THE BREADTH OF JESUS
"Preach the Gospel to the whole creation."
- Mark xvi:15.
THERE is a sense in which Jesus of Nazareth was lacking in breadth. He had apparently no desire to see the world, and was content to spend his life in little Palestine. He walked a path that was narrow, and refused to give his approbation to men and measures that won the esteem and praise of thousands of his countrymen. But there was a purpose in this narrowness, and a reason for it. His narrowness was a product of his breadth. He walked the narrow path because he carried in his heart the dream of an empire that was vast. By standing in one place and striking repeatedly the strings of the same set of hearts, he started vibrations that have filled the world with music. By carefully tending the fire that he had kindled, he made it hot enough to change the spiritual climate of many lands. By saturating a little circle of chosen followers with his spirit, he made them capable of ‘carrying on their shoulders a lost race to God. By persistently treading a single path, he made that path so luminous that every eye can see it; by discarding false ideas and by opposing wicked men, he has made it easier for truth seekers and the soldiers of God in each succeeding generation to fight a good fight and to win the crown. By being faithful in a few things, he won the place of Lordship over many cities; and by limiting himself, and by making himself of no reputation, he founded a kingdom broad as humanity and of which there shall be no end. If you study the New Testament, you will see that this man from the beginning carried the world in his eye and the race on his heart. What strange paradoxes one finds in the realm of the soul. If you would be broad, then be narrow. Jesus was narrow because his breadth was immeasurable.
It was the breadth of Jesus’ ideas and sympathies which first brought him into conflict with his countrymen. The Jews as a people were proverbially narrow and bigoted. They divided the world into two parts and placed an almost impassable gulf between themselves and all other races. Inside of Palestine people were divided into classes by lines which were straight and unchangeable. Hearts were narrow, and feelings were bitter and hard. Samaria was counted accursed, and men of Galilee on their way to Jerusalem crossed over the Jordan in order that their feet might not be contaminated by treading the Samaritan soil. The Jews were an exclusive and haughty and aristocratic race, constantly thanking God that they were superior to all other nations. But the spirit of Jesus was different. In his very first sermon in Nazareth he called attention to the fact that in the days of Elijah, God had picked out a widow outside the promised land for special consideration and honor, and that in the days of Elisha, although there were many lepers in Israel, God had passed by them all, and healed a Gentile leper, Naaman, the Syrian. It was all written down in their Scriptures, but the good people in Nazareth, like many other good people since their day, did not pay attention to many things written in their own Scriptures, and when Jesus began to eulogize the widow of Sidon and the Syrian king, their hearts became so hot within them that they broke up the meeting and tried to mob the preacher. They bustled him down through the narrow street and out along a road which ran near the brink of a precipice, fully intending to crowd him over the edge, but he foiled their nefarious intentions and made his escape to Capernaum. This is really the beginning of Jesus’ conflict with the world. It is worth while to remember that the first antagonism was occasioned by his effort to push out men’s horizon. The narrow-headed villagers of Nazareth were driven to the edge of murder by the breadth of a man that went beyond them.
The amplitude of Jesus’ ideas is evidenced by their perennial freshness and applicability to all kinds of men and conditions. How wonderful it is that Jesus’ ideas are broad enough to cover all the nations and all the centuries. Many ideas shrivel and dry up with the lapse of time. Political ideas have a strange fashion of passing away, and so do scientific ideas. One century has no interest in the political teachings of the century that preceded it, and no generation is willing to accept the science of the generation that went before it. But the ideas of Jesus have such breadth that they can cover the world and the ages, and although nineteen centuries have swept away almost everything which was believed and taught in Jesus’ day, his ideas are still alive and the very words in which they are expressed seem destined to outlive the stars. This is indeed strange, that we people of the twentieth century should be a part of the Nazareth congregation, listening to the very ideas which interested Jews nearly two thousand years ago, and so broad are these ideas and so universally applicable to the demands of the mind and the needs of the heart that each succeeding generation down to the end of time will take its place in the congregation of the prophet of Nazareth, so that if one could see the whole history unrolled before him, he would discover the countless millions of humanity gathered round a single teacher, and that teacher none other than the teacher whom the people of Nazareth tried to kill. Broad, indeed, must be the ideas that can cover all peoples and kindreds and tongues throughout all the eras of their existence.
