THE COURAGE OF JESUS
- Luke v:10.
HE who speaks of courage speaks of a live subject. It is a virtue which everybody admires and which everybody has admired from the beginning.
There has never been a nation that did not admire courageous men. There is not an age known to history in which heroism has not been deemed a lovely and a precious thing. The old Egyptians gloried in their bravery, and so also did the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Greeks; and the very quality which was rated so highly thousands of years before Jesus came is also gloried in by the Boers of the nineteenth century and the Japanese of the twentieth. When we deal, therefore, with courage we are dealing with a virtue that is not peculiar to any race, or confined to any generation, or deemed a virtue by any one religion. It is one of the elemental tempers of the human spirit, one of the foundation stones in the great structure of character, one of the shining qualities of the wonderful being who is known as man. Is there a man so base that he does not covet courage ? Is there one so low he would not be proud to be counted brave? There are only three words in our English speech that pierce the heart to the very center: one is thief, the second is liar, the third is coward. Coward is the most damning of them all.
When we come, therefore, to the study of the ideal man we might expect to find him giving us a wonderful exhibition of courage. And this is indeed what we find: in Jesus of Nazareth we find bravery at its best, courage at its loftiest, heroism at its climax.
There are different kinds of courage. There is a courage that we may call physical. It runs in the blood, it is a kind of instinct. This sort of courage is not peculiar to man, it is possessed also by the brutes. The bulldog has it and so also has the weasel. It is possessed by man in all the stages of his development. It is an indifference to danger, a contempt for suffering and for death. But the courage of Jesus was not this. His was a higher and nobler possession. His was the courage of the mind, the heroism of the heart. It was a sober and reasoned thing. He deliberately counted the cost and paid it. Nor was his courage military. Military courage is the most common of all forms of courage in the world, and one of the earliest developed. Military courage is the courage that the soldier has in the time of battle. In time of battle men move in masses, the very momentum of the movement carries them onward. There is an excitement in battle that thrills the nerves and heats the blood; men are beside themselves, and are carried forward by forces that are not their own. The courage of war is spectacular, appealing to the eye because the paraphernalia of war is splendid, the waving flag, the fife and drum, the glittering steel, the measured tread of marching men – all this assists the heart to scoff at danger and to mock at death. But splendid as this is it is common and has always been abundant. The lowest races possess it as highly developed as the highest. You never can get courage going beyond the military courage that the Japanese displayed in the recent war. And that courage was not a whit superior to the courage displayed at Gettysburg, and the courage at Gettysburg was not a bit finer than the courage at Bunker Hill and Waterloo, and that did not surpass the courage at Thermopile, nor did that outstrip the courage manifested by the Indian braves who laughed at death on this island before Henry Hudson sailed up the river which now bears his name. There never has been an advance in military courage since the world began. From the very beginning the courage of battle has been full-stuttered and complete. The courage of our Lord was not military, it was the courage which manifested itself in isolation. There was nobody to march with him. He marched alone. Palestine was filled with evils, he alone was brave enough to strike them. Injustice lifted its hideous head, and he alone resisted it. Hypocrisy made a mockery of religion, and he alone stabbed it. He trod the winepress alone. Even the men whom he succeeded in attracting to him left him and fled at the final hour. But even then he did not wince or falter, saying, "I am alone and yet not alone, for the Father is with me."
There is also such a thing as occasional courage, – courage that is born of some feverish moment, drawn from the heart by some overwhelming disaster. This is the courage that we see displayed in time of a great fire, or of a great flood, or of a great wreck on the sea. What splendid deeds of daring firemen do in rescuing men and women from burning building at the risk of their own lives! How it thrills the blood to see men leap into the life-boat, and make their way out over the angry sea and rescue the sailors clinging to the rigging of a sinking ship! This is courage that is indeed sublime, but it is not equal to the courage of repose. Disaster heats the blood and kindles a fire in the mind which makes it easy for the soul to dare great things; but the courage of Jesus of Nazareth was the courage of the quiet and commonplace days, courage that had to be manifested hour by hour along the dusty road when there was nothing to heat the blood or stir the mind to lofty moods.
