"Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."--Matthew v. 48.
There are two erroneous views held respecting the character of the Sermon on the Mount. The first may be called an error of worldly-minded men, the other an error of mistaken religionists. Worldly-minded men--men that is, in whom the devotional feeling is but feeble--are accustomed to look upon morality as the whole of religion; and they suppose that the Sermon on the Mount was designed only to explain and enforce correct principles of morality. It tells of human duties and human proprieties, and an attention to these, they maintain, is the only religion which is required by it. Strange my Christian brethren, that men, whose lives are least remarkable for superhuman excellence, should be the very men to refer most frequently to those sublime comments on Christian principle, and should so confidently conclude from thence, that themselves are right and all others are wrong. Yet so it is.
The other is an error of mistaken religionists. They sometimes regard the Sermon on the Mount as if it were a collection of moral precepts, and consequently, strictly speaking, not Christianity at all. To them it seems as if the chief value, the chief intention of the discourse, was to show the breadth and spirituality of the requirements of the law of Moses--its chief religious significance, to show the utter impossibility of fulfilling the law, and thus to lead to the necessary inference that justification must be by faith alone. And so they would not scruple to assert that, in the highest sense of that term, it is not Christianity at all, but only preparatory to it--a kind of spiritual Judaism; and that the higher and more developed principles of Christianity are to be found in the writings of the apostles. Before we proceed further, we would remark here that it seems extremely startling to say that He who came to this world expressly to preach the Gospel, should, in the most elaborate of all His discourses, omit to do so: it is indeed something more than startling, it is absolutely revolting to suppose that the letters of those who spoke 'of' Christ, should contain a more perfectly-developed, a freer and fuller Christianity than is to be found in Christ's own words.
Now you will observe that these two parties, so opposed to each other in their general religious views, are agreed in this--that the Sermon on the Mount is nothing but morality. The man of the world says--"It is morality only, and that is the whole of religion." The mistaken religionist says--"It is morality only, not the entire essence of Christianity." In opposition to both these views, we maintain that the Sermon on the Mount contains the sum and substance of Christianity--the very chief matter of the gospel of our Redeemer.
It is not, you will observe, a pure and spiritualized Judaism; it is contrasted with Judaism again and again by Him who spoke it. Quoting the words of Moses, he affirmed, "So was it spoken by them of old time, but 'I say unto you'--" For example, "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths." That is Judaism. "But I say unto you swear not at all, but let your yea be yea, and your nay nay." That is Christianity. And that which is the essential peculiarity of this Christianity lies in these two things. First of all, that the morality which it teaches is 'disinterested' goodness--goodness not for the sake of the blessing that follows it, but for its own sake, and because it is right. "Love your enemies," is the Gospel precept. Why?--Because if you love them you shall be blessed; and if you do not cursed? No; but "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of"--that is, may be like--"your Father which is in Heaven." The second essential peculiarity of Christianity--and this, too, is an essential peculiarity of this Sermon--is, that it teaches and enforces the law of self-sacrifice. "If thy right eye offend thee pluck it out; if thy right hand offend thee cut it off." This, brethren, is the law of self-sacrifice--the very law and spirit of the blessed cross of Christ.
How deeply and essentially Christian, then, this Sermon on the Mount is, we shall understand if we are enabled in any measure to reach the meaning and spirit of the single passage which I have taken as my text. It tells two things--the Christian aim and the Christian motive.
1st. The Christian aim--perfection. 2nd. The Christian motive--because it is right and Godlike to be perfect.
I. The Christian aim is this--to be perfect. "Be ye therefore perfect." Now distinguish this, I pray you, from mere worldly morality. It is not conformity to a creed that is here required, but aspiration after a 'state'. It is not demanded of us to perform a number of duties, but to yield obedience to a certain spiritual law. But let us endeavour to explain this more fully. What is the meaning of this expression, "Be ye perfect?" Why is it that in this discourse, instead of being commanded to perform religious duties, we are commanded to think of being like God? Will not that inflame our pride, and increase our natural vainglory? Now the nature and possibility of human perfection, what it is and how it is possible, are both contained in one single expression in the text. "Even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." The relationship between father and son implies consanguinity, likeness, similarity of character and nature. God 'made' the insect, the stone, the lily; but God is not the Father of the caterpillar, the lily, or the stone.
