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LUKE vii, 22.- To the Poor the Gospel is preached.
The Old Testament closes with a remarkable prediction concerning Messiah and his forerunner. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord; and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Accordingly, at the appointed time, came John the Baptist, “in the spirit and power of Elias,” saying,
Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”. In his great work of “preparing the way of the Lord,” he challenged sin without respect of persons. The attempt was hazardous ; but, feeling the majesty of his character, he was not to be moved by considerations which divert or intimidate the ordinary man. Name, sect, station, were alike to him. Not even the imperial purple, when it harboured a crime, afforded protection from his rebuke. His fidelity in this point cost him his life. For having “reproved Herod, for Herodias his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,” he was thrown into prison, and at length sacrificed to the most implacable of all resentments, the resentment of an abandoned
It was in the interval between his arrest and execution, that he sent to Jesus the message on which my text is grounded. As his office gave him no security against the workings of unbelief in the hour of temptation, it is not strange, if, in a dungeon and in chains, his mind was invaded by an occasional doubt. The question, by two of his disciples, “ Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another ?” has all the air of an inquiry for personal satisfaction; and so his Lord's reply seems to treat it. “Go your way, and tell
John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached." The answer is clear and convincing. It enumerates the very signs by which the church was to know her God, “ for whom she had waited ;” and they were enough to remove the suspicions, and confirm the soul, of his servant John.
Admitting that Jesus Christ actually wrought the works here ascribed to him, every sober man will conclude with Nicodemus, “We know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” It is not, however, my intention to dwell on the miraculous evidence of Christianity. The article, which I select as exhibiting it in a plain but interesting view, is, THE PREACHING OF GOSPEL TO THE POOR.
In scriptural language, “ the poor,” who are most exposed to suffering and least able to encounter it, represent all who are destitute of good necessary to their perfection and happiness ; especially those who feel their want, and are disconsolate ; especially those who are anxiously “ waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Thus in Ps. xl, 17: “I am poor and needy, yet the Lord thinketh upon
Thus in Is. xli, 17 : “When the poor and needy seek water and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst; I, the Lord, will hear them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.” Thus also, ch. lxi, 1 : “ The Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek ;" the same word with that rendered “poor;" and so it is translated by Luke, ch. iv, 18,“ to preach the gospel to the poor;" which is connected, both in the prophet and evangelist, with "healing the broken-hearted.” Our Lord, therefore, refers John, as he did the Jews in the synagogue at Nazareth, to this very prediction as fulfilled in himself. So that his own definition of his own religion is, a system of consolation for the wretched. This is so far from excluding the literal poor, that the success of the gospel with them is the pledge of its success with all others : for they not only form the majority of the human race, but they also bear the chief burden of its calamities. Moreover, as the sources of pleasure and pain are substantially the same in all men; and as affliction, by suspending the influence of their artificial distinctions, reduces them to the level of their common nature ; whatever by appealing to the principles of that nature, promotes the happiness of the multitude, must equally promote the happiness of the residue ; and whatever consoles the one, must, in like circumstances, console the other also. As we cannot, therefore, maintain the suitableness of the gospel to the literal poor, who are the mass of mankind, without maintaining its prerogative of comforting the afflicted; nor, on the contrary, its prerogative of comforting, separately from its suitableness to the mass of mankind, I shall consider these two ideas as involving each other.
With this explanation, the first thing which demands your notice, is the FACT ITSELF- -GOSPEL PREACHED TO THE POOR.
From the remotest antiquity there have been, in all civilized nations, men who devoted themselves to the increase of knowledge and happiness. Their speculations were subtle, their arguings acute, and many of their maxims respectable. But to whom were their instructions addressed? To casual visiters, to selected friends, to admiring pupils, to privileged orders! In some countries, and on certain occasions, when vanity was to be gratified by the acquisition of fame, their appearances were more public. For example, one read a poem, another a history, and a third a play, before the crowds assembled at the Olympic games. To be crowned there, was, in the proudest period of Greece, the summit of glory and ambition. But what did this, what did the mysteries of pagan worship, or what the lectures of pagan philosophy, avail the people? Sunk in ignorance, in poverty, and crime, they lay neglected. Age succeeded to age, and school to school ; a thousand sects and systems rose, flourished, and fell; but the degradation of the multitude remained. Not a beam of light found its way into their darkness, nor a drop of consolation into their cup. Indeed a plan for raising them to the dignity of rational enjoyment, and fortifying them against the disasters of life, was not to be expected : for as nothing can exceed the contempt in which they were held by the professors of wisdom; so any human device, however captivating in theory, would have been worthless in fact. The most sagacious heathen could imagine no better means of improving them than the precepts of his philosophy. Now, supposing it to be ever so salutary, its benefits must have been confined to a very few; the notion that the bulk of mankind may become philosophers, being altogether extravagant. They ever have been, and, in the nature of things, ever must be unlearned. Besides, the grovelling superstition and brutal manners of the heathen, presented insuperable obstacles. Had the plan of their cultivation been even suggested, especially if it comprehended the more abject of the species, it would have been universally derided, and would have merited derision, no less than the dreams of modern folly about the perfectibility of man.
