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The Subjects and Laws of the Kingdom of Heaven

By Frederick Denison Maurice (1805–1872)

  • TEXT:—“And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”—St. Luke vi. 20.

  • SO begins a discourse which has often been said to contain a code of very high morality for those who forsake the low level of the crowd, and aim at a specially elevated standard of excellence. The previous sentence explains to whom the discourse was addressed. “And he came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of his disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judea and Jerusalem, and from the sea-coast of Tyre and Sidon, which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases.” Those were the people who heard Christ say, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

    We were wont to mitigate the force of this sentence by referring to the one in St. Matthew’s Gospel which most resembles it. For “poor,” we say, the other Evangelist gives us “poor in spirit.” Is not that the sense in which we must understand the words here? I am most thankful for the expression in St. Matthew, and am quite willing to use it for the illustration of the discourse in which it occurs. We may find it a great help hereafter in understanding St. Luke. But I must take his language as it stands. He says that our Lord lifted up his eyes on a miscellaneous crowd. He cannot have expected that crowd to introduce any spiritual qualification into the words, “Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.” What then did those words import? Might they be addressed to a multitude similarly composed in London?…

    Surely, in this very simple and direct sense. Our Lord had come to tell them who was governing them; under whose authority they were living. Who had they fancied was governing them? One who regarded the rich with affection; who had bestowed great advantages upon them; who had given them an earnest here of what he might do for them hereafter. It was most natural for poor men to put this interpretation upon that which they saw and that which they felt. It was difficult for them to find any other interpretation. It was not more difficult for the people who dwelt about the coasts of Tyre and Sidon than for the people who dwell in the courts and alleys of London. The difficulty is the same precisely in kind. The degree of it must be greater, on some accounts, for the dwellers in a crowded modern city than for those who breathed the fresh air of Galilee. The difficulty was not diminished for the latter (I mean for the Galileans) by anything which they heard from their religious teachers. It was enormously increased. God was said to demand of these poor people religious services which they could not render; an account of knowledge about his law which they could not possess. His prizes and blessings here and hereafter were said to be contingent upon their performing these services, upon their having that knowledge. Whichever way they turned,—to their present condition, to the forefathers to whose errors or sins they must in great part attribute that condition, to the future in which they must expect the full fruit of the misery and evil into which they had fallen,—all looked equally dark and hopeless.

    Startling indeed, then, were the tidings, “Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Most startling when they were translated into these: “You have a Father in heaven who is seeking after you, watching over you, whom you may trust entirely. He ruled over your forefathers. He promised that he would show forth his dominion fully and perfectly in the generations to come. I am come to tell you of him; to tell you how he rules over you, and how you may be in very deed his subjects. I am come that you and your children may be citizens in God’s own city, that the Lord God himself may reign over you.” I cannot render the phrase into any equivalents that are simpler, more obvious, than these. And if they were true, must they not have been true for all that crowd, for every thief and harlot in it? Was not this the very message of John, delivered by Him who could not only call to repentance but give repentance?

    “Yes,” it may be answered, “that might be so, if the language only declared to the poor that there was a Heavenly Father who cared for them no less than he cared for the rich: but the sentences which follow give them a positive advantage; it would appear as if the blessing on the poor involved a curse on the rich. What other force can you put on such sentences as these? ‘Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. 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.’”

    Language so explicit as this cannot be evaded. And I hold it is greatly for the interest of all of us who are leading easy and comfortable lives in the world, that it should not be evaded. If any amount of riches greater or smaller does give us consolation, it is well for us to understand that there is a woe upon those riches. They were not meant to give consolation; we were not meant to find it in them. If any laughter of ours does make us incapable of weeping, incapable of entering into the sorrow of the world in which we are dwelling, we ought to feel that there is misery and death in that laughter. Our Lord does not speak against laughter; he sets it forth as a blessing. He does denounce all that laughter which is an exultation in our own prosperity and in the calamities of others. He does promise that those who are indulging that sort of laughter shall weep. I use the word promise advisedly. It is a promise, not a threatening; or if you please, a threat which contains a promise. It is the proof that we are under a Kingdom of Heaven; that God does not allow such laughter to go on; that he stops it; that he gives the blessing of sorrow in place of it. And thus all alike are taught that they are under this fatherly government. All are shown that the Father in heaven is aware of the discipline which they need, and will apportion it. All may be brought to take their places with their brethren in this kingdom. All may be taught that the common blessings—the blessings from which one cannot exclude another—are the highest blessings. All may be brought to know that this one fact, that they have a Father in heaven, is worth all others. And so that poverty of spirit which is only another name for childlike dependence upon One who is above us, and is all good because we have found we cannot depend upon ourselves, may be wrought by Him with whom we have to do in rich and poor equally. The heavenly treasures may be revealed to both, which moth and rust cannot corrupt, which thieves cannot break through and steal.

