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ISAIAH xliii. 3.

“A bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench.”

IN this prophecy Isaiah foretells the gentleness of Christ. St. Matthew quotes it when he is recording the longsuffering of our Lord with the Pharisees. He had healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath day: the Pharisees lay in wait to entangle Him by questions; and when He had baffled them, they “went out, and held a council against Him, that they might destroy Him. But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew Himself from thence: and great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all; and charged them that they should not make Him known.” This He enjoined, it seems, lest the Pharisees should be goaded and provoked, by the unwelcome proofs of His divine power, into precipitate acts against 378Him. For their sakes He would have concealed Himself; lest, by contending with Him, they should destroy themselves. His whole ministry was full of the like gentle and tender forbearance, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Behold My Servant, whom I have chosen; My Beloved, in whom My soul is well pleased: I will put My Spirit upon Him, and He shall shew judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear His voice in the streets.” His ministry was not a public disputation, with clamour and popular applause, with factions in the city, and a following of people. It was silent and penetrating, “as the light that goeth forth;”195195   Hosea vi. 5. spreading every where with resistless power, and yet from a source often with drawn from sight. “A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench;”196196   St. Matt. xii. 14-20. which seems to say, so light and soft shall be His touch, that the reed which is nearly asunder shall not be broken down, and the flax which has only not left off to smoke shall not be put out. A most beautiful parable of tenderness, of which Moses, the meekest of men, was a type, when he said in the Spirit: “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the 379grass:”197197   Deuteronomy xxxii. 2. and of which the Psalmist prophesied when he said, “He shall come down like the rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth. In His days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.”198198   Psalm lxxii. 6, 7. The same was foretold by Isaiah: “Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment. And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”199199   Isaiah xxxii. 1, 2. It was in His gentleness, His tender compassion, His longsuffering and patient endurance of sinners, that these prophecies were fulfilled.

Let us first take such examples as are recorded in holy Scripture; and then draw, from this view of our blessed Lord’s character, the instruction which is implied in His perfect gentleness to sinners.

We see it, then, in all His dealing with His disciples. Wheresoever there were the first faint stirrings of faith or love, He cherished and sheltered them with tender care. In His teaching He led them on little by little, line upon line, drawing them first to familiar converse with Himself; not upbraiding their slowness; not severely rebuking their faults. When James and John would have 380brought fire from heaven, He said only, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.”200200   St. Luke ix. 55. To Philip, when he blindly asked to see the Father, “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known Me, Philip?”201201   St. John xiv. 9. And when He detected their ambitious contests which should be the greatest, “being in the house He asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?”202202   St. Mark ix. 33, 34. Even at the last supper He said, “I have many things to say unto you, but ye can not bear them now:” and to St. Thomas, after his vehement unbelief, “Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing.”203203   St. John xx. 27. And to St. Peter, in chastisement for his three open denials, He said thrice, as in a doubting, melancholy tenderness, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?”204204   St. John xxi. 15-17.

And so in like manner to all the people. It was to the whole multitude He said: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”205205   St. Matt. xi. 28-30. He permitted 381so near an access to all men, that it was turned to His reproach. He was “a friend of publicans and sinners.” “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” Again, we read: “One of the Pharisees desired Him that He would eat with him. And He went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping, and began to wash His feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed His feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden Him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he to whom he forgave most. And He said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And He 382turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest Me no water for My feet: but she hath washed My feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest Me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss My feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed My feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And He said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.”206206   St. Luke vii. 36-48. And once more: “The Scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto Him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest Thou? This they said, tempting Him, that they might have to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground, as though He heard them not. So when they continued asking Him, He lifted up Himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard 383it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up Himself, and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”207207   St. John viii. 3-11.

Now it is obvious that the source of this perfect tenderness to sinners is none other than the Divine compassion. It was the love and pity of the Word made flesh. It teaches us, however, some great truths, full of instruction, which we will now consider.

