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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Luke 2

 

 

Verses 1-52

The World"s Need

Luke 2:11

This is just what the world wanted. This is just what the world always wants. The world wants this not the less that it is in some instances not aware of the necessity. What does a drowning man want? A lecture on natation? That would be exceedingly profitable to a man who was drowning! Tell him how to use his right arm, and his left, and his lower limbs; remark on the gracefulness of his action. All this would be exceedingly gratifying to a man who is struggling for life. You would not mock a drowning man; you are not cruel enough for that. What does the drowning man want? A strong grip: no reasoning; let him be reasoned with by-and-by; let him work his way into the metaphysics of the occasion when he has leisure. First of all get him out, and bring him into safety. Everything depends upon our circumstances as to what religion we want If we are members of Parliament, with an abundance of leisure on our hands, and with some little capital that will enable us to publish agnostic pamphlets, and to give them away, we shall not want a religion of agony. There need be no Cross in that relation; a little scented water, a few difficult sentences written on gilt-edged paper would be very admirable, and would have about them some hint of the higher æstheticism; but men and women such as we meet any day in coming to church,—the peeps we have had into slums and alleys and back places, into which civilisation dare hardly go; poor, poor women trying to snatch a moment"s sleep in some little off-hand alley, with the inevitable black shawl around their unkempt heads,—what do they want? By-and-by they may become metaphysicians and philosophers, and even agnostics; I cannot tell what they may become in two millenniums: but now, this moment, they want a "Saviour." If Christ the Lord will not do, get up some other man; but do get a Saviour. We do not want you to be finding fault with one Saviour if you can get another. Why hold a controversy on the shore when one of you should plunge into the sea and save the drowning man? Jesus Christ is willing to stand aside if you can supersede him by one more excellent, by one mightier, by one of larger heart. When did he ever usurp the first place arbitrarily? Even his enemies said that the works which he did gave him a right to the primacy. He wants to hold the primacy on no other terms. If any man can save the soul more completely and beneficently, Jesus Christ would be willing to let that man go forward and perform this sublimest miracle. They take a mean course—selfish, dishonourable, inhuman—who simply say Christ is not the Lord. He is willing to be displaced if you can bring forward any man who will do a deeper, truer, larger, nobler work.

"Unto you is born this day... a Saviour." The world did not want an adviser. The world had advised itself almost into hell. The world did not ask for a speculator. Everything that man could do had been done, and men sat in the darkness of their own wisdom. The world did not want a reformer, a man who could change his outward and transient relations, an engineer that would continually devote his time (for appropriate remuneration) to the readjustment of the wheels and the pulleys and the various mechanical forces of society. The world wanted a Saviour. "Saviour" is a pathetic name. It is not an official title; it is not an image you could robe in scarlet, and bow down before on account of its majesty and haughtiness; "Saviour" is an angel with tears in his eyes; arms mighty as the lightnings of God, but a heart all tenderness. "Saviour" is a complex word. It has in it all human nature, all divine nature, all the past of history, all the possibility of prophecy, all the mystery of apocalypse; the tenderness outvying the love of women, the majesty humbling the haughtiness of kings.

Suppose we take the world apart altogether from religious definition and description; suppose for the time being we set aside the term "sin," and look at the world concretely, exactly, as it then presented itself to the eyes of an earnest observer, what kind of world was it? Men were hostile to one another. That is an undeniable fact. A spirit of enmity was the spirit of such civilisation as there was, rude or elaborate:—Who could be uppermost, who could rule, who could plunder and overwhelm and destroy? That was the aspect presented by one large section of the world. If there was another section apparently refined and cultivated, it was a section that had refined itself into weariness, and cultivated itself to surfeit. On the other hand, it was a world given over to daily and unaccountable suffering. Account for it as we may, there is the suffering world before our eyes day by day. Every heart knows its own bitterness. Life cannot throw off its load. When we laugh we are sad; if for a moment we make holiday, and endeavour by legitimate friction to excite one another into merriment, we hear a whispering full of trouble; there is a noise in the heart that will not be stilled. Where there can be no distinct trace of suffering to actual or positive disobedience or infraction of divine law, still there it is; the child is dying, the heart is breaking, the home is violated by invisible but mighty enemies; there is a canker even in the purse, there is rust on the gold, so that men take it out and look at it, and wonder if they may accept it, or whether they shall arrest us as dealers in base coin; heaven at its bluest has streaks in it that may at any time come together and constitute a storm. This is the world; what will you do with it? What does that kind of world want? It wants a "Saviour." If any man has dreamed himself to be the Saviour of the world, he should be welcomed; by so much as he has dreamed of possible salvation he will do good, he will be gentle, he will be sacrificial; in the degree in which he earnestly says, "I want to save the world," he may be trusted, be he Greek, or Roman, or Jew. Jesus Christ came and proposed to save the world. Whatever we may say for Christianity or against it, there is the fact that Christianity sought to put down hostility by the creation of brotherhood; and, on the other hand, Christianity sought to mitigate human suffering, even when it could not be wholly removed, by sanctifying it, by turning it to the highest practical uses. Christianity addresses itself not to sections of the world, little classes and coteries of philosophers and speculators, but to the heart of the world—the heart that is broken, the soul that is in agony, the life that has given up the last hope of self-salvation. It is a bold religion; it is a noble, glorious proposal.

