Pentecost - 22nd Sunday After
When our Blessed Lord was still a little child, while yet the tender grace of infancy was around him, His Mother, in accordance with the precept of Jewish Law, brought him to the Temple, to present to the Eternal Father such an offering as Temple had never seen since the world began. And there was at the time serving in the Temple an old man whom God had kept specially to be a witness of that offering and that day a man on whom years had laid their mark and written their history, who had lived his life till the world had grown to be but a place of exile to one all whose friends had long been gathered to their fathers, and in whose aged heart burned but the fire of one solitary hope, for God had promised that his eyes should never close in death till they had looked upon the Word made Flesh. God kept him there, to bind together the past and the present and to speak with the authority of a Patriarch, the words that were fitting to be spoken in such a place, and at such a time; and Simeon took the child between his trembling hands, and a great throb of joy went through his heart, and the memories of the years gone by, and the lonely meditations in the Temple of God, and the lifelong thoughts that had made their home within his soul, all gathered themselves together, and reached to his aged lips, in words that are nothing less than awful words, “This child, said he, “is placed for the ruin and the resurrection of many in Israel, and as a sign to be contradicted.”
There, even in the infancy of Jesus, is proclaimed the position He was to take in the world. There was to be no half measures there. He was to be, He wished to be set for the resurrection, but then, if not for the resurrection, surely for the ruin of those who would not hear Him, and follow Him; and so it began to be, before ever he spoke a human word, the cries of desolate mothers whom Herod’s sword had made childless, rose around His cradle, and there came the flight into Egypt; and the Child, and His Mother, and His foster father were homeless exiles under alien skies, for already He was a sign to be contradicted; and so it continued to be.
When Jesus had grown to be a man; when His face began to be known through Judea; when He began to be a familiar presence in Jerusalem; this was found to be the case, that men were divided about Him. He was a sign that all should look at. They might reject Him, they might cling to Him, but they could not pass Him by in silence, and, indeed, from that day to this the world has never been indifferent to Jesus Christ. It may have persecuted Him, so far as it could find Him in His followers, but it has always regarded Him as a sign, even if they deemed that He was a sign to be contradicted; and so we find that, in the days of his public preaching, He gathered a band of faithful hearts around Him, and His words fell here and there, and made Him friends; and sinners felt drawn to Him, and, as Magdalen felt, felt their very hearts melting beneath His glance; and many talked about Him, and were eager to see Him, and many loved Him. He was a “sign” and a wonder in Jerusalem. But a sign also to be contradicted; for, blasphemous as it may sound to us, there were some, and these not a few, and not the least powerful, who hated Him. For remember this – it is as true for to-day as it was true for the time of Christ, as it is true for all the spaces of time that are peopled by human hearts – is is one of the worst results of sin, and evil living, and the sinfulness in our own lives, that they gradually but surely draw us to hate purity and goodness in the lives and persons of others; and when men have advanced some way in that devilish training, then they have become the pliant instruments of evil that the devil loves to use.
And so, the Pharisees and the Scribes hate our Lord, and one short graphic instance of their hatred stands recorded in the gospel.
Jesus Christ was God, we know. He was God the, was God always; and they set to play upon Hm, to find a weak spot in His character, a weak place in His doctrine, as if He were a mere man.
To the Christian world of to-day, that has had stamped into it by the stroke of every century that has gone since Christ, the truth that Christ, Who walked about Jerusalem with a body such as ours, and with a human presence not unlike our own, was nevertheless no mere man, but a Man in Whom the burning divinity of God dwelt bodily; that He was the Word by whom in the beginning all things were made; to us who know that Christ the Son of Mary was the Son of the Living God, there is something strange, nay, something awful in the scene that this day’s gospel brings so vividly before us. There, on the one hand, was Jesus, to Whom every thought of every heart lay bare; Whose unclouded vision ranged through the heights of Heaven, and through the depths of earth and hell; and there, on the other hand, were men of good position and high place, Pharisees, whose outward life was respectable, and Scribes who had pondered the law of Moses, and they did not for a moment believe that He was anything but a mere man; they believed Him to be a very troublesome man; a man with what they considered the dangerous gift of moving a people’s hearts; and they knew well, for they had felt it more than once, that He had a keen eye for their hypocrisy, and that at times, mild though he ordinarily was, His words fell hissing upon their hearts like the lashes of a scourge. It is awful to think of it, but by shutting their eyes to the light, by persevering in their wickedness, they had brought themselves to hate Jesus Christ.
For, see, they had examined his life closely, and there was one thing manifest abut it, is unlike their own. In their eyes the one fault of that perfect character was that it had no fault. He was not swayed by the motives that were all but omnipotent over their hearts. The objects and the interests that moved them so strongly had no place in His life. He was like no other man they had ever known; like no man they could conceive, and, I repeat, being evil themselves, they hated Him.
And let me repeat here again, this is no strange or unusual thing. For, let a man, even now, begin to trample upon the law of his own conscience, let him begin to abuse the grace of God, to turn away from prayer, to neglect the sacraments, to live to all intents and purposes as if there were no God, and no hereafter; most undoubtedly the good that he has ceased to practice he will gradually begin to hate, and under a hatred of goodness lies the hatred of God; and when a man comes to that, what we know of him is this, that in the sun of God’s unsleeping justice he is fast growing ripe for hell.
