Pentecost - 17th Sunday After
Matthew 22: 37, 38
In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis e read the wonderful story of the creation of the world. And in that history the first thing we remark is that of all the creatures of God, man was the latest born. Of all the works of God, of all the wonders which His wisdom had divined amid the hitherto unrealized possibilities of creation, and which His power had sought and rescued from the empire of nothingness, man was the last, the crowning miracle of His creative skill. As God created each inanimate object, and as He passed upwards to the higher order of living things that were to people the lonely spaces of the newly-made world, as He created each we read that He paused, and, contemplating each, and seeing on it the shadow, however faint, of His own divine beauty, and seeing, too, the perfect correspondence of the powers which it possessed with purposes for which they had been given, His eye discerned, and His wisdom ratified the solemn eulogy that it was, “good.”
And on the sixth of those wonderful days God’s work was nearly at an end. The material world lay spread before Him in the freshness of its young beauty. The new sun shone in the new heavens, the flowers bloomed, the trees spread out a foliage that had never known decay, the streamlets murmured, the rivers ran majestic to the sea, and the sea began to make its melancholy music on the shore, and irrational animals rejoiced in the new life that had been given them; and it was no wonder that God, looking at it all, should have seen that it was good.
But with all their beauty, God saw, also, that something, and that a something higher and more perfect than them all, was wanting to their completeness. They wanted a master. True, God was Himself their Master, Sovereign and Supreme, but these inanimate objects and these irrational creatures were too far removed from Him in nature. He needed yet to make some being who would stand, as it were, between matter and spirit, not exclusively either, and yet partaking of both, a being who would wisely the thought of a spirit with an arm of flesh, and so might fitly act as God’s vicegerent in the universe.
And, taking counsel with Himself, God said: “let Us make man.” And so He made him of the slime of the earth, that he might have kinship with the earth he was to inhabit. But as God had said not only “let Us make man,” but added, also “to Our image and likeness,” He breathed into the clay that He had molded, an immortal spirit, stamped with the living image of His very self.
When, therefore, man stood erect, and sent forth the thought of his brain and the rapture of his heart to greet the new, fair world that lay around him, the first act of God was to give him dominion over everything that had been created. But as God does nothing without a reason, it occurs to us to ask, what was there in man that gave him an inherent fitness to be the ruler of God’s earthly universe? The body stood erect, with noble bearing, the brow was lifted up towards heaven – yet the body was only dust like the earth on which it stood, and on the score of it man could claim no supremacy over the things which his eye saw and his hand touched. What, then, made him fit for the position of master, under God, of all creation? Clearly it was the soul which God had breathed into him. It was in virtue of this soul, and of the faculties that made it like to God, that man obtained dominion over the universe. If, then, we would mount to the sources of man’s power, and, as power is the measure of destiny, if we would surprise the secret of man’s destiny, we must ascertain what are the faculties of man’s soul that make it like to God? I answer, these two – understanding and will. Of all the beings that God had placed on earth, man alone had these two powers – the power of knowing what is true, and the power of loving what is good. And if these powers were the sources of man’s perfection, so in them also is the secret of his destiny. If man were perfect because he could know and could love, so he was destined to fill his intellect with Infinite Truth, and to satisfy his will in Infinite Love. He was destined to find his last end and his final happiness in nothing lower or less perfect than God Himself.
Such has been man’s origin; and his history has been in strict accordance with this origin. What-ever prosperity or success, even in the temporal order, men or races have attained, they have attained by the exercise of these two powers – the power of knowing what was true, and the power of loving what was good. And whatever disaster has fallen on individuals or on nations has come from the abuse or the perversion of these same powers. And hence it is, in this ever-changing world, where fashions vary, and opinions have no more stability than the shifting sands of the moments in which they are formed, there are yet just two things that men can never either despise or dispense with, and these two things re, knowledge and love.
For, what reasons have I dwelt upon these things? The reason is, that I wished to put before you the sources of the dignity of that Manhood which each of you possess; and to remind you of the responsibilities which that dignity involves. I wish to set before you a right which God has given you, and of which, consequently, no man, however powerful, either can or dare deprive you; a right which poverty does not forfeit, which wealth does no increase, you have the invaluable right to know and to love. A tyrant may persecute you, because you know and profess truth, and because you love the justice of God better than His bribe. But while the instruments of torture rack your quivering flesh, the thought of your mind retreats into the soul, and blossoms into knowledge, the affection of your will nestles close to the tortured heart, and expands into love. And when tyranny has done its worst, its worst is death, and then your soul with its powers shall have escaped to God, where knowledge and love will be your everlasting happiness.
Yes, I say to the meanest and most abject amongst you, in all that constitutes the real dignity of manhood you are the equals of the highest, for by the very fact of your creation, God has given you two gifts, greater than which in kind He has not given to the angels in heaven, the gift to know that which is true, and to love that which is good.
