Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord
i Corinthians iv. 5.
Second Sunday after Epiphany, 1873.
These words speak to us with singular directness at the present time. Four days ago the grave closed over the mortal remains of one, who not long since was the most powerful ruler, and the foremost man, of his generation1. Even, if the approach of death had been slower and the warning more explicit, we should still have received it as a startling announcement, that the lips, on whose oracular utterances the fate of Europe hung for long years, were silenced, and the hand, which had dictated peace and
1 The Emperor Napoleon III.
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war to the nations, was stiffened in death. And the strange vicissitudes of his life invested its close with a still more tragic interest. Exile, emperor, victor, vanquished, he had passed and repassed from one extreme to the other in the scale of fortune. Brilliant triumphs and unequalled disasters in war, an empire rapidly consolidated and still more rapidly lost, the intoxication of popular idolatry and the bitterness of popular hatred, the gaiety of a magnificent court and the agony of intense bodily suffering—such were the sharp contrasts of this eventful career. All those tremendous common-places of human experience— the instability of fortune, and the irony of life, and the rude irreverence of pain and disaster, and the stern republicanism of death—received a new and striking illustration in the fate of their most recent victim.
And in the ten days just elapsed the dead man has lived his life over again. The world has been sitting in judgment on his character. All his past actions have been summoned as witnesses for or against him. All his real or supposed motives have been scrutinised and dissected with a pitiless minuteness. In every social gathering, and in every public print, this has been the one absorbing topic of discussion. It has passed from mouth to mouth, and it has flashed from wire to wire; till the remotest hamlets have been impanelled to assist in the verdict.
It would be futile, even if it were right, to object to the rigid scrutiny which awaits the lives of famous rulers after death. As a warning and as an example, it is well that they should feel the glare of publicity upon all their actions. But I ask (for with this aspect of the matter alone I am concerned) what is the value of the verdict, when given? Is it adequate? Is it complete? Even though it may form a fairly comprehensive estimate of the statesman, the general, the ruler, what does it know of the man—the man with his drawbacks or advantages of education and position, his motives, his temptations, his whole complex inner life; the man in himself, stripped of all external circumstances; the man, as he will appear one day before the tribunal of Christ, when the hidden things of darkness will be brought to light, and the counsels of all hearts made manifest?
And even in its own limited sphere is this verdict so clear, so precise, so unanimous, that it at once commands our unquestioning acquiescence? Did not his own countrymen within a very few months give and revoke a most deliberate judgment, passing from almost unanimous applause to almost unanimous execration? Are we not warned that the judgment of posterity will not be the judgment of his contemporaries; that his name must be added to the long list of those, whom history hereafter will be called to rehabilitate? Has not his character been described as an insoluble enigma, a conflicting result of antagonistic qualities, of boldness and hesitation, of enthusiasm and caution, of affectionate warmth and remorseless calculation, a mixture of the sceptic and fatalist? And what is all this, I ask, this vacillation, this self-contradiction, this futility, in men's estimate, but a confession, that it is not given to man to fathom the heart of man, a warning that in the Apostle's language we should 'judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come'?
And yet, here, if anywhere, the materials exist, which might be thought to have secured an adequate and final verdict; for he of all men lived and died in the full blaze of publicity. During his long term of power, hardly a day passed when some record of his doings was not flashed to all the capitals of Europe. His movements, his looks, his words, his silence, all were duly chronicled. Despite himself, the world was taken into his confidence; and yet the world confessed that it did not understand him. It is the penalty, which royalty must pay, that even the privacy of the sick-chamber and the sanctities of the house of mourning are ruthlessly invaded. The minute details of a painful malady, the worn expression of the lifeless countenance, the very looks and the tears of the survivors, all are noted down, as if with the design that no single fact might escape, which could bear directly, or indirectly, on the estimate of his character. And yet this is the result.
