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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Luke 18

 

 

Verses 1-14

lete_me Luke 18:1-14

Chapter 11

CONCERNING PRAYER.

WHEN the Greeks called man ό ανθρωπος, or the "uplooking one," they did but crystallize in a word what is a universal fact, the religious instinct of humanity. Everywhere, and through all times, man has felt, as by a sort of intuition, that earth was no Ultima Thule, with nothing beyond but oceans of vacancy and silence, but that it lay in the over-shadow of other worlds, between which and their own were subtle modes of correspondence. They felt themselves to be in the presence of Powers other and higher than human, who somehow influenced their destiny, whose favour they must win, and whose displeasure they must avert. And so Paganism reared her altars, almost numberless, dedicating them even to the "Unknown God," lest some anonymous deity should be grieved at being omitted from the enumeration. The prevalence of false religions in the world, the garrulous babble of mythology, does but voice the religious instinct of man; it is but another Tower of Babel, by which men hope to find and to scale the heavens which must be somewhere overhead.

In the Old Testament, however, we find the clearer revelation. What to the unaided eye of reason and of nature seemed but a wave of golden mist athwart the sky "a meeting of gentile lights without a name" now becomes a wide-reaching and shining realm, peopled with intelligences of divers ranks and orders; while in the centre of all is the city and the throne of the Invisible King, Jehovah, Lord of Sabaoth. In the breath of the new morning the gossamer threads Polytheism had been spinning through the night were swept away, and on the pillars of the New Jerusalem, that celestial city of which their own Salem was a far-off and broken type, they read the inscription, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord." But while the Old Testament revealed the unity of the Godhead, it emphasized especially His sovereignty, the glories of His holiness, and the thunders of His power. He is the great Creator, arranging His universe, commanding evolutions and revolutions, and giving to each molecule of matter its secret affinities and repulsions. And again He is the Lawgiver, the great Judge, speaking out of the cloudy pillar and the windy tempest, dividing the firmaments of Right and Wrong, whose holiness hates sin with an infinite hatred, and whose justice, with sword of flame, pursues the wrong-doer like an unforgetting Nemesis. It is only natural, therefore, that with such conceptions of God, the heavens should appear distant and somewhat cold. The quiet that was upon the world was the hush of awe, of fear, rather than of love; for while the goodness of God was a familiar and favourite theme, and while the mercy of God, which "endureth for ever," was the refrain, oft repeated, of their loftiest songs, the love of God was a height the Old Dispensation had not explored, and the Fatherhood of God, that new world of perpetual summer, lay all undiscovered, or but dimly apprehended through the mist. The Divine love and the Divine Fatherhood were truths which seemed to be held in reserve for the New Dispensation; and as the light needs the subtle and sympathetic ether before it can reach our outlying world, so the love and the Fatherhood of God are borne in upon us by Him who was Himself the Divine Son and the incarnation of the Divine love.

It is just here where the teaching of Jesus concerning prayer begins. He does not seek to explain its philosophy; He does not give hints as to any observance of time or place; but leaving these questions to adjust themselves, He seeks to bring heaven into closer touch with earth. And how can He do this so well as by revealing the Fatherhood of God? When the electric wire linked the New with the Old World the distances were annihilated, the thousand leagues of sea were as if they were not; and when Jesus threw across, between earth and heaven, that word "Father," the wide distances vanished, and even the silences became vocal. In the Psalms, those loftiest utterances of devotion, Religion only once ventured to call God "Father;" and then, as if frightened at her own temerity, she lapses into silence, and never speaks the familiar word again. But how different the language of the Gospels! It is a name that Jesus is never weary of repeating, striking its music upwards of seventy times, as if by the frequent iteration He would lodge the heavenly word deep within the world's heart. This is His first lesson in the science of prayer: He drills them on the Divine Fatherhood, setting them on that word, as it were, to practise the scales; for as he who has practised well the scales has acquired the key to all harmonies, so he who has learned well the "Father" has learned the secret of heaven, the sesame that opens all its doors and unlocks all its treasures.

"When ye pray," said Jesus, replying to a disciple who sought instruction in the heavenly language, "say, Father," thus giving us what was His own pass-word to the courts of heaven. It is as if He said, "If you would pray acceptably put yourself in the right position. Seek to realize, and then to claim, your true relationship. Do not look upon God as a distant and cold abstraction, or as some blind force; do not regard Him as being hostile to you or as careless about you. Else your prayer will be some wail of bitterness, a cry coming out of the dark, and losing itself in the dark again. But look upon God as your Father, your living, loving, heavenly Father; and then step up with a holy boldness into the child-place, and all heaven opens before you there."

And not only does Jesus thus "show us the Father," but He takes pains to show us that it is a real, and not some fictitious Fatherhood. He tells us that the word means far more in its heavenly than in its earthly use; that the earthly meaning, in fact, is but a shadow of the heavenly. For "if ye then," He says, "being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?" He thus sets us a problem in Divine proportion. He gives us the human fatherhood, with all it implies, as our known quantities, and from these He leaves us to work out the unknown quantity, which is the Divine ability and willingness to give good gifts to men; for the Holy Spirit includes in Himself all spiritual gifts. It is a problem, however, which our earthly figures cannot solve. The nearest that we can approach to the answer is that the Divine Fatherhood is the human fatherhood multiplied by that "how much more" a factor which gives us an infinite series.

