St. Matt. xxii. 2-7. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, and sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city."
This parable, if we understand it aright, will help to teach us theology- -that is, the knowledge of God, and of the character of God. For it is a parable concerning the kingdom of heaven, and the laws and customs of the kingdom of heaven--that is, the spiritual and eternal laws by which God governs men.
Now, what any kingdom or government is like must needs depend on what the king or governor of it is like; at least if that king is all-powerful, and can do what he likes. His laws will be like his character. If he be good, he will make good laws. If he be bad, he will make bad laws. If he be harsh and cruel--if he be careless and indulgent--so will his laws be. If he be loving and generous, delighting in seeing his subjects happy, then his laws will be so shaped that his subjects will be happy, if they obey those laws. But also--and this is a very serious matter, and one to which foolish people in all ages have tried to shut their eyes, and false preachers in all ages have tried to blind men's eyes-- also, I say, if his laws be good, and bountiful, and sure to make men happy, then the good king will have those laws obeyed. He will not be an indulgent king, for in his case to be indulgent will be cruelty, and nothing less. The good king will not say,--I have given you laws by which you may live happy; but I do not care whether you obey them or not. I have, as it were, set you up, in life, and given you advantages by which you may prosper if you use them; but I do not care whether you use them or not. For to say that would be as much as to say that I do not care if you make yourselves miserable, and make others miserable likewise. The good king will say,--You shall obey my laws, for they are for your good. You shall use my gifts, for they are for your good. And if you do not, I will punish you. You shall respect my authority. And if you do not--if you go too far, if you become wanton and cruel, and destroy your fellow-subjects unjustly off the face of the earth; then I will destroy you off the face of he earth, and burn up your city. I will destroy any government or system of society which you set up in opposition to my good and just laws. And if you merely despise the gifts, and refuse to use them--then I will cast you out of my kingdom, inside which is freedom and happiness, and light and knowledge, into the darkness outside, bound hand and foot, into the ignorance and brutal slavery which you have chosen, where you may reconsider yourself, weeping and gnashing your teeth as you discover what a fool you have been.
Our Lord's parable has fulfilled itself again and again in history, and will fulfil itself as long as foolish and rebellious persons exist on earth. This is one of the laws of the kingdom of heaven. It must be so, for it arises by necessity out of the character of Christ, the king of heaven.--Infinite bounty and generosity; but if that bounty be despised and insulted, or still more, if it be outraged by wanton tyranny or cruelty, then--for the benefit of the rest of mankind--awful severity. So it is, and so it must be; simply because God is good.
At least, this is the kind of king which the parable shows to us. The king in it begins, not by asking his subjects to pay him taxes, or even to do him service, but to come to a great feast--a high court ceremonial- -the marriage of his son. Whatsoever else that may mean, it certainly means this--that the king intended to treat these men, not as his slaves, but as his guests and friends. They will not come. They are too busy; one over his farm, another over his merchandise. They owe, remember, safe possession of their farm, and safe transit for their merchandise, to the king, who governs and guards the land. But they forget that, and refuse his invitation. Some of them, seemingly out of mere insolence, and the spirit of rebellion against authority, just because it is authority, go a step too far. To show that they are their own masters, and intend to do what they like, they take the king's messengers, and treat them spitefully, and kill them.
Then there arises in that king a noble indignation. We do not read that the king sentimentalised over these rebels, and said,--"After all, their evil, like all evil, is only a lower form of good. They had a fine instinct of freedom and independence latent in them, only it was in this case somewhat perverted. They are really only to be pitied for knowing no better; but I trust, by careful education, to bring them to a clearer sense of their own interests. I shall therefore send them to a reformatory, where, in consideration of the depressing circumstances of their imprisonment, they will be better looked after, and have lighter work, than the average of my honest and peaceable subjects." If the king had spoken thus, he would have won high applause in these days; at least till the farms and the merchandise, the property and the profits of the rest of his subjects, were endangered by these favoured objects of his philanthropy; who, having found that rebellion and even murder was pardonable in one case, would naturally try whether it was not pardonable in other cases likewise. But what we read of the king--and we must really remember, in fear and trembling, who spoke this parable, even our Lord Himself,--is this--He sent forth his armies, soldiers, men disciplined to do their duty at all risks, and sworn to carry out the law, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.
