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Chapter 7

That Superb Teaching of

The Palestinian Jew of Jesus’ day had not only a very limited knowledge of the world and its extent, as we know it now, but an exceedingly limited knowledge of the facts and the laws of the universe — the laws of nature, and the laws pertaining to and governing human life, as we know them now.

The matter of sin, and its consequences and penalties, occupied an important place in the thoughts and minds of the people. God was not only a punisher of sin — the sins of His, the ‘chosen people’ — but was also always on the look-out to punish the sins of the individual. He demanded appeasement of His wrath, so they thought, and in this thought they acted.

Offerings to purchase appeasement, and forgiveness, and cleansing, were made. A system had been manufactured for them, and accepted on the part of many, whereby burnt offerings of slain animals, or parts of them, were burned on the altar of forgiveness, as a propitiation for their sins.

Sin bulked large in the minds of these early people, as it did in that intricately established system which took form from three to four hundred years after Jesus’ time, and which, pushing far into the background his message and teachings to the extent of almost completely ignoring them, concerned itself with intricate discussions of things, speculative things about him.

Both systems now seem non-essential or even puerile, though they have a certain interesting historical value to thinking men and women of today; and to be honest one should add, to devout men and women of today. They believe that the Infinite creative power, or if we prefer the term, God, works always through well-established laws — laws that it is given to men to find, to formulate, and to observe.

They believe that God does not punish, as we ordinarily understand the term. The violation of the law in itself carries its own punishment, and its observance carries its own reward. The violation of law, either intentionally or unwittingly, be it a law of the universe in which we live, or a law of human living or conduct, brings its corresponding punishment.

To observe and to live in harmony with the laws of the universe about us and with the laws of human living and conduct, brings always beneficent results. The observance of law, then, brings good and always good to him who has intelligence enough to understand and to know it, and sense and will enough to obey it.

The violation of law carries always and inevitably its punishment and penalties in the form of suffering and loss. No man has ever been able enough or keen enough, and no man probably ever will be, to escape such penalty and punishment. Better, then, to use one’s wits and one’s will to know and obey the law. The moment the violation ceases, that moment the penalty ceases, and the suffering and the loss which have been its demand begin to decrease and will finally disappear.

God then does not punish except through the laws that are already decreed. God is not a book-keeper, but a life-giver, a creator, an establisher of laws. Wise, then, is he who when he stumbles or falls does not waste time in bemoaning his fate, but picks himself up, and all the better instantly, gives himself time to see and to understand the cause of the stumble or the fall with its resultant pain or suffering or loss, and goes on about his work with the cheery determination — never again.

To waste time and energy in regret, which but weakens an otherwise determined spirit, is infinitely worse than to learn and to take to heart in a determined manner, even a joyous manner, a lesson in experience.

The word translated sin in our Scripture means, literally, a missing of the mark, of the goal — as applied to the runner in a race, the participant in a game. The management doesn’t set penalties for him who fails in the race or the game, doesn’t kill him, doesn’t demand any satisfactions that he or someone else must pay. It is simply that the award is withheld from him. It is given to the one who knows the rules of the game, and who plays the game, better than he.

When the races or the games occur again, he, with the experience he has gained, with better knowledge of the rules, and with a more enlightened and determined practice, has still an equal chance to win. If he have stamina and backbone, and is willing to pay the price in practice, intelligent practice, and if he have a highborn determination and courage, he probably will win. It depends on whether he is able to change ‘can’ to ‘will.’

He may take a leaf from Vergil, who gave to the world enlightening precepts a hundred years or so before Jesus’ time and who said, describing the crew that to his mind would win the race: ‘They can because they think they can.’

The Master was far more interested in instilling faith and hope and courage in the minds and hearts of his hearers through deeper and better understanding of life, than he was in recalling to them their sins, or indeed in saying very much to them about their sins.

His insight, his knowledge of life and of human nature, led him to deal always with the positives rather than the negatives of life. His teachings were always creative, constructive, life-giving; not deadening, paralysing, defeative.

He knew the tragedy that creeps into innumerable lives, into minds weak enough and morally flabby enough to go through life continually bowed down with a sense of sin, rather than strong enough quickly to make restitution if it be a sin against the neighbour, or to stop the violation of law through a common-sense use of mind and will, if it be otherwise.

One of the most significant things in his entire ministry is his incomparable parable of the so-called lost, or prodigal, son. It is perhaps the world’s supreme conception and teaching — or shall we say elucidation? — of what we term sin and the sinner, and how masterfully it is put!

It would seem that no complex system, built upon a deliberate departure from the teaching of the Master, and the formulation of a metaphysical substitution about him, could ever take place. Not condemnation, but consideration and love, is the very essence of the Father’s nature.

‘A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when be had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

‘And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and
be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

‘Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed a fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment; and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’ (Luke xv. II-32.)

It is indeed a wonderful parable, from the standpoint of the son, of the father, and the lesson that the Master would teach. The son found that living the life of the senses, uncontrolled by the mind and the spirit, did not pay. He found that excesses did not pay, and in this he was thoroughly disillusioned. He found that violation of these laws carried its own penalty, and he paid dearly.

Dejection and suffering came, and his better self then had a chance to assert itself. He realised how much better he had been, and how much better off he would be, at his father’s home — his own home, The resolve came and back he went.

The father might have said: ‘Well, my son, . . .you’ve learned your lesson, haven’t you? I’m glad you have. In the future . . .’ He might have thought it, but he knew that the son knew it as well as he, and he probably felt that confidence, an active mental force, would be of greater help to the son than anything he could say. Love is his predominating characteristic. He never forgets his child and has looked often for his return.

The day comes when his love and his faith are rewarded. Instantly he recognises that figure, though far down the road. ‘My boy who was dead is alive again and is coming home!’ Instead of waiting in a dignified way, his overwhelming love impels him down the road, and he runs to welcome him, and in the joy of his love the son senses his father’s pardon.

And this is the truth that the Master would point in this incomparable parable: Forgiveness of sin is of the very nature of a living and loving God. No sacrifice to be made, no burnt offerings, no blood of a slain lamb, no ordeal in connection with an individual or organisation, no tribute money — it is a spiritual matter between a man and his God, To see his folly, to repent, to turn from his errors and transgressisns — genuinely to seek forgiveness, secures forgiveness.

There is another aspect of truth that the Master brings out when a man seeks divine forgiveness: forgiveness will be his, if he in turn has the heart and disposition to forgive; and in this way he drives home the necessity of an essential human quality.

A part of the brief and fundamental prayer that he taught is: ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ And following very close upon this he added: ‘For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses. (Matt. vi. I4-I5.)


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