    Thus far, assuredly, the tendency of this discourse of our Lord’s has been to level, not to exalt. The Kingdom of Heaven has not been a prize for those who are unlike their fellows, but for those who will take their stand by them—who will set up no exclusive pretensions of their own. But what shall we say of this benediction—“Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and shall 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”? And again of this woe—“Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers unto the false prophets”? Is there not here a glorification of the little minority which is persecuted, a denunciation of the majority which persecutes?

    The comment on the language is in the actual history. Why was St. Stephen, whom we have been remembering lately, cast out of the city of Jerusalem and stoned? Because he was accused of breaking down the barriers which separated the chosen people from the surrounding nations. Why was the young man at whose feet the witnesses against Stephen laid down their clothes, afterwards denounced in the same city as one who ought not to live? Because he said that he was sent with a message of peace and reconciliation to the Gentiles. What was it that sustained and comforted Stephen in the hour when his countrymen were gnashing upon him with their teeth? The sight of the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God; the Savior and King, not of him and his brother disciples, but of mankind. What was St. Paul’s deepest sorrow, and how was it that in the midst of that sorrow he could always rejoice? His sorrow was that his kinsmen after the flesh were to be cut off, because they were enemies to God and contrary to all men. His joy was in the thought that “all Israel should be saved;” that “God had concluded all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.” This then was the witness of the little band of the persecuted, that God is the Father of all; that his Kingdom is over all. And the determination of that powerful majority of persecutors was to keep the favor of God and the Kingdom of Heaven to themselves. Those of whom all men speak well are those who flatter their exclusiveness; who lead them to think that they are better than others, and that they shall have mercies which are denied to others. The comfort of the persecuted, which the persecutor could not have, was the comfort of believing that God would conquer all obstacles; that the Son of Man, for whose sake they loved not their lives, would be shown in very deed to be King of kings and Lord of lords—all human wills being subjected to his will.

    And so you perceive how the next precepts, which we often read as if they were mere isolated maxims, are connected with these blessings and these woes. “But I say unto you which hear,”—unto you, that is, whom I have told that men shall separate you from their company, and cast out your persons as evil,—“Love your enemies; do good to them which persecute you. Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love ye your enemies, and do good; and lend, hoping for nothing again. And ye shall be the children of the Highest; for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.”

    In these passages is contained the sum of what we have been used to call the peculiar Christian morality. It is supposed to be very admirable, but far too fine for common use. He who aims at following it is to be counted a high saint. He claims a state immensely above the ordinary level of humanity. He even discards the maxims by which civil society is governed—those which the statesman considers necessary for his objects. No doubt, it is said, this transcendent doctrine has had a certain influence upon the nations in which it is promulgated. It has modified some of the thoughts and feelings which are most adverse to it. The beauty of it is confessed by many who never dream of practicing it. There are some unbelievers who try to practice it, and say that if this part of Christianity could be separated from its mysterious part, they could not reverence it too highly. But though this is true, we have proofs, it is said, every day and hour, that this love to enemies, this blessing them that curse, this turning the one cheek to him who smites the other, is altogether contrary to the habits and tempers of the world.

    My friends, the evidence goes much further than that. We need not derive our proofs that the natural heart revolts against these precepts from what is called The World. The records of the Church will furnish that demonstration much more perfectly. Hatred of those whom they have counted their enemies,—this has been the too characteristic sign of men who have called themselves Christ’s servants and soldiers. Curses have been their favorite weapons. No church can bring that charge against another without laying itself open to retaliation. And it cannot be pleaded, “Oh, there is a corrupt unbelieving leaven in every Christian society.” The habit I speak of has come forth often most flagrantly in those who were denouncing this leaven, who were seeking to cast it out. I am not saying that they were not good men. The case is all the stronger if they were. I am not saying that a genuine zeal for truth was not at the root of their rage, and did not mingle with the most outrageous acts of it. Of all this, God will be the judge. We are not wise to anticipate his decisions. But such facts, which are notorious, and are repeated in every age and in every country, show the absurdity of the theory that what our Lord lays down as the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven are intended for the use of a particular class of persons, who aspire to outstrip their fellows and win higher prizes than the rest of mankind. They lead us to suspect that those who have aimed at such distinctions and pursued such objects have not been able to submit to his government—have assumed a position which was essentially rebellious. They lead us back to the leveling sentence with which the discourse opens, and which must be accepted as the key to the whole of it. What business has any citizen of a kingdom to talk of a certain standard which is meant for him and not for all the subjects of it? What is that but adopting the maxim which the Roman poet unfairly ascribed to the Greek hero, that “laws were not born for him”?