Yes, the king was very angry, as he had a right to be. Yes, let us lay that to heart, and tremble, from the very worst of us all to the very best of us all. There is an anger in God. There is indignation in God. Our highest reason ought to tell us that there must be anger in God, as long as sin and wrong exist in any corner of the universe. For all that is good in man is of the likeness of God. And is it not a good feeling, a noble feeling, in man, to be indignant, or to cry for vengeance on the offender, whenever we hear of cruelty, injustice, or violence? Is that not noble? I say it is. I say that the man whose heart does not burn within him at the sight of tyranny and cruelty, of baseness and deceit, who is not ready to say, Take him, and do to him as he has done to others; that man's heart is not right with God, or with man either. His moral sense is stunted. He is on the way to become, first, if he can, a tyrant, and then a slave.
And shall there be no noble indignation in God when He beholds all the wrong which is done on earth? Shall the just and holy God look on carelessly and satisfied at injustice and unholiness which vexes even poor sinful man? God forbid! To think that, would, to my mind, be to fancy God less just, less merciful, than man. And if any one says, Anger is a passion, a suffering from something outside oneself, and God can have no passions; God cannot be moved by the sins and follies of such paltry atoms as we human beings are: the answer is, Man's anger--even just anger--is, too often, a passion; weak-minded persons, ill-educated persons, especially when they get together in mobs, and excite each other, are carried away when they hear even a false report of cruelty or injustice, by their really wholesome indignation, and say and do foolish, and cruel, and unjust things, the victims of their own passion. But even among men, the wiser a man is, the purer, the stronger-minded, so much the more can he control his indignation, and not let it rise into passion, but punish the offender calmly, though sternly, according to law. Even so, our reason bids us believe, does God, who does all things by law. His eternal laws punish of themselves, just as they reward of themselves. The same law of God may be the messenger of His anger to the bad, while it is the messenger of His love to the good. For God has not only no passions, but no parts; and therefore His anger and His love are not different, but the same. And His love is His anger, and His anger is His love.
An awful thought and yet a blessed thought. Think of it, my friends-- think of it day and night. Under God's anger, or under God's love, we must be, whether we will or not. We cannot flee from His presence. We cannot go from His spirit. If we are loving, and so rise up to heaven, God is there--in love. If we are cruel, and wrathful, and so go down to hell, God is there also--in wrath: with the clean He will be clean, with the froward man He will be froward. In God we live and move, and have our being. On us, and on us alone, it depends, what sort of a life we shall live, and whether our being shall be happy or miserable. On us, and on us alone, it depends, whether we shall live under God's anger, or live under God's love. On us, and on us alone, it depends whether the eternal and unchangeable God shall be to us a consuming fire, or light, and life, and bliss for evermore.
We never had more need to think of this than now; for there has spread over the greater part of the civilised world a strong spirit of disbelief in the living God. Men do not believe that God punishes sin and wrong- doing, either in this world or in the world to come. And it is not confined to those who are called infidels, who disbelieve in the incarnation and kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Would to God it were so! Everywhere we find Christians of all creeds and denominations alike, holding the very same ruinous notion, and saying to themselves, God does not govern this present world. God does not punish or reward in this present life. This world is all wrong, and the devil's world, and therefore I cannot prosper in the world unless I am a little wrong likewise, and do a little of the devil's work. So one lies, another cheats, another oppresses, another neglects his plainest social duties, another defiles himself with base political or religious intrigues, another breaks the seventh commandment, or, indeed, any and every one of the commandments which he finds troublesome. And when one asks in astonishment--You call yourselves Christians? You believe in God, and the Bible, and Christianity? Do you not think that God will punish YOU for all this? Do you not hear from the psalmists, and prophets, and apostles, of a God who judges and punishes such generations as this? Of a wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men, who, like you, hold down the truth in unrighteousness, knowing what is right and yet doing what is wrong? Then they answer, at least in their hearts, Oh dear no! God does not govern men now, or judge men now. He only did so, our preachers tell us, under the old Jewish dispensation; and such words as you quote from our Lord, or St Paul, have only to do with the day of judgment, and the next life, and we have made it all right for the next life. I, says one, regularly perform my religious duties; and I, says another, build churches and chapels, and give large sums