If you were to paint Jesus as a hero, in what situation would you sketch him? Would you think of him on that great day on which he cleansed the Temple, driving out the cattle, overturning the tables of the money-changers, saying to sellers of doves, "Take these things hence"? Would you paint him as he appeared when in the streets of Jerusalem he stood up and faced his implacable foes, the Scribes and Pharisees, and hurled at them sentences which at the distance of nineteen hundred years still smoke like thunderbolts? Or would you paint him as he came from the Garden of Gethsemane and startled the band of men who have come to arrest him by saying, "I am the man you seek"? Or would you picture him going to Golgotha saying to the women who bewailed his fate, "Weep not for me, but for yourselves and your children weep"? All these situations I admit are picturesque and thrilling. Every reader of the New Testament catches them up and holds them forever in his memory. In each one of them we see heroism in a high and lovely form, but these are not the scenes to which I call your attention at the present moment.
Would you ask me to give you an illustration of the courage of Jesus’ heart, I would take you first of all to Nazareth on that day on which for the first time he announced his mission to the men and women who had known him from boyhood. It was necessary for him to say things that would offend, and he said them. He was to preach the truth, but he could not preach the truth without cutting across the grain of the prejudices of these people. He went calmly onward, however, and preached the truth.
To estrange the hearts of those who have known and esteemed us for many years, to cut one’s self off from the respect and sympathy and love of those in whose friendship we have found solace and delight – that is hard indeed. And that is what Jesus did on that awful day in Nazareth. By the simple speaking of the truth he alienated from him the minds and heats of the people in whose midst he had grown to manhood and whose high regard had been one of the most valuable of all his earthly treasures. He was a courageous man that day, and equally courageous was he in the streets of Capernaum when he talked to that crowd of five thousand men whom he had fed a little while before in the desert beyond the Sea of Galilee. He came into the world to bear witness to the truth, but men were not willing to receive it. At the beginning of his address every one was enthusiastic, but as he spoke the great crowd began to melt away. The five thousand dwindled down to four thousand, the four thousand decreased to three thousand, the three thousand sank to two thousand, the two thousand became one thousand, the one thousand fell to five hundred, the five hundred to one hundred, the one hundred to fifty, the fifty to twenty-five, and these at last became twenty, the twenty dwindled to fifteen, and at last only twelve men stood beside him, and these twelve had such doleful, wavering faces that he said to them, "Will ye also go away?" What is there harder in this world than that? A religious teacher finds his joy in the ears and hearts of those who hear him. To hold them, to teach them, to inspire them – this is indeed his glory, his all. But to teach the truth and go on teaching it even though the congregation grows less and less and less, that requires the forthputting of the very highest temper of the soul. It was just that kind of courage that Jesus had. The courage which he manifested in Capernaum was manifested everywhere.
It is not an easy thing to offend society and to offend it in such a way as to lose caste and standing. The people in Jesus’ day were great sticklers for forms of fasting. Jesus minimized the value of them. They were exceedingly scrupulous in regard to sabbatical laws. Jesus could not keep them, he did not believe in keeping them. They were punctilious in regard to the number of times they washed their hands before they sat down to eat. Jesus had no time for such elaborate foolery. The best people of his day divided things into clean and unclean, people into clean and unclean – Jesus could pay no attention to these distinctions. All men were his brethren, and so he associated with people who had lost caste. By so doing he lost his own reputation. Has any one courage enough here to do that? He went contrary to the established usages of the best society of his day; he trampled on conventionalities that were counted sacred as the law of the Eternal. And the result was he was suspected, shunned, and abhorred. But he did even more than this: he surrendered the good opinion that many of the people had formed of him. When he first appeared the air was filled with applause, men looked upon him as the promised Messiah. The land blazed with enthusiasm. The people had certain ideals, and Jesus could not conform to them. They had fixed ideas ‘ and Jesus could not carry them out. He threw cold water upon these fires of enthusiasm and they died down lower and lower, until at last there was nothing but a great stretch of smoldering ashes, and he stood in the center of the ashes the most forsaken and hated of men. It takes tremendous courage to lay aside one’s reputation, and also to forego the bliss of popular applause. But he did a braver thing even than this: he gave up the good opinion of the best people of his day. He was reverent, religious, sensitive, but there were certain things it was necessary for him to say because they were true things, and he said them. By saying them he exposed himself to the charge of being a blasphemer, but he said them. He was willing to do his duty even though by the doing of it he won for himself the ignominy of being counted a blasphemer, a lunatic, and a traitor.