1. First, it is plain that this gentle reception, even of the greatest sinners, implies that where there is so much as a spark of life in the conscience, there is possibility of an entire conversion to God. Where there is room to hope any thing, there is room to hope all things. The greatest of sinners may become, we dare not say how great a saint. Such is the nature of sin, and of the human soul, and of all its energies and actings; such, also, the virtue of the blood of Christ; and such the power of the Holy Ghost, that be the sinner what he may, he may be purged and made 384white with the purification of the saints. I am speaking not of what is easy, or common, but of what is possible, and, by true conversion to God, pledged and sure: neither am I saying that there shall not be some difference between what such converted sinners will be, compared with what they might have been; but this is certain, that “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”208208   Isaiah i. 18. Such is the mysterious nature of the human spirit, of its affections and will, such its energies and intensity, that it may, at any time, be so renewed by the Spirit of the new creation, as to expel, with the most perfect rejection, all the powers, qualities, visions, and thoughts of evil. We know so little of spiritual natures, that we are compelled to use metaphors; and often our illustrations become our snares, and we turn them into arguments, and reason from visible things to the inscrutable conditions of our spiritual being. For instance, we speak of the stains of sin, the soils of lust, the scars and wounds made by transgression in the soul: and it is true that what stains, soils, scars, wounds, are to the body, such are lusts, in deed, desire, and thought, to the soul. But we cannot therefore say that the spiritual nature is not susceptible of a healing and purgation 385which is absolutely perfect, to which the cleansing or health of the body is no true analogy. For instance, the very life of sin is the will. By sin it is a corrupt and unclean will; by conversion it becomes cleansed and pure. So long as it is here subjected to the action of the flesh, it is imperfect; but when disembodied, what shall hinder its being as pure as if it had never sinned? What is the substance of the will? What is sin? And in what does sin inhere but in the inclination of the will? When this is restored to perfect holiness, what effect of the fall will remain? We are greatly ignorant of all these things; but it is evident that, be we what we may, if our repentance and conversion be true, there is no height of sanctification, no approximation to the Divine Image, that we may not make in this world, and in the world to come be made sinless in the kingdom of God. And if our spiritual nature may be made sinless in the life to come, how can we limit its purification in this world? How can we say that it may not be brought out from the effects of any sin, or habit of sinning, as intensely and energetically pure as if it had never been bribed and corrupted by evil; and, moreover, sharpened with a peculiar abhorrence of the defilement from which it has been delivered? Such is the mysterious complexion of a spiritual nature, that it may, in a 386moment, and by an act of volition, virtually and truly anticipate an habitual condition of the soul; as, for instance, in a true death-bed repentance there is contained a life of penance and purity, though it be never here developed into act. And this may throw light on many questions; such as the condition of the heathen, and of those that are born in separation from the unity of the Church, and on the state of those who, after baptism, by falling into sin, have resisted the grace of regeneration. Of these last, it would appear that their condition is changed for the worse, in the point of having sinned with greater guilt, and done despite to that which should have been their salvation. By consent to sin, they have made the work of repentance more difficult and doubtful. The blood of Christ, and the grace of the Holy Ghost, have yet the power of a perfect healing and purification; but repentance, which, on their side, is the condition, it is harder to fulfil. Still, wheresoever there are the lingering remains of grace, or the least beginnings of contrition, there is hope of a perfect repentance, and of a perfect sanctity. It seems, then, that it was for this reason that our blessed Lord, the sinless One, suffered publicans, sinners, and harlots, and even the adulteress, to draw near to Him; because in them, under the foul gatherings of sin, which 387spread like a crust of leprosy upon them, and in the darkness and death of their inmost soul, He could see the faint strength of a living pulse, the dim spark of sorrow, fear, remorse, and desire to be redeemed from the bondage of the devil, and therefore the susceptibility of perfect holiness, the unextinguished capacity of an inheritance with the saints in light.

2. Another great truth implied in our Lord’s conduct to sinners is, that the only sure way of fostering the beginnings of repentance is to receive them with gentleness and compassion. This is a truth which is in the mouth of more than rightly understand it. Our Lord appears to have dealt with those who came to Him in two ways. Some He received, as we have already seen, with a Divine love and pity, and some with a piercing severity. But these last were those only of whom, it seems, there was hope no longer. The reed was already broken, and the flax was quenched. “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, 388hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves!”209209   St. Matt. xxiii. 13-15. These were they that had “rejected the counsel of God against themselves, not being baptized”210210   St. Luke vii. 30. by John unto repentance. Jesus said unto them: “Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.”211211   St. Matt. xxi. 31, 32.