Again, Jesus teaches that character is an important condition of prayer, and that in this realm heart is more than any art. Words alone do not constitute prayer, for they may be only like the bubbles of the children's play, iridescent but hollow, never climbing the sky, but returning to the earth whence they came. And so when the scribes and Pharisees make "long prayers," striking devotional attitudes, and putting on airs of sanctity, Jesus could not endure them. They were a weariness and abomination to Him; for He read their secret heart, and found it vain and proud. In His parable [Luke 18:11] He puts the genuine and the counterfeit prayer side by side, drawing the sharp contrast between them. He gives us that of the Pharisee, wordy, inflated, full of the self-eulogizing "I." It is the prayerless prayer, that had no need, and which was simply an incense burned before the clayey image of himself. Then He gives us the few brief words of the publican, the cry of a broken heart, "God be merciful to me, a sinner," a prayer which reached directly the highest heaven, and which came back freighted with the peace of God. "If I regard iniquity in my heart," the Psalmist said, "the Lord will not hear me." And it is true. If there be the least unforgiven sin within the soul we spread forth our hands, we make many prayers, in vain; we do but utter "wild, delirious cries" that Heaven will not hear, or at any rate regard. The first cry of true prayer is the cry for mercy, pardon; and until this is spoken, until we step up by faith into the child-position, we do but offer vain oblations. Nay, even in the regenerate heart, if there be a temporary lapse, and unholy tempers brood within, the lips of prayer become paralyzed at once, or they only stammer in incoherent speech. We may with filled hands compass the altar of God, but neither gifts nor prayers can be accepted if there be bitterness and jealousy within, or if our "brother has aught against" us. The wrong must be righted with our brother, or we cannot be right with God. How can we ask for forgiveness if we ourselves cannot forgive? How can we ask for mercy if we are hard and merciless, gripping the throat of each offender, as we demand the uttermost farthing? He who can pray for them who despitefully use him is in the way of the Divine commandment; he has climbed to the dome of the temple, where the whispers of prayer, and even its inarticulate aspirations, are heard in heaven. And so the connection is most close and constant between praying and living, and they pray most and best who at the same time "make their life a prayer."

Again, Jesus maps out for us the realm of prayer, showing the wide areas it should cover. St. Luke gives us an abbreviated form of the prayer recorded by St. Matthew, and which we call the "Lord's Prayer." It is a disputed point, though not a material one, whether the two prayers are but varied renderings of one and the same utterance, or whether Jesus gave, on a later occasion, an epitomized form of the prayer He had prescribed before, though from the circumstantial evidence of St. Luke we incline to the latter view. The two forms, however, are identical in sub stance. It is scarcely likely that Jesus intended it to be a rigid formula, to which we should be slavishly bound; for the varied renderings of the two Evangelists show plainly that Heaven does not lay stress upon the ipsissima verba.

We must take it rather as a Divine model, laying down the lines on which our prayers should move. It is, in fact, a sort of prayer microcosm, giving a miniature reflection of the whole world of prayer, as a drop of dew will give a reflection of the encircling sky. It gives us what we may call the species of prayer, whose genera branch off into infinite varieties; nor can we readily conceive of any petition, however particular or private, whose root-stem is not found in the few but comprehensive words of the Lord's Prayer. It covers every want of man, just as it befits every place and time.

Running through the prayer are two marked divisions, the one general, the other particular and personal; and in the Divine order, contrary to our human wont, the general stands first, and the personal second. Our prayers often move in narrow circles, like the homing birds coming back to this "centered self" of ours, and sometimes we forget to give them the wider sweeps over a redeemed humanity. But Jesus says, "When ye pray, say, Father, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come." It is a temporary erasure of self, as the soul of the worshipper is absorbed in God. In its nearness to the throne it forgets for awhile its own little needs; its low-flying thoughts are caught up into the higher currents of the Divine thought and purpose, moving outwards with them. And this is the first petition, that the name of God may be hallowed throughout the world; that is, that men's conceptions of the Deity may become just and holy, until earth gives back in echo the Trisagion of the seraphim. The second petition is a continuation of the first; for just in proportion as men's conceptions of God are corrected and hallowed will the kingdom of God be set up on earth. The first petition, like that of the Psalmist, is for the sending out of "Thy light and Thy truth;" the second is that humanity may be led to the "holy hill," praising God upon the harp, and finding in God their "exceeding joy." To find God as the Father-King is to step up within the kingdom.

The prayer now descends into the lower plane of personal wants, covering (1) our physical, and (2) our spiritual needs. The former are met with one petition, "Give us day by day our daily bread," a sentence confessedly obscure, and which has given rise to much dispute. Some interpret it in a spiritual sense alone, since, as they say, any other interpretation would break in upon the uniformity of the prayer, whose other terms are all spiritual. But if, as we have suggested, the whole prayer must be regarded as an epitome of prayer in general, then it must include some where our physical needs, or a large and important domain of our life is left uncovered. As to the meaning of the singular adjective έπιούσιον we need not say much. That it can scarcely mean "tomorrows" bread is evident from the warning Jesus gives against "taking thought" for the morrow, and we must not allow the prayer to traverse the command. The most natural and likely interpretation is that which the heart of mankind has always given it, as our "daily" bread, or bread sufficient for the day. Jesus thus selects, what is the most common of our physical wants, the bread which comes to us in such purely natural, matter-of-course ways, as the specimen need of our physical life. But when He thus lifts up this common, ever-recurring mercy into the region of prayer He puts a halo of Divineness about it, and by including this He teaches us that there is no want of even our physical life which is excluded from the realm of prayer. If we are invited to speak with God concerning our daily bread, then certainly we need not be silent as to aught else.

