By Harris Franklin Rall
The law of brotherhood, we have seen, is a law of reverence; we are to hold every human being sacred because he is man, no matter what he has done. But Jesus' law of brotherhood leads us farther than that. Brotherhood means also the spirit of love, that spirit that desires the good of all men.
Was The Teaching New?
Love and Mercy in the Old Testament.—The principle of love and mercy was not a new teaching. The Old Testament, which speaks of God's spirit of mercy, also declares the duty of man's love for man (Deuteronomy 10. 18, 19; 15. 7-11; 24. 17-22; Isaiah 58. 6, 7; Micah 6. 8; Zechariah 7. 9). It was from the Old Testament that Jesus quoted when he set forth the law of love for God and man. And the passages just referred to do not limit this love to Israel; men were to show it to the poor and to the foreigner living in their midst. And both the spirit and the principle of good will appear with teachers outside of Judaism and Christianity. Buddha exalts the principle of mercy and Confucius taught that men were not to do to others what they would not have done to themselves.
What Jesus Did.—And yet in this teaching, too, Jesus began a new day. In the Old Testament the law of love is one among many other laws; in actual practice among the Jews it was obscured by innumerable rules about sacrifices and tithes and washings. Jesus makes it central and supreme. This spirit of love and good will is not one among many duties, it is the heart of a man's life; out of this one spirit of love toward God and man all else must flow. The gift on the altar takes second place; God wants the spirit of mercy, not sacrifice. Better to leave the gift than to have a brother unreconciled. Further, Jesus set forth that spirit so clearly in his own life and death, and communicated it with such power to his followers, that what had been a word became a life, a life that has steadily grown in the world ever since.
The Law In God And Man
Three Stages in the Knowledge of God.—The law of grace and good will goes back to the character of God, as does all Jesus' teaching. There are three stages in man's thought about God. There is first the pagan stage, where God is power. Whether that power be good or evil men cannot know for sure, and so they try with prayer and gift to win the favor of this uncertain or unwilling God. There is a second stage in which men think of God as just. Men know what they may expect, and that it will be strictly according to desert, good when they have done good, evil when they have done evil. From this stage Jesus led men to the third and highest: God is pure and perfect good will. His gifts of sun and rain come alike to good and evil. No man has sinned so deeply that love and forgiveness do not await his return. Nay, more, he is like the father of the wayward boy going out upon the way: God does not simply await, but searches out his straying children.
Three Stages in Man's Life with Man.—In these three conceptions of God are pictured the stages of man's own life by which he has risen from lower to highest in his association with his brother men. There is the stage of mere might, in which man thinks nothing of others (except his little circle of family or tribe) and seeks all that he can get for himself. There is a second stage, the stage of bald justice, and this is reflected in that law which Jesus quotes. Where men receive good, they give in return. They love the friends who love them. When they make a supper they invite as guests those from whom they expect invitation in return. And when they receive evil, they return this also in like kind, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." This was the common level of Jesus' day among the Jews, though Jesus declared that it was not higher than that of the Gentiles (Matthew 5. 47). The third stage again is that of Jesus' teaching, and Jesus connects it directly with his thought of God. The rule of God's life is grace and good will; no lower standard will serve for man. You are to be sons of your Father, you are to be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. To love even where he is not loved in return, to give though men do not deserve, that is the Father's spirit.
The Law Of Forgiveness
No Forgiveness for the Unforgiving.—Forgiveness is the first manifestation of this spirit in man. God is incredibly merciful. Without that mercy no man could stand before him. For even when we have done our best we are unprofitable servants. Every day's close finds us in need of the same prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses." But though God's forgiveness" is so boundless, he cannot forgive the unforgiving. Here Jesus, always so merciful, draws a sharp line. "If ye forgive not men their trespasses," he says, "neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." No man dare come before God with any other prayer for pardon than this: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6. 12-15). This is, however, no limit to God's grace, but only a true conception of what forgiveness is. If forgiveness were merely wiping out a debt, God could do that for any man and without condition. But forgiveness means God's taking a man into fellowship with himself; it means oneness of spirit with God. The man who holds an unforgiving spirit may be asking God to overlook his sin, but he does not really want forgiveness; for God's forgiveness means his spirit of forgiving in us as well as for us.
