St. Matthew v. 25, 26. "Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
This parable our Lord seems to have spoken at least twice, as He did several others. For we find it also in the 12th chapter of St. Luke. But it is there part of quite a different discourse. I think that by seeing what it means there, we shall see more clearly what it means here.
Our Lord there is speaking of the sins of the whole Jewish nation. Here He is speaking rather of each man's private sins. But He applies the same parable to both. He gives the same warning to both. Not to go too far on the wrong road, lest they come to a point where they cannot turn back, but must go on to just punishment, if not to utter destruction.
That is what He warned the Jews all through the latter part of the 12th chapter of Luke. He will come again, He says, at an hour they do not think of, and then if their elders, the Scribes and Pharisees, are going on as they are now, beating the man-servants and maid-servants, and eating and drinking with the drunken, oppressing the people, and living in luxury and profligacy, He will cut them asunder, and appoint them their portion with the unbelievers.
In this, and in many other parables, He had been warning them that their ruin was near; and, at last, turning to the whole crowd, He appeals to them, to their common sense. "When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass. Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?" If God can give you common sense about one thing, why not about another? Why can you not open your eyes and of yourselves judge what is right? "Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
So He spoke; and they did not fully understand what He meant. They thought that by their adversary He meant the Roman governor. For they immediately began to talk to Him about some Galileans whose blood Pilate, the Roman governor, had mingled with their sacrifices (I suppose in some of those wars which were continually breaking out in Judea). I think He meant more than that. "Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans? Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." As much as to say, though ye did not rebel against the Romans like these Galilaeans, you have your sins, which will ruin YOU. As long as you are hypocrites, with your mouths full of the cant of religion, and your hearts full of all mean and spiteful passions; as long as you cannot of yourselves discern what is right, and have lost conscience, and the everlasting distinction between right and wrong, so long are you walking blindfold to ruin. There is an adversary against you, who will surely deliver you to the judge some day, and then it will be too late to cry for mercy. And who was that adversary? Who but the everlasting law of God, which says, Thou shalt do justly?--and you Jews are utterly unjust, false, covetous, and unrighteous. Thou shalt love all men; and you are cruel and spiteful, hating each other, and making all mankind hate you. Thou shalt walk humbly with thy God; and you Jews are walking proudly with God; fancying that God belongs only to you; that because you are His chosen people, He will let you commit every sin you choose, as long as you keep His name on your lips, and keep up an empty worship of Him in the temple. That is your adversary, the everlasting moral law of God. And who is the Judge but God Himself, who is set on His throne judging right, while you are doing wrong? And who is the officer, to whom that judge will deliver you? There indeed the Jews were right. It was the Romans whom God appointed to punish them for their sins. All which our Lord had foretold, as all the world knows, came true forty years after in that horrible siege of Jerusalem, which the Jews brought on themselves entirely by their own folly, and pride, and wicked lawlessness. In that siege, by famine and pestilence, by the Romans' swords, by crucifixion, and by each other's hands (for the different factions were murdering each other wholesale up to the very day Jerusalem was taken), thousands of Jews perished horribly, and the rest were sold as slaves over the face of the whole earth, and led away into a captivity from which they could not escape till they had paid the uttermost farthing.
Now let us look at this same parable in the 5th chapter of St Matthew. Remember first that it is part of the sermon on the Mount, which is all about not doctrine, but morality, the law of right and wrong, the law of justice and mercy. You will see then that our Lord is preaching against the same sins as in the 12th chapter of St. Luke. Against a hypocritical religion, joined with a cruel and unjust heart. Those of old time, the Scribes and Pharisees, said merely, Thou shalt not kill. And as long as thou dost not kill thy brother, thou mayest hate him in thy heart and speak evil of him with thy lips. But our Lord says, Not so. Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of the judgment. Whosoever shall say to him Raca, or worthless fellow, shall speak insolently, brutally, cruelly, scornfully to him, is in danger of the council. But whosoever shall say unto him, Thou fool, is in danger of hell fire. For using that word to the Jews, so says the Talmudic tradition, Moses and Aaron were shut out of the land of promise, for it means an infidel, an atheist, a godless man, or rebel against God, as it is written, "The fool hath said in his heart there is no God." Whosoever shall curse his brother, who is trying to be a good Christian man to the best of his light and power, because he does not happen to agree with him in all things, and call him a heretic, and an infidel, and an atheist, and an enemy of God--he is in danger of hell fire. Let him agree with his adversary quickly, whiles he is in the way with him, lest he be delivered to God the judge, and to the just punishment of him who has not done justly, not loved mercy, not walked humbly with his God.
But who is the adversary of that man, and who is the judge, and who is the officer? Our adversary in every case, whenever we do wrong, knowingly or unknowingly, is the Law of God, the everlasting laws, by which God has ordered every thing in heaven and earth; and as often as we break one of these laws, let us agree with it again as quickly as we can, lest it hale us before God, the judge of all, and He deliver us over to His officer--to those powers of nature and powers of spirit, which He has appointed as ministers of His vengeance, and they cast us into some prison of necessary and unavoidable misery, from which we shall never escape till we have paid the uttermost farthing.