Our spiritual needs are included in the two petitions, "And forgive us our sins; for we ourselves also forgive everyone that is indebted to us. And bring us not into temptation." The parenthesis does not imply that all debts should be remitted, for payment of these is enjoined as one of the duties of life. The indebtedness spoken of is rather the New Testament indebtedness, the failure of duty or courtesy, the omission of some "ought" of life or some injury or offence. It is that human forgiveness, the opposite of resentment, which grows up under the shadow of the Divine forgiveness. The former of these petitions, then, is for the forgiveness of all past sin, while the latter is for deliverance from present sinning; for when we pray , "Bring us not into temptation," it is a prayer that we may not be tempted "above that we are able," which, amplified, means that in all our temptations we may be victorious, "kept by the power of God."

Such, then, is the wide realm of prayer, as indicated by Jesus. He assures us that there is no department of our being, no circumstance of our life, which does not lie within its range; that

"The whole round world is every way Bound with gold chains about the feet of God,"

and that on these golden chains, as on a harp, the touch of prayer may wake sweet music, far-off or near alike. And how much we miss through restraining prayer, reserving it for special occasions, or for the greater crises of life! But if we would only loop up with heaven each successive hour, if we would only run the thread of prayer through the common events and the common tasks, we should find the whole day and the whole life swinging on a higher, calmer level. The common task would cease to be common, and the earthly would be less earthly, if we only threw a bit of heaven upon it, or we opened it out to heaven. If in everything we could but make our requests known unto God that is, if prayer became the habitual act of life we should find that heaven was no longer the land "afar off," but that it was close upon us, with all its proffered ministries.

Again, Jesus teaches the importance of earnestness and importunity in prayer. He sketches the picture for it is scarcely a parable of the man whose hospitality is claimed, late at night, by a passing friend, but who has no provision made for the emergency. He goes over to another friend, and rousing him up at midnight, he asks for the loan of three loaves. And with what result? Does the man answer from within, "Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee"? No, that would be an impossible answer; for "though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth" [Luke 11:8]. It is the unreasonableness, or at any rate the untimeliness of the request Jesus seems to emphasize. The man himself is thoughtless, improvident in his household management. He disturbs his neighbour, waking up his whole family at midnight for such a trivial matter as the loan of three loaves. But he gains his request, not, either, on the ground of friendship, but through sheer audacity, impudence; for such is the meaning of the word, rather than importunity. The lesson is easily learned, for the suppressed comparison would be, "If man, being evil, will put himself out of the way to serve a friend, even at this untimely hour, filling up by his thoughtfulness his friend's lack of thought, how much more will the heavenly Father give to His child such things as are needful?"

We have the same lesson taught in the parable of the Unjust Judge [Luke 18:1], that "men ought always to pray, and not to faint." Here, however, the characters are reversed. The suppliant is a poor and a wronged widow, while the person addressed is a hard, selfish, godless man, who boasts of his atheism. She asks, not for a favour, but for her rights that she may have due protection from some extortionate adversary, who somehow has got her in his power; for justice rather than vengeance is her demand. But "he would not for awhile," and all her cries for pity and for help beat upon that callous heart only as the surf upon a rocky shore, to be thrown back upon itself. But after wards he said within himself, "Though I fear not God, nor regard man, yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest she wear me out by her continual coming." And so he is moved to take her part against her adversary, not for any motive of compassion or sense of justice, but through mere selfishness, that he may escape the annoyance of her frequent visits lest her continual coming "worry" me, as the colloquial expression might be rendered. Here the comparison, or contrast rather, is expressed, at any rate in part. It is, "If an unjust and abandoned judge grants a just petition at last, out of base motives, when it is often urged, to a defenseless person for whom he cares nothing, how much more shall a just and merciful God hear the cry and avenge the cause of those whom He loves?"* (*Farrar.)

It is a resolute persistence in prayer the parable urges, the continued asking, and seeking, and knocking that Jesus both commended and commanded [Luke 11:9], and which has the promise of such certain answers, and not the tantalizing mockeries of stones for bread, or scorpions for fish. Some blessings lie near at hand; we have only to ask, and we receive - receive even while we ask. But other blessings lie farther off, and they can only be ours by a continuance in prayer, by a persistent importunity. Not that our heavenly Father needs any wearying into mercy; but the blessing may not be ripe, or we ourselves may not be fully prepared to receive it. A blessing for which we are unprepared would only be an untimely blessing, and like a December swallow, it would soon die, without nest or brood. And sometimes the long delay is but a test of faith, whetting and sharpening the desire, until our very life seems to depend upon the granting of our prayer. So long as our prayers are among the "maybes" and "mights" there are fears and doubts alternating with our hope and faith. But when the desires are intensified, and our prayers rise into the "must-be's," then the answers are near at hand; for that "must be" is the soul's Mahanaim, where the angels meet us, and God Himself says "I will." Delays in our prayers are by no means denials; they are often but the lengthened summer for the ripening of our blessings, making them larger and more sweet.

And now we have only to consider, which we must do briefly, the practice of Jesus, the place of prayer in His own life; and we shall find that in every point it coincides exactly with His teaching. To us of the clouded vision heaven is sometimes a hope more than a reality. It is an unseen goal, luring us across the wilderness, and which one of these days we may possess; but it is not to us as the wide-reaching, encircling sky, throwing its sunshine into each day, and lighting up our nights with its thousand lamps. To Jesus, heaven was more and nearer than it is to us. He had left it behind; and yet He had not left it, for He speaks of Himself, the Son of man, as being now in heaven. And so He was. His feet were upon earth, at home amid its dust; but His heart, His truer life, were all above. And how constant His correspondence, or rather communion, with heaven! At first sight it appears strange to us that Jesus should need the sustenance of prayer, or that He could even adopt its language. But when He became the Son of man He voluntarily assumed the needs of humanity; He "emptied Himself," as the Apostle expresses a great mystery, as if for the time divesting Himself of all Divine prerogatives, choosing to live as man amongst men. And so Jesus prayed. He was wont, even as we are, to refresh a wasted strength by draughts from the celestial springs; and as Antaeus, in his wresting, recovered himself as he touched the ground, so we find Jesus, in the great crises of His life, falling back upon Heaven.