The Pharisees then hated our Lord, and, with the keenness of vision that hatred gives, they watched His every gesture, and caught up His every word, ready to see evil, if evil were in the, and if no evil could be found, ready to wrest them with malicious ingenuity to an appearance of evil. They looked for a flaw in that perfect character, but never a flaw was there, and a sort of sullen despair settled down upon them till some one of a subtler turn than the rest hit upon the thorny question of paying tribute to Caesar.
Caesar was the Roman Emperor of the day, for the scepter had passed from the house of David, and the diadem of Juda’s princes was humbled to the dust. A pagan and a stranger ruled the people who traced their lineage back to the days when Abraham spoke face to face with God. The long glories of Israel had faded away into the past; her glory had departed, and at the time of Christ, Judea had ceased to live its own political life; it was but one of the thousand provinces of the vast Roman Empire. Ah! Yu can easily imagine how bitter it was to a Jew, who loved his country, and knew the place that she had held of old, in days before Rome had risen on her seven hills, how bitter it was to have the stranger ruling within the sacred gates. There were so many things to remind them of their condition. There was the house of Pilate, the Roman Governor; there floated, almost insolently, the imperial eagle of the Roman standard; the roman soldier, with the haughty tread, that had trampled on the liberties of every land, was seen in the streets of the city, that to every Jew was dearer and more sacred than his father’s grave. And, looking at those sights, the Jewish heart was very bitter, and they little loved the stranger whose iron hand had strangled their ancient freedom; and graven deep in every Jewish heart was the hope that some time, and soon, the God of Israel would arise and nerve the arms of Abraham’s children to chase the Roman legions from the holy city.
Now, it was this that constituted the difficulty of the malicious question that the Pharisees asked our Lord – “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar.” They thought He should answer either “yes” or “no.” If he said, no, it is not lawful, then he rendered Himself liable to prosecution by he Roman authorities; if He said, yes, then they could go amongst the people, and whisper about, here is no true son of Abraham, for his heart is with the pagan enemies of his religion and his country. But, our Lord, seeing their thoughts, did not answer simply yes or no, as they expected; but, calling for a coin of the tribute, He asked about the image that was stamped upon it, and about the name that was graven around it; and when they told Him that name and image were Caesar’s, He said, Render, therefore, to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but, oh! Ye hypocrites, render to God what belongs to God. So far as the Jews were concerned the answer was complete. They were using the coin of Caesar’s empire, and that coin represented order and good government, and protection to property and life, and the repression of the lawlessness that would make society impossible. These things they were enjoying, and it was the merest hypocrisy on the part of the Pharisees to pretend a doubt about the lawfulness of paying tribute to the authority that secured these advantages. Render, said He, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But He did not pause here. He saw beneath the question they had asked another and a broader question, a question of higher import and of deeper interest than any that concerned merely the Jewish nation, that ws so soon to fade out of living history, and go dispersed with the brand of Cain upon it brow. For there is another question which every heart must some time ask, “to whom does it owe allegiance, who is its Sovereign Master, to whom is due the tribute of its service, and the far nobler tribute of its affection?” And this question is answered very differently by Him. Some live as if the world owned them body and soul; some as if the devil were their sovereign master. Jesus Christ said this, “to God the things that are God’s.” Now, man belongs to God. Therefore, to God alone, in the first and highest place, man owes his soul’s best service, and his heart’s best love.
This is true; man was created for God; God gave him his body with its marvelous aptness for the world’s work; gave him his mind that receives into itself the images of material things, and changes them from sight and sense to knowledge; and, above all, God gave him his soul; and God took care that man’s destiny should be so stamped upon him that it can never be forgotten. He made him to be for a time a master in this world, and accordingly He gave him a body molded from the slime of the earth, that he might have kinship with the world he was to rule. Look at a man as he does his work in the world, you can see only the body with which he words. But do you imagine that the body makes the man, or is the man? Well, if you imagine so, you need but wait till you see a man lying dead. Corruption has not yet had time to do its work, and the body is there still, not a feature wanting. But the hands are lifeless, and the lips are white, and the tongue has never a word to say, and the fire has died out of the eyes, and dull gray paleness has spread across the face, and if the dearest friend the dead man ever had, were to whisper in his ear, the voice he loved would wake no flutter in his silent heart. It will need the trump of doom to wake that dead unlistening ear. Is this lifeless thing a man? Ah! No, something has gone out of it that made it a man. For God has demanded the coin of the tribute, and the angel of death has taken the soul out of the body, nd has given it to be examined into the hands of Jesus Christ, and He reads there the image and the inscription that is on the soul, the image and the inscription of God Himself. If then this man who is lying dead, has been paying tribute, not to God, but to the world and its works; if he has given the powers and faculties of his soul to the paltry ends for which they were never meant; if he lived for the earth with which he was connected only by the body that perishes, then, while earth grasps his body to her bosom till is molders into dust, the soul, that he refused to give to God, is lost for all eternity.
And there are people who tell me that they are too busy to pray, too anxious about the world to pray well, too much engaged with the affairs of life to have any time to frequent sacraments; they live as if this earthly life was to last for ever, but it will not last for ever, and the day will come when they will find – God grant it may not be too late – that the only stroke that counts in the battle of life is the stroke that was stricken against God’s enemy and their own; the only thing that is of any lasting worth is the thing that they had done for the salvation of their soul.