St Matt. xxv.34-37. "Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we Thee an hungred, and fed Thee? or thirsty, and gave Thee drink?"
Let us consider awhile this magnificent parable, and consider it carefully, lest we mistake its meaning. And let us specially consider one point about it, which is at first sight puzzling, and which has caused, ere now, many to miss (as I believe, with some of the best commentators, ) the meaning of the whole -- which is this: that the righteous in the parable did not know that when they did good to their fellow-creatures, they did it to Christ the Lord.
Now there are two kinds of people who do know that, because they have been taught it by Holy Scripture, who would make two very different answers to the Lord, when He spoke in such words to them. At least so we may suppose, for they are ready to make such answers here on earth; and therefore, we may suppose that if they dared, they would answer so at the day of judgment. One party would -- or at least might say, "Yes, Lord, I knew that whatever I did to the poor, I did to Thee; and therefore I did all I could for the poor. I started charitable institutions, I spoke at missionary meetings, I put my name down for large sums in every subscription list, I built churches and chapels, schools and hospitals; I gained the reputation among men of being a leading philanthropist, foremost in every good work."
What answer the man who said that would receive from the Lord, I know not; for who am I that I should put words into the mouth of my Creator and my God? But I think that the awful majesty of the Lord's very countenance might strike such a man dumb, ere he had time to say those vain proud words, and strike his conscience through with the thought, Yes, I have been charitable: but have I been humane? I have been a philanthropist: but have I really loved my fellow-men? Have I not made my interest in the heathen whom I have not seen, an excuse for despising and hating my countrymen whom I have seen, if they dared to differ from me in religion or in politics? I have given large sums in charity: but have I ever sacrificed anything for my fellow-men? I have given Christ back a pound in every hundred -- perhaps even out of every ten which He has given me: but what did I do with the other nine pounds save spend them on myself? Is there a luxury in which a respectable man could safely indulge, which I have denied myself? What have I been after all, with all my philanthropy and charity, but a selfish, luxurious, pompous personage? an actor doing my alms to be seen of men? I did my good works as unto Christ? -- No; I did them as unto myself -- to get honour from men while I lived, and to save my selfish soul when I died. God be merciful to me a sinner! That such thoughts ought to pass through too many persons' hearts in this generation, I fear is too certain. God grant that they may do so before it is too late. But it is plain, at least, that these are not the sheep of whom Christ speaks.
Again, there are another, and a very different kind of persons, who we have a right to fancy, would answer the Lord somewhat thus: "Oh Lord, speak not of it. It may be I have tried to do a little good to a poor suffering creature here and there; to feed a few hungry, clothe a few naked, visit a few sick and prisoners. But Lord, how could I do less? after all that Thou hast done and suffered for me; and after Thy own gracious saying, that inasmuch as I did anything to the least of Thy brethren, I did it to Thee. What less could I do, Lord? -- and after all, what a pitifully small amount I have done! Thou did'st hunger for me -- for whom have I ever hungered? Thou did'st suffer for me -- for whom have I ever suffered? Thou did'st die for me -- for whom have I ever died? And I did not -- I fear in the depth of my heart -- do what I did really for Thee; but for the very pleasure of doing it. I began to do good from a sense of duty to Thee; but after a while I did good, I fear, only because it was so pleasant -- so pleasant to see human faces looking up into mine with gratitude; so pleasant to have little children, even though they were none of my own, clinging to me in trust; so pleasant when I went home at night to feel that I had made one human being a little happier, a little better, even only a little more comfortable; so pleasant to give up my own pleasure, in order to give pleasure to others, that I fear I forgot Thee in my own enjoyment. If I sinned in that, Lord forgive. But at least, I have had my reward. My work among Thy poor was its own reward, a reward of inward happiness beyond all that earth can give -- and now Thou speakest of rewarding me over and above, with I know not what of undeserved bliss. Thou art too good, O Lord, as is Thy wont from all eternity. Let me go and hide myself -- a more than unprofitable servant, who has not done the hundredth part of that which it was my duty to do."
What answer the Lord would make to the modest misgivings of that sweet soul, I cannot say; for again, who am I, that I should put words into the mouth of my Creator and my God? But this I know, that I had rather be -- what I am not, and never shall be -- such a soul as that in the last day, than own all the kingdoms of the world and the glory thereof. Still, it is plain that such persons, however holy, however loving, are not those of whom our Lord speaks in this parable. For they, too, know, and must know, that inasmuch as they showed mercy unto one of the least of the Lord's brethren, they showed it unto Him. But the special peculiarity of the persons of whom our Lord speaks, is that they did not know, that they had no suspicion, that in showing kindness to men, they were showing kindness to Christ. "Lord," they answer, "when saw we Thee?"
It is a revelation to them, in the strictest and deepest sense of the word. A revelation, that is an unveiling, a drawing away of a veil which was before their eyes and hiding from them a divine and most blessed fact, of which they had been unaware. But who are they? I think we must agree with some of the best commentators, among others with that excellent divine and excellent man, now lost to the Church on earth, the late Dean of Canterbury, that they are persons who, till the day of judgment, have never heard of Christ; but who then, for the first time, as Dean Alford says, "are overwhelmed with the sight of the grace which has been working in and for them, and the glory which is now their blessed portion." Such persons, perhaps, as those two poor negresses -- to remind you of a story which was famous in our fathers' time -- those two poor negresses, I say, who found the African traveller, Mungo Park, dying of fever and starvation, and saved his life, simply from human love -- as they sung to themselves by his bedside --
"Let us pity the poor white man;
Perhaps it is such as those, who have succoured human beings they knew not why, simply from a divine instinct, from the voice of Christ within their hearts, which they felt they must obey, though they knew not whose voice it was. Perhaps, I say, it is such as those, that Christ will astonish at the last day by the words, "Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
If this be the true meaning of our Lord's words, what comfort and hope they may give us, when we think, as we are bound to think, if we have a true humanity in us, of the hundreds of millions of heathen now alive, and of the thousands of millions of heathen who have lived and died. Sinful they are as a whole. Sinning, it may be, without law, but perishing without law. For the wages of sin are death, and can be nothing else. But may not Christ have His elect among them? May not His Spirit be working in some of them? May He not have His sheep among them, who hear His voice though they know not that it is His voice? They hear a voice within their hearts whispering to them, "Be loving, be merciful, be humane, in one word be just, and do to others as you would they should do to you." And whose voice can that be but the voice of Christ, and the Spirit of God? Those loving instincts come not from the fleshly fallen nature, or natural man. That says to us, "Be selfish; do not be loving. Do to others not what you would they should do to you, but do to others whatever is pleasant and profitable to yourselves." And alas! the heathen, and too many who call themselves Christians, listen to that carnal voice, and live the life of selfishness and pleasure, of anger and revenge, of tyranny and cruelty -- the end of which is death.
But if any among those heathen -- hearing within their hearts the other voice, the gracious voice which says, "Do unto others as you would they should do unto you," -- feel that that voice is a good voice and a right command, which must be obeyed, and which it is beautiful and delightful to obey, and so obey it; may we not hope then, that Christ, who has called them, will perfect His own work; and in His own good way, and His own good time, deliver them from their sin and ignorance, and vouchsafe to them at last that knowledge of the true and holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whom truly to know is everlasting life? They are Christ's lost sheep: but they are still His sheep who hear His voice. May He not fulfil His own words to them, and go forth and seek such souls, and lay them on His shoulder, and bring them home; saying to His Church on earth, and to His Church in heaven, "Rejoice with Me: for I have found my sheep which was lost?"
Now if we can thus have hope for some among the heathen abroad, shall we not have hope, too, for some among the heathen at home? for some among that mass of human corruption which welters around the walls of so many of our cities? I am not going to make vain excuses for them; and say they are but the victims of circumstance. The great majority of them are the victims of their own low instincts. They have chosen the broad and easy road of animalism, which leads to destruction. They have sown to the flesh, and they will of the flesh reap corruption. For the laws of God are inexorable; and the curse of the law is sure, namely, "The wages of sin are death." Neither dare I encourage too vast hopes and say, If we had money enough, if we had machinery enough, if we had zeal enough, we might convert them all, and save them all. I dare not believe it. The many, I fear, will always go the broad road; the few the narrow one. And all we dare say is, if we have faith enough, we can convert some. We can at least fulfil our ordination vow. We can seek out Christ's sheep scattered abroad about this naughty world, and tell them of His fold, and try to bring them home.
But how shall we know Christ's sheep when we see them? How, but by the very test which Christ has laid down, it seems to me, in this very parable? Is there in one of them the high instincts -- even the desire to do a merciful act? Let us watch for that: and when in the most brutal man, and -- alas that I should have to use the words -- in the most brutal woman, we see any touch of nobleness, justice, benevolence, pity, tenderness -- in one word, any touch, however momentary, of unselfishness,- -let us spring at that, knowing that there is the soul we seek; there is a lost sheep of Christ; there is Christ Himself, working unknown upon a human soul; there is a soul ready for the gospel, and not far from the kingdom of God. But what shall we say to that lost sheep? Shall we terrify it by threats of hell? Shall we even allure it by promises of heaven? Not so -- not so at least at first -- for that would be to appeal to bodily fear and bodily pleasure, to the very selfishness from which Christ is trying to deliver it; and to neglect the very prevenient grace, the very hold on the soul which Christ Himself offers us. Let us determine with St. Paul to know nothing among our fellow-men but Christ crucified. Let us appeal just to that in the soul which is unselfish; not to the instincts of loss and gain, but to those nobler instincts of justice and mercy; just because they are not the man's or the woman's instincts; but Christ's within them, the light of Christ and the Spirit of Christ, the spirit of love and justice saying, "Do unto others as you would they should do unto you." Do you doubt that? I trust not. For to doubt that is to doubt whether God be truly the Giver of all good things. To doubt that is to begin to disbelieve St. Paul's great saying, "In me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing." To doubt that is to lay our hearts and minds open to the insidious poison of that Pelagian heresy which, received under new shapes and names, is becoming the cardinal heresy of modern disbelief. No; we will have faith in Christ, faith in our creeds, faith in catholic doctrine; and will say to that man or that woman, even as they wallow still in the darkness and the mire, "Behold your God! That cup of cold water which you gave, you knew not why, -- Christ told you to give it, and to Him you gave. That night watch beside the bed of a woman as fallen as yourself, -- Christ bade you watch, and you watched by Him. For that drunken ruffian, whom you, a drunken ruffian yourself, leaped into the sea to save, Christ bade you leap, and like St. Christopher of old, you bore, though you knew it not, your Saviour and your God to land." And if they shall make answer, "And who is He that I did not know Him? who is He that I should know Him now?" Let us point them -- and whither else should we point them in heaven or earth? -- to Christ upon the cross, and say, "Behold your God! This He did, this He condescended, this He dared, this He suffered for you, and such as you. This is what He, the Maker of the universe, is like. This is what He has been trying to make you like, in your small degree, every time a noble, a generous, a pitiful, a merciful emotion crossed your heart; every time you forgot yourself, even for a moment, and thought of the welfare of a fellow-man."
If that tale, if that sight, if that revelation and unveiling of Christ to the poor sinful soul does not work in it an abhorrence of past sin, a craving after future holiness, an admiration and a reverence for Christ Himself, which is, ipso facto, saving faith; if that soul does not reply- -it may not be in words, but in feelings too deep for words, -- "Yes; this is indeed noble, indeed Godlike, worthy of a God, and worthy therefore to be at once imitated and adored:" then, indeed, the Cross of Christ must have lost that miraculous power which it has possessed, for more than eighteen hundred years, as the highest "moral ideal" which ever was seen, or ever can be seen, by the reason and the heart of man.