I have just read a pamphlet entitled "A Friendly Correspondence with Mr. Gladstone about Creeds," by Samuel Laing. Mr. Gladstone wrote to Mr. Laing—an eminent controversialist, and a thorough-going student, and a gentleman in controversy—asking Mr. Laing to state the negative points in series, that he might have some conception of the new position to which the later religious thought would call the world. Mr. Laing replies, and in the course of his first letter he says, "But we are not an aggressive or proselytising race.... In fact, we prefer to wait." Christianity does not. Christianity will not wait a moment. Christianity says, The people are dying. Wait? By what authority? Verily here is a popish assumption. Here are men who are proposing to wait! Christianity separates itself from such men by instantaneous, urgent, passionate, tremendous earnestness. It may be wrong, but it is sincere. "We are not an aggressive or proselytising race." But Christianity is. Christianity is nothing if not aggressive. Meet Christianity where you like, and its arms are out for battle or for salvation, and its voice is lifted up saying, "Come now, let us reason together." Behold, here is a new leisure that baptises itself, and names itself "non-aggressive." Let us lie down now a little on the other side, and let the world go its own gate: we are not aggressive or proselytising. If you like to have that religion you can have it. But, Mr. Gladstone says, let us have your propositions as it were in the form of an indictment; state them in consecutive order and enumeration. Mr. Laing begins the first article. You will have a difficulty in making out thirty-nine articles—he begins with one:—"That the subjects which positive creeds profess to define are, for the most part, unknowable,—i.e, beyond the scope of human reason or conception. Whose human reason? Whose human conception? Verily, here is authority with a vengeance! Here is one man who stands up to speak in the name of human reason and human conception! These are the men who dislike authority in the Church, and dislike dogmatism in the pulpit, and who are so extremely modest that they would only speak each for himself, except when under extraordinary and uncontrollable pressure one of them ventures to speak in the name of human reason. Archbishops and bishops, pastors, ministers, and professors of every name, close your books! Here is a man who speaks in the name of human reason.

Suppose we treated social questions in this way, what would be said about us? Let us talk thus:—Human sorrow, human suffering, human poverty, is so vast, and the whole question is so complicated, that it is simply impossible for human reason to grasp it, or human conception to evolve a new scheme of social philosophy—call me tomorrow as late as you can. Christianity says, If we cannot do everything we must do something; we must begin to-day; tomorrow the people may be dead.

Having perused this pamphlet, I am struck with several things about it. There are here propositions in italics. It does not require any great genius to be a proposition-maker. This pamphlet might have announced itself as indicating a "Proposition-formulating manufactory: propositions formulated here on the shortest notice, and on moderate terms." The formulation of propositions makes no difference in this great agony of human life, this tremendous struggle of human progress. Suppose we should describe household economy as some of these able writers describe the Christian idea. Would you be satisfied to have household life described by things that are external? Suppose I were called upon for a definition of household life, and I should give it in a series of propositions or descriptions—thus: First, rent; secondly, rates and taxes; thirdly, weekly bills; fourthly, fifthly, and sixthly, highway arrangements, police arrangements, general relations to the people round about;—that is household life. Is it? No, no. The household life is inside—in the birth, the death, the suffering, the joy, the mutual trust, the common honour; household life is in the mingling of tears and laughter, in the exchange of hearts, in copartnery of sorrow; these are not things that will submit to be set in propositions and printed in italics; they must be lived, they must be experienced to be known. So when men talk about the Christian religion, indicating its creeds, its metaphysics, its ecclesiastical organisations, and all the rest of such environment or accompaniment, we say, That is not all: the Christian religion is within, is to be found at a place called Calvary; it is in Bethlehem, it is in Gethsemane, it is in Golgotha, it is on Olivet, it is on the eternal throne. You have not settled the claims of Christianity when you have disputed with the highest scholarly authorities that are arrayed on the side of Christian defence. He only understands Christianity who has felt it. No other man has a right to speak about it. Christianity is not a proposition to be discussed, it is a gospel to be received.

