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THE CREDULITY OF UNBELIEF
Mar_13:6 . - Luk_18:8 .
It was the same generation that is represented in these two texts as void of faith in the Son of Man, and as credulously giving heed to impostors. Unbelief and superstition are closely allied. Religion is so vital a necessity, that if the true form of it be cast aside, some false form will be eagerly seized in order to fill the aching void. Men cannot permanently live without some sort of a faith in the Unseen, but they can determine whether it shall be a worthy recognition of a worthy conception of that Unseen, or a debasing superstition. An epoch of materialism in philosophic thought has always been followed by violent reaction, in which quacks and fanatics have reaped rich harvests. If the dark is not peopled with one loved Face, our busy imagination will fill it with a crowd of horrible ones.
Just as a sailor, looking out into the night over a solitary, islandless sea, sees shapes; intolerant of the islandless expanse, makes land out of fogbanks; and, sick of silence, hears ‘airy tongues’ in the moanings of the wind and the slow roll of the waves, so men shudderingly look into the dark unknown, and if they see not their Father there, will either shut their eyes or strain them in gazing it into shape. The sight of Him is religion, the closed eye is infidelity, the strained gaze is superstition. The second and the third are each so unsatisfying that they perpetually pass over into one another and destroy one another, as when I shut my eyes, I see slowly shaping itself a coloured image of my eye, which soon flickers and fluctuates into black nothingness again, and then rises once more, once more to fade. Men, if they believe not in God, then do service to ‘them which by nature are no gods.’
But let us come to more immediately Christian thoughts. Christ does what men so urgently require to be done, that if they do not believe in Him they will be forced to shape out for themselves some fancied ways of doing it. The emotions which men cherish towards Him so irrepressibly need an object to rest on, that if not He, then some far less worthy one, will be chosen to receive them.
It is just to the illustration of these thoughts that I seek to turn now, and in such alternatives as these-
I. Reception of Christ as the Revealer is the only escape from unmanly submission to unworthy pretenders.
That function is one which the instincts of men teach them that they need.
Christ comes to satisfy the need as the visible true embodiment of the Father’s love, of the Father’s wisdom.
If He be rejected-what then? Why, not that the men who reject will contentedly continue in darkness-that is never possible; but that some manner or other of satisfying the clamant need will be had recourse to, and then that to it will be transferred the submission and credence that should have been His. If we have Him for our Teacher and Guide, then all other teachers and guides will take their right places. We shall not angrily repel their power, nor talk loudly about ‘the right of private judgment,’ and our independence of all men’s thoughts. We are not so independent. We shall thankfully accept all help from all men wiser, better, more manly than ourselves, whether they give us uttered words of wisdom and beauty, having ‘grace poured into their lips,’ or whether they give us lives ennobled by strenuous effort, or whether they give us greater treasure than all these-the sight once more of a loving heart. All is good, all is helpful, all we shall receive; but in proportion to the felt obligations we are laid under to them will be the felt authority of that saying, ‘Call no man your master on earth, for One is your Master, even Christ.’ That command forbids our slavishly accepting any human domination over our faith, but it no less emphatically forbids our contemptuously rejecting any human helper of our joy, for it closes with ‘and all ye are brethren’-bound then to mutual observance, mutual helpfulness, mutual respect for each other’s individuality, mutual avoidance of needless division. To have Him for his Guide makes the human guide gentle and tender among his disciples ‘as a nurse among her children,’ for he remembers ‘the gentleness of Christ,’ and he dare not be other than an imitator of Him. A Christian teacher’s spirit will always be, ‘not for that we have dominion over your faith, but we are helpers of your joy’; his most earnest word, ‘I beseech you, therefore, brethren’; his constant desire, ‘He must increase. I must decrease.’ And to have Christ for our Guide makes the taught lovingly submissive to all who by largeness of gifts and graces are set by Him above them, and yet lovingly recalcitrant at any attempt to compel adhesion or force dogmas. The one freedom from undue dependence on men and men’s opinions lies in this submission to Jesus. Then we can say, when need is, ‘I have a Master. To Him I submit; if you seek to be master, I demur: of them who seemed to be somewhat, whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me.’