The Sin of the Unforgiving Spirit.—In the parable of the cruel servant Jesus sets forth the unforgiving spirit in man and what it means (Matthew 18. 21-35). Here was a man who owed his king an incredible amount, ten millions of dollars, a debt that he could by no possibility pay. So his master ordered the law to take its course, and, according to the cruel provision of the time, planned to have the man and his family sold into slavery. When the poor wretch fell down, however, and asked for mercy, his master had pity and remitted the whole debt. Thereupon the servant who had obtained this great mercy went out and found a fellow servant who owed him a few dollars. Him he took by the throat and flung into prison, because he could not pay the paltry debt. So Jesus holds up to scorn and condemnation the hard and unforgiving spirit of men.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation.—The right attitude will be very different from this. Because we know ourselves as sinners utterly dependent upon God's mercy, we should be humble in heart and merciful toward all the wrongs and weakness of our fellows. Because we must go to God every day for pardon, we should be ready to forgive our brother seventy times seven—that is, times without number. Nor should this spirit of forgiveness be simply passive, a readiness to pardon when our brother comes. It should be active. We should do all in our power to reconcile our brother, no matter who is in the wrong. God cares more for that than for worship (Matthew 5. 23, 24). As God wants all his children to stand in right relations to himself, as Jesus not merely forgave sinners but went out to seek them, so the spirit of grace and good will will seek to have right relations of brotherly love and understanding with all men.
The Spirit Of Good Will
Good Will Without Measure or Limit.—Back of the spirit of forgiveness, and back of all else in the thought of Jesus, should lie the spirit of good will. The wonderful passage of Matthew 5. 38-48 sets forth this ideal, words that the student of Jesus' message needs to turn to again and again. The words have been constantly misunderstood because men have treated them as a series of commandments. What Jesus is setting forth here is not a new set of laws, but a new spirit. The spirit of our life should not be that of give and take, good for the good, evil for the evil, but a spirit of good will that knows no limit. Like the love of the Father who sees in every man his child, our deep desire should be the good of every man, seeing in every man our brother. The hate of others should not overcome that good will: "Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you." Nor are there any other bounds which that good will should know. It is easy to love family and friends, but this good will should go out to the man whose skin is of another hue, who does not speak our language or hold our faith, who dwells on the other side of our city or the other side of the globe.
Not Rules, but a Spirit.—Use every chance to show this good will, no matter what it costs. Here is one that strikes you. That is not a great injury, for it has only touched your body. But it will be a real injury if you let him rouse anger and bitterness in you, and drive you to strike back. Better turn the other cheek; you have kept your spirit of good will and you may win him. Let us remember that these are illustrations of a spirit, not assertions of hard-and-fast rules. .If you are defending your wife against a drunken brute, then the law of good will may demand something else. Here, as always, it is the spirit that counts.
The First Mile.—One of the expressive figures that Jesus uses to set forth this spirit of good will is that of the second mile. Roman soldiery on the march could compel any man to go with them for a certain distance, giving them help as porter or guide or in other ways. That is the first mile of life which we all know, the mile of compulsion. There is about so much of compulsion in all our lives. We must work or we will starve. A man must care for his family or the law will step in. We must show a certain amount of decency and honesty or society will ostracize us. We must do about so much work or we shall lose our job. That is the first mile, and that is not a matter of choice.
The Religion of the Second Mile.—It is the second mile for which Jesus is pleading. There is where his religion lies, the religion of grace that goes beyond compulsion, that does not ask, "What do men deserve?" or, "What does law demand?" but simply, "What can I do for others?" The employee who gives that thought and interest for which wages cannot pay, is traveling the second mile. The mother, who never thinks of wages nor measures her hours, but only loves and gives, is on the second mile. All high patriotism, all unselfish service, all love and friendship, all heroism and sacrifice, belong to this second mile. Here men forget the hard "must" in the joy of "may," here men forget weariness in the passion of love, and find God, whose rule of life is not compulsion, but grace and mercy. Along the first mile men are servants, along the second mile they walk as free sons in fellowship with their Father. Along the first road men ask about duty, along the second they declare, "I rejoice to do thy will, 0 my God; yea, thy law is within my heart." But the best of Jesus' message is this: a man may take the spirit of the second mile back into the first, and make the spirit of grace and good will the heart of all his living. So doing a man turns even the first mile of duty into a way of freedom.
