Great Texts of the Bible
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.—Matthew 25:40.
1. Our Lord is here lifting the curtain of the Unseen. He is describing a great symbolic act of final judgment. The Throne of God is pictured, set upon the clouds; the nations are gathered before Him. The King is seated to judge in person. The issues of eternity depend upon His word. He will give sentence, with discernment that cannot err, of reward or punishment to every man according to his works. He calls no witnesses, for none are needed. The books that are opened, spoken of elsewhere, are but the universal memory of the Divine omniscience which this Judge brings to His work. Without hesitation, without the possibility of other than perfect justice, He divides, separating one from another to the right hand or to the left, and they that have done evil go, in that timeless existence which we call eternity, into punishment, but they that have done good into life.
2. The two earlier parables of judgment refer to those who are in confessed relationship with God. The parable of the Ten Virgins represents the relationship of friendship,—that of people who would share in the joys of God’s home, as friends at a wedding feast; the parable of the Talents represents a less intimate relationship—that of service; the talents are committed to their proprietor’s “own servants.” Now the scene changes, and we are brought out to the larger world of the nations; the judgment of those who do not know Christ as their Friend or consciously serve Him as their Master is here typified.
1. The Judge is “the Son of Man.” The significance of that title is thus drawn out by Dr. Sanday: “The ideal of humanity, the representative of the human race.… Jesus did deliberately connect with His own Person such ideas as these.… This deeply significant title … at the centre is broadly based upon an infinite sense of brotherhood with toiling and struggling humanity, which He who most thoroughly accepted its conditions, was fittest also to save.”
It is the conception which fits most closely to St. Paul’s thought of Jesus as the Head of the race, the second life-giving “Adam,” the consummation of humanity, in whom all that is human is gathered up, the new Father of the Race, for at His birth, perhaps by virtue of His birth of a virgin, there came into the stream of human life a fresh impulse of creative power, as some swift-flowing clear and wholesome stream pours itself into a sluggish and polluted river. He has bound humanity to Himself, and Himself to humanity, in His incarnation, multiplying the bonds of union in His love. None is so near akin to each of us as He, not even brother or child; therefore none is faint and weary among us, none is wrong or oppressed, but He feels the pain and the heartache. It is this first that gives truth to His words, “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.” He is the Son of Man because He stands in a unique relation to the human race.
Not with people as social accidents have sorted them—as rich or poor, as wise or foolish, as lords and ladies or humble folk, has He that close affinity which makes Him call us all His “brethren”; but deep within these wrappings of rank or circumstance He who shares our nature reads the characteristic features of our manhood—common infirmity, common need, common pains, and common mortality. In these it was that He took part. In these, as often as He sees them, He still claims to have a share. Whatever sharpens in your bosom the sense that your neighbour is your brother-man must likewise sharpen the sense that he is a born brother to the Son of God. Is it not, then, due to this deep underlying unity of His nature with all our race, a race which, sundered by many things, is one in its sorrows, that Jesus Christ bids us discern Himself in every man who hungers, bleeds, weeps, or dies? With that most human of all things, suffering, the badge, not of a tribe, but of our whole race, has He most completely identified Himself, who is Himself the Ideal Man and the Representative Sufferer for all mankind. “Ye did it unto me!”1 [Note: J. O. Dykes, Plain Words on Great Themes, 165.]
Not long since, a lady stood on our southern coast and saw a dear sister drown. She could neither give help nor procure it; she could only stand still and suffer. And it is told to this day how they both died together, one in the sea, and the other on the land. As the remorseless current choked life in the one, grief palsied the heart of the other. Not a blow was struck, not a wave touched her feet, but that awful sympathy which links our souls became insufferable, and went to her heart as fatally as an assassin’s steel.2 [Note: J. H. Hollowell.]
