The Teachings of Jesus

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 7


We have been considering the question of the beginning of the Christian life, or the entrance into the Kingdom. There is God's side first of all, as Jesus pointed it out. The way of entrance is not our goodness, not our deserving; it is the grace of God, "whose property is always to have mercy." Sonship is God's gift. But there is man's side too, the turning from sin in penitence of soul, the opening of the heart in obedient trust. Thus the life begins with gracious forgiveness on God's side, with repentance and faith on ours. In the next three chapters we consider this new life of man in his relation with God; thereafter the Christian life as it is lived by man with fellow men.

Humility And Desire

The Reversal of Values.—Nowhere is the genius and originality of Jesus seen more clearly than in this, that he puts the spirit of humility and desire first. The philosopher Nietzsche charged Jesus with a "reversal of all values," putting down what men had hitherto praised, lifting up what they had despised. That is true. Men praised strength, and mastery, and success. The Jewish scribe and the Roman sage were not unlike here. Their blessings were for the man who had won: the man who had mastered the law, said the scribe; the man who was master of himself and his world, said the sage. In either case it was the man who had, the self-sufficient man. Jesus praised the man who had not, the man dissatisfied, the man that longed for something more.

Man's Need, God's Generosity.—It is not hard to understand this teaching of Jesus if we will only consider his thought of God. Two things were true of God. First, he was the source of all life. Men had nothing except as it came from him; and all the want of men was from lack of God in their life. They were anxious and worried and weak because they had never really seen God's power and learned to trust him. They were narrow and hard and selfish because they did not know the Father's spirit. They made themselves the slaves of mere things, Mammon worshipers, because they had never found the highest good of life, which is in God. In the second place, this God who had all things was ready to give all. That was his very nature: he was Father. The law of his life was love, the desire to help and bless men.

The Obstacle.—What, then, stood in the way? Only one thing: men did not see and men did not care. The blindness of men Jesus sought to change by his teaching; he showed them this God waiting to receive and give, and this life of strength and joy. But the real obstacle was the self-satisfaction of men. It was not the sin of men. We know how he received the lowest and most vile. He had no doubt about these; "Go and sin no more," he said. But where men did not know the need of God how could God come in? How could God give where men were proud and self-centered? That was why Jesus rejoiced over those that sorrowed; that was why he praised humility and longing. It was not that these sinners were better than others; it was because their hearts were open to God, and for Jesus that was the promise of all goodness, and the only promise.

What Is Humility?—There is probably no Christian virtue which is more misunderstood than humility. Humility is not hypocritical self-depreciation; it is not self-depreciation at all. The true Christian does not call himself a worm of the dust; on the contrary, he knows that he is a son of the Most High. Only he knows that this high place is all the gift of God, and not of his own worth or desert. Nor does Christian humility sing, "0, to be nothing, nothing." The New Testament, on the contrary, declares that we are to be strong and wise and rich in good works and to quit ourselves like men; we are not to be empty, but to be filled. But the Christian also realizes that all this life comes from God; he knows his utter dependence upon God and in his joy and strength has the perfect humility of a child, knowing no life but that from God, having no will but that of God.

Humility and Strength.—Such humility belongs not to weaklings, but to men who are as strong as they are cleareyed. This is what Ruskin says in his Modern Painters: "I believe the first test of a truly great man is his humility. I do not mean by humility doubt of his own powers, or hesitation of speaking his opinions; but a right understanding of the relation between what he can do and say and the rest of the world's doings and sayings. All great men not only know their business, but usually know that they know it, and are not only right in their main opinions, but they usually know that they are right in them, only they do not think much of themselves on that account. Arnolfo knows that he can build a good dome at Florence; Albert Duerer writes calmly to one who has found fault with his work, 'It cannot be done better*; Sir Isaac Newton knows that he has worked out a problem or two that would have puzzled anybody else; only they do not expect their fellow men therefore to fall down and worship them. They have a curious undersense of powerlessness, feeling that the power is not in them, but through them, that they could not be or do anything else than God made them, and they see something divine and God-made in every other man they meet, and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful."

