THE PATIENCE OF JESUS
"A bruised reed shall he not break."
-Matthew xii : 20
LET US think about the patience of Jesus. It will be better to deal first with the word. Of course everybody knows what patience is – at least he thinks he does – and yet somehow the very simplest words, and those with which we are most familiar, have a fashion of being misunderstood and of eluding us when we try to catch them and compel them to give up their meaning. Patience is one of the common words of every man’s vocabulary, even though it may not be one of his most conspicuous virtues. Do we not say: "My patience was completely exhausted," "I have no patience with such a man,’ "My patience was never so tried in all my life," and of course we always understand what we mean when we use such language. What, then, does patience mean? We may discover that this old familiar word has more than one meaning. Words are sometimes like stars. You see a star shining in the sky, and to your eye it is a single star. The astronomer brings his telescope and to your amazement it is not a single star but a double star, two blazing suns have united their forces to produce that shining point of light in the blue. Just so, there are words which shine like stars in the firmament of speech, single stars they seem until we subject them to scrutiny, when we discover that two meanings burn within the limits of their narrow syllables. This word "patience" is not a single but a double star. First of all it means: calmly waiting for something hoped for. In this sense even the animals are endowed with the virtue of patience. See the cat watching hour after hour, waiting for the appearance of a rat. She scarcely moves a hair and hardly winks an eye, waiting calmly for that happy moment when her victim shall appear. And just that virtue of imperturbable waiting is one of the great virtues of the human soul. Men have it in greater or less degrees, and sometimes it mounts to the level of genius. Blessed is the man who knows how to possess his soul in patience, waiting with unruffled mind for something hoped for. We find this virtue in every department of human life. Men make use of it in the building of their fortunes. A man invests his money in a piece of timberland that will bring him no returns for many years. The trees are small, and it may be that a third of a century must elapse before the trees are ready for the sawmill. But the man invests his money and calmly waits through the years, knowing that at the end of life he will be rich.
But this meaning does not exhaust the significance of patience. See yonder woman tortured by disease, she has been an invalid for years and in all this time she has never cried aloud, never complained, never rebelled against her fate. Here, indeed, we have something different from what we had in the preceding cases – and yet we call this patience, we look upon the woman in admiration, almost in awe, saying, "I never saw such patience in all my life." Or look at yonder man at the head of a great reformatory movement. He is endeavoring to bring to pass some mighty change in church or state or in society, and he has met with opposition at every step. For a while he makes progress, and then the way is blocked. Enemies multiply, friends forsake him, hearts grow cold, he is misunderstood, misrepresented, maligned, and hated. But, nevertheless, he goes bravely on, unsoured by opposition, undaunted by vituperation, never complaining, always hoping, bearing rebuff and reproof and criticism without a whine or a protest. Here again is patience. What is patience? It is the uncomplaining endurance of tribulation. These, then, are the two ideas which burn within the limits of our word patience." First, it is the calm waiting for something hoped for; second, it is the unruffled endurance of pain and trouble. It is a temper of the soul, a temper that endures, waits, holds on. A man may have one sort of patience and not the other He may have the ability which calmly waits for something hoped for, and be quite impatient under the affliction of bodily pain or social persecution. On the other hand, he may be calm as a marble statue under physical infirmities, and may stand undaunted against all forms of social opposition and still be unable to wait steadfastly through the years for the accomplishment of a vast design. Patience exists in all degrees and grades. You have heard of the patience of Job. His is one of the immortal experiences of history. But how imperfect it was. His patience was the waiting for something hoped for, but it was not calm waiting; his patience was the endurance of tribulation, but it was not an endurance that refused to complain. He bewailed his fate, he groaned, he shrieked, he cursed the day on which he was born, he plunged and bellowed in his agony; but nevertheless he endured, he held on, he never surrendered. And it is this temper of endurance which constitutes the very heart and soul of patience, so that notwithstanding his manifold imperfections, Job stands among the heroes whose names shall never die. But would you see patience in both its forms raised to its highest power without a defect and without a flaw, you will find it in Jesus of Nazareth.