Under this incapacity of instructing the poor, how would the pagan sage have acquitted himself as their comforter ? His dogmas, during prosperity and health, might humour his fancy, might flatter his pride, or dupe his understanding ; but against the hour of grief or dissolution he had no solace for himself, and could have none for others. I am not to be persuaded, in contradiction to every principle of my animal and rational being, that pain, and misfortune, and death, are no evils, and are beneath a wise man's regard. And could I work myself up into so absurd a conviction, how would it promote my comfort ? Comfort is essentially consistent with nature and truth. By perverting my judgment, by hardening my heart, by chilling my nobler warmth, and stifling my best affections, I may grow stupid ; but shall be far enough from consolation. Convert me into a beast, and I shall be without remorse; into a block, and I shall feel no pain. But this was not my request. I asked you 66
for consolation, and you destroy my ability to receive it. I asked you to bear me over death, into the fellowship of immortals, and you begin by transforming me into a monster! Here are no glad tidings : nothing to cheer the gloom of outward or inward poverty. And the pagan teacher could give no better. From him, therefore, the miserable, even of his own country, and class, and kindred, had nothing to hope. But to “ lift the needy from the dunghill," and wipe away the tears from the mourner; to lighten the burdens of the heart; to heal its maladies, repair its losses, and enlarge its enjoyments; and that under every form of penury and sorrow, in all nations, and ages, and circumstances; as it is a scheme too vast for the human faculties, so, had it been committed to merely human execution, it could not have proceeded a single step, and would have been remembered only as a frantic revery,
Yet all this hath Christianity undertaken. Her voice is, without distinction, to people of every colour, and clime, and condition: to the continent and the isles ; to the man of the city, the man of the field, and the man of the woods; to the Moor, the Hindoo, and the Hottentot ; to the sick and desperate ; to the beggar, the convict, and the slave. She impairs no faculty, interdicts no affection, infringes no relation; but, taking men as they are, with all their depravity and woes, she proffers them peace and blessedness. Her boasting is not vain. The course of experiment has lasted through more than fifty generations of men. It is passing every hour before our eyes; and, for reasons to be afterwards assigned, has never failed, in a single instance, when it has been fairly tried.
The design is stupendous ; and the least success induces us to inquire, by whom it was projected and carried into effect. And what is our astonishment, when we learn, that it was by men of obscure birth, mean education, and feeble resource: by men from a nation hated for their religion, and proverbial for their moroseness; by carpenters, and tax-gatherers, and fishermen of Judea! What shall we say of this phenomenon? A recurrence to the Jewish Scriptures, which had long predicted it, either surrenders the argument, or increases the difficulty. If you admit that they reveal futurity, you recognise the finger of God, and the controversy is at an end. If you call them mere conjectures, you are still to account for their correspondence with the event, and to explain how a great system of benevolence, unheard, unthought of by learned antiquity, came to
be cherished, to be transmitted for centuries from father to son, and at length attempted, among the Jews! And you are also oontra. dicted by the fact, that however clearly such a system is marked out in their scriptures, they were so far from adopting it, that they entirely mistook it; rejected it, nationally, with disdain ; persecuted unto death those who embarked in it; and have not embraced it to this day! Yet in the midst of this bigoted and obstinate people, sprang up the deliverence of the human race. “ Salvation is of the Jews." Within half a century after the resurrection of Christ, his disciples had penetrated to the extremes of the Roman empire, and had carried the “ day-spring from on high” to innumerable tribes who were
sitting in the region and shadow of death.” And so exclusively Christian is this plan, so remote from the sphere of common effort, that after it has been proposed and executed, men revert perpetually to their wonted littleness and carelessness. The whole face of Christendom is overspread with proofs, that, in proportion as they depart from the simplicity of the gospel, they forget the multitude as before, and the doctrines of consolation expire. In so far, too, as they adapt to their own notions of propriety, the general idea, which they have borrowed from the gospel, of meliorating the condition of their species, they have produced, and are every day producing, effects the very reverse of their professions. Discontent, and confusion, and crimes, they propagate in abundance. They have smitten the earth with curses, and deluged it with blood; but the instance is yet to be discovered, in which they have “bound up the broken-hearted.” The fact, therefore, that Christianity is, in the broadest sense of the terms, “ glad tidings to the poor,” is perfectly original. It stands without rival or comparison. It has no foundation in the principles of human enterprise ; and could never have existed without the inspiration of that “ Father of lights, from whom cometh down every good and every perfect gift."
II. As the Christian Fact is original, so the REASONS OF ITS EFFICACY ARE PECULIAR. Christianity can afford consolation, because it is fitted to our nature and character. I specify particulars :
First. The gospel proceeds upon the principle of immortality.
That our bodies shall die is indisputable. But that reluctance of nature, that panting after life, that horror of annihilation of which no man can completely divest himself, connect the death of the body with deep solicitude. While neither these, nor any other merely rational considerations, ascertain the certainty of future being; much less of future bliss. The feeble light which glimmered around this point among the heathen, flowed not from investigation, but tradition. It was to be seen chiefly among the vulgar, who inherited the tales of their fathers; and among the poets, who preferred popular fable to philosophic speculation. Reason would have pursued her discovery ; but the pagans knew not how to apply the notion of immor.