When therefore, God is said to be our Father, something more is implied in this than that God created man. And so when the Son of Man came proclaiming the fact that we are the children of God, it was in the truest sense a revelation. He told us that the nature of God resembles the nature of man, that love in God is not a mere figure of speech, but means the same thing as love in us, and that divine anger is the same thing as human anger divested of its emotions and imperfections. When we are commanded to be like God, it implies that God has that nature of which we have already the germs. And this has been taught by the incarnation of the Redeemer. Things absolutely dissimilar in their nature cannot mingle. Water cannot coalesce with fire--water cannot mix with oil. If, then, Humanity and Divinity were united in the person of the Redeemer, it follows that there must be something kindred between the two, or else the incarnation had been impossible. So that the incarnation is the realization of man's perfection.
But let us examine more deeply this assertion, that 'our' nature is kindred with that of God--for if man has not a nature kindred to God's, then a demand such as that, "Be ye the children of"--that is, like--"God," is but a mockery of man. We say then, in the first place, that in the truest sense of the word man can be a creator. The beaver 'makes' its hole, the bee 'makes' its cell; man alone has the power of 'creating'. The mason 'makes', the architect 'creates'. In the same sense that we say God created the universe, we say that man is also a creator. The creation of the universe was the Eternal Thought taking reality. And thought taking expression is also a creation. Whenever therefore, there is a living thought shaping itself in word or in stone, there is there a creation. And therefore it is, that the simplest effort of what we call genius is prized infinitely more than the most elaborate performances which are done by mere workmanship, and for this reason: that the one is produced by an effort of power which we share with the beaver and the bee, that of 'making', and the other by a faculty and power which man alone shares with God.
Here however, you will observe another difficulty. It will be said at once--there is something in this comparison of man with God which looks like blasphemy, because one is finite and the other infinite--man is bounded, God boundless; and to speak of resemblance and kindred between these two, is to speak of resemblance and kindred between two natures essentially different. But this is precisely the argument which is brought by the Socinians against the doctrine of the incarnation; and we are bound to add that the Socinian argument is right, unless there be the similarity of which we have been speaking. Unless there be something in man's nature which truly and properly partakes of the divine nature, there could be no incarnation, and the demand for perfection would be a mockery and an impossibility.
Let us then endeavour to find out the evidences of this infinitude in the nature of man. First of all we find it in this--that the desires of man are for something boundless and unattainable. Thus speaks our Lord--"What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Every schoolboy has heard the story of the youthful prince who enumerated one by one the countries he meant to conquer year after year; and when the enumeration was completed, was asked what he meant to do when all those victories were achieved, and he replied--to sit down, to be happy, to take his rest. But then came the ready rejoinder--Why not do so now? But it is not every schoolboy who has paused to consider the folly of the question. He who asked his son why he did not at once take the rest which it was his ultimate purpose to enjoy, knew not the immensity and nobility of the human soul. He could not 'then' take his rest and be happy. As long as one realm remained unconquered, so long rest was impossible; he would weep for fresh worlds to conquer. And thus, that which was spoken by our Lord of one earthly gratification, is true of all--"Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again." The boundless, endless, infinite void in the soul of man can be satisfied with nothing but God. Satisfaction lies not in 'having', but in 'being'. There is no satisfaction even in 'doing'. Man cannot be satisfied with his own performances. When the righteous young ruler came to Christ, and declared that in reference to the life gone by, he had kept all the commandments and fulfilled all the duties required by the Law, still came the question--"What lack I yet?"
