THE REWARD OF OBEDIENCE.
'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.' 'Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.'—Matthew, v.7, 10 11, 12.
Mercy cannot get in where mercy goes not out. The outgoing makes way for the incoming. God takes the part of humanity against the man. The man must treat men as he would have God treat him. 'If ye forgive men their trespasses,' the Lord says, 'your heavenly father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses. And in the prophecy of the judgment of the Son of man, he represents himself as saying, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'
But the demand for mercy is far from being for the sake only of the man who needs his neighbour's mercy; it is greatly more for the sake of the man who must show the mercy. It is a small thing to a man whether or not his neighbour be merciful to him; it is life or death to him whether or not he be merciful to his neighbour. The greatest mercy that can be shown to man, is to make him merciful; therefore, if he will not be merciful, the mercy of God must compel him thereto. In the parable of the king taking account of his servants, he delivers the unmerciful debtor to the tormentors, 'till he should pay all that was due unto him.' The king had forgiven his debtor, but as the debtor refuses to pass on the forgiveness to his neighbour—the only way to make a return in kind—the king withdraws his forgiveness. If we forgive not men their trespasses, our trespasses remain. For how can God in any sense forgive, remit, or send away the sin which a man insists on retaining? Unmerciful, we must be given up to the tormentors until we learn to be merciful. God is merciful: we must be merciful. There is no blessedness except in being such as God; it would be altogether unmerciful to leave us unmerciful. The reward of the merciful is, that by their mercy they are rendered capable of receiving the mercy of God—yea, God himself, who is Mercy.
That men may be drawn to taste and see and understand, the Lord associates reward with righteousness. The Lord would have men love righteousness, but how are they to love it without being acquainted with it? How are they to go on loving it without a growing knowledge of it? To draw them toward it that they may begin to know it, and to encourage them when assailed by the disappointments that accompany endeavour, he tells them simply a truth concerning it—that in the doing of it, there is great reward. Let no one start with dismay at the idea of a reward of righteousness, saying virtue is its own reward. Is not virtue then a reward? Is any other imaginable reward worth mentioning beside it? True, the man may, after this mode or that, mistake the reward promised; not the less must he have it, or perish. Who will count himself deceived by overfulfilment? Would a parent be deceiving his child in saying, 'My boy, you will have a great reward if you learn Greek,' foreseeing his son's delight in Homer and Plato—now but a valueless waste in his eyes? When his reward comes, will the youth feel aggrieved that it is Greek, and not bank-notes?
The nature indeed of the Lord's promised rewards is hardly to be mistaken; yet the foolish remarks one sometimes hears, make me wish to point out that neither is the Lord proclaiming an ethical system, nor does he make the blunder of representing as righteousness the doing of a good thing because of some advantage to be thereby gained. When he promises, he only states some fact that will encourage his disciples—that is, all who learn of him—to meet the difficulties in the way of doing right and so learning righteousness, his object being to make men righteous, not to teach them philosophy. I doubt if those who would, on the ground of mentioned reward, set aside the teaching of the Lord, are as anxious to be righteous as they are to prove him unrighteous. If they were, they would, I think, take more care to represent him truly; they would make farther search into the thing, nor be willing that he whom the world confesses its best man, and whom they themselves, perhaps, confess their superior in conduct, should be found less pure in theory than they. Must the Lord hide from his friends that they will have cause to rejoice that they have been obedient? Must he give them no help to counterbalance the load with which they start on their race? Is he to tell them the horrors of the persecutions that await them, and not the sweet sympathies that will help them through? Was it wrong to assure them that where he was going they should go also? The Lord could not demand of them more righteousness than he does: 'Be ye therefore perfect as your father in heaven is perfect;' but not to help them by word of love, deed of power, and promise of good, would have shown him far less of a brother and a saviour. It is the part of the enemy of righteousness to increase the difficulties in the way of becoming righteous, and to diminish those in the way of seeming righteous. Jesus desires no righteousness for the pride of being righteous, any more than for advantage to be gained by it; therefore, while requiring such purity as the man, beforehand, is unable to imagine, he gives him all the encouragement he can. He will not enhance his victory by difficulties—of them there are enough—but by completeness. He will not demand the loftiest motives in the yet far from loftiest soul: to those the soul must grow. He will hearten the child with promises, and fulfil them to the contentment of the man.
Men cannot be righteous without love; to love a righteous man is the best, the only way to learn righteousness: the Lord gives us himself to love, and promises his closest friendship to them that overcome.
God's rewards are always in kind. 'I am your father; be my children, and I will be your father.' Every obedience is the opening of another door into the boundless universe of life. So long as the constitution of that universe remains, so long as the world continues to be made by God, righteousness can never fail of perfect reward. Before it could be otherwise, the government must have passed into other hands.