The Soul Of A Christian

The Soul of a Christian.—"Whenever there is danger of obscurity as to what Jesus' teaching means, then we will turn again and again to the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. They contain his ethics and his religion, joined in one root and freed from all that is external and particularistic." So writes Professor Harnack in his volume, What is Christianity? The Beatitudes undertake to answer the question, To whom shall the Kingdom belong? Practically, however, they set forth for us the soul of a Christian. Not all of the Christian life is set forth in them, but here is its heart. The Beatitudes must be considered together, for Jesus is setting forth one spirit and not describing different classes of people.

Humility and Desire.—What kind of a man then shall receive the Kingdom? The man who has kept the law, said the Pharisees, the man who has achieved; and as they said it, proud and self-satisfied, they thought of themselves. We may understand, then, the surprise with which men listened to Jesus' opening words. The blessed, said Jesus, are the poor in spirit, the men who know their need; and these shall receive the Kingdom. The blessed are not the contented, but those filled with sorrow at the knowledge of their need. They are the meek, not the proud; they have no will of their own before God, only a perfect and contented submission to him. But though meek and poor in spirit, they are not wanting in desire; they are men with a passion for righteousness that is like a consuming hunger. The central thought of the first four Beatitudes is one: the spirit of humility regarding oneself, the spirit of earnest longing toward God. With these goes the sixth, "Blessed are the pure in heart." The probable meaning is not freedom from impure thought, but rather sincerity and singleness of mind, a part of that same humility and aspiration.

Mercy and Peace.—The last three Beatitudes concern more a man's relation to his fellows. The men of the Kingdom will be merciful, for only thus can they be sons of their Father. They will be peacemakers, not only peaceable themselves, but bringing peace on earth because they bring righteousness. And because they have this passion for righteousness, they will not desist because of any cost to themselves; they will endure persecution.

Humility and Love.—In all these Beatitudes Jesus nowhere uses his supreme word, "love." And yet it is plain that that word underlies all these sayings. This spirit of humility and openness and earnest longing for God, what is it but love? The first element in our love for God, and its main part, is letting God love us. That love, of course, when once it fills and rules our life, will lead us into every activity of service; but still this remains first and supreme in our love for God, the sense of our utter dependence and the eager desire for him to love us. And the spirit of mercy and peace, and the patient attitude under persecution, these are but the outworking of that love in our life with others. If we read, then, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, we shall find that song of love in the closest relation to these sayings of Jesus. Both show the same spirit of humility and devotion and desire which mark Christian love.

The Spirit Of A Child

The Child Spirit and the Kingdom.—Side by side with the Beatitudes, sharing their beauty and bringing the same lesson, stands the message of the child. There are two stories to be considered here. The first tells how the little children were one day brought to Jesus for his blessing, and how the disciples tried to keep them away that they might not interfere with the Master's work (Mark 10. 1316). The second narrates the rebuke which Jesus gave to his disciples in their strife as to which of them was greatest, and how he taught his lesson by placing the child in the midst (Matthew 18. 1-5). Now, in both cases we shall miss the lesson if we look only at the child. The main purpose of Jesus is not to talk of the child's relation to the Kingdom, but of the spirit that his disciples must have if they would enter that Kingdom. In both cases the disciples give the occasion for Jesus' word in their pride, their self-importance, their ambition. In both cases Jesus' message is the same: the men of the Kingdom must have the spirit of a child.

Childlikeness not Childishness.—It is easy to mistake Jesus' meaning here. He does not say that the child is the goal of the Christian life or a perfect example. The old theologians who talked about little children as though they were utterly depraved were no more wrong than the modern sentimentalists who talk of children as if they were

angels. The little child is neither an imp nor an angel, though the same child appears to act at times like both. We are not to expect little children to be saints; that belongs to mature Christians. The child is simply a man in the making. But the spirit of the child that draws us all is its openness and teachableness, its willingness to trust and to love. It is this that Jesus commends, not the immaturity of the child nor even its purity. The interest of childhood for us is not in its attainment, but in its promise. It is all open, all eager, all ready to trust and obey.