Do you not understand me? Then I will give you an example. Suppose the case of a man hurting his health by self-indulgence of any kind. Then his adversaries are the laws of health. Let him agree with them quickly, while he has the power of conquering his bad habits, by recovering his health, lest the time come when his own sins deliver him up to God his judge; and God to His terrible officers of punishment, the laws of Disease; and they cast him into a prison of shame and misery from which there is no escape--shame and misery, most common perhaps among the lower classes: but not altogether confined to them--the weakened body, the bleared eye, the stupified brain, the premature death, the children unhealthy from their parents' sins, despising their parents, and perhaps copying their vices at the same time. Many a man have I seen in that prison, fast bound with misery though not with iron, and how he was to pay his debt and escape out of it I know not, though I hope that God does know.
Are any of you, again, in the habit of cheating your neighbours, or dealing unfairly by them? Your adversary is the everlasting law of justice, which says, Do as you would be done by, for with what measure you mete to others, it shall be measured to you again.
This may show you how a bodily sin, like self-indulgence punishes itself by bringing a man into bondage of bodily misery, from which he cannot escape; and in the same way a spiritual sin, like want of charity, will bring a man into spiritual bondage from which he cannot escape. And this, as in bodily sins, it will do by virtue of that mysterious and terrible officer of God, which we call Habit. Habit, by which, we cannot tell how, our having done a thing once becomes a reason for our doing it again, and again after that, till, if the habit be once formed, we cannot help doing that thing, and become enslaved to it, and fast bound by it, in a prison from which there is no escape. Look for instance at the case of the untruthful man. Let him beware in time. Who is his adversary? Facts are his adversary. He says one thing, and Fact says another, and a very stubborn and terrible adversary Fact is. The day will come, most probably in this life, when Facts will bring that untruthful man before God and before men likewise--and cry,--Judge between us which of us is right; and there will come to that false man exposure and shame, and a worse punishment still, perhaps, if he have let the habit grow too strong on him, and have not agreed with his adversary in time.
For have you not seen (alas, you have too surely seen) men who had contracted such a habit of falsehood that they could not shake it off-- who had played with their sense of truth so long that they had almost forgotten what truth meant; men who could not speak without mystery, concealment, prevarication, half-statements; who were afraid of the plain truth, not because there was any present prospect of its hurting them, but simply because it was the plain truth--children of darkness, who, from long habit, hated the light--and who, though they had been found out and exposed, could not amend--could not become simple, honest, and truthful--could not escape from the prison of their own bad habits, and the net of lies which they had spread round their own path, till they had paid the uttermost penalty for their deceit?
Look, again, at the case of the uncharitable man, in the habit of forming harsh and cruel judgments of his neighbours. Then his adversary is the everlasting law of Love, which will surely at last punish him, by the most terrible of all punishments--loss of love to man, and therefore to God. Are we not (I am, I know, may God forgive me for it) apt to be angry with our brethren without a cause, out of mere peevishness? Let us beware in time. Are we not apt to say to them "Raca"--to speak cruelly, contemptuously, fiercely of them, if they thwart us? Let us beware in time still more. Are we not worst of all, tempted (as I too often am) to say to them "Thou fool;" to call better men, more useful men more pure men, more pious men than ourselves, hard and cruel names, names from which they would shrink with horror because they cannot see Christian truth in just exactly the same light that we do? Oh! let us beware then. Beware lest the everlasting laws of justice and fairness between man and man, of love and charity between man and man, which we have broken, should some day deliver us up, as they delivered those bigoted Jews of old to God our Judge, and He deliver our souls to His most terrible officers, who are called envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness; and they thrust us into that blackest of all prisons, on the gate of which is written, Hardness of heart, and Contempt of God's Word and commandments, and within which is the outer darkness into which if a man falls, he cannot see the difference between right and wrong: but calls evil good, and good evil, like his companions in the outer darkness-- namely, the devil and his angels. Oh! let us who are coming to lay our gift upon God's altar at this approaching Christmas tide, consider whether our brother hath aught against us in any of these matters, and, if so, let us leave our gift upon the altar, and be first reconciled to our brother, in heart at least, and with inward shame, and confession, and contrition, and resolution to amend. But we can only do that by recollecting what gift we are to leave on Christ's altar,--that it is the gift of SELF, the sacrifice of ourselves, with all our selfishness, pride, conceit, spite, cruelty. Ourselves, with all our sins, we are to lay upon Christ's altar, that our sins may be nailed to His cross, and washed clean in His blood, everlastingly consumed in the fire of His Spirit, the pure spirit of love, which is the Charity of God, that so, self being purged out of us, we may become holy and lively sacrifices to God, parts and parcels of that perfect sacrifice which Christ offered up for the sins of the whole world--even the sacrifice of Himself.