The idea of merit is nowise essential to that of reward. Jesus tells us that the lord who finds his servant faithful, will make him sit down to meat, and come forth and serve him; he says likewise, 'When ye have done all, say we are unprofitable servants; we have done only that which it was our duty to do.' Reward is the rebound of Virtue's well-served ball from the hand of Love; a sense of merit is the most sneaking shape that self-satisfaction can assume. God's reward lies closed in all well-doing: the doer of right grows better and humbler, and comes nearer to God's heart as nearer to his likeness; grows more capable of God's own blessedness, and of inheriting the kingdoms of heaven and earth. To be made greater than one's fellows is the offered reward of hell, and involves no greatness; to be made greater than one's self, is the divine reward, and involves a real greatness. A man might be set above all his fellows, to be but so much less than he was before; a man cannot be raised a hair's-breadth above himself, without rising nearer to God. The reward itself, then, is righteousness; and the man who was righteous for the sake of such reward, knowing what it was, would be righteous for the sake of righteousness,—which yet, however, would not be perfection. But I must distinguish and divide no farther now.
The reward of mercy is not often of this world; the merciful do not often receive mercy in return from their fellows; perhaps they do not often receive much gratitude. None the less, being the children of their father in heaven, will they go on to show mercy, even to their enemies. They must give like God, and like God be blessed in giving.
There is a mercy that lies in the endeavour to share with others the best things God has given: they who do so will be persecuted, and reviled, and slandered, as well as thanked and loved and befriended. The Lord not only promises the greatest possible reward; he tells his disciples the worst they have to expect. He not only shows them the fair countries to which they are bound; he tells them the truth of the rough weather and the hardships of the way. He will not have them choose in ignorance. At the same time he strengthens them to meet coming difficulty, by instructing them in its real nature. All this is part of his preparation of them for his work, for taking his yoke upon them, and becoming fellow-labourers with him in his father's vineyard. They must not imagine, because they are the servants of his father, that therefore they shall find their work easy; they shall only find the reward great. Neither will he have them fancy, when evil comes upon them, that something unforeseen, unprovided for, has befallen them. It is just then, on the contrary, that their reward comes nigh: when men revile them and persecute them, then they may know that they are blessed. Their suffering is ground for rejoicing, for exceeding gladness. The ignominy cast upon them leaves the name of the Lord's Father written upon their foreheads, the mark of the true among the false, of the children among the slaves. With all who suffer for the world, persecution is the seal of their patent, a sign that they were sent: they fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ for his body's sake.
Let us look at the similar words the Lord spoke in a later address to his disciples, in the presence of thousands, on the plain,—supplemented with lamentation over such as have what they desire: St Luke 6:20—26.
'Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man's sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven; for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
'But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full, for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now, for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you; for so did their fathers to the false prophets.'
On this occasion he uses the word hunger without limitation. Every true want, every genuine need, every God-created hunger, is a thing provided for in the idea of the universe; but no attempt to fill a void otherwise than the Heart of the Universe intended and intends, is or can be anything but a woe. God forgets none of his children—the naughty ones any more than the good. Love and reward is for the good: love and correction for the bad. The bad ones will trouble the good, but shall do them no hurt. The evil a man does to his neighbour, shall do his neighbour no harm, shall work indeed for his good; but he himself will have to mourn for his doing. A sore injury to himself, it is to his neighbour a cause of jubilation—not for the evil the man does to himself—over that there is sorrow in heaven—but for the good it occasions his neighbour. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, may lament their lot as if God had forgotten them; but God is all the time caring for them. Blessed in his sight now, they shall soon know themselves blessed. 'Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh.'—Welcome words from the glad heart of the Saviour! Do they not make our hearts burn within us?—They shall be comforted even to laughter! The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the persecuted, are the powerful, the opulent, the merry, the loved, the victorious of God's kingdom,—to be filled with good things, to laugh for very delight, to be honoured and sought and cherished!
But such as have their poor consolation in this life—alas for them!—for those who have yet to learn what hunger is! for those whose laughter is as the crackling of thorns! for those who have loved and gathered the praises of men! for the rich, the jocund, the full-fed! Silent-footed evil is on its way to seize them. Dives must go without; Lazarus must have. God's education makes use of terrible extremes. There are last that shall be first, and first that shall be last.
The Lord knew what trials, what tortures even awaited his disciples after his death; he knew they would need every encouragement he could give them to keep their hearts strong, lest in some moment of dismay they should deny him. If they had denied him, where would our gospel be? If there are none able and ready to be crucified for him now, alas for the age to come! What a poor travesty of the good news of God will arrive at their doors!
Those whom our Lord felicitates are all the children of one family; and everything that can be called blessed or blessing comes of the same righteousness. If a disciple be blessed because of any one thing, every other blessing is either his, or on the way to become his; for he is on the way to receive the very righteousness of God. Each good thing opens the door to the one next it, so to all the rest. But as if these his assurances and promises and comfortings were not large enough; as if the mention of any condition whatever might discourage some humble man of heart with a sense of unfitness, with the fear, perhaps conviction that the promise was not for him; as if some one might say, 'Alas, I am proud, and neither poor in spirit nor meek; I am at times not at all hungry after righteousness; I am not half merciful, and am very ready to feel hurt and indignant: I am shut out from every blessing!' the Lord, knowing the multitudes that can urge nothing in their own favour, and sorely feel they are not blessed, looks abroad over the wide world of his brothers and sisters, and calls aloud, including in the boundless invitation every living soul with but the one qualification of unrest or discomfort, 'Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'