St. Luke, in his narrative of the Baptism, inserts one fact the other Synoptists omit that Jesus was in the act of prayer when the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended, in the semblance of a dove, upon Him. It is as if the opened heavens, the descending dove, and the audible voice were but the answer to His prayer. And why not? Standing on the threshold of His mission, would He not naturally ask that a double portion of the Spirit might be His that Heaven might put its manifest seal upon that mission, if not for the confirmation of His own faith, yet for that of His fore runner? At any rate, the fact is plain that it was while He was in the act of prayer that He received that second and higher baptism, even the baptism of the Spirit.

A second epoch in that Divine life was when Jesus formally instituted the Apostleship, calling and initiating the Twelve into the closer brotherhood. It was, so to speak, the appointment of a regency, who should exercise authority and rule in the new kingdom, sitting, as Jesus figuratively expresses it [Luke 22:30], "on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." It is easy to see what tremendous issues were involved in this appointment; for were these foundation-stones untrue, warped by jealousies and vain ambitions, the whole superstructure would have been weakened, thrown out of the square. And so before the selection is made, a selection demanding such insight and foresight, such a balancing of complementary gifts, Jesus devotes the whole night to prayer, seeking the solitude of the mountain-height, and in the early dawn coming down, with the dews of night upon His garment and with the dews of heaven upon His soul, which, like crystals or lenses of light, made the invisible visible and the distant near.

A third crisis in that Divine life was at the Transfiguration, when the summit was reached, the border line between earth and heaven, where, amid celestial greetings and overshadowing clouds of glory, that sinless life would have had its natural transition into heaven. And here again we find the same coincidence of prayer. Both St. Mark and St. Luke state that the "high mountain" was climbed for the express purpose of communion with Heaven; they "went up into the mountain to pray." It is only St. Luke, however, who states that it was "as He was praying" the fashion of His countenance was altered, thus making the vision an answer, or at least a corollary, to the prayer. He is at a point where two ways meet: the one passes into heaven at once, from that high level to which by a sinless life He has attained; the other path sweeps suddenly downward to a valley of agony, a cross of shame, a tomb of death; and after this wide detour the heavenly heights are reached again. Which path will He choose? If He takes the one He passes solitary into heaven; if He takes the other He brings with Him a redeemed humanity. And does not this give us, in a sort of echo, the burden of His prayer? He finds the shadow of the cross thrown over this heaven-lighted summit for when Moses and Elias appear they would not introduce a subject altogether new; they would in their conversation strike in with the theme with which His mind is already preoccupied, that is the decease He should accomplish at Jerusalem and as the chill of that shadow settles upon Him, causing the flesh to shrink and quiver for a while, would He not seek for the strength He needs? Would He not ask, as later, in the garden, that the cup might pass from Him; or if that should not be possible, that His will might not conflict with the Father's will, even for a passing moment? At any rate we may suppose that the vision was, in some way, Heaven's answer to His prayer, giving Him the solace and strengthening that He sought, as the Father's voice attested His Sonship, and celestials came forth to salute the Well-beloved, and to hearten Him on towards His dark goal.

Just so was it when Jesus kept His fourth watch in Gethsemane. What Gethsemane was, and what its fearful agony meant, we shall consider in a later chapter. It is enough for our present purpose to see how Jesus consecrated that deep valley, as before He had consecrated the Transfiguration height, to prayer. Leaving the three outside the veil of the darkness, He passes into Gethsemane, as into another Holy of holies, there to offer up for His own and for Himself the sacrifice of prayer; while as our High Priest He sprinkles with His own blood, that blood of the ever lasting covenant, the sacred ground. And what prayer was that! how intensely fervent! That if it were possible the dread cup might pass from Him, but that either way the Father's will might be done! And that prayer was the prelude to victory; for as the first Adam fell by the assertion of self, the clashing of his will with God s, the second Adam conquers by the total surrender of His will to the will of the Father. The agony was lost in the acquiescence.

But it was not alone in the great crises of His life that Jesus fell back upon Heaven. Prayer with Him was habitual, the fragrant atmosphere in which He lived, and moved, and spoke. His words glide as by a natural transition into its language, as a bird whose feet have lightly touched the ground suddenly takes to its wings; and again and again we find Him pausing in the weaving of His speech, to throw across the earthward warp the heavenward woof of prayer. It was a necessity of His life; and if the intrusive crowds allowed Him no time for its exercise, He was wont to elude them, to find upon the mountain or in the desert His prayer-chamber beneath the stars. And how frequently we read of His "looking up to heaven" amid the pauses of His daily task! stopping before He breaks the bread, and on the mirror of His upturned glance leading the thoughts and thanks of the multitude to the All-Father, who giveth to all His creatures their meat in due season; or pausing as He works some impromptu miracle, before speaking the omnipotent "Ephphatha," that on His upward look He may signal to the skies! And what a light is turned upon His life and His relation to His disciples by a simple incident that occurs on the night of the betrayal! Reading the sign of the times, in His forecast of the dark tomorrow, He sees the terrible strain that will be put upon Peter's faith, and which He likens to a Satanic sifting. With prescient eye He sees the temporary collapse; how, in the fierce heat of the trial, the "rock" will be thrown into a state of flux; so weak and pliant, it will be all rippled by agitation and unrest, or driven back at the mere breath of a servant-girl. He says mournfully, "Simon, Simon, behold. Satan asked to have you, that he might sift you as wheat: but I made supplication for thee, that thy faith fail not" [Luke 22:31]. So completely does Jesus identify Himself with His own, making their separate needs His care (for this doubtless was no solitary case); but just as the High Priest carried on his breastplate the twelve tribal names, thus bringing all Israel within the light of Urim and Thummim, so Jesus carries within His heart both the name and the need of each separate disciple, asking for them in prayer what, perhaps, they have failed to ask for themselves. Nor are the prayers of Jesus limited by any such narrow circle; they compassed the world, lighting up all horizons; and even upon the cross, amid the jeers and laughter of the crowd, He forgets His own agonies, as with parched lips He prays for His murderers, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