The Life of Jesus Interprets His Words.—The final interpretation of the words of Jesus must always be the spirit and life of Jesus. It is easy to pervert his teaching by clinging to his words. In one instance, at least, he himself did not turn the other cheek when he was smitten unjustly, according to John's report (John 18. 22, 23). He did not always give what men asked. That would often mean to injure men, and the rule of Christ is love. But on the other hand, if we are to know all the beauty and wonder and power of this spirit of unquenchable good will, we must turn to the picture of Jesus. He must stand before us as we read his words, unwearied in well-doing, undeterred by men's selfishness or ingratitude or enmity, his love, his charity, his mercy flowing on like a healing flood that covers all that is unsightly or evil and purifies all that is unclean. What a lesson to our narrowness as we let our thoughts review the company of those whom he served and loved!—a Roman centurion of a hated race, a Canaanitish woman scorned as pagan, a hated publican like Zacchaeus, some little children in the market place, a blind beggar whose voice could scarcely rise above the din of the crowd, a heart-broken mother, a group of repulsive lepers, a disciple who was waiting to betray him, another who denied him, and at last the city that rejected him and the soldiers whose hands drove the nails. Words are like vessels: it is what fills them that counts. Men had said love before, but Jesus has forever given that word its meaning.
Jesus' Confidence In The Power Of Good Will
How Jesus Used It.—But something more lies back of these words, and that is Jesus' confidence in this same good will as the greatest power in the world. It was the power that he himself used. He used it with the poor, the suffering, and the sinful. He won the poor and suffering by his kindly service. He won the sinful not by condemnation, but by his love and mercy. But he used this same weapon against his enemies also. When they had poured upon him the last vials of their wrath, when their hatred had hunted him to the cross, his answer was this same spirit of love and good will.
The Final Hope.—There are times when force is needed. The state must sometimes restrain the man who is dangerous to society, whether criminal or insane. To yield to > every wish of every man would be to injure often instead of helping; it would not mean good will. And we ourselves may sometimes have to use physical force. But the real work of the world is not done by force. The real power in the world that builds and saves and lifts mankind is this power of loving good will. That is the power that must be shown at all costs. Sometimes it will show itself in suffering with the turned cheek and the coat that is taken. Sometimes it will show itself in giving to him that asks. But this is the spirit that must come forth, for it alone can save. It is not only our true life, God's life in us, but it is also the world's only hope.
The Verdict of History.—And history has shown its power. When Jesus went to the cross, loving and suffering instead of smiting his foes, it looked as though all hope for his kingdom was gone. But the cross, the symbol of his unconquerable good will to men, was not the end, but the beginning. From it have flowed in deepening, broadening streams those mighty currents of love and good will that are renewing the earth to-day. Proud Jerusalem went to its ruin, the armies of mighty Home are long since gone, but the King of Love sits on his throne to-day more securely than ever. Slowly, but surely, his spirit of love and good will is superseding the reign of greed and self-assertion and brute force. And the great world war is only one more witness to the failure of that appeal to selfishness and force which curses those who invoke it even more than those upon whom its blows fall.
Directions For Study
Read the Scripture passages: Matthew 6. 12-15; 5. 23, 24; 5. 38-48; 18. 21-35.
Consider first what Jesus brought that was new on this theme. How did he join this to his idea of God? How did he illustrate it in his life?
Read the story of the unmerciful servant and ask: Why is the unforgiving spirit considered so great a fault by Jesus? Why cannot God forgive those who are unforgiving?
Consider Jesus' picture of the spirit of good will as given in Matthew 5. 38-48. Show how he illustrated it and trusted in its power. Where are we limiting this spirit to-day? Where is this spirit showing its power as between men and men, and between nations?