Reading this pamphlet through, I find it wholly destitute of moral enthusiasm. There is no passion here; there is not a tear in the whole argument. There is nothing in that paper that says, I want to help the race. There Isaiah , however, some degree of consolation even in this manifesto. That consolation you will find in Article8—"Polarity is the great underlying law of all knowable phenomena." What does a man want more than that? It seems to be a respectable word, and to convey nothing by way of mischievous implication; at the same time it does not speak to me in my sorrow; it plants no flower on the grave; it does not turn my crust of bread into sacramental flesh as I eat it through lips that have burned with prayer. This may be the way to progress and liberty, purity and nobleness, but I cannot think it is. Sirs, I would see Jesus! He knows me better than any one else. His words drop as the small rain, and as the gentle dew and the healing balm: I want him; he is my Saviour.

A great injustice may be inflicted upon Christianity by attempting unduly to intellectualise it. Christianity has suffered from the human intellect. Men would be clever where cleverness was a sin. Men have no business to write creeds. That is where the Church has been disloyal to the Cross. The Cross cannot be formulated in propositions and articles and items, to be received, accepted, signed, and held for ever in certain cast-iron human forms. You have no right to a creed that is of the nature of finality. If you choose to regard it as marking a stage in holy progress, so be it; if you submit some statement of faith as indicating how far Christian thought has advanced, that may be done with great utility; but if you set up a creed and say, This is final, this is the only way to heaven, this is orthodoxy; if you do not accept this you cannot have fellowship with God through Christ,—then you are telling lies in the sanctuary. Suppose we are going to the North, and we have arrived as far as Barnet, and I say, I must just put down two or three things as to our position:—Barnet: nice-looking country; nothing romantic, still a place that a man might live in if he had the means of doing so; moderate climate; partially wooded; some nice views here, no doubt, at certain periods of the year: that is where we are; that is our creed. So it is. The great express rolls on for two hours, and we say, Where are we? Where are we! We settled that long ago; I told you where we are—Barnet. Why do you raise these questions now? I raise them because the train has been going on; that is all. And so the great progress of the age advances. We are not always at Barnet; we are not always at the old outworn creed. The faith that is in the creed may be just the same, but it requires new expression, new incarnation, new adaptation to new circumstances. It is the creed we have abandoned; we still, blessed be God, grasp and love the faith. In Christian inquiry always suspect the intellect; not in any bad sense, but in the sense of vigilant caution. Men are victimised by their own sagacity; men are led into extremes by their own vanity and their own cleverness. A clever religion is a bad religion.

I speak to some whose life-duty it is to represent Christian thought in its latest forms and in its best aspects. Using that function in the spirit of Christ, they may confer inestimable advantage upon the Church and upon the world; but if they say, This is all, this is the beginning and the end; my form is the only possible form, I speak in the name of human reason and human conception: this is the whole mystery of God,—believe them not; they are hirelings and not shepherds. That is the worst kind of popery; it is the popery that is not surrounded by the dignity of a historic sentiment, it is the popery of personal vanity and ignorance. What then is to be trusted in this great religious pursuit? The heart. What do you mean by the heart? I mean three things—I mean purity of motive, I mean tenderness of feeling, I mean self-crucifixion. In the Scriptures the heart is often used as a convertible term with mind and intellect; that we perfectly well know; but there is also a sense in which the heart separates itself, and becomes motive, emotion, sacrifice; a Christ-like passion and agency, dominating, sublimating, glorifying the whole life. We shall never have unity of opinion. We have no unity of opinion in business, we have no unity of opinion in architecture, we have no unity of opinion even in politics, we have no unity of opinion in art; but does this divergence of opinion split up society and endanger the altar, and bring the throne into peril? Men may be patriots, to whatever political party they belong. Patriotism is not the birthright or the heritage of any one party in the State; it touches a common sentiment, and there are moments when men throw down their party flags, and lift up the national banner, and are proud of their country"s name. So with this great Christian thought and action. Blessed be God, there come moments when we forget whether we are Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Wesleyan Methodists; for the moment we forget all that is little, partial, and individual, and a common impulse drives us forward in the arms of trust, brotherhood, and generous comradeship, that we may proclaim a common salvation, and declare to all men everywhere—"Unto you this day is born... a Saviour." Ministers, that is your gospel. God give you and me grace to preach it. Believers, that is your gospel. Do not you be making your little mechanical creeds and orthodox contrivances and small ecclesiastical gateways. Let all men feel that the Church is not a debating club, is not even an academy formed for the higher disputes of metaphysics and philosophy. Let not the world get the impression that only scholars can find their way to the Cross. Oh, outcast, ignorant, blind, there is one traveller that can find his way to the Cross. What is his name? The Broken Heart.