Now, that which made our Lord so change His voice was the inward state of those to whom He spoke. He saw their falsehood, guile, and hollowness; that they were white without, but all unclean within. Their whole spiritual being was estranged from Him, and set in array against His truth and holiness: they were beyond the attractions of pity, and the power of compassion. Towards these His perfect sanctity breathed a holy indignation. To be gentle was to betray the work of God, and to add boldness to their impiety. He met them as He will meet them once more, in the day of judgment: but at the time He spoke, even His denunciations 389were mercies; warnings of a doom still delayed; offers of pardon to those who would be converted, that He might heal them.

But on those in whom there is the faintest stirring of repentance, the love of Christ falls with a soft but penetrating force. For there are in us, as it were, two minds, with two arrays of feelings, which are awakened and excited into act just as the tone and bearing of those who admonish us vary in their character. Impatience, irritation, self-defence, unfairness, resentment, self-approval, wilfulness, are so marshalled together, that they move all at once, and oppose themselves in one array and front against a harsh voice and a severe hand. And all these are the direct stimulants of pride and hardness; the most fatal hindrances to confession and repentance. To receive sinners coldly, or with an averted eye, an estranged heart, and a hasty unsparing tongue, will seldom fail to drive them into defiance or self-abandonment. A sinner that is out of hope is lost. Hope is the last thing left. If this be crushed, the flax is extinct. Through rough usage sinners fall into despair, and through despair into reckless contradiction of God’s will, and thence into deliberate sinning, into taking pleasure in evil deeds, and, lastly, into “glorying in their shame.” From this there seems no rising again: it is the nearest approach 390to the state of fallen angels. Such are the effects of a merciless severity; whether it arise from harshness in the reprover, or from a rigid tone of morals, and a mistaken jealousy for the glory of God. I have said that many, who little understand what they are saying, are wont to speak boldly of the tenderness wherewith sinners should he welcomed to repentance: and they shew their misunderstanding in this; they confound the pure severity of compassion with personal harshness of temper. Nothing can be more dangerous and repulsive than a harsh spirit. Truth told without love is perilous in the measure in which it is true. The promises of God, held out without tenderness, are so offered as to turn sinners away from mercy. But if any thing can be more dangerous than this, it is the presumptuous way in which men give largess of God’s mercy, and encourage sinners to believe themselves to be forgiven before they are penitents, or to be penitents before they have more than entered on the threshold of repentance. What can be more unreal and misleading than to press on men the belief that they are forgiven, when their whole soul cries aloud that they have not repented; or to persuade them that their sins are blotted out, if only they can bring themselves to believe so? as if self-persuasion, without contrition of heart, were a full remission of sins. 391What antinomianism, what superstitious reliance on forms and rites, what blind seeking to charms and divinations, can be farther than this from the forgiveness of the Gospel? Our blessed Lord, who was so tender and merciful, did not so slightly heal the wounds of those who came to Him. With ineffable compassion He spoke words of fear and warning. It was His very tenderness that gave them such a penetrating sharpness. “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye can not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” “Many are called, but few are chosen.” “He that endureth unto the end shall be saved.” “No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of heaven.” “He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after Me, is not worthy of Me.” As also the parables of the last judgment, and of the unprofitable servant, the wedding-garment, the barren fig-tree, and the like; what do they teach us, but that conversion, and a life of repentance, and the reaching of life eternal, are awful and arduous realities, full of danger and anxious fear? His tenderness was not to dispel the fears of penitents, but to change them into a holy and saving fear; to teach them to be afraid, not of 392Him, but of themselves; to trust in His tenderness as thoroughly as they mistrusted their own hearts. One great hindrance in the way of true conversion is an imperfect knowledge of His Divine character, and a mistrust of His infinite compassion. His tenderness is a thing so far above the thoughts even of saints, that it is no wonder that sinners, fallen and soiled with evil, should not be able to believe it. The mysteries of faith are not more above the understanding of men to comprehend, than the gentleness of Christ is beyond their hearts to conceive. That One so pure, so keen in His holy will, so grievously provoked by habitual disobedience, should endure the approach of sinners, is contrary to every natural suggestion of their minds. They fear to come within the range of those eyes that are “as a flame of fire.” Their own consciousness of inward sinfulness makes them turn even from repentance. There is in every sinner a great burden of misery, soreness, and alarm; but even these, instead of driving him to confession, make him shut himself up in a fevered and brooding fear. And it was in this peculiar wretchedness of sin that the gentleness of our Lord gave to the sinners who approached Him both solace and hope. They felt that, shrink as they must from priest and scribe, Pharisee and Sadducee, ay, and from 393all human eyes and human hearts, there was in Him something that no one else possessed, a softness of eye, and a gentleness of speech, a meekness of bearing, and a compassion in His touch, which drew them away from all men, and out of their very selves, to cast their whole being upon Him. It was a strange courage which came upon them; a boldness, full of trembling, yet an awe without alarm. What little motions of good were in them, what little stirrings of conscience, what faint remainder of better resolutions, what feeble gleams of all but extinguished light—all seemed to revive, and to turn in sympathy towards some source of kindred nature, and to stretch itself out in hope to some what long desired, with a dim unconscious love. It was an affinity of the spirit, working in penitents, with the spirit of Christ, that made them draw to Him. In Him they felt that their worst fears were quelled. They were not afraid to confess their unworthiness. They felt Him to be pitiful, and that He would bear long with them, and not cast them out, or upbraid them for their soiled and miserable state; and this opened a new future to them. It seemed to break through a prison-wall; to make a breach in the thraldom of their daily round of sins, in the oppressive consciousness of guilt. They seemed to see before them a promise of peace, and a hope that one day they 394should be set free from the bondage of themselves. The mere transitory thought that forgiveness is yet possible, that the favour of God is not for ever gone, that they may even, now one day enter into bliss all this makes the heart of the weakest to be strong, and of the hardest to melt away. And what is the very life of this hope but the tenderness of Christ, the unwearied patience, the long suffering, and gentle pity of our Redeemer? Therefore, it was not only because of His infinite compassion as God, that He so dealt with sinners; but because, knowing the nature of man, its strange depths and windings, its weakness and fears, He knew that this was the surest way of winning them to Himself.