And as these two gifts are the most priceless jewels of man’s inheritance, as they are the warrant of his mastery over the world around, as they are the stars that guide him to the heaven of his final destiny, so it is no wonder that the abuse of either should be, as it is, man’s greatest disgrace, his most irreparable misfortune. Opposed to knowledge is ignorance, opposed to live is selfishness, and these two, ignorance and selfishness, are the root of every crime by which man has disgraced the dignity of his manhood. It is so in the case of individuals. When you know of a man that he is ignorant, and that his is selfish, if you have any experience, you will say that his crimes will be in exact proportion to his opportunities of committing them, and if the opportunity comes, no baseness, and no atrocity will surprise you in the man who is at once ignorant and selfish.
It is so in history. The evil that is recorded in human history – what is it briefly but this, that there have been tyrants, and there have been slaves – tyrants with the wickedness of tyranny, slaves with the vices of slaves? Well, what but ignorance has made and kept men slaves, what but selfishness has given them tyrants? Nations have always and only prospered under the rule of knowledge, wielded by benevolence. The more a man cultivates these powers, the higher the object of his knowledge, the more perfect the object of his love, the more worthily does he acquit himself of the responsibilities which his gifts impose upon him, and the more surely does he approach the fulfilment of the destiny of which these powers are the proof and the measure.
You know it yourselves. When you say of a man, he is a man of great intellect, you feel that you have said in his praise almost the highest thing you could say. Almost the highest; for it is a still higher degree of praise when you pronounce that he is a man of noble heart. But when any one man unites in a singular degree the gifts of intellect and the gifts of heart, then you recognize in that man one of the choicest specimens of the human race. He is not only a man, but he is more a man than his fellows, thinking a nobler thought, living a higher life, opening his intellect to a loftier level of thought and his heart to a higher range of feeling, than the less cultivated men around him. More a man than the, because he carries more deeply traced upon his brow and in his heart the two titles of manhood, Knowledge and Love, that make man lord of the world, and the image of the God Who made him.
Sure you have anticipated what I am about to say next. Your minds have run before my words, and you have already said within yourselves, if these things be true, if the dignity of man come from his power of knowing and of loving, and if these powers are cultivated in proportion to the greatness of the object on which they are employed, then the knowledge of God, Who is Infinite Truth, and the love of God, Who is Infinite Goodness, are the essential elements of man’s perfection, and the indispensable condition of his final happiness.
And so it is. For this, and for this alone has each of you been created. Within the narrow compass of those intellect that work within your brain, and of those hearts that beat within your breasts, God has planted a power of knowing and a power of loving that can find their measure and their end in nothing less than God Himself.
You will say to me that however these things be, yet, as a matter of fact, there has been and there are men who employ their intellects on things that are not God, and expend the wealth of their affection on creatures that are not God. And yet these intellects are still splendid in their perversion, and this affection has something in it that has for men an almost irresistible fascination. And I answer; man, as he came from the hand of God, received not only the power to know and to love, but these powers were crowned with a crown that is at once man’s glory and his peril – the crown of free-will to use them as he lasts. His soul is in his own hand, and it is his trial upon earth that he may waste his intellect on earthly things, and squander the priceless treasure of his love on the perishable beauty of the world. But if he does so, mark the inevitable result. The powers that have been abused become the avengers of their own perversion. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing. The time comes, it is as certain as fate, when worldly knowledge leaves the intellect unsatisfied and earthly affection leaves the heart empty. Ah! You yourselves have seen it. Is there a sadder thing in life than the experience that passes for wisdom, of an old man who has remained worldly to the end, and who strives to sow in the hearts of the children and grand-children who have arisen around him, a disbelief in goodness and a distrust of men? His knowledge, such as it is has acted upon him like some noxious drug paralyzing the springs of generous action and elevating belief. And is human affection, for sake of which God has been forgotten, is it anything better in its issue? The cup has been quaffed of this intoxicating draught of earthly love, but it has left, it always leaves, an aftertaste of bitterness, and too often the bitterness is the bitterness of death.
Spend your life and your soul, and the powers of your soul upon the world and its vanities, upon the flesh and its allurements, upon the service of Satan who uses both to your destruction, and in the end, aye, even before hell comes to punish, the life that you have lived will bring its punishment even here. Even before you die, in that lonely second twilight of your life you will find yourselves sitting desolate amid the ruins of a wasted life, mourning over lost illusions and dead hopes; and the heart, tormented before its time, will be doomed to sit watching by the grave of the dead past, haunted by the ghost of the things that it remembers and the things that it regrets.
You see now, my brethren, why it was that our Lord answered to the the question: “What is the great commandment of the law?” “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whose soul, and with all they mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” It is the greatest, because it includes all others, because it discloses the secret of man’s destiny, and the consummation of his happiness. It is the first, because it is not only an abridgment of the commandments that were written on two tables of stone, and promulgated amid the thunders of Sinai, but it is also the commandment that was written by the finger of God upon the heart of man, and promulgated in the first throb of that heart where God had breathed into the flesh that he had formed an immortal soul stamped with the image of Himself.
