There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
This story is often used, it seems to me, for a purpose exactly opposite to that for which it is told. It is said that because these Galilaeans, whom Pilate slew, and these eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell, were no worse than the people round them, that therefore similar calamities must not be considered judgments and punishments of God; that it is an offence against Christian charity to say that such sufferers are the objects of God's anger; that it is an offence against good manners to introduce the name of God, or the theory of a Divine Providence, in speaking of historical events. They must be ascribed to certain brute forces of nature; to certain inevitable laws of history; to the passions of men, to chance, to fate, to anything and everything: rather than to the will of God.
No man disagrees more utterly than I do with the latter part of this language. But I cannot be astonished at its popularity. It cannot be denied that the theory of a Divine Providence has been much misstated; that the doctrine of final causes has been much abused; that, in plain English, God's name has been too often taken in vain, about calamities, private and public. Rational men of the world, therefore, may be excused for begging at times not to hear any more of Divine Providence; excused for doubting the existence of final causes; excused for shrinking, whenever they hear a preacher begin to interpret the will of God about this event or that. They dread a repetition of the mistake--to call it by the very gentlest term--which priests, in all ages, have been but too ready to commit. For all priesthoods--whether heathen or Christian, whether calling themselves priests, or merely ministers and preachers--have been in all ages tempted to talk as if Divine Providence was exercised solely on their behalf; in favour of their class, their needs, their health and comfort; as if the thunders of Jove never fell save when the priesthood needed, I had almost said commanded, them. Thus they have too often arrogated to themselves a right to define who was cursed by God, which has too soon, again and again, degenerated into a right to curse men in God's name; while they have too often taught men to believe only in a Providence who interfered now and then on behalf of certain favoured persons, instead of a Providence who rules, always and everywhere, over all mankind. But men have again and again reversed their judgments. They have had to say--The facts are against you. You prophesied destruction to such and such persons; and behold: they have not been destroyed, but live and thrive. You said that such and such persons' calamities were a proof of God's anger for their sins. We find them, on the contrary, to have been innocent and virtuous persons; often martyrs for truth, for humanity, for God. The facts, we say, are against you. If there be a Providence, it is not such as you describe. If there be judgments of God, you have not found out the laws by which He judges: and rather than believe in your theory of Providence, your theory of judgments, we will believe in none.
Thus, in age after age, in land after land, has fanaticism and bigotry brought forth, by a natural revulsion, its usual fruit of unbelief.
But--let men believe or disbelieve as they choose--the warning of the Psalmist still stands true--"Be wise. Take heed, ye unwise among the people. He that nurtureth the heathen; it is He that teacheth man knowledge, shall He not punish?" For as surely as there is a God, so surely does that God judge the earth; and every individual, family, institution, and nation on the face thereof; and judge them all in righteousness by His Son Jesus Christ, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, and given Him all power in heaven and earth; who reigns and will reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet.
This is the good news of Advent. And therefore it is well that in Advent, if we believe that Christ is ruling us, we should look somewhat into the laws of His kingdom, as far as He has revealed them to us; and among others, into the law which--as I think--He laid down in the text.
Now I beg you to remark that the text, taken fully and fairly, means the very opposite to that popular notion of which I spoke in the beginning of my sermon.
Our Lord does not say--Those Galilaeans were not sinners at all. Their sins had nothing to do with their death. Those on whom the tower fell were innocent men. He rather implies the very opposite.
We know nothing of the circumstances of either calamity: but this we know--That our Lord warned the rest of the Jews, that unless they repented--that is, changed their mind, and therefore their conduct, they would all perish in the same way. And we know that that warning was fulfilled, within forty years, so hideously, and so awfully, that the destruction of Jerusalem remains, as one of the most terrible cases of wholesale ruin and horror recorded in history; and--as I believe--a key to many a calamity before and since. Like the taking of Babylon, the fall of Rome, and the French Revolution, it stands out in lurid splendour, as of the nether pit itself, forcing all who believe to say in fear and trembling--Verily there is a God that judgeth the earth--and a warning to every man, class, institution, and nation on earth, to set their houses in order betimes, and bear fruit meet for repentance, lest the day come when they too shall be weighed in the balance of God's eternal justice, and found wanting.
But another lesson we may learn from the text, which I wish to impress earnestly on your minds. These Galilaeans, it seems, were no worse than the other Galilaeans: yet they were singled out as examples: as warnings to the rest.
Believing--as I do--that our Lord was always teaching the universal through the particular, and in each parable, nay in each comment on passing events, laying down world-wide laws of His own kingdom, enduring through all time--I presume that this also is one of the laws of the kingdom of God. And I think that facts--to which after all is the only safe appeal--prove that it is so; that we see the same law at work around us every day. I think that pestilences, conflagrations, accidents of any kind which destroy life wholesale, even earthquakes and storms, are instances of this law; warnings from God; judgments of God, in the very strictest sense; by which He tells men, in a voice awful enough to the few, but merciful and beneficent to the many, to be prudent and wise; to learn henceforth either not to interfere with the physical laws of His universe, or to master and to wield them by reason and by science.