And to come to ourselves in particular: we have, each one of us, made trial of this same gracious and tender compassion. As, for instance, in the many years between our baptism and our repentance; for how few they are who, after baptism, have not so fallen as to need a particular and deep repentance! For how many years the grace of our regeneration lay in us oppressed, and to all outward eyes extinguished! What multitudes of early faults, premature sins, even in childhood, have most of us committed; and how soon did the whole range of evil open itself upon us; and how consentingly did we enter upon it—first 395in its outskirts and, perhaps, with fear; and in a little while with an habitual self-possession, until we became worldly, selfish, and fearless! What but His patience would have borne with us? What but His gentleness would have cherished our few better dispositions and holier thoughts, and fostered them into the convictions of repentance? Perhaps there was nothing of God in us but a few texts of Holy Scripture, a dread of the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone, and a few prayers, said with unclean lips in the very midst of actual sins: and that even this should have been fostered by Him into the grace of illumination, of holy fear, and of devout prayer; that the small and all but stifled motions of spiritual life should be now unfolded into the reign of Christ’s kingdom in our hearts,—is a strange and surpassing mercy, a very miracle of patience. And again, even after bringing us to repentance, what provocations have we offered to His long-suffering! How shallow and vapid has our contrition been; at least, for how long a time was it little better than a sullen fear or a selfish remorse! And by what breaches of better resolutions, by what reservations of indulged faults, by what retractings of our expressed intentions, has our repentance been retarded! For how long a time were we two distinct characters, as distinct 396as if we had a twofold personality! In secret how full of confessions and protestations of abasement; and yet in the sight of the world how buoyant and self-trusting! How long did we keep back some sins still unconfessed; how full of wiles were we in extenuating them, even on our knees; how often we went back to them again; and with how little indignation at our relapses! Nevertheless He bore with all. He gave us time, and the pleadings of His Spirit, and wakened us up to see our shame, because He saw that the reed was not altogether broken.

