"Blindness in part is happened to Israel." -- ROMANS xi.25.
It is a sad and painful reflection, and one which is continually forced upon us as we read the New Testament, that the long training and preparation of the Jews brought them at the last not to the acceptance but to the rejection of Jesus.
They had been taught, generation after generation, that they were the called and chosen people of God. Psalmists and prophets had enriched their life with the outpouring of their moral and spiritual revelations, and fired their hopes with promises. They lived in the expectation of the Messiah who was to complete these revelations of the God who had led them and taught them ever since the days of their Egyptian bondage.
Yet, when this crowning revelation came to them, they could not even recognise it. The Son of God "came unto His own and His own received Him not." As St. Paul expresses it in my text, while grieving for them with all the intensity of his fervid affection, their life was overgrown with a sort of spiritual dulness. They were suffering from a sort of ossification of the spirit, so that the last and greatest revelation of God could make no impression upon them.
But this picture of the Jews rejecting and crucifying their Saviour, and unable to appreciate or to receive the gift of new life which was offered to them, blind to its beauty, unattracted by its charm, is not only one of the saddest sights in history, it is very instructive for every one of us, because it is charged with warnings that are never out of date. For there is no individual life, and no society, that is not liable to drift into a similar dulness of vision, and so to reject or disregard what God gives for its enlightenment. The great critical events in the world's history, the events that make epochs in the consciousness of men, are not different in kind from those of our own obscure lives. They are, as it were, our own familiar experience, written prophetically and written large.
So the blindness that happened to Israel, and arrested their spiritual growth, may be happening no less to any of us. As God gave them the spirit of slumber, so it may be with our lives.
And the very thought of our possible risks in this respect is valuable to us.
To be conscious that in regard to any of the higher and better things of life our eyes may possibly be growing dim, and our ears dull of hearing, and that God may be pressing upon us gifts of great price which we are too dull to see or to accept -- if our soul is sufficiently awake to feel this, then the very feeling may of itself be the germ of new life in us.
And it is very certain, on the other hand, that if we are altogether without any such feelings there is a risk, which even amounts to a probability, that the hardening or deadening influences of custom and tradition will sooner or later degrade our life. And if it should be asked, -- How comes it that we are so liable to be affected by this dulness of spirit and of general habit? -- we have to reply that it is because of the sensitiveness of the human soul to surrounding influences.
It is because our souls are so receptive, so imitative, and in consequence so easily perverted, darkened, blinded, or misled. I suppose we are all of us conscious of this sensitiveness of the moral and spiritual nature; we should all say, if questioned, that we are quite aware of it, and that no one would dispute it. The soul of every child or man, we should say, is a fine and delicate and sensitive instrument, with the possibilities in it of we know not what Divine harmonies, but easily spoilt.
And yet, when we look at all the common and traditional ordering of daily life, whether in our educating of the young or in the influences that we allow to prevail among young and old, it would seem sometimes as if this thought of the soul's sensitiveness had never dawned upon us. When we once really grasp this thought, or, let us rather say, when this thought has once really fastened upon our mind, and fixed itself there, so that it remains with us, and goes about with us; and when, in consequence, we come to feel how easily any soul may be perverted, or rendered hard or dull; in one word, how easily it may be degraded; then it follows that we look with new eyes on many things, many customs, many influences which the unthinking hardly notice, or notice only to misjudge.
In the light of this feeling of the soul's sensitiveness, the thoughtful man is very often intolerant of things which to others seem of little moment, because he sees how they are tending to dull or deaden the eye of the soul, or to pervert or to kill its finer instincts; and how, in consequence, though tradition may have given them a sort of spurious consecration, or the world in its blindness may have come to honour them, they are in fact laden with mischief to the general life.
It was the thought of this sensitiveness of the soul to external influences, and of the ease with which any bad influence, or bad custom or practice or fashion, perverts common lives, and of the untold mischief which is consequently latent in it, that winged the words of a well-known writer when she protested, some years ago, against what she designated as debasing the moral currency.
That writer was thinking primarily of vulgar jesting on great subjects, which should stir us to admiration and reverence, and so debasing men's tastes. She had in her mind the class of persons who have the art of spoiling things that are noble or beautiful by their vulgar handling of them; and of the mischief which is done by such persons to public taste and tone and character.
But we may widen the reference. Whosoever, in anything that concerns the conduct of life, spreads low notions, or drags down men's opinion or taste, thus helping to pervert ordinary minds from those higher aims and motives and those reverent views of character and life which should be cherished for our common use and service, is debasing the moral currency.
Here, then, we have a very practical question for our consideration and answering. "Is there anything in my life" -- so the question comes to us in our self-examination -- "which could be so described? any influence, spreading from my conduct, of which men might truly say that it also is helping to debase the moral currency? Is there to be seen in it anything that tends towards the lowering of common standards? any misuse of things sacred or holy? any foolish or vulgar estimate of the higher things of life?" And if we are in any doubt how to put these questions in a concrete and practical shape, we have only to remember how any one who helps to lower any standard of taste or conduct is debasing the moral currency of life; how, for instance, all those are debasing it who substitute any wrong notion of honour for right notions of honour, or who put roughness and coarseness in place of manliness, or who set the fashion of cynical judgments on good and bad characters.
Or we might take an illustration from what is, unhappily, a very common element in English life: the habit of gambling sport. Wherever this habit spreads, in any class of society, from the highest to the lowest, its effect is invariable; it undermines integrity, it hardens the heart and debases taste, and is the willing handmaid of other vices. Moral degradation is its inseparable companion. Therefore, if you mix in it, or share in it, or give any adhesion or countenance to it, which helps, as men say, to make it respectable, and so to spread its influence, you are debasing the moral currency.
Or take another common case. You are familiar with the poet's description, "And thus he bore without abuse the grand old name of gentleman." That is a noble thing for any man or boy to have said of him; and there is not one among you who does not desire always to be able to claim that name as his own.
But, wherever we go in the world, how many men there are who claim it and yet debase it by ignoble use! They help to spread the notion that a man may be a man of low morality and still a gentleman; that his gentlemanliness may be a mere varnish of culture and manners, a thin veneering having underneath it only meanness, or coarseness, or corruption; and that, notwithstanding this, he may still claim to be called a gentleman. Those who spread such doctrines are debasing the moral currency of English life. And it should be the mission of schools like this, and of those who grow up in them, to pour upon all such persons the contempt which they deserve, and to restore the currency of common life to something of Christian purity.
Remembering, then, how sensitive the soul is, and how easily by example, or conduct, or fashion it may be so perverted as to lose its clear vision and higher aims, its pure tastes and ennobling emotions, we have to make it our ambition and endeavour that our life may be kept free from such debasement.
But, if we are to succeed in this, we must make it our daily prayer that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ will enlighten the eyes of our understanding, and give unto us the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge and love of Him.