Thus, more than any son of man, did Jesus "pray without ceasing," "in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving" making request unto God. Shall we not copy His bright example? shall we not, too, live, labour, and endure, as "seeing Him who is invisible"? He who lives a life of prayer will never question its reality. He who sees God in everything, and everything in God, will turn his life into a south land, with upper and nether springs of blessing in ceaseless flow; for the life that lies full heavenward lies in perpetual summer, in the eternal noon.


Verses 18-27

Chapter 22

THE ETHICS OF THE GOSPEL.

WHATEVER of truth there may be in the charge of "other-worldliness," as brought against the modern exponents of Christianity, such a charge could not even be whispered against its Divine Founder. It is just possible that the Church had been gazing too steadfastly up into heaven, and that she had not been studying the science of the "Humanities" as zealously as she ought, and as she has done since; but Jesus did not allow even heavenly things to obliterate or to blur the lines of earthly duty. We might have supposed that coming down from heaven, and familiar with its secrets, He would have much to say about the New World, its position in space, its society and manner of life. But no; Jesus says little about the life which is to come; it is the life which now is that engrosses His attention, and almost monopolizes His speech. Life with Him was not in the future tense; it was one living present, real, earnest, but fugitive. Indeed, that future was but the present projected over into eternity. And so Jesus, founding the kingdom of God on earth, and summoning all men into it, if he did not bring commandments written and lithographed, like Moses, yet He did lay down principles and rules of conduct, marking out, in all departments of human life, the straight and white lines of duty, the eternal "ought." It is true that Jesus Himself did not originate much in this department of Christian ethics, and probably for most of His sayings we can find a synonym struck from the pages of earlier, and perhaps heathen moralists; but in the wide realm of Right there can be no new law. Principles may be evolved, interpreted; they cannot be created. Right, like Truth, holds the "eternal years"; and through the millenniums before Christ, as through the millenniums after, Conscience, that "ethical intellect" which speaks to all men if they will but draw near to her Sinai and listen, spoke to some in clear, authoritative tones. But if Jesus did no more, He gathered up the "broken lights" of earth, the intermittent flashes which had played on the horizon before, into one steady electric beam, which lights up our human life outward to its farthest reach, and onward to its farthest goal.

In the mind of Jesus conduct was the outward and visible expression of some inner invisible force. As our earth moves round its elliptic in obedience to the subtle attractions of other outlying worlds, so the orbits of human lives, whether symmetrical or eccentric, are determined mainly by the two forces, Character and Circumstance. Conduct is character in motion; for men do what they themselves are, i.e. as far as circumstances will allow. And it is just at this point the ethical teaching of Jesus begins. He recognizes the imperium in imperio, that hidden world of thought, feeling, sentiment, and desire which, itself invisible, is the mould in which things visible are cast. And so Jesus, in His influence upon men, worked outward from within. He sought, not reform, but regeneration, molding the life by changing the character, for, to use His own figure, how could the thorn produce grapes, or the thistle figs?

And so when Jesus was asked, "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" He gave an answer which at first sight seemed to ignore the question entirely. He said no word about "doing," but threw the questioner back upon "being," asking what was written in the law: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself". [Luke 10:27] And as Jesus here makes Love the condition of eternal life, its sine qua non, so He makes it the one all-embracing duty, the fulfilling of the law. If a man love God supremely, and his neighbor as himself, he cannot do more; for all other commandments are included in these, the subsections of the greater law. Jesus thus sought to create a new force, hiding it within the heart, as the mainspring of duty, providing for that duty both aim and inspiration. We call it a "new" force, and such it was practically; for though it was, in a way, embedded in their law, it was mainly as a dead letter, so much so that when Jesus bade His disciples to "love one another" He called it a "new commandment." Here, then, we find what is at once the rule of conduct and its motive. In the new system of ethics, as taught and enforced by Jesus, and illustrated by His life, the Law of Love was to be supreme. It was to be to the moral world what gravitation is to the natural, a silent but mighty and all-pervasive force, throwing its spell upon the isolated actions of the common day, giving impulse and direction to the whole current of life, ruling alike the little eddies of thought and the wider sweeps of benevolent activities. To Jesus "the soul of improvement was the improvement of the soul." He laid His hand upon the heart’s innermost shrine, building up that unseen temple four-square, like the city of the Apocalypse, and lighting up all its windows with the warm, iridescent light of love.

With this, then, as the foundation-tone, running through all the spaces and along all the lines of life, the thoughts, desires, words, and acts must all harmonize with love; and if they do not, if they strike a note that is foreign to its key-note, it breaks the harmony at once, throwing jars and discords into the tousle. Such a breach of the harmonic law would be called a mistake, but when it is a breach of Christ’s moral law it is more than a mistake, it is a wrong.