But the greatest danger is not that our guides shall insist on our submission, but that we shall insist on giving it. It is for all of us such a burden to have the management of our own fate, the forming of our own opinions, the fearful responsibility of our own destiny, that we are all only too ready to say to some man or other, from love or from laziness, ‘Where thou goest, I will go; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’
Few things are more strange and tragic than the eagerness with which people who are a great deal too enlightened to render allegiance to Jesus Christ will install some teacher of their own choosing as their authoritative master, will swallow his dicta, swear by him, and glory in being called by his name. What they think it derogatory to their mental independence to give to the Teacher of Nazareth, they freely give to their chosen oracle. It is not in ‘the last times’ only that men who will not endure sound teaching ‘heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts,’ and have ‘the ears’ which are fast closed to ‘the Truth’ wide open ‘to fables.’
On the small scale we see this melancholy perversity of conduct exemplified in every little coterie and school of unbelievers.
On the great scale Mohammedanism and Buddhism, with their millions of adherents, write the same tragic truth large in the history of the world.
II. Faith in the reconciling Christ is the only sure deliverance from debasing reliance on false means of reconciliation.
In a very profound sense ignorance and sin are the same fact regarded under two different aspects. And in the depths of their natures men have the longing for some Power who shall put away sin, as they have the longing for one that will dispel ignorance. The consciousness of alienation from God lies in the human heart, dormant indeed for the most part, but like a coiled, hibernating snake, ready to wake and strike its poison into the veins. Christ by His great work, and specially by His sacrificial death, meets that universal need.
But closely as His work fits men’s needs, it sharply opposes some of their wishes, and of their interpretations of their needs. The Jew ‘demands a sign,’ the Greek craves a reasoned system of ‘wisdom,’ and both concur in finding the Cross an ‘offence.’
But the rejection of Jesus as the Reconciler does not quiet the cravings, which make themselves heard at some time or other in most consciences, for deliverance from the dominion and from the guilt of sin. And men are driven to adopt other expedients to fill up the void which their turning away from Jesus has left. Sometimes they fall back on a vague reliance on a vague assertion that ‘God is merciful’; sometimes they reason themselves into a belief-or, at any rate, an assertion-that the conception of sin is an error, and that men are not guilty. Sometimes they manage to silence the inward voice that accuses and condemns, by dint of not listening to it or drowning it by other noises.
But these expedients fail them some time or other, and then, if they have not cast the burden of their sin and their sins on the great Reconciler, they either have to weary themselves with painful and vain efforts to be their own redeemers, or they fall under the domination of a priest.
Hence the hideous penances of heathenism; and hence, too, the power of sacramentarian and sacerdotal perversions of evangelical truth.
III. Faith in Christ as the Regenerator is the only deliverance from baseless hopes for the world.
The world is today full of moaning voices crying, ‘Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?’ and it is full of confident voices proclaiming other means of its regeneration than letting Christ ‘make all things new.’
The conviction that society needs to be reconstituted on other principles is spread everywhere, and is often associated with intense disbelief in Christ the Regenerator.
Has not the past proved that all schemes for the regeneration of society which do not grapple with the fact of sin, and which do not provide a means of infusing into human nature a new impulse and direction, will end in failure, and are only too likely to end in blood? These two requirements are met by Jesus, and by Him only, and whoever rejects Him and His gift of pardon and cleansing, and His inbreathing of a new life into the individual, will fail in his effort, however earnest and noble in many aspects, to redeem society and bring about a fair new world.
It is pitiable to see the waste of high aspiration and eager effort in so many quarters today. But that waste is sure to attend every scheme which does not start from the recognition of Christ’s work as the basis of the world’s transformation, and does not crown Him as the King, because He is the Saviour, of mankind.
AUTHORITY AND WORK
Church order is not directly touched on in the Gospels, but the principles which underlie all Church order are distinctly laid down. The whole community of Christian people is a family or household, being brethren because possessors of a new life through Christ. In that household there is one ‘Master,’ and all its members are ‘servants.’ That name suggests the purpose for which they exist; the meaning of all their offices, dignities, etc.
I. The authority with which the servants are invested.
We hear a great deal about the authority of the Church in these days, as a determiner of truth and as a prescriber of Christian action. It means generally official authority, the power of guidance and definition of the Church’s action, etc., which some people think is lodged in the hands of preachers, pastors, priests, either individually or collectively. There is nothing of that sort meant here. Whatever this authority is, it belongs to the whole body of the servants, not to individuals among them. It is the prerogative of the whole ecclesia, not of some handful of them. ‘This honour,’ whatever it be, ‘have all the saints.’
Explain by reference to ‘the kings of the earth exercise lordship over them’; ‘the greatest shall be your servant.’ It is then but another name for capacity for service, power to bless, etc.