Only the very loftiest heroism can meet such a test as that. But we have not yet reached the
climax. If it is difficult for a man to withstand his enemies, much more difficult is it for him to with stand his friends. There are many men who can resist the people who are opposed to them who cannot withstand the opinions and wishes of their friends. Many of us can pour denunciation on the men who hate us, but we succumb at once to the gracious words of those who wish us well. Peter was Jesus’ dearest friend; but when Peter on a certain occasion says to him, "Far be it from thee, Lord, this shall never happen unto thee," quick as a flash the reply comes, "Get thee behind me, Satan." James and John present what seems to them a most reasonable request – Jesus says, "I cannot grant this." Judas was one of the most trusted of the apostolic company-so trusted that he was made the treasurer of the band; but Jesus by the simple telling of the truth and the living of a perfect life estranged the affections of this man until at last he became his betrayer. Many of you have courage sufficient to stand against your enemies, how many of you can resist the influence and wishes of your friends?
But if you want illustrations of the courage of Jesus, you must take the entire New Testament, for all the Gospels are portraits of a hero. The story of Jesus’ life is the most heroic record ever written, and any man who wishes to increase the bravery of his heart must read this book day and night. See him as he sets his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, where he knows they are going to scourge him and spit upon him and kill him. His friends endeavor to dissuade him, they strive to hold him back. He keeps steadily on, knowing that at Jerusalem he will give his life a ransom for many. Lord Randolph Churchill, one of the most distinguished of Englishmen of the last century, in the year 1881 wrote a letter to his wife telling her that he had quit politics once and forever. He said: "More than two thirds, in all probability, of my life is over, and I will not spend the remainder of my years in beating my head against a stone wall. There has been no consideration, no indulgence, no memory or gratitude – nothing but spite, malice, and abuse. I am quite tired and dead sick of it all, and will not continue political life any longer." How natural, how human that sounds! Haven’t you heard men say it? Possibly some of you have said it yourself. You have engaged in some reform, and have been misrepresented and abused. You have turned away, saying, "I am tired, I am sick." Maybe you were a worker in the church; you were misrepresented, you were thwarted; you cast up your work, saying, "I am tired, I am sick." Why do men talk thus? Because they are cowards. Only cowards surrender, only cowards get tired and sick. Jesus steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem and never turned back until he reached the cross. See him as he goes onward, trampling on all the precious things of earth, putting under his feet the ambitions by which the hearts of other men are fired, trampling into the dust the prizes and the joys of life. Make out a list of the things that you count most valuable and worth while, and you will see that Jesus placed every one of them beneath his feet. With the tread of a conqueror he goes on to his death, saying, "I do always those things that are pleasing unto Him."
And yet his courage never overleaps itself and becomes audacity or recklessness. Some men have found fault with him because on certain occasions he escaped and hid himself. He retired into out-of-the way places, not because he was a coward, but because he was so brave. It is easier to die than to live a life such as Jesus lived. He hid himself sometimes to escape the fury of his enemies, because be desired to remain a little longer in order that he might establish in men’s hearts the truths that would redeem the world. Thousands of men every year leap off this planet by self-destruction. They do it because they are cowards. Jesus bore the burden and endured the cross until his work had been completed. And so with such a temper we are not surprised to find him at every stage of his trial acting like the hero that he was. When the soldiers buffeted him and cuffed him, cursed him and spat upon him, he never said a word. He was so courageous that he dared to be silent. As a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
When he comes at last to stand before Pontius Pilate, he stands so erect that Pilate is afraid of him, and the heart of the Roman procurator flutters when Jesus says to him, "For this cause was I born, unto this end came I into the world, to bear witness to the truth." And when at last they nail him to the cross the only thing he will say is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Rousseau was right when he wrote his immortal line, "If the life and death of Socrates were those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus are those of a God."