Before passing to the outer life Jesus pauses, in this Gospel, to correct certain dissonances of mind and soul, of thought and feeling, which put us in a wrong attitude towards our fellows. First of all, He forbids us to sit in judgment upon others. He says, "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned". [Luke 6:37] This does not mean that we close our eyes with a voluntary blindness, working our way through life like moles; nor does it mean that we keep our opinions in a state of flux, not allowing them to crystallize into thought, or to harden into the leaden alphabets of human speech. There is within us all a moral sense, a miniature Sinai, and we can no more suppress its thunders or sheath its lightnings than we can hush the breakers of the shore into silence, or suppress the play of the Northern Lights. But in that unconscious judgment we pass upon the actions of others, with our condemnation of the wrong, we pass our sentence upon the wrong-doer, mentally ejecting him from the courtesies and sympathies of life, and if we allow him to live at all, compelling him to live apart, as a moral incurable. And so, with our hatred of the sin, we learn to hate the sinner, and calling from him both our charities and our hopes, we hurl him down into some little Gehenna of our own. But it is exactly this feeling, this kind of judgment, the Law of Love condemns. We may "hate the sin, and yet the sinner love," keeping him still within the circle of our sympathies and our hopes. It is not meet that we should be merciless who have ourselves experienced so much mercy; nor is it for us to hale others off to prison, or ruthlessly to exact the uttermost farthing, when we ourselves at the very best are erring and unfaithful servants, standing so much and so often in need of forgiveness.

But there is another "judging" that the command of Christ condemns, and that is the hasty and the false judgments we pass on the motives and lives of others. How apt we are to depreciate the worth of others who do not happen to belong to our circle! We look so intently for their faults and foibles that we become blind to their excellences. We forget that there is some good in every person, some that we can see if we only look, and we may be always sure that there is some we cannot see. We should not prejudge. We should not form our opinion upon an ex parte statement. We should not leave the heart too open to the flying germs of rumor, and we should discount heavily any damaging, disparaging statement. We should not allow ourselves to draw too many inferences, for he who is given to drawing inferences draws largely on his imagination. We should think slowly in our judgment of others, for he who leaps to conclusions generally takes his leap in the dark. We should learn to wait for the second thoughts, for they are often truer than the first. Nor is it wise to use too much "the spur of the moment"; it is a sharp weapon, and is apt to cut both ways. We should not interpret others’ motives by our own feelings, nor should we "suppose" too much. Above all, we should be charitable, judging of others as we judge ourselves. Perhaps the beam that is in a brother’s eye is but the magnified mote that is in our own. It is better to learn the art of appreciating than that of depreciating; for though the one is easy, and the other difficult, yet he who looks for the good, and exalts the good, will make the very wilderness to blossom and be glad; while he who depreciates everything outside his own little self impoverishes life, and makes the very garden of the Lord one arid, barren desert.

Again, Jesus condemns pride, as being a direct contravention of His Law of Love. Love rejoices in the possessions and gifts of others, nor would she care to add to her own if it must be at the cost of theirs. Love is an equalizer, leveling up the inequalities the accidents of life have made, and preferring to stand on some lower level with her fellows than to sit solitary on some lofty and cold Olympus. Pride, on the other hand, is a repelling, separating force. Scorning those who occupy the lower places, she is contented only on her Olympian summit, where she keeps herself warm with the fires of her self-adulation. The proud heart is the loveless heart, one huge inflation; if she carries others at all, it is only as a steadying ballast; she will not hesitate to throw them over and throw them down, as mere dust or sand, if their fall will help her to rise. Pride like the eagle, builds her nest on high, bringing forth whole broods of loveless, preying passions, hatreds, jealousies, and hypocrisies. Pride sees no brotherhood in man; humanity to her means no more than so many serfs to wait upon her pleasure, or so many victims for her sacrifice! And how Jesus loved to prick these bubbles of airy nothings, showing up these vanities as the very essence of selfishness! He did not spare His words, even though they stung, when "He marked how they chose out the chief seats" at the friendly supper; [Luke 14:7] and one of His bitter "woes" He hurled at the Pharisees just because "they loved the chief seats in the synagogues," worshipping Self, when they pretended to worship God, so: making the house of God itself an arena for the sport and play of their proud ambitions. "He that is least among you all," He said, when rebuking the disciples’ lust for preeminence, "the same is great." And such is Heaven’s law: humility is the cardinal virtue, the "strait" and low gate which opens into the very heart of the kingdom. Humility is the one and the only way of heavenly preferments and eternal promotions; for in the life to come there will be strange contrasts and inversions, as he that exalted himself is now humbled, and he that humbled himself is now exalted. [Luke 14:11]

Tracing now the lines of duty as they run across the outer life, we find them following the same directions. As the golden-milestone of the Forum marked the center of the empire, towards which its roads converged, and from which all distances were measured, so in the Christian commonwealth Jesus makes Love the capital, the central, controlling power; while at the focal point of all the duties He sets up His Golden Rule, which gives direction to all the paths of human conduct: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise". [Luke 6:30] In this general law we have what we might call the ethical compass, for it embraces within its circle the "whole duty of man" towards his fellow; and it only needs an adjusted conscience, like the delicately poised needle, and the line of the "ought" can be read off at once, even in those uncertain latitudes where no specific law is found. Are we in doubt as to what course of conduct to pursue, as to the kind of treatment we should accord to our fellow? We can always find the via recta by a short mental transposition. We have only to put ourselves in his place, and to imagine our relative positions reversed, and from the "would" of our supposed desires and hopes we read the "ought" of present duty. The Golden Rule is thus a practical exposition of the Second Commandment, investing our neighbor with the same luminous Atmosphere we throw about ourselves, the atmosphere of a benevolent, beneficent love.