And, once more: even in those whose repentance is far advanced there is much to call for His forbearance and compassion; as, for instance, in the slow formation of their religious character. Even in those who live a religious life, what imperfections still remain, what a mixture of motives and purposes, what littleness and inconsistency, what fear of man, what worship of the world! How few can, even after their conversion to God, resist impressions from without, as from the maxims, examples, rules, tone of society! How few are stedfast against the swaying to and fro of public opinion, and are able to keep themselves from the fluctuations by which the face of the Church is disturbed! And well were it if only these greater things moved us: most men are at 397the mercy of much less active and powerful causes. For the remainders of old tempers, such as pride, anger, self-will, are still within them, and make them susceptible of manifold temptations. They acquiesce in a low standard of devotion, and weaken themselves by yielding to the weaker practice of others; and all this produces a wavering ambiguous life, which is neither worldly nor devout, having the beginning of better things, but in a hindered and obstructed state. Such people often settle down into a languid and lukewarm habit, which must be a slight of peculiar point and emphasis to Him who, for their redemption, died in agony. The tardy, wavering, inconstant, and often retrograde movement of our religious life must be highly displeasing in His sight. And that we are spared and still aided by His grace, by His truth and Spirit, and by His special providence, is a signal proof of His changeless compassion, and patient endurance even of sinful infirmities. Only let us compare ourselves with His dealings towards us. Let us see what we are by the side of what we might have been, if the grace of our baptism, and the lessons of our childhood, the humiliation and discipline of our repentance, had taken its full effect, and had wrought their perfect work. Let us compare what we do with what we know, what we know with what He 398has taught us, what we pray for with what we really desire. How laggard and half-hearted is our religion at its best estate! How full of dark spots and deep hollows is the brightest and fairest character! How much do we provoke and try His pity; ever going back, swerving aside, doing great things weakly, and high things feebly, and holy things coldly! “If Thou, Lord, shouldst be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who should abide it? But there is mercy with Thee, therefore shalt Thou be feared.”

And one more example we may take, in His dealing with those that are tried by affliction, by loss of those they love, or by sickness, anxieties, disappointments. All these things are in His hand; and He lays them on, not all at once, but little by little, to prepare us for greater trials. We never have more than we can bear. The present hour we are always able to endure. As our day, so is our strength. If the trials of many years were gathered into one, they would over whelm us; therefore, in pity to our little strength, He sends first one, then another, then removes both, and lays on a third, heavier, perhaps, than either; but all is so wisely measured to our strength, that the bruised reed is never broken. We do not enough look at our trials in this continuous and successive view. Each one is sent to 399teach us something, and altogether they have a lesson which is beyond the power of any to teach alone. But if they came together, we should break down, and learn nothing. The smoking flax would be put out; and we should be crushed “into the dust of death.”

And now to conclude: how great a consolation there is in this Divine tenderness of our Lord! How it bids good cheer to those who have at last begun to amend their lives, but are sorely burdened, and at times tempted to give up for lost! Be your beginning never so late, yet if it be true, all shall one day be well. It is a word of cheer to us all. Alas for us, if He were soon wearied out as we are, soon provoked, ready to upbraid, sharp in the strokes of His hand; where should we have been long ago? What in His sight is the whole Church under heaven, but a bruised reed, and weak; a smoking flax, smouldering, struggling, ready to expire? Even in its best estate, in its first love, in the fervour of its first conversion, it is little more. And what is it now? The age of prophets, apostles, martyrs, is past; and for the saints, they seem few and hidden. The Church is bruised by schisms; her strength bowed down from its ancient stateliness, to droop along upon the earth; her lights are scattered and dim; here and there they shine out feebly and alone, 400as if to say that the flax is not wholly quenched. Where is now the strength and fervour of other days? Where are the penitents, and the mourners, and the prostrate? Where are the companies of those who chastened themselves with fasting, and were strong in spirit, following in the path of the Cross? Where are they that forsook home, and all that they had, to live as strangers, for the love of the heavenly country? Where are now the pure, and the meek, the holy and humble men of heart, the devoted, and the gifted? Surely the days are already come, when, because iniquity abounds, the love of many hath waxed cold; and truth is perishing, in preparation for that day of which the Lord asked, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?”


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