The first evangelist, who delights to grace his narrative of the ministry of Jesus with citations from the Hebrew scriptures containing oracles that have at length found their fulfilment, bethinks himself of that weird description of the suffering servant of Jehovah in the writings of Isaiah, and the text which appears to him most apposite is: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” Surely, indeed! The oracle is happily chosen. What strikes Matthew’s mind is the sympathy with human suffering displayed in Christ’s healings. He could easily have found other texts descriptive of the physical side of the phenomenon, e.g., the familiar words of the 103rd Psalm, “who healeth all thy diseases.” But it was the spiritual not the physical side of the matter that chiefly arrested his attention: therefore he wrote not “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by David, saying, who healeth all thy diseases,” but “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities and bare our diseases,” translating for himself from the Hebrew to make the text better suit his purpose. The evangelist has penetrated to the heart of the matter, and speaks by a most genuine inspiration. For the really important thing was the sympathy displayed, that sympathy by which Jesus took upon Himself, as a burden to His heart, the sufferings of mankind. That was the thing of ideal significance, of perennial value, a gospel for all time. The acts of healing benefited the individual sufferers only, and the benefit passed away with themselves. But the sympathy has a meaning for us as well as for them. It is as valuable to-day as it was eighteen centuries ago. Yea, it is of far greater value, for the gospel of Christ’s sympathy has undergone developments of which the recipients of benefit in Capernaum little dreamed. Christ’s compassion signified to them that He was a man to whom they might always take their sick friends with good hope of a cure. How much more it signifies to us! We see there the sin-bearer as well as the disease-bearer, the sympathetic High Priest of humanity who hath compassion on the ignorant, the erring, the morally frail; who, as a brother in temptation, is ever ready to succour the tempted, whose love to the sinful is as undying as Himself, “the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.”1 [Note: A. B. Bruce, The Galilean Gospel, 130.]
2. The Son of Man is identified with us not only in nature but in condition. “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor.” His design in coming here at all was to be a Healer, Rescuer, and a Comforter for mankind. To One who came forth from the unseen world of bliss on such an errand, the most suitable place and the most attractive would be the place where He was needed most. In His own language, the physician must go where the sick are to be found; and the sore, sad sickness under which humanity pines away to death is at once sin and the suffering which is sin’s shadow. To get near enough to our stricken race that He might probe and know its misery, feel and bear its evil, and win the power at once to stanch its wounds and lift from it its whole burden, Jesus needed to become familiar with men in whom the malady had worked itself out to its painfullest consequences. Therefore “he bare our sicknesses and carried our sorrows.” He became the companion of the unhappy, and the resort of outcast men and women and of the desperately sick whom no one else could save. It was on the shady side of life that He expected to find a welcome. The proud and prosperous are too well satisfied with the world and with themselves to make likely patients for a Divine Healer. Where people had drunk life’s cup down to the bitter lees, and found at the bottom only failure, penury, sickness, and sorrow of heart, there He hoped to win a hearing for His soft and soothing call, “I will give you rest.”
What is this quality of sympathy which Jesus so constantly revealed? Certainly it is something more than amiable pity for distress. Such the priest and Levite might have felt, who nevertheless passed their wounded countryman on the other side. As its meaning teaches, sympathy is never indifferent. It is a “suffering with” the distressed. It is the “passion of doing good.” It is the satisfaction of self in the helping of others. A reader of the woes of soldiers left to die on a battlefield knows the emotion of pity. It is a Florence Nightingale who sympathizes with them by nursing them back to life. One learns with regret and concern of the wretched lives of the lepers in the penal colonies in the south seas. It is a Father Damien who by his self-devotion and tireless labours, ending only in the common death of the afflicted ones, reveals what sympathy in its truest form can mean. Herein is seen the revelation of God’s life in Christ. His is not the passionless and unsuffering life which the medieval saints loved to picture.1 [Note: H. L. Willett, The Call of the Christ, 167.]
3. The Judge is so identified with the moral law that He feels every violation of it as an outrage upon Himself. Dr. Dale of Birmingham used to say, “In God the moral law is alive.” We may go further. This word of judgment, which we are now considering, is true only because in Jesus the moral law is alive. To resist His will is a synonym for sin. It is the nature of Christ which is outraged by every sin that is committed. Holiness is simply the will of Christ, and whenever we have put from us truth as we know it, or right as it called to us, whenever we have held down the good within us and given rein to the evil, it was Jesus who was there despised and rejected.
Dora Greenwell, in her poem, A Legend of Toulouse, describes the act of wilful sin as the flinging of a dagger at the heart of God, in desperate revolt against the splendour of His holy nature.