The greatest and first. Ah, my brethren, men are seeking other things than this. They are seeking themselves as if they had themselves become as gods. The heart that by the very impulse of its nature, stretches out to the Infinite God, is tied down by the ties of passion to those earthly things that can bring no peace, to the indulgences that degrade, to the vices that destroy. Men come from time to time and say to you, look for this, agitate for that, there can be no prosperity till such a thing is secured to the people. Aye, and they may sometimes ask you to peril your souls in order to secure it. You may listen if you will, and you may obey, you may spend your powers and waste your energies on earthly, even on sinful interests, but is still remains true. I say to you, Christ says it to you, aye, and your own hearts that have been set beating by the God Who made them for Himself, your own hears in their moments of disgust with worldliness and sin; your own hearts will tell you that man’s most ennobling privilege, his most precious right, his dearest interest in this world or in the world that is to come, is the privilege and the right, and the sacred duty of knowing and of loving the God Who made him.
You may be poor, but you have within you the wealth of God, you have an intellect to know, and a heart to love Him. You may be lowly and obscure, yet, to the meanest amongst you has been given a duty to perform, a part to act greater than which has not been given to kings who sit on thrones; nay, greater than which has not been entrusted to the angels in Heaven, the duty of knowing and of loving God.
But you will ask me, how are you to love God? And I shall strive in giving such an answer as time permits, to give also the answer that will have most practical bearing on our own lives.
I shall not say many things that might be said about the love of God, as it has been exemplified in the saints who have attained the height of sanctity, or in the martyrs whose love of God took the sting from the torments of their martyrdom. Though the holiest saints that ever lived, and the most pain-stricken martyrs that ever died, have not lived God as He deserves to be loved, yet if I spoke of these, you might say I was putting before you examples too lofty for your imitation. Accordingly, I shall confine myself to-day to the lowest degree of the love of God, to that degree of love which if we do not contrive to attain, we shall never see the face of God.
The lowest and most indispensable degree of love for God is manifested in freedom from, and avoidance of mortal sin.
Ah! My brethren, talk about evils and misfortunes, there is just one evil in the whole wide world, and that evil is mortal sin, the act of ungrateful rebellion against the supreme and sovereign majesty of God.
Oh! How it destroys the soul, how it disfigures the beauty of God’s image, how it defiles the abode which He had selected to be the living temple of His Holy Spirit. In vain has God ennobled the dust from which He formed you by breathing into it the immortal soul that animates it; once you commit a mortal sin that soul itself is festering with a corruption that makes it viler than the dust. In vain have the waters of Baptism flowed upon you and made your soul beautiful in the eyes of angels, once you commit a mortal sin the very grace of the Baptism that you have trampled on, becomes a reason the more, for your eternal damnation. One thing alone can frustrate in you the loving purposes of God, and that one thing is mortal sin.
My brethren, if there be any one here in the state of mortal sin, he is not fulfilling the end for which God created him, and not fulfilling it – should he die so, as die he may at any moment, God shall cast him aside and His mercy shall forget him, as he lies amid the torments of the damned.
But while the sinner lives, God waits. He sees that the soul which He had created for Himself, has, as it were, destroyed itself and its chances of happiness, that it lies avid the things He has made, cast aside worthless, a failure and a mistake, waiting till it be hidden away from the creation it has disfigured, in the eternal prisons of God where hope has never, and shall never enter, whither release has never and shall never come.
God waits, and the sinner still lives on, adding, it may be, sin to sin, forging still stronger links in the chain that shall bind him in the day of his destruction. He smiles and jests, and the world flatters him, his neighbors admire him, his friends, it may be, love him for his kindly disposition and his generous heart. Ah! None of them see the mortal sin that is poisoning the very spring of life. But God sees it, and He hates it.
And God sees too that if there is to be any salvation for that unhappy soul, it must be, as it were created over again. And oh! The boundless mercy of God. He is ready to do for it even this. But how shall He effect this new creation? Shall He not call the world to look on while He does even a greater wonder than the wonder of the first creation? Is it not, ought it not to be a spectacle for angels and for men to see God take the soul that is dead in mortal sin, and restore it to the life of grace?
One amongst you has committed a mortal si, perhaps, it is a shameful sin, the mere suspicion of which would bring the blush hot upon his face. Ah! If the world only knew it, how the world would point at him the finger of scorn, how his neighbors would cry out for his condemnation, how the very friend of his bosom would fling the first stone. Well, shall God call friends and neighbors to witness the forgiving of that sin? Shall He exact as a condition of forgiveness that the sinner should stand out before the people and tell aloud the crime he has committed? My brethren, if God did exact that condition, who would dare to say that the condition was too hard; who would venture to think that heaven was not cheaply won, and hell cheaply escaped even by such a humiliation as this?
Does God do this? Ah, you know it is not so. How then does God act? You have committed some shameful sin. It is not friend or neighbor you have insulted, it is God. Well, God puts the world aside and will not let it hear your sin; He takes you part, He places you at the feet of His sworn minister in the tribunal of confession, and at the very first whisper of your sorrow He sends you away forgiven.