The Scribes and Pharisees were the strictest observers of the ceremonies of the Jewish religion, "touching the righteousness which is by the Law" they were blameless, but yet they wanted something more than that, and they were found on the brink of Jordan imploring the baptism of John, seeking after a new and higher state than they had yet attained to,--a significant proof that man cannot be satisfied with his own works. And again, there is not one of us who has ever been satisfied with his own performances. There is no man whose doings are worth anything, who has not felt that he has not yet done that which he feels himself able to do. While he was doing it, he was kept up by the spirit of hope; but when done the thing seemed to him worthless. And therefore it is that the author cannot read his own book again, nor the sculptor look with pleasure upon his finished work. With respect to one of the greatest of all modern sculptors, we are told that he longed for the termination of his earthly career, for this reason--that he had been satisfied with his own performance: satisfied for the first time in his life. And this expression of his satisfaction was but equivalent to saying that he had reached the goal, beyond which there could be no progress. This impossibility of being satisfied with his own performances is one of the strongest proofs of our immortality--a proof of that perfection towards which we shall for ever tend, but which we can never attain.
A second trace of this infinitude in man's nature we find in the infinite capacities of the soul. This is true intellectually and morally. With reference to our intellectual capacities, it would perhaps be more strictly correct to say that they are indefinite, rather than infinite; that is we can affix to them no limit. For there is no man, however low his intellectual powers may be, who has not at one time or another felt a rush of thought, a glow of inspiration, which seemed to make all things possible, as if it were merely the effect of some imperfect organization which stood in the way of his doing whatever he desired to do. With respect to our moral and spiritual capacities, we remark that they are not only indefinite, but absolutely infinite. Let that man answer who has ever truly and heartily loved another. That man knows what it is to partake of the infinitude of God. Literally, in the emphatic language of the Apostle John, he has felt his immortality--"God in him and he in God." For that moment, infinitude was to him not a name, but a reality. He entered into the infinite of time and space, which is not measured by days, or months, or years, but is alike boundless and eternal.
Again, we perceive a third trace of this infinitude in man, in the power which he possesses of giving up self. In this, perhaps more than in anything else, man may claim kindred with God. Nor is this power confined to the best of mankind, but is possessed, to some extent at least, by all. There is no man, how low soever he may be, who has not one or two causes or secrets, which no earthly consideration would induce him to betray. There is no man who does not feel towards one or two at least, in this world, a devotion which all the bribes of the universe would not be able to shake. We have heard the story of that degraded criminal who, when sentence of death was passed upon him, turned to his accomplice in guilt, in whose favour a verdict of acquittal was brought in, and in glorious self-forgetfulness exclaimed--"Thank God, 'you' are saved!" The savage and barbarous Indian whose life has been one unbroken series of cruelty and crime, will submit to a slow, lingering, torturing death, rather than betray his country. Now, what shall we say to these things? Do they not tell of an indestructible something in the nature of man, of which the origin is divine?--the remains of a majesty which, though it may be sullied, can never be entirely lost?
Before passing on let us observe, that were it not for this conviction of the divine origin, and consequent perfectibility of our nature, the very thought of God would be painful to us. God is so great, so glorious, that the mind is overwhelmed by, and shrinks from, the contemplation of His excellence, unless there comes the tender, ennobling thought that we are the children of God, who are to become like our Father in Heaven, whose blessed career it is to go on in an advance of love and duty towards Him, until we love Him as we are loved, and know Him almost as we are known.
II. We pass on, in the second place, to consider the Christian motive--"Even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." Brethren, worldly prudence, miscalled morality, says--"Be honest; you will find your gain in being so. Do right; you will be the better for it--even in this world you will not lose by it." The mistaken religionist only magnifies this on a large scale. "Your duty," he says, "is to save your soul. Give up this world to have the next. Lose 'here', that you may gain 'hereafter'." Now this is but prudence after all--it is but magnified selfishness, carried on into eternity,--none the more noble for being 'eternal' selfishness. In opposition to all such sentiments as these, thus speaks the Gospel--"Be ye perfect." Why? "Because your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." Do right, because it is Godlike and right so to do. Here however, let us be understood. We do not mean to say that the Gospel ignores altogether the personal results of doing right. This would be unnatural--because God has linked together well-doing and blessedness. But we do say that this blessedness is not the motive which the Gospel gives us. It is true the Gospel says--"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy; blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." But when these are made our motives--when we become meek in order that we may inherit here--then the promised enjoyment will not come. If we are merciful merely that we may ourselves obtain mercy, we shall not have that in-dwelling love of God which is the result and token of His forgiveness. Such was the law and such the example of our Lord and Master.