A legend was it of a youth,
Who as it then befell,
From out his evil soul the trace
Had blotted out of guiding grace,
Abjured both heaven and hell;
That once unto a meadow fair,
(Heaven shield the desperate!)
Impelled by some dark secret snare,
Repaired, and to the burning sky
Of summer noon flung up on high,
A dagger meant for God’s own heart,
And spake unto himself apart
Words that make desolate.
The dagger that was meant for God found its mark in the heart of Christ; and in the blood from His wounds we are to see the appeal of God to the sinner for mercy, upon the cross, and in His crucifixion in the soul of the sinner.
There came from out the cloudless sky
A hand, the dagger’s hilt
That caught, and then fell presently
Five drops, for mortal guilt
Christ’s dear wounds once freely spilt:
And then a little leaf there fell
To that youth’s foot through miracle—
A leaf whereon was plain
These words, these only words enwrit,
Enwritten not in vain,
Oh! miserere mei; then
A mourner, among mourning men,
A sinner, sinner slain
Through love and grace abounding, he
Sank down on lowly bended knee,
Looked up to heaven and cried,
“Have mercy, mercy, Lord, on me
For His dear sake, who on the tree
Shed forth those drops and died!”
The Standard of Judgment
The standard of judgment is intensely human and practical. It is no ecstatic rapture, no ritual observance, no external profession that is to be the test. It is plain humanity, a cup of cold water, a morsel of bread—social service, in a word. In this tremendously Divine word, with its sweep of authority so amazing, here is the kind of test most natural to man, as it is true to His own example.
1. The final test for every soul is its relation to Christ Himself. It does not seem to be so much a verdict passed by one who has heard the evidence and sums it up impartially as a sentence which results from the touchstone of His presence. He implies that He—partly the word He has spoken, partly the works He has done, but essentially He Himself—is the standard by which men will be tried. In some of His sayings the idea of the Judge almost melts away, becomes an inappropriate image. Rather there appears simply the gracious Saviour of men, the only One who could really save them, and for that reason the only One who could really judge them. He is there, not only in the last day, but now always in the course of human history, in our midst, willing to save all who will accept His call, rejecting literally no one, but for that reason passing an unwilling verdict on those who will not come unto Him that they might have life. It seems to be in this sense that He regards His function of judgment as beginning from the time of His manifestation to men. And we almost gather that the scene of a judgment-bar, and the dramatic division of all mankind into two classes at one moment, is sketched for the sake of pictorial representation to the multitude, but that what fills the mind of Jesus is the intrinsic determination of men’s destiny by contact with Himself in the field of human experience. Following up this suggestion, which comes more from a study of His modes of thought than from an accumulation of particular utterances, we arrive at the idea that He is the appointed Judge of all mankind for this reason: at the long last, when the ultimate destiny of every human being will be determined, the one factor which will be decisive must be the relation of each to Jesus.
The place assigned in the last judgment to Himself in the words of Jesus is recognized by all interpreters to imply that the ultimate fate of men is to be determined by their relation to Him. He is the standard by which all shall be measured; and it is to Him as the Saviour that all who enter into eternal life will owe their felicity. But the description of Himself as Judge implies much more than this: it implies the consciousness of ability to estimate the deeds of men so exactly as to determine with unerring justice their everlasting state. How far beyond the reach of mere human nature such a claim is, it is easy to see. No human being knows another to the bottom; the most ordinary man is a mystery to the most penetrating of his fellow-creatures; the greatest of men would acknowledge that even in a child there are heights which he cannot reach and depths which he cannot fathom. Who would venture to pronounce a final verdict on the character of a brother man, or to measure out his deserts for a single day? But Jesus ascribed to Himself the ability to determine for eternity the value of the whole life, as made up not only of its obvious acts but of its most secret experiences and its most subtle motives.1 [Note: J. Stalker, The Christology of Jesus, 241.]
Thou didst it not unto the least of these,
And in them hast not done it unto Me.
Thou wast as a princess rich and at ease—
Now sit in dust and howl for poverty.
Three times I stood beseeching at thy gate,
Three times I came to bless thy soul and save:
But now I come to judge for what I gave,
And now at length thy sorrow is too late.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poetical Works, 148.]