If patience means the calm waiting for something hoped for, then Jesus had this in a superlative degree. Was any waiting ever like his? He waited in a little country town in Galilee for thirty years before he entered into the work he felt God had given him to do. We do not always stop to ask ourselves how much this must have cost him. We Americans are among the most impatient of all people. It is difficult to induce many of our young men to wait long enough to prepare themselves adequately for the business of life. Thousands of boys drop out of school in the grammar grades not because they could not finish their education, but because they are impatient to go to work. Of the young men who go to the universities many drop out at the end of the freshman year, others at the end of the sophomore, others at the end of the junior. Only a fraction of those who matriculate ever receive their diplomas, so impetuous are American youths, so eager are they to plunge into life’s tumult and battle. It is an ever present question, therefore, in America how to shorten the curricula and how to devise short cuts to success and fortune. All sorts of schools and institutions have sprung up which give but partial training. These schools are patronized by young men who are impatient to get on. Now this impatience is often indicative of extraordinary vitality in the blood. Men are so full of life, so eager to help in doing the world’s work, they cannot submit to the interminable delays that the traditional education involves. Think of what delay must have meant to Jesus. How his blood must have boiled in little sleepy Nazareth as he dreamed of the mighty things which ought to be done and which he felt he could do in the great arena. As man after man brushed by him on his way to success and renown his soul must have been agitated, he too must have felt the fever to hasten on. Think of what his dream was and you will understand how it must have tugged at him and made the years seem interminable in drowsy, prosaic Nazareth. But he waited. At twenty-one he said, Not yet. At twenty-five, Not yet. At twenty-eight, Not yet. It is in the twenties that the blood is hottest and the soul is most eager to get on. Through all the blazing years of youth Jesus waited in Nazareth. It was not until he was in his thirtieth year that he said to himself, The time has come.
A man at thirty is more than one-third of the way through life, and since Jesus has so much to do, certainly now that he has been baptized he will plunge into his work with alacrity, and push his projects with a vigor which will startle his contemporaries. Not so. He will calmly meditate on the best ways of helping his day and generation. The leaders of the people were looking for a man who would imitate the methods of the men who had hitherto proved themselves masters of the destinies of nations. It was clear to every eye that by means of the sword the finest execution could be done; that by military power the greatest results could be most speedily achieved; that by political genius established wrongs could be unthroned and defeated, and rights could be exalted. Jesus listened to these voices, they came up from all directions thundering in his ears. In imagination he saw himself on the top of a lofty mountain with the kingdoms of the world lying stretched out below him. He saw how he might gain possession of them by adopting methods employed by those who had lived before his day.
But having considered the whole situation he said, "No, I will not do what others have done, I will choose the slow and toilsome way; I will not cut the knot, I will untie it; I will not push the world, I will draw it; I will not subdue the world by military methods, I will heal it by the sympathy of human hearts." With this conviction firmly established in his soul he began his ministry in Galilee. To the men who stood around him he was always slow. ‘ Why don’t you go on? Why don’t you hurry? Why don’t you bring things to pass? Why don’t you say everything you are going to say? Why don’t you do everything you are going to do? Why don’t you do it now?"-those were the questions that were thrown at him by friends and enemies all along the way. But when they urged him to hurry, his reply was, "Are there not twelve hours in the day?" or, "My hour is not yet come." And instead of setting all the land afire he tried, so it seemed, to suppress himself, to hold his disciples back, to keep his name from becoming glorious. When he healed sick men he said to them, ‘Tell no man."
When his disciples saw him all radiant on the mountain he cautioned them to keep still. The result was that at the end of his life he had made only one hundred and twenty disciples. What a pitiful outcome of a life so arduous, of work so strenuous and so unceasing! But the sight of a hundred and twenty men did not daunt him, he died with contentment in his heart. "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ When? Not then, not a hundred years after his death, nor a thousand years, nor ten thousand years after. Nevertheless he has the tone of victory in his voice, knowing that in spite of all the obstacles, delays, and retrogressions, the outcome is absolutely certain. Before Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, he says, "To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth." He did his work and died. The progress has been slow, but his patient heart is still untroubled, and from his throne of glory he looks upon the slow-moving ages, patient with the feeble efforts of his followers, willing to wait for the reluctant submission of rebellious hearts, knowing that by and by, sometime, somewhere, the kingdom will be established and all his dreams fulfilled. That is patience at its climax.