The Open Heart of the Child.—Here again are humility and desire, the thing that God wants. The tragedy of life is the loss of the spirit of the child that comes so soon. We lose the fine confidence in goodness and love; we lose our dreams: we grub in the muck with our rake and forget the sky and the stars. We lose our high hopes and ambitions and are cheaply satisfied. There is only one way to life: we must get again the open heart and the longing heart that we lost with our childhood. Only so, says Jesus, can we enter the Kingdom. We might turn the word about and say, only so can God enter into us; for the spirit of the child is the open door for God.

The Day of the Child.—Our day is the day of the child. The interest in the child came at first because of the helplessness of the child. So we planned child-labor laws to protect the child from exploitation, and compulsory education to secure him his rights. More and more we are seeing, however, that it is the life of the race, and not merely the right of the child, that is at stake. And this lesson on humility and desire shows why this is so. The child is our great chance to make over the world. The man past thirty rarely changes in his fundamental ideas and habits. We are hoping and praying to-day for a new world. In that new world there will be little of sickness and disease, and none of war. The strong will not exploit the weak, whether among nations or men. Broad of mind, clean of body, strong, just, kind, a new race of men shall walk the earth. How shall the new world come? Can we convert the chancelleries of Europe, the rulers and legislators of the earth? Can we make over the hearts of manufacturers and merchant princes? Can we transform the men of a city from intemperance and lust to sobriety and purity? Can we change our citizenship from narrowness and indifference to alertness and unselfish devotion to the whole? Can we win the estranged masses to the faith and life of Jesus Christ? Yes, we can do it—with a few; but the real hope of the world is not with the grown-up men. Here, however, is the steady flowing stream of childhood that comes anew to every generation. The habits of men are fixed, the life of the child is plastic. The hearts of men are filled with many interests and cares, the child is open. All that is beautiful and good, all that is high and holy, may enter the world of to-morrow through the gate of the child of to-day. That is why we say to greed and selfishness and ignorance, "Hands off!" That is why we must fight for good housing conditions, child-labor laws, a living wage for the father that will let mother and child stay at home, and a system of public education that shall fit the child to live. And that is why the Church may spare no thought or toil or means in her greatest task and her greatest opportunity: the religious training of the child. It is Jesus' teaching that discovers to us this significance of childhood.

Saints And Sinners

Not Attainment, but Attitude.—We can see now how it was that Jesus so astonished the people of his day by the way in which he classified men. They divided men according to their attainments, Jesus according to their attitude. They saw the respectability and strict observance of rules in the Pharisees; Jesus saw their pride and self-satisfaction. They saw the sin and shame of publican and harlot; Jesus saw their willingness to trust and obey. It is not where a man stands that counts, but the direction in which he is facing. The Pharisees looked back contented upon their achievements. The others, out of their sin and shame, were looking toward God. The heart of the Pharisee was closed, the hearts of these sinners were open.

Very clearly does Jesus bring out this difference in the parable of the two men at prayer in the temple (Luke 18. 9-14). The Pharisee saw only his merit, the publican only his need. There was no question as to the Pharisee's uprightness or the publican's evil record. But the door of that Pharisee's life was shut to God that day, and the door of this sinner's heart was open. And "this man went down to his house justified rather than the other." The parable voices only what was made plain to Jesus by his own experience. He saw publicans and harlots, to his surprise, crowding into the Kingdom, eagerly taking his message, while the pillars of respectability and piety were unmoved.

Directions For Study

The Scripture passages: Matthew 5. 1-12; Mark 10. 13-16; Matthew 18. 1-4; Luke 18. 9-14.

Read the lesson narrative, looking up all Scripture passages.

With your Bible open before you, try to get Jesus' teaching as to humility. What did he mean by this? How did he illustrate it in his own character and life? Did it involve weakness, or the highest strength?

Is aspiration usually thought of as a virtue? Why is it so important in the Christian life? Turn again to Jesus' life for examples. What is the difference between Christian aspiration and selfish ambition?

What is the difference between childlikeness and childishness?

Chapter IV indicates Jesus' standard and ideal of goodness for man. In this chapter we see what it was that determined for him whether a man was right, or Justified. State briefly his teaching on these two points.