2. Christ interprets our relation to Himself by our conduct to the least of His brethren. We cannot spend our treasures as Mary did in ministering to the personal honour or refreshment of our Divine Lord. He is far withdrawn now beyond need or reach of human ministry into the serene heaven of His glory. But, though absent, He has left His proxies behind Him. No disciple may excuse himself to-day from imitating Mary’s open-handed gratitude on the plea that the Saviour is out of reach. For every purpose of devotion—for giving Him pleasure, for testifying our own thanks, for winning in the end His praise—it is really all the same if we minister to His poor ones as if we spent our money on Himself. Through this appointed channel is our homage to reach Him there where, priest-like, He stands at the heart of this ailing race, a sharer in each man’s sorrow.
This means that the face of every man and woman and little child we pass in the street—sin-scarred or careworn or tear-stained—must be to us as the very face of Christ. Behind that marred countenance, under that brutalized, besotted husk, lies hidden a beautiful brother, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. Dare we think cheaply and contemptuously of the vilest man whom Christ loves, for whom Christ died? Since He is not ashamed to call them brethren, for His sake they are sacred and dear. The touch of His nature, the blood of His sacrifice, make the whole world kin.
The people we know personally, the men we work with, the women we mix among, our own companions, our own servants, our own neighbours, have this imperious claim for ministration, whenever we grow aware of their need. Often they will not, or cannot, seek us out; it is for us to seek them out. They are perhaps prisoners of pride or reserve or shyness, and our sympathy must penetrate to them. The people who most deserve help will hardly ever bring themselves to ask for it. But it is love’s instinct and prerogative to anticipate Christ’s necessities before ever He makes a request.
I was hungry, and Thou feddest me;
Yea, Thou gavest drink to slake my thirst:
O Lord, what love gift can I offer Thee
Who hast loved me first?
Feed My hungry brethren for My sake;
Give them drink, for love of them and Me:
Love them as I loved thee, when Bread I brake
In pure love of thee.1 [Note: T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, 218.]
Edward Irving caused it to be engraved on the silver plate of his London church, that when the offerings of the people no longer sufficed for the wants of God’s poor, the sacred vessels were to be melted down to supply the deficiency. He was right. It is the Master’s mind. Christ has expressly transferred to the honest and suffering poor His own claim on the devotion of His people. Even while He was warmly defending the action of Mary of Bethany on that Saturday evening, He hinted that after He was taken away from the reach of our personal homage the poor would remain with us in His stead. He made this still more plain on the following Wednesday. When, in the majestic passage before us, He foretold with dramatic vividness the awful transactions of the judgment, He made it for ever unmistakable that the enthusiastic love of the Church for her absent and inaccessible Lord is now to pour itself out in deeds of practical beneficence, finding in the distressed a substitute for Him who was once the Man of Sorrows.2 [Note: J. O. Dykes, Plain Words on Great Themes, 160.]
The saying, “The poor ye have always with you,” was literally true with Lord Ashley, and it remained true to the end of his life. The state of the weather, depression in trade, illness, bereavement, separation from children or friends—these and a hundred other things suggested to him no extraordinary cause of complaint as they affected himself personally, but they led him invariably to think how much more terrible similar circumstances must be to the poor and friendless. Nor did his sympathy exhaust itself in merely thinking about the poor and friendless. During the pauses in the greater labours which absorbed so much of his time, he would devise schemes for the relief of those within his reach, and would make the help he gave a thousandfold more acceptable by the manner in which he gave it. He was never too proud to grasp the hand of a poor honest man, or take up a sickly little child in his arms, or sit in the loathsome home of a poor starving needlewoman as she plied her needle. He never spoke down to their level, but sought to raise them up to his, and his kindly words were as helpful as his kindly deeds. The time had not yet come for that personal devotion to the welfare of the poor which distinguished his later years; that was only at this period occasional which afterwards became continual, but the principle that inspired it was the same; it was devotion to Him who had said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.” To Lord Ashley, Christianity was nothing unless it was intensely practical.1 [Note: The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, 175.]
Look you to serve Me but above?
Nay, rather serve Me here below;
Would you on Me heap out your love?
On want and sin your love bestow;
Have I not said it? What you do
To these, My poor, ye do to Me;
Whatever here I take from you
Sevenfold returned to you shall be.