Prayer

Come to us, Lord, in thine own way, and according to thine own measure; only delay not, but come quickly! We live when God is with us; without God we cannot live. We pray thee, therefore, at the Cross cf our Saviour, to come; Father, Song of Solomon , and Holy Ghost, dwell with us, break bread to us, reveal thyself to us, and give us a perpetual blessing. We rejoice when we see God; it is like seeing the morning light, the summer glory, the noonday in all its cloudlessness. Say to our souls that have been mourning thine absence, The winter is over and gone, and the time of the singing of birds is come. May the birds of heaven make their nests in our hearts, and sing to us songs of the summerland. We bless thee if our hunger has led us to thy table, then the hunger was sent from God; we rejoice if our thirst has brought us to the right fountain, then was our thirst no accident, but part of God"s leading and education of the soul. We rejoice that in our Father"s house there is bread enough and to spare; and as for the river of God, it is full of water. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness, after love and beauty and purity, and divinest fulness of thought and life, for they shall be filled. Giving doth not impoverish God; withholding doth not enrich the Lord. Thou hast been giving unto us with both hands since we were born; thy right hand has been opened in power, and thy left hand in succour and tenderness. We have nothing that we have not received; it is of the Lord"s mercies that we are not consumed; we are the children of compassion, we are spared by the tears of God. We rejoice that all this highest thought of our souls takes us to Calvary. The Cross is the river of God, the fountain of joy, the beginning of immortality; yea, in it we see all figures and emblems signifying purity through pardon and peace, through righteousness, and bringing us into closer alliance with the living God. We would live on Calvary; we would build our house near the Cross. We can only live in mercy, for we are inclined to sin every moment; our prayer is but occasional, our sin is permanent. Yet we have hope in God through Christ; the Cross was not set up in vain, the Lord cannot be foiled in battle. Thou dost mean to save this little world, every Prayer of Manasseh , woman, and young child in it; thou wilt lose no lamb from the flock. We leave it all with thee, only give us the answering heart when thou dost send to us the appeals of thy grace. Make us great in goodness; may we be strong and valiant in modest courage; may we derive all our strength from God; then shall our weakness be strength, and our extremity shall be God"s opportunity. Help us to be better men, in innermost thought, in nobleness of aspiration; make us eloquent in secret wordless prayer; may we commune with God all day, all night, then the morning shall give us a baptism of dew, and the day shall be succeeded by no gloom or darkness of night. Holy Spirit, dwell with us; come down out of heaven upon us, and abide upon our shattered lives, a new hope, a new defence, an inextinguishable glory. Rebuke us, but in mercy; let not thy rod smite us in all its scourging power, for which of the sons of flesh hath strength enough to stand against the scourge of God? We own our sins; we do not get rid of them by confessing them, but if we confess, thou art faithful and just to forgive, and thus by the divine act we have release from the guilt and the torment of sin. Behold how we have wasted our prosperity; we have written our own name upon it, and we have swollen ourselves with pride in the presence of the poverty that has fallen at our feet, and we have said to ourselves, Behold, we are not as other men. We have not been kind to the point of nobleness; we have given nothing, we have kept all we could, and therefore nothing has been given. If anything has been parted with, it has been forced out of us by shame, by social pressure; we would have kept it, every crumb and farthing, if we could. So we are before God as criminals: give us to know that we are pardoned by feeling that we can do the wrong no more. Wherein any have been just and generous and good, beneficent and useful, they desire to trace all to the action of the Holy Ghost. Not unto us, not unto us, say they, but unto God"s name be all the glory. We think of our loved ones at home, and far away, specially those who are weakened by pain, who have not been able to do their day"s work, and therefore have lost their day"s bread. We think of the weary, and the sad, and of those who are saying, Is this never to end? is the darkness always to deepen, and is the wind always to be filled with the sound of hearing wolves? Oh, the heartache! Oh, the world"s great misery! Saviour of the world, is it our impatience that prays or our faith, when we say, Lord Jesus, come quickly! Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Luke 2:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/luke-2.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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