    How reasonable, on the other hand,—how perfectly consistent,—is our Lord’s language, if we suppose him to be revealing the laws under which God has constituted human beings,—the laws which are the expression of his own Divine nature, the laws which were perfectly fulfilled in his Son, the laws which his Spirit is seeking to write on all hearts! What signifies it to the reality of such laws that this or that man transgresses them; that he who transgresses them calls himself Churchman or Dissenter, Catholic or Protestant, believer or infidel? If they are true, they must stand in spite of such transgressions; they will make their power manifest through such transgressions. There will be a witness on behalf of them, such as we see there is in all human consciences; there will be a resistance to them, such as we see there is in all human wills. Our belief in their ultimate triumph over that which opposes them must depend on our belief in Him who is the Author of the law. If we think that he is our Father in heaven, and that his law of forgiveness has been fully accomplished in Christ, and that his Spirit is stronger than the Evil Spirit, every sign of the victory of love over striving and hating wills must be a pledge how the battle is to terminate: no success of bitterness, and wrath, and malice, however it may shake our minds, can be anything but a proof that less than Almighty love, less than a Divine sacrifice, would have been unable to subdue such adversaries. But if we think this discourse to be the announcement of a refined ethical system,—not the proclamation of a Kingdom of Heaven, as it professes to be,—we may well complain how feeble and ineffective it is and must always be. We may say that its power can never be recognized beyond a circle of rare exceptional persons. And we may find that these rare exceptional persons are always supplied with a set of evasions, equivocations, and apologies for violating every one of its principles, especially in those acts which they consider most religious and meritorious.

    Those who confine this discourse to saints speedily contradict themselves. When they bring forth evidences of Christianity, or evidences of the influence of the Catholic Church, they appeal to the power which the Cross, with its proclamation of Divine forgiveness to enemies, has exercised over the wild warring tribes that have fashioned modern Europe. They ask whether the conscience of those tribes, in the midst of all their bloody feuds and acts of personal vengeance, did not stoop to the authority of a Prince of Peace; whether it did not confess him as King of kings and Lord of lords; whether it did not acknowledge those as especially his ministers who in bodily weakness—in defiance of the physically strong—showed forth the loving-kindness which they said was his, and claimed the serf and the noble as alike his subjects and his brethren. The facts cannot be gainsaid. They are written in sunbeams on all the darkest pages of modern history. What do they prove? Surely, that our Lord was not proclaiming a code which was at variance with civil order and obedience,—a transcendental morality,—but principles which were the foundation of civil order and obedience; principles which were to undermine and uproot the very evils which all national codes are endeavoring to counteract. The national code—the most exalted, the most divine code—can only forbid, only counteract. If it aspires to do more, if it strives to extirpate vices instead of to punish crimes, if it enjoins virtues instead of demanding simple submission to its decrees,—it proves its own impotence. It is always asking for help to do that which it cannot do. It wants a power to make the obedience which it needs voluntary; to kindle the patriotism without which it will only be directed to a herd of animals, not a race of men. Wherever there has been a voluntary obedience, wherever there has been a patriotism which has made men willing to die that their land might not be in the possession of strangers, there has been faith in an unseen Ruler; there has been a confidence that he wills men to be free. The Jewish history interprets other history. It shows what has been the source of law and freedom; what has been the destruction of both; what has been the preservation of both. This discourse, because it proclaims a more universal principle than the Jewish or national principle, is supposed to set that aside. I accept our Lord’s words, “I come not to destroy, but to fulfill,” as true in every case. He does not destroy the fundamental maxim that God is the author of the Commandments. He fulfills it by proclaiming the mind of his Father in heaven as the ground of all the acts of his children. He does not destroy one sacrifice which any patriot had made for his people’s freedom. He fulfills it in his perfect sacrifice to God and for us. He does not destroy any one precept of duty to God or to our neighbor. He fulfills it by baptizing with his Spirit; by making duty to God the surrender of man’s will to his will which is working in us; that will binding men to each other as members of the same body; that will fighting with all the selfish impulses which tear us asunder. There is no opposition between the Kingdom of Heaven and any kingdom of earth, except what is produced by this selfishness which is the enemy of both. If the civil ruler sanctions one law for the rich and one law for the poor, he offends against the maxims of the Kingdom of Heaven; but then he also introduces a confusion into his own. If he prefers war to peace, gambling to honesty, bondage to freedom, and if he seeks religious sanctions to uphold him in these tastes, he offends against the maxims of the Kingdom of Heaven, and he is preparing ruin for his own State. If the ecclesiastic proclaims one law for the saint and another for the common man, he overthrows the common order and morality of nations; but he sins still more directly against the laws which Christ proclaimed on the Mount. If he sets up the priest against the magistrate, he disturbs the peace of civil communities; but he also exalts the priest into the place of God, and so commits treason against the Kingdom of Heaven. If he assume the office of a judge of his brethren, he may do much mischief on earth which the ruler on earth cannot hinder. But he falls under this sentence: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”

    These laws of the Kingdom of Heaven seem very hard to keep. See what hinders us from keeping them. It is not some incapacity. It is our determination to assume a place which is not ours. Each of us is continually setting up himself to be a God. Each is seizing the judgment-throne of the universe. We know that it is so. And from this throne we must come down. We must confess that we are not gods; not able to pronounce on the condition of our fellows, needing forgiveness every day from our Father and from each other, permitted to dispense what he sends us. The lesson is a simple one. Yet every other is contained in it. If we do in very deed come to the light, our deeds may be made manifest; if we ask to be judged—if we ask our Father in Heaven to make us his ministers and not his rivals—we shall be able to enter into the wonderful precept that follows (v. 38): “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure pressed down and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” They had been told before that they were “to do good and lend, hoping for nothing again.” How is it that we are encouraged to hope here that if we give it shall be given to us? The two passages explain each other; experience confirms them both. Only the man who gives hoping for nothing again, who gives freely without calculation out of the fullness of his heart, ever can find his love returned to him. He may win hatred as well as love; but love does come in measures that he never could dream of. We see it every day; and every day, perhaps, we may be disappointed at finding some favors which we thought were well laid out bringing back no recompense. They were bestowed with the hope of something again.

    Yes, friends: most truly are these the unchangeable laws of the Kingdom of Heaven. That which we measure is measured against us again; selfishness for selfishness, love for love. It may not be clear to us now that it is. We shall be sure of it one day—in that day which shall show Him who spoke this discourse to be indeed the King of kings and Lord of lords. For, as his next words tell us, this has been the great inversion of order: “The blind have been leading the blind; the disciples have been setting themselves above their Master.” We have been laying down our own maxims and codes of morality. Each one has been saying to his brother, “Brother, let me pull out the mote out of thine eye.” We have had such a clear discernment of these motes! And all the while none of us has been aware of the beam in his own eye. And how can any of us become aware of it; how can we escape the charge of hypocrisy which our consciences own to be so well deserved? Only if there is a King and Judge over us who detects the beam; who makes us feel that it is there; who himself undertakes to cast it out. To that point we must always return. We may boast of this morality as something to glorify saints. We may call it “delicious,” as a modern French critic calls it. Only when it actually confronts us, as the word of a King who is speaking to us and convicting us of our departures from it—only then shall we discover that it is for sinners, not saints; that it is terrible, not delicious. But only then shall we know what the blessedness is of being claimed as children of this kingdom; only then shall we begin to apprehend the glory of which we are inheritors. For we then shall understand that there is a selfish evil nature in every man, let him call himself churchman or man of the world, believer or unbeliever, which cannot bring forth good fruit—which is utterly damnable; and that there is a Divine root of humanity, a Son of Man, whence all the good in churchman or man of the world, in believer or unbeliever, springs—whence nothing but good can spring. If we exalt ourselves upon our privileges as Christians or saints, the King will say to us, “Why call ye me Lord, and do not the things which I say?” If we submit to his Spirit we may bring forth now the fruits of good works which are to his glory; we may look for the day when every law of his kingdom shall be fulfilled, when all shall know him from the least to the greatest. And churches, in the sense of their own nothingness, may seek after the foundation which God has laid, and which will endure the shock of all winds and waves. And churches which rest upon their own decrees and traditions and holiness will be like the man “who without a foundation built an house upon the earth, against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.”