Doubt not if I am here; with eyes
Of mercy know Me, wan and pale.
What! hear you not My anguished cries,
My moans and sighs that never fail!2 [Note: W. C. Bennett.]
3. Our Lord sets their true value upon the unconscious services that we render to our fellow-men. “Ye did it unto me,” even when ye knew it not. There is a holy art of anonymity, the giving and doing for His sake and for His eye alone, which is as beautiful as it is rare, and which imparts to those who have learned to practise it an inner peace and glory which nothing else can produce. It is this that determines the value and quality of every action—is it done for Christ and for His glory alone? Our debt to Him is payable at the bank of humanity’s need, and He estimates at its eternal worth all that is done to alleviate that need, even though it be unattended with blare of trumpets and the limelight of self-advertisement. “By Him actions are weighed.”
It is said that when Thorwaldsen, the Danish sculptor, returned to his native land with those wonderful works of art which have made his name immortal, chiselled in Italy with patient toil and glowing inspiration, the servants who unpacked the marbles scattered upon the ground the straw which was wrapped around them. The next summer flowers from the gardens of Rome were blooming in the streets of Copenhagen, from the seeds thus borne and planted by accident. While pursuing his glorious purpose, and leaving magnificent results in breathing marble, the artist was, at the same time, and unconsciously, scattering other beautiful things in his path to give cheer and gladness.
So Christ’s lowly workers unconsciously bless the world. They come out every morning from the presence of God and go to their work, intent upon their daily tasks. All day long, as they toil, they drop gentle words from their lips, and scatter little seeds of kindness about them; and to-morrow flowers from the garden of God spring up in the dusty streets of earth and along the hard paths of toil on which their feet tread. The Lord knows them among all others to be His by the beauty and usefulness of their lives.1 [Note: J. R. Miller, Glimpses Through Life’s Windows, 11.]
There is one motto which is more Christian than Mr. G. F. Watts’ saying, “The utmost for the highest,” and that is, “The utmost for the lowest.” Life’s biggest and bravest duties are, according to the teaching of Jesus, owed to “the least of these my brethren.” While we are all applauding the sentiment that God helps those who help themselves, the one outstanding Christian teaching is that God helps those who cannot help themselves; and that when Christ thrust into the foreground of His programme the weak, the helpless, the morally, spiritually, and economically insolvent, and told an astonished world that the last should be first, the least should be greatest, and the lost should be found, He was “setting the pace” for all who aspire to follow Him.2 [Note: C. Silvester Horne, Pulpit, Platform, and Parliament, 81.]
Wherever now a sorrow stands,
’Tis mine to heal His nail-torn hands.
In every lonely lane and street,
’Tis mine to wash His wounded feet—
’Tis mine to roll away the stone
And warm His heart against my own.
Here, here on earth I find it all—
The young archangels, white and tall,
The Golden City and the doors,
And all the shining of the floors!
Burrell (D. J.), The Verilies of Jesus, 82.
Butler (W. A.), Sermons, ii. 347.
Carroll (B. H.), in The Southern Baptist Pulpit, 54.
Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 217.
Dykes (J. O.), Plain Words on Great Themes, 159.
Eames (J.), The Shattered Temple, 79.
Ford (G. E.), in Religion in Common Life, 72.
French (E. A.), God’s Messages through Modern Doubt, 75.
Hepher (C.), The Self-Revelation of Jesus, 54.
Holden (J. S.), Redeeming Vision, 86.
Jenkinson (A.), A Modern Disciple, 205.
Leach (C.), Sermons to Working Men, 24.
Lucas (H.), At the Parting of the Ways, 277.
Miller (J. R.), A Help for the Common Days, 31.
Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, ii. 22.
Parkhurst (C. H.), Three Gates on a Side, 157.
Pearson (A.), The Claims of the Faith, 53.
Service (J.), Sermons, 216.
Tyng (S. H.), The People’s Pulpit, iii. 61.
Watts-Ditchfield (J. E.), Fishers of Men, 91.
Christian World Pulpit, xviii. 89 (J. H. Hollowell); xxiv. 337 (T. R. Evans); xxix. 259 (R. Veitch); lxxxi. 310 (L. G. Broughton).