble work. It lacks the ostentation which elicits applause, and may indeed bring upon itself the sneer of the unreflecting, but God himself continually operates in what may be called a preventive direction, and prevention in his case is equal to an act of creation.
But ought not men to be able to take care of themselves when they are walking on the roof without our guarding them as though they were little children? This question, too, is not without a reasonable aspect. It might even be urged into the dignity of an argument, on the pretence that if we do too much for people we may beget in them a spirit of carelessness or a spirit of dependence, leading ultimately to absolute disregard and thoughtlessness in all the relations of life. We are, however, if students of the Bible earnestly desirous to carry out its meaning, bound to study the interests even of the weakest men. This is the very principle of Christianity. If eating flesh or drinking wine make my brother to offend, I will eat no more while the world standeth. "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye." "Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died." Thus we are continually exhorted to consideration for other people. The whole house is controlled by the weakness that is within it. The sick-chamber shuts up the banqueting hall. The dying child puts an end to the intended feast. It will be found in examining all the conditions of social life that it is around the centre of weakness that solicitude, and affection, and beneficence continually revolve. The house itself may be strong, but if the battlement as a sign of grace be not above it, it is wanting in that beauty which is pleasant to the divine eye. You yourself may be able to walk upon your roof without danger; but another man may not have the same steadiness of head or firmness of foot; and it is for that other man that you are to regulate your domestic arrangements. "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." By thinking of one another we lay claim upon the affection and trust of neighbour and friend. We are not to reason as if this action were all upon our own side. Whilst we build our battlement for the sake of another man we must remember that that other man in building his house builds a battlement for our sake. All services of this kind are reciprocal; no man, therefore, is at liberty to stand back and decline social responsibilities: in every sense, whether accepted or rejected, no man liveth unto himself.
The Christian application of this doctrine is clear. That Christian application we have seen in many other instances in the course of these readings. If we are so to build a house as not to endanger the men who visit us, are we at liberty to build a life which may be to others the very snare of destruction? Is there not to be a battlement around our conduct? Are our habits to be formed without reference to the social influence which they may exert? It would be a poor defence to say that we had put up our houses with excellent battlements, but had forgotten to put a battlement upon the house of our life and conduct. The house of stone is admirably built; but the house of life is practically a ruin! This would seem to be an impossibility, and in our poor thought it is such; but facts are continually showing us the bitter and disastrous ironies which men can perpetrate. Remember that children are looking at us, and that strangers are taking account of our ways, and that we may be lured from righteousness by a licentiousness which we call liberty. Is the Christian, then, to abstain from amusements and delights which he could enjoy without personal injury lest a weaker man should be tempted to do that which would injure him? Precisely so. That is the very essence of Christian self-denial. Perhaps a man may say in self-excuse, "I am so little known or of so little account that my example can do no harm to any one." This reasoning is not to be credited with humility, but is to be charged with direct iniquity. It is to no man's credit that as a Christian his example is of so little moment. When men make out that they have lived a long life in the world, and at the end of it must be considered as of small account, they forget that they are making out a bitter self-impeachment. If we had been more faithful to our Master in the circle in which we moved we should have been more known. Consistency always acquires a very high and wide reputation. The consistent man is remarked, and is applauded or avoided according to the moral quality of the observer. The very fact of our not being widely known as Christian men, men of living conscience, and self-sacrificing spirit, may constitute a very heavy charge against our personal fidelity.
A question kindred to inquiries which we have often raised recurs at this point: has God given directions for the building of a house and forgotten to give directions for the building of a life? Is it like him to do the little and forget the great? Is he not more careful about the tenant than about the house? He has given the most elaborate and urgent exhortations upon the matter of life-building. "With all thy getting get understanding." "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore... with all thy getting get understanding." To know how carefully God has given instructions for the formation and development of a strong life, we may profitably peruse the book of Proverbs; added to this study will come a careful investigation of all the sayings and counsels of Jesus Christ. "Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock." The specification for a well-founded, commodious, and beautiful life-house is to be found only in the Book of God. Not one detail is omitted by the divine architect. To body, soul, and spirit counsel is immediately directed. Whoever goes to the Book of God with an earnest desire to discover the way of salvation and the secret of vital growth will assuredly receive the mystery of God as a gift never withheld from the heart of the devout and diligent man. It is indeed utterly impossible to plead with truth and reason that we should be better men if we knew exactly how to live. Whatever force such a plea may have had many centuries ago, it has been utterly divested of all value since the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Son of God himself never allowed that the plan of a true life was a modern invention even of his own day. When the lawyer asked him what was to be done in order that eternal life might be inherited, Jesus Christ referred him to a life thousands of years old. God has at no time left human nature without illumination and guidance. Even in the earliest ages the way upward and heavenly was disclosed to the eyes of attentive men. Balaam exclaimed and his exclamation cannot be improved either in eloquence or in doctrine "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God?" Let us be careful not to leave the house unfinished. It is not enough to have many good rooms, and some beautiful views; we must regard the house as a whole, and consider that no house is stronger than its weakest part. It is impossible to deny that many men who make no profession of Christianity have life-houses not without strength and beauty. But they cannot be complete houses. The law of God is immediately opposed to the idea that completeness can be secured without divinity. However great the house of the wicked man, however commodious the space, however splendid the decoration, however costly the furniture, there is in it a vital defect, a weakness which the enemy will discover, and that house is doomed to fall because it is not founded upon a rock. How many life-houses there are which apparently want but some two or three comparatively little things to make them wholly perfect! In one case perhaps only the battlement is wanting, in another case it may be but some sign of spiritual beauty, in another case there may be simply want of grace, courtesy, noble civility, and generous care for the interests of others. Whatever it may be, examination should be instituted, and every man should consider himself bound not only to be faithful in much, but faithful also in that which is least; and being so he will not only see that there is strength in his character but also beauty, and upon the top of the pillars which represent integrity and permanence will be the lilywork of grace, patience, humbleness, and love.
Almighty God, thou hast laid a great charge upon us, and in the very greatness of the charge we see thine own wisdom and grace. Behold, this sacrifice is of the Lord's appointing: we see his hand in the arrangement and none other. The Lord who gave is the Lord who commands. We are not our own: we have nothing that we have not received; we are bought men; bought not with silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, a price beyond all words, all thought, yet touching the feeling with marvellous power and stirring the noblest emotions of the soul. May we answer the great demand; may we be no longer our own, even in name, or in thought, but hold ourselves at God's bidding, ready to do all his will: to accept the law from heaven and to make thy statutes our songs in the house of our pilgrimage. We bless thee for the greatness of the claim. Thou art a great God and a great King above all gods, and thou dost ask what they never ask, and by the very fact of thy doing so thou dost show thy greatness. We would respond to thy claim: not our will, but thine, be done. Whatever we have that we most prize, we lay it down, we place it upon the altar; we say, It is not ours first, but God's, and ours to use, enjoy, and turn to highest purpose. Thus shall we live a sweet life, full of grace and tenderness and great joy, saying, All things work together for good to them that love God. We will have no fear; no spirit of dejection shall rule us; but the joy of the Lord shall be our strength, and all our cry shall be, Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. The Lord work in us this miracle of grace by the mighty power of the Holy Ghost; subdue every rebellious thought, and bring our whole will into loving obedience and resignation. So shall our heaven begin even upon earth, and whilst yet in the house of death we shall feel the joy and the nobleness of immortality. Amen.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 22". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany