HH, Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.–Luke 15:28
The Elder Brother’s Duty toward His Younger Brother
The moral failure of the elder brother is very significant in one respect. It was a failure in the sphere of duty to an equal. As a son, he had given every satisfaction, and with a good conscience, he insists on that. Faithfully, and with creditable patience, he had served his father for these many years.
- Probably, too, no fault could be found with him in his practical management of the estate, nor in his conduct toward the servants on the farm.
- Toward his superiors–for in Jewish eyes the superiority of fatherhood is great–toward his superiors, he was all that could be wished for.
- Toward his inferiors he was blameless, and no-fault attaches to him there.
The point to be noted is that where he failed and failed in a shocking and contemptible way, was in his duties toward his equals. True, one was older and the other younger; one had the privileges of the first-born. Yet were they brothers, born of the same mother, sharers together of the home of infancy. And this was the point of failure in his life, not his duty to superiors or to inferiors, but his duty to one whose birth and upbringing put him on the platform of equality. I want to talk with you for a little about our duties toward our equals.
The Comparative Silence of the New Testament on Our Duty to Our Equals
Now it will at once occur to you, hearing that theme, how little is said of it in the New Testament. On the matter of our duty to our equals, the New Testament is comparatively silent. It speaks to us, not infrequently, of the duty which we owe to our superiors.
- Men are to reverence those who sit in Moses’ seat;
- they are to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s;
- they are to pray for kings and all who are in authority.
It speaks constantly of our duty to inferiors. That is one great theme of the New Testament. Everywhere, with all variety of appeal, that is insisted on and urged. But as we read the Gospels and Epistles we gradually become aware of a strange silence–it is the silence, the comparative silence of the Gospel, on the matter of our duty to our equals. That does not mean that such duties were of little consequence to the men who have given us our New Testament. It means that there were certain causes, which inevitably put the emphasis elsewhere. Let me suggest three of these causes to you.
The Causes for Such Silence: The Stress on Christian Humility
In the first place, there was that new humility that was present so powerfully in Christian character. Working in the heart of the newborn did not suggest equality at all. However, glad was the good news of the Gospel, however, it cheered and comforted the world, one of its first effects on human hearts was to deepen the sense of personal unworthiness. And this deep feeling of personal unworthiness so coloured every estimate of self, that men were readier to deny than to assert their equality with anyone whatever. When Peter, overpowered and awestruck, cried, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man”; when Paul, in the ripeness of his vast experience, thought of himself as just the chief of sinners, you have a frame of mind that was widespread, and was the peculiar creation of the Gospel, and yet a frame that was far from ready to assert equality with anybody. Similarly, the only greatness in the kingdom lay in being a servant in the kingdom. It was to him who took the lowest place that Christ promised the blessing and the honour. And Paul, preaching what he practised, as he ever practised what he preached, bade his readers “in lowliness of mind esteem the other better than themselves.” Now in all this, there is no denial of the fact that we all have our equals. The Gospel is always true to human nature, and that is one of the facts of human nature. But you will readily understand how men, dominated by a new-born humility, were not in a mood to give immediate prominence to the duties which imply equality.
The Causes for Such Silence: The Stress on Compassion
The second reason is to be found in this–in the Gospel message of compassion. That was so new, so new and so amazing, that for a little it obscured all else. There may be elements in the ethic of the Gospel which were familiar to the older world. That is exactly what we should expect since God has never left Himself without a witness. But there was one thing in the Gospel which was new and set it apart from all the thought of ages, and that was its magnificent insistence on the need and the blessing of compassion. For the first time in the world, the grace of pity was placed in the very center of the virtues. For the first time tenderness of heart was made a manly and a noble thing. And such was the thrill of this discovery, and the power it gained over the hearts of men, that it dimmed the thought of duty towards equals. It was the Christian’s mark to be compassionate –to help the poor, to cheer the solitary. He went to the least and lowest of mankind, in the great love wherewith His heart was burning. And you cannot wonder that that great enthusiasm, so utterly unknown in paganism, pushed into the background, as it were, the statement of our duty towards equals.
The Causes for Such Silence: The Stress on the Indwelling Christ Who Has No Equal
But there is another reason, not opposed to these, yet standing just a little apart from them. It is the fact that Christian morality is so vitally dependent upon Christ. Paul never thought of morals by itself. He never spoke of isolated ethics. For him to live–in every realm of life–for him to live was Christ. To be like Christ was his idea of goodness; to be in Christ his idea of glory; to follow in the steps of Christ was his compendium of all morality. Now the very foundation of the Church was this, that Jesus Christ had no equal. “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”–it was on that foundation that the Church was built. Neither in heaven above nor on the earth beneath had Jesus Christ a duty to His equal. Now, of course, it does not follow that we have none, because our incomparable Lord had none. To assert that would have been blasphemy. But you can understand how to men, for whom Christ was all and in all, the subject of duty towards equals was not one that would be largely handled. It is in these ways we must explain the comparative silence of Scripture on the subject. It is not because in the eyes of the Apostles the matter was one of subordinate importance. It is because they were enthralled by the new joy that had come to them in the new message of the Gospel, a message of One who though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor.
Duties to Our Equals Are Hard to Perform
Now probably there are no duties harder to perform, as there are none more beneficial to the character, than the duties we owe to our equals. It is not always agreeable or easy to fulfil our duty to our inferiors. Nor is it always agreeable or easy to live towards our superiors as we ought. But perhaps in the whole range of duty that which makes the most severe demands upon us, is not our duty to inferiors or superiors, but is our duty to our equals. Let me recall one or two facts that indicate how commonly men fail here.
Failures of Our Duties to Our Equals: In the Family Circle
In the first place, we may see it in the narrow compass of the family circle. There are many and it is to be feared–many homes where the spirit of the elder brother still survives. Take each member of the circle separately, and you find each to be amiable and useful. One may be in an office–one a nurse–one a diligent visitor to the poor. And all these duties they faithfully fulfil, working for those set over them most loyally, or cheering, by the word and deed of comfort, the poor who are entrusted to their charge. No-fault can be found with them in these relationships. They fulfil them with every satisfaction. But is it not sometimes the case that these brothers and sisters are far from being a united family? The one thing that it seems impossible for them to do is to live harmoniously together or to share in the mutual and happy confidences which lie on the basis of a happy home.
In other words, the duties which they fail in are just the duties I am speaking of today. Towards their superiors, they are faithful and diligent. Towards their inferiors they are tender-hearted. But where they fail is in the family circle, where all are on the level of equality, and where the only duties that have placed are the duties that we owe towards our equals.
Failures of Our Duties to Our Equals: Among Those Who Have a Common Calling
In the second place, we witness the same thing in the larger area of a common calling. It is notorious how little sympathy there often is between those who are brothers invocation. I have heard a doctor say more unkind things about a brother doctor than about any other person in the world. I have heard one literary man decry another in a way no reader would ever dream of doing. And “depend upon it,” said a well-known friend to me the other day, “the nastiest things ever said about us are some of the things said by our brother-ministers.” Now send that doctor out among his patients, and he may be the very soul of skilful kindness. Watch that minister visiting the poor, and he may do it with the most genuine sympathy.
- It is not with inferiors that the strain comes–
- It is not there that duty is most difficult–
- It is in the circles where all stand alike and are on the social footing of equality.
I think that even in the band of the disciples we may discern the truth of this. The last lesson which they seem to have learned was the lesson of living harmoniously together. It was not so difficult to be loyal to Jesus. It was not so difficult to bless the poor. But what was difficult, right to the very end, was to live together without quarrelling.
Failures of Our Duties to Our Equals: Our Attitude toward Those Who Fail
And in the third place, is there no proof of this in the attitude of society towards its failures? I do not wish to seem to speak unkindly, yet nothing is gained by shutting the eyes to facts.
- Now suppose a man to be prospering in the world, is he not a target for a good deal of malevolence?
- Is it not rarely that you hear him generously judged, with a noble forgetfulness of his faults?
But let that man meet with some great reverses, and be crushed under a series of disasters, and I need scarcely tell you what usually follows. There may be one or two who say “I told you so,” and who gloat over the misfortune of a brother. There are far more who are genuinely sorry, and who forget their former bitterness of judgment. And now for the first time, they become generous, and they forget old grudges and offences, and they do it, mark you, then and then alone when their neighbour has passed from his equality. Let him recover himself and take his former place, and the snarling is certain to begin again. The bitterness that was withering for a season will spring up in the new sunshine of prosperity. From which we gather that it is an easy thing to be generous and kind to our inferiors, but one of the hardest things in life to be just and generous to our equals.
Harder to Execute One’s Duties to Equals Than to Inferiors and Superiors
If then, that be a fact, and a fact I think that cannot be gainsaid, it is surely worth our while to ask what is the reason for a thing so strange.