But beyond this general law Jesus gives us a prescript as to the treatment of enemies. He says, "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other: and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also". [Luke 6:27-29] In considering these injunctions we must bear in mind that the word "enemy" in its New Testament meaning had not the wide and general signification it has today. It then stood in antithesis to the word "neighbor" as in Matthew 5:43; and as the word "neighbor" to the Jew included those, and those only, who were of the Hebrew race and faith, the word "enemy" referred to those outside, who were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel. To the Hebrew mind it stood as a synonym for "Gentile." In these words, then, we find, not a general and universal law, but the special instructions as to their course of conduct in dealing with the Gentiles, to whom they would shortly be sent. No matter what their treatment, they must bear it with an uncomplaining patience. Stripped, beaten, they must not resist, much less retaliate; they must not allow any vindictive feelings to possess them, nor must they take in their own hot hand the sword of a "sweet revenge." Nay, they must even bear a good-will towards their enemies, repaying their hate with love, their spite and enmity with prayers, and their curses with sincerest benedictions.

It will be observed that no mention is made of repentance or of restitution: without waiting for these, or even expecting them, they must be prepared to forgive and prepared to love their enemies, even while they are shamefully treating them. And what else, under the circumstances, could they have done? If they appealed to the secular power it would simply have been an appeal to a heathen court, from enemies to enemies. And as to waiting for repentance, their "enemies" are only treating them as enemies, aliens and foreigners, wronging them, it is true, but ignorantly, and not through any personal malice. They must forgive just for the same reason that Jesus forgave His Roman murderers, "for they know not what they do."

We cannot, therefore, take these injunctions, which evidently had a special and temporary application, as the literal rule of conduct towards those who are unfriendly or hostile to us. This, however, is plain, that even our enemies, whose enmity is directly personal rather than sectional or racial, are not to be excluded from the Law of Love. We must bear them neither hatred nor resentment; we must guard our hearts sacredly from all malevolent, vindictive feelings. We must not be our own avenger, taking vengeance upon our adversaries, as we let loose the barking Cerberus to track and run them down. All such feelings are contrary to the Law of Love, and so are contraband, entirely foreign to the heart that calls itself Christian. But with all this we are not to meet all sorts of injuries and wrongs without protest or resistance. We cannot condone a wrong without being accomplices in the wrong. To defend our property and life is just as much our duty as it was the wisdom and the duty of those to whom Jesus spoke to offer an uncomplaining cheek to the Gentile smiter. Not to do this is to encourage crime, and to put a premium upon evil. Nor is it inconsistent with a true love to seek to punish, by lawful means, the wrong-doer. Justice here is the highest type of mercy, and pains and penalties have a remedial virtue, taming the passions which had grown too wild, or straightening the conscience that had become warped.

And so Jesus, speaking of the "offences," the occasions of stumbling that would come, said, "If thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive." [Luke 17:3] It is not the patient, silent acquiescence now. No, we must rebuke the brother who has sinned against us and wronged us. And if this is vain, we must tell it to the Church, as St. Matthew completes the injunction; [Matthew 18:17] and if the offender will not hear the Church, he must be cast out, ejected from their fellowship, and becoming to their thought as a heathen or a publican. The wrong, though it is a brother who does it, must not be glossed over with the enamel of an euphemism; nor must it be hushed up, veiled by a guilty silence. It must be brought to the light of day, it must be rebuked and punished; nor must it be forgiven until it is repented of. Let there be, however, a genuine repentance, and there must be on our part the prompt and complete forgiveness of the wrong. We must set it back out of our sight, amongst the forgotten things. And if the wrong be repeated, if the repentance be repeated, the forgiveness must be repeated too, not only for seven times seven offenses, but for seventy times seven. Nor is it left to our option whether we forgive or no; it is a duty, absolute and imperative; we must forgive, as we ourselves hope to be forgiven.

Again, Jesus treats of the true use of wealth. He Himself assumed a voluntary poverty. Silver and gold had He none; indeed, the only coin that we read He handled was the borrowed Roman penny, with Caesar’s inscription upon it. But while Jesus Himself preferred poverty, choosing to live on the outflowing charities of those who felt it both a privilege and an honor to minister to Him of their substance, yet He did not condemn wealth. It was not a wrong per se. In the Old Testament it had been regarded as a sign of Heaven’s special favor, and amongst the rich Jesus Himself found some of His warmest, truest friends-friends who came nobly to the front when some who had made louder professions had ignominiously fled. Nor did Jesus require the renunciation of wealth as the condition of discipleship. He did not advocate that fictitious egalite of the Commune. He sought rather to level up than to level down. It is true He did say to the ruler, "Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor"; but this was an exceptional case, and probably it was put before him as a test command, like the command to Abraham that he should sacrifice his son-which was not intended to he carried out literally, but only as far as the intention, the will. There was no such demand made from Nicodemus, and when Zacchaeus testified that it had been his practice (the present tense would indicate a retrospective rather than a prospective rule) to give one-half of his income to the poor, Jesus does not find fault with his division, and demand the other half; He commends him, and passes him up, right over the excommunication of the rabbis, among the true sons of Abraham. Jesus did not pose as an assessor; He left men to divide their own inheritance. It was enough for Him if He could put within the soul this new force, the "moral dynamic" of love to God and man; then the outward relations would shape themselves, regulated as by some automatic action.