And this idea is still further borne out if we go back to the parable of our text. A man leaves his house in charge of his servants. To them is committed the responsibility for his goods. His honour and interests are in their hands. They have control over his possessions. This is the analogy which our Lord suggests as presenting a vivid likeness to our position in the world.
Christ has committed the care of His kingdom, the glory of His name, the growth of His cause in the world to His Church, and has endowed it with all ‘talents,’ i.e. gifts needful for that work. Or, to put it in other words, they are His representatives in the world. They have to defend His honour. His name is scandalised or glorified by their actions. They have to see to His interests. They are charged with the carrying out of His mind and purposes.
The foundation of all is laid. Henceforth building on it is all, and that is to be done by men. Human lips and Christian effort-not without the divine Spirit in the word-are to be the means.
It is as when some commander plans his battle, and from an eminence overlooks the current of the fight, and marks the plunging legions as they struggle through the smoke. He holds all the tremendous machinery in his hands. The plan and the glory are his, but the execution of the plan lies with the troops.
In a still more true sense all the glory of the Christian conquest of the world is His, but still the instruments are ourselves. The whole counsel of God is on our side. We ‘go not a warfare at our own charges.’ Note the perfect consistency of this with all that we hold of the necessity of divine influence, etc.
His servants are intrusted with all His ‘goods.’ They have authority over the gifts which He has given them, i.e. Christian men are stewards of Christ’s riches for others.
They have access to the free use of them all for themselves.
Thus the ‘authority’ is all derived. It is all given for the sake of others. It is all capacity for service. Hence-
II. The authority with which the servants are invested binds every one of them to hard work for Christ.
‘To every man his work’
1 Gifts involve duties. That is the first great thought. To have received binds us to impart. ‘Freely ye have received, freely give.’
All selfish possession of the gifts which Christ bestows is grave sin.
The price at which they were procured, that miracle and mystery of self-sacrifice, is the great pattern as well as the great motive for our service.
The purpose for which we have received them is plainly set forth: in the existence of the solidarity in which we are all bound; in the definite utterances of Scripture.
The need for their exercise is only too palpable in the condition of things around us.
2 In this multitude of servants every one has his own task.
The universality of the great gift leads to a corresponding universality of obligation. All Christians have their gifts. Each of us has his special work marked out for him by character, relationships, circumstances, natural tastes, etc.
How solemn a divine call there is in these individual peculiarities which we so often think of as unimportant accidents, or regard mainly in their bearing on our own ease and comfort! How reverently we should regard the diversities which are thus revelations of God’s will concerning our tasks! How earnestly we should seek to know what it is that we are fitted for! The importance of all protests against priestly assumption lies here, that they strengthen the force with which we proclaim that every man has his ‘work.’
Ponder the variety of characters and gifts which Christ gives and desires His servants to use, and the indispensable need for them all. The ideal Church is the ‘body’ of Christ, in which each member has its place and function.
Our fault in this matter.
3 The duties are to be done in the spirit of hard toil.
The servant has ‘his work’ allotted him, and the word implies that the work calls for effort. The race is not to be run without dust and sweat. Our Christian service is not to be regarded as a ‘bye-product’ or parergon. It is, so to speak, a vocation, not an avocation. It deserves and demands all the energy that we can put forth, continuity and constancy, plan and system. Nothing is to be done for God, any more than for ourselves, without toil. ‘In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread and give it to others.’
III, To do this work, watchfulness is needed.
The division of tasks between ‘servant’ and ‘porter’ is only part of the drapery of the parable. To show that watchfulness belongs to all, see the two following verses.
What is this watchfulness? Not constant fidgety curiosity about the coming of the Lord; not hunting after apocalyptic dates. The modern impression seems to be that such study is ‘watchfulness.’ Christ says that the time of His coming is hidden see previous verses. Ignorance of that is the very reason why we are to watch. Watchfulness, then, is just a profound and constant feeling of the transiency of this present. The mind is to be kept detached from it; the eye and heart are to be going out to things ‘unseen and eternal’; we are to be familiarising ourselves with the thought that the world is passing away.
This watchfulness is an indispensable part of our ‘work.’ The true Christian thought of the transiency of the world sets us to work the more vigorously in it, and increases, not diminishes, our sense of the importance of time and of earthly things, and braces us to our tasks by the thought of the brevity of opportunity, as well as by guarding us against tastes and habits which eat all earnestness out of the soul.
Thus ‘working and watching,’ happy will be the servant whom his Lord will find ‘so doing,’ i.e. at work, not idly looking for Him. Our common duties are the best preparation for our Lord’s coming.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Mark 13". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19