True it is that in the prosecution of the great work of redemption He had "respect to the recompense of reward." True it is He was conscious--how could He but be conscious--that when His work was completed He should be "glorified with that glory which He had with the Father before the world began;" but we deny that this was the 'motive' which induced Him to undertake that work; and that man has a very mistaken idea of the character of the Redeemer, and understands but little of His spirit, who has so mean an opinion of Him as to suppose that it was any consideration of personal happiness and blessedness which led the Son of God to die. "For this end was He born, and for this end came He into the world to bear witness unto the Truth," and "to finish the work which was given Him to do."
If we were asked, Can you select one text in which more than in any other this unselfish, disinterested feature comes forth, it should be this, "Love ye your enemies, do good and lend, hoping for nothing again." This is the true spirit of Christianity--doing right disinterestedly, not from the hope of any personal advantage or reward, either temporal or spiritual, but entirely forgetting self, "hoping for nothing again." When that glorious philanthropist, whose whole life had been spent in procuring the abolition of the slave-trade, was demanded of by some systematic theologian, whether in his ardour in this great cause he had not been neglecting his personal prospects, and endangering his own soul, this was his magnanimous reply--one of those which show the light of truth breaking through like an inspiration. He said, "I did not think about my own soul, I had no time to think about myself, I had forgotten all about my soul." The Christian is not concerned about his own happiness; he has not time to consider himself; he has not time to put that selfish question which the disciples put to their Lord, when they were but half baptized with His spirit, "Lo, we have left all and followed Thee, what shall we have therefore?"
In conclusion we observe, there are two things which are to be learned from this passage. The first is this, that happiness is not our end and aim. It has been said, and has since been repeated as frequently as if it were an indisputable axiom, that "Happiness is our being's end and aim." Brethren, happiness is 'not' our being's end and aim. The Christian's aim is perfection, not happiness, and every one of the sons of God must have something of that spirit which marked their Master; that holy sadness, that peculiar unrest, that high and lofty melancholy which belongs to a spirit which strives after heights to which it can never attain.
The second thing we have to learn is this, that on this earth there can be no rest for man. By rest we mean the attainment of a state beyond which there can be no change. Politically, morally, spiritually, there can be no rest for man here. In one country alone has that system been fully carried out which, conservative of the past, excludes all desire of progress and improvement for the future: but it is not to China that we should look for the perfection of human society. There is one ecclesiastical system which carries out the same spirit, looking rather to the Church of the past than to the Church of the future; but it is not in the Romish that we shall find the model of a Christian Church. In Paradise it may have been right to be at rest, to desire no change, but ever since the Fall every system that tends to check the onward progress of mankind is fatally, radically, curelessly wrong. The motto on every Christian banner is "Forwards." There is no resting in the present, no satisfaction in the past.
The last thing we learn from this is the impossibility of obtaining that of which some men speak--the satisfaction of a good conscience. Some men write and speak as if the difference between the Christian and the worldly man was this, that in the one conscience is a self-reproaching hell, and in the other a self-congratulating heaven. Oh, brethren, is this the fact? Think you that the Christian goes home at night counting up the noble deeds done during the day, saying to himself, "Well done, good and faithful servant?" Brethren, that habit of looking forwards to the future prevents all pride and self-righteousness, and makes our best and only rest and satisfaction to consist in contemplating the future which is bringing us nearer and nearer home. Our motto, therefore, must be that striking one of the Apostle Paul, "Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."