in charity; and I, says another, am converted, and a member of a church; and I, says another, am elect, and predestined to everlasting life--and so forth, and so forth. Each man turning the grace of God into a cloak for licentiousness, and deluding himself into the notion that he may break the eternal laws of God, and yet go to heaven, as he calls it, when he dies: not knowing, poor foolish man, that as the noble commination service well says, the dreadful judgments of God are not waiting for certain people at the last day, thousands of years hence, but hanging over all our heads already, and always ready to fall on us. Not knowing that it is as true now as it was two thousand years ago, that "God is a righteous judge, strong and patient." "If a man will not turn, He will whet His sword; He hath bent His bow, and made it ready," against those who travail with mischief, who conceive sorrow, and bring forth ungodliness. They dig up pits for their neighbours, and fall themselves into the destruction which they have made for others; not knowing that it is as true now as it was two thousand years ago, that God is for ever saying to the ungodly, "Why dost thou preach my laws, and takest my covenant in thy mouth; whereas thou hatest to be reformed, and hast cast my words behind thee? Thou hast let thy mouth speak wickedness, and with thy tongue thou hast set forth deceit. These things hast thou done, and I held my tongue, and thou thoughtest, wickedly, that I am even such a one as thyself. But I will reprove thee, and set before thee the things which thou hast done. O consider this, ye that forget God: lest I pluck you away, and there be none to deliver you."
Let us lay this to heart, and say, there can be no doubt--I at least have none--that there is growing up among us a serious divorce between faith and practice; a serious disbelief that the kingdom of heaven is about us, and that Christ is ruling us, as He told us plainly enough in His parables, by the laws of the kingdom of heaven; and that He does, and will punish and reward each man according to those laws, and according to nothing else.
We pride ourselves on our superior light, and our improved civilisation, and look down on the old Roman Catholic missionaries, who converted our forefathers from heathendom in the Middle Ages. Now, I am a Protestant, if ever there was one, and I know well that these men had their superstitions and false doctrines. They made mistakes, and often worse than mistakes, for they were but men. But this I tell you, that if they had not had a deep and sound belief that they were in the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven; and that they and all men must obey the laws of the kingdom of heaven; and that the first law of it was, that wrongdoing would be punished, and rightdoing rewarded, in this life, every day, and all day long, as sure as Christ the living Lord reigned in righteousness over all the earth; if they had not believed that, I say, and acted on it, we should probably have been heathen at this day. As it is, unless we Protestants get back the old belief, that God is a living God, and that His judgments are abroad in the earth, and that only in keeping His commandments can we get life, and not perish, we shall be seriously in danger of sinking at last into that hopeless state of popular feeling, into which more than one nation in our own time has fallen,--that, as the prophet of old says, a wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets--that is, the preachers and teachers--prophesy falsely; and the priests--the ministers of religion--bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so--love to have their consciences drugged by the news that they may live bad lives, and yet die good deaths.
"And what will ye do in the end thereof?" asks Jeremiah. What indeed! What the Jews did in the end thereof you may read in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. They did nothing, and could do nothing--with their morality their manhood was gone. Sin had borne its certain fruit of anarchy and decrepitude. The wrath of God revealed itself as usual, by no miracle, but through inscrutable social laws. They had to submit, cowardly and broken-hearted, to an invasion, a siege, and an utter ruin. I do not say, God forbid, that we shall ever sink so low, and have to endure so terrible a chastisement: but this I say, that the only way in which any nation of which I ever read in history, can escape, sooner or later, from such a fate, is to remember every day, and all day long, that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ill-doing of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness, knowing what is true and what is right, yet telling lies, and doing wrong.
Let us lay this to heart, with seriousness and godly fear. For so we shall look up with reverence, and yet with hope, to Christ the ascended king, to whom all power is given in heaven and earth; for ever asking Him for His Holy Spirit, to put into our minds good desires, and to enable us to bring these desires to good effect. And so we shall live for ever under our great taskmaster's eye, and find out that that eye is not merely the eye of a just judge, not merely the eye of a bountiful king, but more the eye of a loving and merciful Saviour, in whose presence is life even here on earth; and at whose right hand, even in this sinful world, are pleasures for evermore.