- One would have thought that, of all our duties, those to our equals would have been easiest.
- One would have thought that our duties to inferiors would have been the hardest to perform.
And yet it is not so–it is the opposite–our hardest ethic is that of our equality, and the reason, I take it, is not far to seek. It is this, that in all our intercourse with inferiors, there is no place for jealousy or envy.
There is nothing to interfere with our self-love; there is no possibility of competition. And therefore in all intercourse with them, there is a sense of shelter and security; an utter absence of those irritations which are inevitable with our social equals.
- We never dream of envying the poor when our Christian duty takes us among the poor.
- We are never jealous of the weary sufferer when we go to visit him upon his sickbed.
Our health is an immeasurable asset and our social position gives us a certain standing–we are treated with certain deference and respect, which sometimes may be the deadliest flattery. Let no one think I am saying a word against the Christian duty of compassion. But what I do say is that as a means of discipline, as a means of searching and of bracing character, our duties to our equals are a far surer instrument than are our duties to inferiors.
- In them, we are out upon the open.
- In them, we get as surely as we give.
- In them we are constantly tempted to be jealous–constantly tempted to assert ourselves.
And therefore are they very hard to do, and being hard is very blessed, giving to character a strong sincerity which no other duties can supply.
- A man may be perfectly true to his superiors, and yet be a cringing and miserable creature.
- A man may be wonderfully kind to his inferiors, and yet live all the time in a fool’s paradise.
But a man who moves like a man among his equals, and is just and generous and kind to them. is moving under the eye of day, and fighting his battle on the open field.
Our Reluctance to Deal with Equals
And that is why there is certain cowardice in the kind of life which certain people affect. I mean when socially, and not for the sake of service, they surround themselves with their inferiors. It may be a bad thing when one is overanxious to move in higher circles than his own. It is very often associated with vulgarity. But it seems to me it is a worse thing, in its net result upon the character, when one deliberately takes the other course, and consorts habitually with inferiors.
Instead of the give and take of equal comradeship, there is then the poisonous atmosphere of deference. Instead of the buffet and the blow of argument, there is the gentle flattery of acquiescence. Instead of the friendship that shows us what we are, and teaches us our faults, and braces us, there is the purring of those whom we honour with our company, till we grow more self-satisfied than ever. It is not thus that character is made. It is fashioned where all the winds are blowing. it never ripens in that soft seclusion which the society of inferiors affords. It ripens in the frankness of equality, where one is not afraid to meet another, and where the frets and jars are as medicinal as the kindliest word of benediction.
The Hardest Trials Are Those That Reach Us from Equals
And that leads me to say this in passing, and it is well that we should not forget it. Perhaps there are no trials so hard to bear as the trials that reach us from our equals. The psalmist, you remember, felt that when he was suffering from an act of treachery. What made it doubly hard to bear was this, that it was perpetrated by a man his equal. Had it been anyone else he could have borne it–anyone mightier or less than he, but the sting of it all first lay in this, that it was an equal who was base.
As it was then, so is it still today, and it helps us to be strong when we remember it.
Trials from inferiors are bad enough, trials from superiors are worse, but trials from our equals are worst of all, and I shall tell you why it is so.
The reason is that trials from our inferiors are trials from which we always can escape.
We can return again to our own levels, and leave thus the sphere of our vexations. But from the trials of our equals, there is no such refuge–our equals are our habitual environment–and therefore always, every day we live, we are exposed to the buffet or the thorn. It is thus that the trials of our nearest may be blessed in a more certain way than any others. There is no one we can fly to except God; there is no one we can lean on except God. Tried by inferiors we have still our equals, in whose society we are secure. Tried by our equals every refuge fails, and “hangs my helpless soul on Thee.”
Try Your Character by Your Attitude toward Your Equals
And so, as I closing, I would urge upon you to test and try your character that way. Be chary of accepting any verdict, except the verdict of equality. Distrust the subtle flattery of deference. There is no self-knowledge to be gained that way. Distrust the judgment of the poor and needy, whom in your warmth of compassion you have helped. If you want to know yourself go to your equals–find what you think of them, and they of you. Reckon yourself by what you are at home, or with your brother merchant or your brother minister.
It is thus and thus alone we learn the truth, and when we learn the truth we are never far from Christ. Seeing ourselves, we see our need for Him, and in that sight is the beginning of salvation. Driven from the rest of self-esteem, so easily fostered by our very pity, we hear Him saying to us irresistibly, “Come unto me …. and I will give you rest.”