But with all this, Jesus recognized the peculiar temptations and dangers of wealth. He saw how riches tend to engross and monopolize the thought, diverting it from higher things, and so He classed riches with cares, pleasures, which choke the Word of life, and make it unfruitful. He saw how wealth tended to selfishness; that it acted as an astringent, closing up the valves of the heart, and thus shutting down the outflow of its sympathies. And so Jesus, whenever He spoke of wealth, spoke in words of warning: "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" He said, when He saw how the rich ruler set wealth before faith and hope. And singularly enough, the only times Jesus, in His parables, lifts up the curtain of doom it is to tell of "certain rich" men-the one, whose soul swung selfishly between his banquets and his barns, and who, alas! had laid up no treasures in heaven; and the other, who exchanged his purple and fine linen for the folds of enveloping flames, and the sumptuous fare of earth for eternal want, the eternal hunger and thirst of the after-retribution!

What, then, is the true use of wealth? And how may we so hold it that it shall prove a blessing, and not a bane? In the first place, we must hold it in our hand, and not lay it up in the heart. We must possess it; it must not possess us. We may give our thought, moderately, to it, but our affections must not be allowed to center upon it. We read that the Pharisees "were lovers of money," [Luke 16:14] and that argentic passion was the root of all their evils. The love of money, like an opiate, little by little, steals over the whole frame, deadening the sensibility, perverting the judgment, and weakening the will, producing a kind of intoxication, in which the better reason is lost, and the confused speech can only articulate, with Shylock, "My ducats, my ducats!" the true way of holding wealth is to hold it in trust, recognizing God’s ownership and our stewardship. Bank it up, give it no outlet, and your wealth becomes a stagnant pool, breeding malaria and burning fevers; but open the channel, give it an outlet, and it will bring life and music to a thousand lower vales, increasing the happiness of others, and increasing your own the more. And so Jesus strikes in with His frequent imperative, "Give"-"Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom". [Luke 6:38] And this is the true use of wealth, its consecration to the needs of humanity. And may we not say that here is its truest pleasure? He who has learned the art of generous giving, who makes his life one large-hearted benevolence, living for others and not for himself, has acquired an art that is beautiful and Divine, an art that turns the deserts into gardens of the Lord and that peoples the sky overhead with unseen singing Ariels. Giving and living are heavenly synonyms, and tie who giveth most liveth best.

But not from the words of Jesus alone do we read off the lines of our duty. He is in His own Person a Polar Star, to whom all the meridians of our round life turn, and from whom they emanate. His life is thus our law, His example our pattern. Do we wish to learn what are the duties of children to their parents? The thirty silent years of Nazareth speak in answer. They show us how the Boy Jesus is in subjection to His parents, giving to them a perfect obedience, a perfect trust, and a perfect love. They show us the Divine Youth, still shut in within that narrow circle, ministering to that circle, by hard-manual toil becoming the stay of that fatherless home. Do we wish to learn our duties to the State? See how Jesus walked in a land across which the Roman eagle had cast its shadow! He did not preach a crusade against the barbarian invaders, tie recognized in their presence and power the ordination of God-that they had been sent to chastise a lapsed Israel. And so Jesus spoke no word of denunciation, no fiery word, which might have proved the spark of a revolution. He took Himself away from the multitudes when they would by force make Him King. He spoke in respectful terms of the powers that were; He even justified the payment of tribute to Caesar, acknowledging his lordship, while at the same time He spoke of the higher tribute to the great Over-Lord, even God. When upon His trial for life or death, before a Roman tribunal, He even stayed to apologize for Pilate’s weakness, casting the heavier sin back on the hierarchy that had bought Him and delivered Him up; while upon the cross, amid its untold agonies, though His lips were glued by a fearful thirst, He opened them to breathe a last prayer for His Roman executioners: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."

But was Jesus, then, an alien from His kinsmen according to the flesh? Was patriotism to Him an unknown force? Did He know nothing of love of country, that inspiration which has turned common men into heroes and martyrs, that love which oceans cannot quench, nor distance weaken, which throws an auroral brightness around the most sterile shores, and which makes the emigrant sick with a strange "Heimweh?" Did the Son of man, the ideal Man, know nothing at all of this? He did know it, and know it well. He identified Himself thoroughly with His people; He placed Himself under the law, observing its rites and ceremonies. After the Childhood exile in Egypt, He scarcely passed out of the sacred bounds; no storms of rough persecution could dislodge the heavenly Dove, or send Him wheeling off from His native hills. And if He did not preach rebellion, He did preach that righteousness which gives to a nation its truest wealth and widest liberty. He did denounce the Pharisaic shams, the hollow hypocrisies, which had eaten away the nation’s heart and strength. And how He loved Jerusalem, forgetting His own triumph in the vision of her humiliation, and weeping for the desolations which were coming sure and fast! This, the Holy City, was the center to which He ever returned, and to which He gave His last bequest-His cross and His grave. Nay, when the cross is taken down, and the grave is vacant, He lingers to give His Apostles their commission; and when He bids them, "Go ye out into all the world," He adds, "beginning at Jerusalem." The Son of man is the Son of David still, and within His deep love for humanity at large was a peculiar love for His "own," as the ark itself was enshrined within the Holy of Holies.

And so we might traverse the whole ethical domain, and we should find no duty which is not enforced or suggested by the words or the life of the great Teacher. As Dr. Dorner says, "There is only one morality; the original of it is in God; the copy of it is in the Man of God." Happy is he who see this Polar Star, whose light shines clear and calm above the rush of human years and the ebbs and flows of human life! Happier still is he who shapes his course by it, who reads off all his bearings from its light! He who builds his life after the Divine model, reading the Christ-life into his own, will build up another city of God on earth, foursquare and compact together, a city of peace, because a city of righteousness and a city of love.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Luke 18:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/luke-18.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, December 9th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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