I would gladly say more on this point, did time allow: but I had rather now ask you to consider, whether this same law does not reveal itself throughout history; in many great national changes, or even calamities; and in the fall of many an ancient and time-honoured institution. I believe that the law does reveal itself; and in forms which, rightly studied, may at once teach us Christian charity, and give us faith and comfort, as we see that God, however severe, is still just.
I mean this--The more we read, in history, of the fall of great dynasties, or of the ruin of whole classes, or whole nations, the more we feel--however much we may acquiesce with the judgment as a whole--sympathy with the fallen. It is not the worst, but often the best, specimens of a class or of a system, who are swallowed up by the moral earthquake, which has been accumulating its forces, perhaps for centuries. Innocent and estimable on the whole, as persons, they are involved in the ruin which falls on the system to which they belong. So far from being sinners above all around them, they are often better people than those around them. It is as if they were punished, not for being who they were, but for being what they were.
History is full of such instances; instances of which we say and cannot help saying--What have they done above all others, that on them above all others the thunderbolt should fall?
Was Charles the First, for example, the worst, or the best, of the Stuarts; and Louis the Sixteenth, of the Bourbons? Look, again, at the fate of Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher, and the hapless monks of the Charterhouse. Were they sinners above all who upheld the Romish system in England? Were they not rather among the righteous men who ought to have saved it, if it could have been saved? And yet on them--the purest and the holiest of their party--and not on hypocrites and profligates, fell the thunderbolt.
What is the meaning of these things?--for a meaning there must be; and we, I dare to believe, must be meant to discover it; for we are the children of God, into whose hearts, because we are human beings and not mere animals, He has implanted the inextinguishable longing to ascertain final causes; to seek not merely the means of things, but the reason of things; to ask not merely How? but Why?
May not the reason be--I speak with all timidity and reverence, as one who shrinks from pretending to thrust himself into the counsels of the Almighty--But may not the reason be that God has wished thereby to condemn not the persons, but the systems? That He has punished them, not for their private, but for their public faults? It is not the men who are judged, it is the state of things which they represent; and for that very reason may not God have made an example, a warning, not of the worst, but of the very best, specimens of a doomed class or system, which has been weighed in His balance, and found wanting?
Therefore we need not suppose that these sufferers themselves were the objects of God's wrath. We may believe that of them, too, stands true the great Law, "Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." We may believe that of them, too, stands true St Paul's great parable in 1 Cor. xii., which, though a parable, is the expression of a perpetually active law. They have built, it may be, on the true foundation: but they have built on it wood, hay, stubble, instead of gold and precious stone. And the fire of God, which burns for ever against the falsehoods and follies of the world, has tried their work, and it is burned and lost. But they themselves are saved; yet as through fire.
Looking at history in this light, we may justify God for many a heavy blow, and fearful judgment, which seems to the unbeliever a wanton cruelty of chance or fate; while at the same time we may feel deep sympathy with--often deep admiration for--many a noble spirit, who has been defeated, and justly defeated, by those irreversible laws of God's kingdom, of which it is written--"On whomsoever that stone shall fall, it will grind him to powder." We may look with reverence, as well as pity, on many figures in history, such as Sir Thomas More's; on persons who, placed by no fault of their own in some unnatural and unrighteous position; involved in some decaying and unworkable system; conscious more or less of their false position; conscious, too, of coming danger, have done their best, according to their light, to work like men, before the night came in which no man could work; to do what of their duty seemed still plain and possible; and to set right that which would never come right more: forgetting that, alas, the crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered; till the flood came and swept them away, standing bravely to the last at a post long since untenable, but still--all honour to them--standing at their post.
When we consider such sad figures on the page of history, we may have, I say, all respect for their private virtues. We may accept every excuse for their public mistakes. And yet we may feel a solemn satisfaction at their downfall, when we see it to have been necessary for the progress of mankind, and according to those laws and that will of God and of Christ, by which alone the human race is ruled. We may look back on old orders of things with admiration; even with a touch of pardonable, though sentimental, regret. But we shall not forget that the old order changes, giving place to the new;
And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
And we shall believe, too, if we be wise, that all these things were written for our example, that we may see, and fear, and be turned to the Lord, each asking himself solemnly, What is the system on which I am governing my actions? Is it according to the laws and will of God, as revealed in facts? Let me discover that in time: lest, when it becomes bankrupt in God's books, I be involved--I cannot guess how far--in the common ruin of my compeers.
What is my duty? Let me go and work at it, lest a night come, in which I cannot work. What fruit am I expected to bring forth? Let me train and cultivate my mind, heart, whole humanity to bring it forth, lest the great Husbandman come seeking fruit on me, and find none. And if I see a man who falls in the battle of life, let me not count him a worse sinner than myself; but let me judge myself in fear and trembling; lest God judge me, and I perish in like wise.