Christ has sympathy with human sorrows, but what of the many sorrows
caused by sin, and the suffering which more or less directly comes as a
sin's consequence and penalty? To this question we receive an answer in
the Epiphany of Mercy.
THE GOSPEL — S. Matthew 8:1-13 — The Mercy of Christ
A two-fold picture of sin and misery, and a corresponding two-fold picture of the mercy of Christ.
A. An Epiphany of Mercy to the Leper.
(1) The Leper’s Misery.
All other sufferers might feel their case compassionable; not so the leper, who must dwell alone shut out from human companionship. Leprosy was divinely set apart as typical of sin, and most fitly so set apart, as hereditary, incurable by man, loathsome to the view, and so spreading and growing in its nature as to arrive at length at the dissolution of the whole body.
The poor leper had one certainty and one doubt. Others might say, “If Thou canst do anything” (S. Mark 9:22), he, certain of Christ’s power, doubted only of Christ’s Will, whether Christ would or would not shrink from one so unclean. This is the very question of the Sunday.
(2)The Epiphany of Mercy.
Christ’s heart was moved by compassion: His tongue uttered words of encouragement; His hand did not shrink from healing contact. This is an Epiphany of the mercy that endureth for ever. Christ will never restrain mercy in disgust and displeasure at the corruption of those who acknowledge their vileness, and truly repent them of their faults. “His touch has still its ancient power.”
(3) The Right Use of Mercy.
We misconceive mercy if we imagine that to receive mercy is to be absolved from duty. The leper must still show himself to the priests and offer the customary gift. The object of mercy is not to save us from the trouble of doing right, but from the trouble of doing wrong. Mercy is to be the motive of obedience, for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil the law; not to save us in our sins, but from our sins; not to make sin safe, but to make us safe from sin.
B. An Epiphany of Mercy to the Palsied.
The diseases of the human body have their counterpart in the fallen human spirit. Sin is leprosy in its corruption, and palsy in its paralysing weakness. From this also the mercy of Christ is ready to deliver us. We may learn from the example of the centurion how mercy should be sought, and how it may be obtained.
It is given—
(1) To the Merciful.
These obtain mercy. The merciful master whose “slave was dear unto him” received mercy. The Jews who had received mercy at his hands are ready to plead on his behalf.
(2)To the Humble.
These confess their need. There is a divine inconsistency in this narrative. The centurion’s opinion of himself is, “Lord, I am not worthy”; the opinion of others is, “He is worthy for whom Thou shouldest do this.” Too humble to go, the centurion sends others (S. Luke 7:3). Hardly have the messengers gone when his mind conceives a new anxiety. He has invited Jesus to his house in unpardonable boldness. He will go to meet Him and beg Him to go no further. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
(3) To the Men of Faith.
Jesus is only twice said to have “wondered”: once (S. Mark 6:6) at the unbelief of those who ought to have had abundant faith; here, at the faith of one whose opportunities had been so small. A little grace is better than many privileges. That Christ should wonder at our faith is less likely than at our want of faith. If we have few Epiphanies of mercy, it is because we have few
Epiphanies of faith.
THE EPISTLE — Romans 12:16-21 — Christian Mercy
The Epiphany of mercy to be manifested in the conduct of Christians. S. Paul defines our duty in the various stages of strife.
A. The Beginning of Strife.
But it should have no beginning, for once begin “to recompense evil for evil” and you know not where you will end.
Since strife most usually begins in misunderstanding, we are “not to be wise in our own conceits,” lest the mistake should prove to be ours.
Should we be in the right, we must make it clear that we are in the right “by providing things honest in the sight of all men”; otherwise it will be our fault that we have been misunderstood.
At any rate, we are to do our best to live peaceably with all men, as much as lieth in us. We cannot answer for others, nor prevent a quarrel, but we can make it very difficult.
B. The Midst of Strife.
We are “to give place unto wrath,” which may mean that we are to give our anger time to cool, or that we are rather to yield to the anger of others than be set on revenge. More probably, however, by “the wrath” is meant the wrath of God. The Christian is to stand aside and give God room to act. If He punish, man need not; and if He refuse to punish, man may not.
C. The End of Strife.
We are to labour for this ending, and bide our time. Some day the opposed will have need of us. He will be hungry or thirsty, and we can “heap coals of fire on his head” by treating him better than his expectation. “Coals of fire”in Psalm 18:12 are symbols of Divine vengeance, and a poetic description of lightning. The original meaning seems to have been lost, and the phrase had become proverbial (cf. Proverbs 25:22). At any rate, let the lightnings of our anger be sheet, not forked; the summer lightning of gentleness. To “overcome evil with good” is indeed a victory, for thus we conquer not our enemy, but his enmity. “By revenge,” says Bacon, “we are even with our enemy; by mercy we are superior.” By mercy we may not only win others to ourselves, but, better still, win them to God.
A touching prayer for the Divine mercy.
A. The Poor Estate of Fallen Man.
He is made up of infirmities, dangers, and necessities.
B. The Resources Open to Him by Grace.
There is mercy for his infirmities. There is a Father’s right hand to help in necessities and to defend in dangers. Let us cast ourselves continually on the one, and continually seek the stretching forth of the other. Those defiled by sin, and those weakened in principle, have hope.