And his heart was as far-reaching as his brain. The social sympathies of Jesus were to his countrymen a surprise and a scandal. He felt with everybody. He seemed to be ignorant of the proprieties and the etiquette of well-bred people. His heart went out to all sorts and conditions of men in a way that was reckless and shocking. There were men in Palestine who were under the ban of public opinion. Every right-thinking man despised them. They were treated like the dogs in the street. They had feelings, but nobody felt with them. Every door of society was slammed in their face. These men were known as Publicans. Jesus’ heart went out to these men. He talked with them, ate with them. Not content with this he took one of them into the inner circle of his intimate friends and allowed him to go out and teach and work in his name. Even in Jericho, the narrowest of all Judean cities, because for centuries it had been the home of the priests, this big-hearted prophet took dinner with one of the most notorious of all the Publicans, to the consternation of the best people in the land. And not content with thus showing the breadth of his sympathies by his deeds, he painted a picture that hangs in the great art gallery of the world. Its colors will never fade, and no thief can ever destroy it. It is the picture entitled, "The Pharisee and the Publican." The lesson of the picture is that God’s heart is more responsive to a penitent Publican than to a vainglorious Pharisee. There was only one set of men lower than the Publicans, and they were the Samaritans. Every man’s hand was against them. Every heart was hard as flint toward them. And Jesus befriended them. He felt with them. He gave religious instruction even to a Samaritan woman, and healed even a Samaritan leper. So wide was his heart that there was room in it for a Samaritan outcast whose flesh was rotten. And as if determined that all the world down to the end of time should know the width of his sympathies, he painted a picture which men will look at as long as they have eyes to see and hearts to feel, and the name of the picture is," The Good Samaritan." What havoc this man made with the traditions and customs of his countrymen! The land was crossed in all directions by dividing walls and estranging barriers, constructed by narrow-hearted teachers, and after Jesus had walked through the land, lo, the barriers and walls were a mass of ruins. His great, loving heart burst asunder all the regulations and restrictions. There was room in his soul for everybody.
It is in the width of his love that men have found most to wonder at. His love was unbounded. It was an ocean without a shore. He was not willing that his followers should set boundaries to their love, because all such barriers were contrary to his habit and foreign to his spirit. When Peter, asked him how often a man ought to forgive another who has trespassed against him, and suggested seven as a number almost grotesquely large, being more than twice the number suggested by the most liberal of the rabbis, Jesus said: "Do not set any limits at all. There are no boundaries in the realm of love. You cannot calculate in the empire of the heart. Mathematics is foreign to affection." Whenever he spoke about love he said something which amazed his hearers. One day he said, "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you; and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you." And when men stood aghast showing by their faces that only God could be expected to have a love so broad, Jesus went on to add that God is to be the model of all men who want to live right, and that one’s constant aim shall be to bring his life up to God’s style, and to imitate Him in the unbounded reach of His good will. Nor was this simply exhortation. It was not only preaching but practice. Jesus taught forgiveness because he knew the blessedness of a forgiving heart. He himself was forgiving always. He had no grudges, no retaliations, no revenges. Some men forgive because they have not eyes to see the heinousness of wrong, and not heart to feel its devilishness. Jesus saw the loathsomeness of vice, knew the odiousness of vulgarity, felt the hideousness of sin. His heart was so sensitive that it blazed against evil, but while he loathed the sin he could love the sinner, and so when his executioners nailed his hands and feet to the cross, the only word which escaped his lips was, "Forgive," "Forgive," "Forgive." That great word contained the blood of his heart.
It is this abounding love which accounts for the immeasurable reaches of his hope. He was the most hopeful of all teachers. No matter how dull the pupil, he still believed that he would learn. Men had grown cynical and pessimistic in Palestine nineteen centuries ago. They had lost confidence in humanity, and had settled down in the conviction that for many mortals we can expect nothing but perdition. To the religious teachers of Palestine certain classes were beyond redemption. They were lost and were labeled "Lost." It was known throughout the city that to certain sinners no exhortation could be directed, no promise could be offered. The Jewish church turned its back upon all such, and confined itself to men who could be saved. But Jesus, because he loved, also hoped. His hope was as immeasurable as his love. He did not reject the refuse of society. He saw promise even in the scum. The dregs of society are not to be carelessly tossed away. There is a chance for the man who is supposed to have no chance, there is hope for the man whom men have doomed to perdition. You cannot tell what is in a man by what he says or even by what he does. There is more in him than comes out in his words and his deeds. And so Jesus proceeded to show that the so-called lost men were not lost, and that even in blasted Samaria the fields were white to the harvest. He did not hesitate to direct his most earnest exhortations to men who were supposed to have no heart, and even when the world’s cruelty was cutting into him like steel, he said, "I, if I be lifted up, will I draw all men unto me." So boundless was his confidence in man, that he set no limits to his expectations.