But this does not exhaust the patience of Jesus. The way of a reformer is never smooth, and the way that Jesus traveled was the thorniest which human feet have ever trod. It was literal truth that he came unto his own and his own received him not, the light shone in the darkness but the darkness comprehended it not. With a love that caused his heart to glow he knocked at the door in Jerusalem, but the men who kept the door refused to open it. He knocked at the door in Nazareth; the door was opened and then shut in his face. He traveled throughout Galilee, and in city after city he met with nothing but repulse; but he was never discouraged, he never complained. Wherever he went he was pursued by men who were his enemies. They watched him in order that they might trip him. They questioned him in order that they might get him into a trap. How difficult it is to speak if one is speaking in the presence of people who are watching each sentence, determined if possible to catch the speaker in an error. Wherever he went his conduct was scrutinized by eyes that were green with envy. Everything he did was criticized, every action called forth a storm of fresh abuse. His enemies gathered around him like a swarm of mosquitoes biting him, like a swarm of hornets stinging him but he never complained. They nagged at him, pelted him with abusive epithets, sowed the land with lies about him, but he never grew bitter. We have known many a good man to grow sour simply because he had been misunderstood by a few people. Many a good woman has grown bitter because of unfortunate experiences with those who were her fellow-workers in the church. This Man of Galilee knew little but misunderstanding and ingratitude and criticism and abuse; but he never complained and at the end of the day he was as sweet as at dawn. Long before he came somebody had said that when the supreme man arrived he would submit to tribulation without complaining. As men looked upon this Man of Galilee they were reminded of the great line of the prophet, "As a lamb before the shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth."
And if Jesus was patient with his enemies he was equally patient with his friends, and probably his friends tried him no less sorely than his enemies. His friends did not understand him. His own mother and brothers were not in sympathy with him. The disciples to whom he gave himself with a devotion that has never been equaled were constantly failing to catch the import of the things he told them. They were slow and stupid, petty and selfish, unable to take in the great things he had to say – but he was patient with them. Even on the last night of his earthly life, when he met them in a private house in Jerusalem to have a last talk with them, they quarreled among themselves as to their places at the table. But even this brings from him no more than an affectionate rebuke. He simply takes a basin of water and performs the work which was ordinarily performed by slaves, rinsing the dust from their unsandalled feet, – by this act teaching what he had been trying to teach them from the beginning, that he who would be greatest must be the servant of all. There is a beautiful quotation in the Old Testament which the apostle Matthew has put at the center of his Gospel, throwing a flood of light upon the impression which Jesus made upon those who came nearest to him. After he had vanished from their sight, the beauty of his character came up before them as they had never been able to see it in the days of his humiliation, and among the beautiful portraits which men in preceding generations had sketched of an ideal character Matthew felt that not one more fully portrayed Jesus of Nazareth than this one, "A bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax he shall not quench." This was his temper whether he was dealing with foes or friends. He demanded much of his disciples, but he did not demand it all at once. He kept saying if a man has even a little faith, even so small as a grain of mustard seed, he has enough to start with, and by means of this he will be able to work wonders. Great men have oftentimes been notoriously impatient with their weaker and more incompetent brethren; strong themselves they could not sympathize with weakness; clear in their own conceptions they could not endure the stupidity of those who floundered in mist and fog. The bruised reed they had no use for, the smoking wick they despised and quenched. But the patient Man of Galilee had a temper altogether different. He sympathized with weakness, he was considerate of mental dullness, he was long-suffering in the presence of moral awkwardness. Even a bruised reed he would not break, and even a smoking wick he would coax back into flame.
And ever since Jesus lived and taught, men have loved to think that God is patient. To every follower of Jesus the Almighty is a long-suffering God. He has vast plans running through the ages, and He is willing to wait for their fulfillment. Men look around them at the woe and havoc, the suffering and the tragedy, and say: "How could God ever make a world like this? How can He endure it to have these things go on?" They do not understand that He is patient, infinitely patient, and is willing to wait until human hearts surrender, and by their obedience bring the long and bitter night to an end. Not only does He wait, but He also suffers indignity at our hands without blazing up in anger and consuming us. We may be ungrateful, insolent, irreverent, rebellious; we may refuse to do the things He asks us to do, and persist in doing the things that are contrary to His will; we may injure ourselves and hurt others, nevertheless He will not strike us down. He will give us yet another day, and still another, saying, "Perhaps to-morrow the sin will be repented of and the prodigal will come home."