He could not accomplish the redemption of the world in the few years of his earthly career, but he would form a society, baptize it with his spirit, and through this society God from His throne in heaven would redeem the race. The formation of this Christian society is one of the great events of the New Testament. The character of the men built into it has a wealth of suggestion. If you were going to form an organization for the purpose of carrying out your ideas after your death, what kind of men would you select? You would – I suspect – choose men like yourself, of your own social circle, and of your own type of mind, and of your own general temperament and make-up, and in so doing you would have a society which would come to nothing. Mark the method of Jesus. He chooses men of all grades and from all classes. No man in the group is like any of his comrades, and no one of them is like Jesus. There is a mercurial man, Peter; and there is a lymphatic man, Thomas. There is a fire-cater, Simon Zelotes, a member of the fieriest political party in Palestine; and there is the prosaic and slow-going Philip. There is a man of good family and spotless reputation, John; and by his side is a man with a tarnished name, Matthew, the Publican. All temperaments are here, and all combinations of mental faculties, and here are representatives from various classes and divers social strata. In doing a wide work you must have a broad instrument, and the Christian church as it left the hands of Jesus embraced in its membership the types of men which would be able to open all the doors. Never does the breadth of the mind of Jesus come out with more startling clearness than in the manner of his choices in the formation of the society which was to bear his name and carry on his work. It was a great work, the vastest that has ever entered into the heart of man. He had constantly the ends of the earth in his eye. The narrowness of the petty men who administered the affairs of the Jewish church distressed him. "Many," he said, "shall come from the East and the West and from the North and the South and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of God."
At an early stage he told his ‘ apostles not to go outside the limits of their own people in their work, but this limitation of field was only educational, and with their increasing strength was to pass forever away. Men should stay in Jerusalem long enough to secure strength sufficient to grapple with the problems of Judea, and they should tarry in Judea until they were capable of grappling with the more difficult conditions of Samaria, and they should work in Samaria until they had acquired the endurance which would enable them to travel to the uttermost parts of the earth. In the earlier stages a teacher does not communicate to the pupil his plans for the years which lie far ahead. Jesus did not talk to his apostles about the world and the ages on the day of their baptism or even in the upper chamber, but before he left the earth he poured into their car the great message which had been in his heart from the beginning, and it ran thus, "Go preach the Gospel to the whole creation." All national boundaries are now obliterated and the horizon thrown round the apostles is not less narrow than the large circle of the world. "Go disciple the nations." It was in this manner that he spoke to them before the cloud received him from their sight, and whenever from that day to this the followers of Jesus have been closest to him, they have been found to be dreaming of conquests wide as the world.
He that hath seen this man hath seen the Father. In Jesus of Nazareth we get a revelation of the breadth of the heart of the Eternal. How did it happen that Jesus was so spacious in his ideas and so broad in his sympathies and so far-reaching in his planning? It was because God was in him revealing Himself to men. That is what God always is – broad in His sympathies, wonderful in His expectations, boundless in His love. He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son – and this Son came to earth and tasted death for everyman – and the Spirit whom He sent and also the bride who is His church, they keep on crying through the centuries: "Come! Let him that is athirst come. Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely."
This, then, is a message for us all. No matter who you are, you have a sure place in the mind and heart of God. No matter how you have sinned, you are inside the boundaries of His sympathy. No matter what you have said or felt or thought or done, you are still the object of His love. No matter how often you have disappointed Him, He is still expecting of you better things. Whoever you are, and wherever you are, and whatever you are, you are included in His plans. When He laid down the lines of His vast scheme for humanity, you were not overlooked or forgotten. When He framed His church, a place inside of it was assigned to you. That place will remain vacant until you fill it. You cannot escape Him. His arms are all-embracing. The width of His heart is infinite. His love is everlasting.
"I know not where his islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond his love and care."