'Judge nothing before the time.' Certain it is, that the elements of the final judgment in his case, as in ours, will be very different from those on which any anticipatory verdict of men could be based; that much, both of good and of evil, which assumes vast proportions in our estimate, will sink into littleness, when weighed in the scales of the Eternal Justice; that much, whether of good or of evil, which we do not know and cannot suspect, will start forth from the abysses of the soul, when the light of the Eternal Presence is turned full upon it. Certain it is, that at that great assize the principles, which will rule the verdict, are not the principles, which have dictated the comments of to-day; that the standard of praise or blame will not be success or failure; that Mexico and Sedan will not be the darkest counts in the arraignment, nor Sebastopol and Solferino the most telling pleas for the defence. Certain it is, that neither the partiality of friend nor the prejudice of foe will interpose, as now, to distort and darken the sentence: Italian, Austrian, Imperialist, Democrat—the conflicting interests of nations and the antagonistic sentiments of parties—will be voiceless then. Certain it is, that the judgment in the High Court of Heaven will be ct once more strict, and more merciful far, than the trial before the bar of public opinion; more strict, for it will scan motives, desires, intentions, the abandoned project, the abortive counsel, which are concealed from the keenest glances and the liveliest suspicions of men; more merciful, for Omniscience alone can duly weigh and estimate the unique difficulties of temperament and education, and the thousand unsuspected temptations that crowd about the path of him who commands the resources of an almost unlimited power. Certain it is, that one rule will be applied to all alike, to prince and to peasant, to him and to us; that in that final award our opportunities will be weighed against our impediments, our gifts against our temptations; and, this adjustment made, the principle will then be applied, 'Unto whomsoever much is given, of him will much be required.' Certain it is, that just those features will be most acceptable in God's sight in his case, which would be in ours— not the triumphs of diplomacy nor the feats of war; but the unswerving constancy, which never deserted a friend however humble, the lively gratitude (rare in common men, rarer still in princes) which in prosperous days never overlooked the services rendered in adversity; the heroism of physical endurance, which fought with the agony of a painful malady, pursuing the daily task in silent suffering; the still nobler heroism of moral endurance, which bore alone without a sign of impatience or a syllable of reproach the burden of an unparalleled disaster and the execrations of an indignant people, grandly disdaining to shift or to divide the blame, which assuredly was not his alone. All these things are certain. But most certain is this, that, whosoever—whether emperor or artisan you or I—may be accepted in the great and final day, he will owe his acceptance, not to his merits nor to his character nor to his achievements, but to that vast reserve of God's mercy, which He has revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Such are the reflections suggested by the text. S. Paul had received cruel treatment at the hands of the Corinthians. For two years he had devoted himself wholly to their spiritual needs. He had taken nothing from them; he had given everything to them. His thoughts, his energies, the labours of his hands, the anxieties of his heart, all were theirs. He was ready to spend and be spent for their sakes. But they had returned his affection with coldness, and they had met his efforts with scorn. He had not the prestige of primitive apostleship. He was not eloquent enough, or learned enough, for their fastidious demands. Other teachers were courted and extolled. He only was neglected and despised.
To all this cruel ingratitude, this unworthy depreciation, he had one reply. He refused to submit his character and his ministrations to these self-constituted judges. He denied the competency of the court to deal with the matter at all. Strong in the conviction of his own sincerity, he appealed to a higher tribunal, before which alone he would suffer his cause to be tried. He would accept no anticipatory verdict from men; for the evidence was partial, the witnesses were biassed, the jury was packed. At the bar of the Eternal Justice alone he would stand. There only the verdict could be final, for there only the court was supreme. To him therefore it is an infinitely small matter, that he should be acquitted or condemned, whether by his Corinthian censors or by any other human tribunal.
What knowledge has one man of another, that he should constitute himself his judge? What knowledge of another, do we ask? Nay, what knowledge has he of himself? Grant for a moment, that I am not aware of any fault, that I can bring no accusation against myself. What then? Am I competent? Am I impartial? Am I omniscient?
This, I suppose,,is S. Paul's meaning, when he closes his argument with the words, 'Yea, I judge not mine own self; for I know nothing by myself, that is, I am conscious of no wrong in myself; yet am I not hereby justified.' These words, as I suppose, give not S. Paul's opinion of his own actual condition, but his statement of a hypothetical and (from its very nature) an impossible case. For, unless I am much mistaken, it would have seemed infinitely shocking to S. Paul to use such language of himself. How could he, who counted himself not to have apprehended, he, who prayed that he might not be found a castaway, be conceived to say that his conscience charged him with nothing? Charged him with nothing? Think you that the memory of the blood streaming from those mangled limbs, and the glow lighting that saintly countenance, and the prayer of forgiveness rising to heaven from those martyr lips, had passed away and left no sting behind? God might have forgiven him; but he could never forgive himself—the man, who had hounded on those religious assassins to their fatal deed. Or do you imagine that during those long years of ministerial labours, despite all his energy and all his love, he saw in the retrospect no error or short-coming, nothing to blame and nothing to amend? Nay, the best and saintliest of men must always be the most severe judges of themselves; for their moral standard is the loftiest, and their moral sensibilities are the most keen. The trivial omissions, the unguarded words, the rebellious thoughts, the subterfuges, the self-deceptions, all the unobtrusive sins of the passing hour, which escape the meshes of a coarser conscience, are duly arrested by theirs. They know most against themselves, for they note and record most.
Grant that you acquit yourself at the bar of conscience, that the acquittal is impartial, is sincere. Are you competent, as a judge? Have you all the data before you, on which the verdict must be founded? How much do you know of yourself? At this very moment your friends, your neighbours, even casual strangers, discern faults in you, which you do not actually and perhaps may not ever suspect. They see one side of you; you yourself, another. Yours is the larger fraction, but it is only a fraction still. There are intricate complications in the heart of every man, which far transcend his powers to unravel. At times we may almost realise—not indeed the knowledge of ourselves, but the knowledge of our ignorance of self. A shock is given to the moral system by some unwonted occurrence—a disappointment, a loss, a sickness, a bereavement, a desertion, a surprise of temptation, a victory of sin. A momentary light is flashed in upon the man's heart, and reveals to him his inability, his meanness, his inconsistency, his degradation. Then he begins to suspect how little he has known of his true self. But the flash is gone, and the old darkness gathers about him. What do you remember now of the eventful history of some one sin which has long become a habit— the warnings, the compunctions, the counteracting influences, the growing attractions, the faint resistance, becoming feebler and feebler as the allurement became stronger and stronger? How little do you scrutinise, record, realise the motives, which urge you to the conduct of to-day or to-morrow, too absorbed in the energy of the processes, and too eager about the success of the results! Yet just here, in this past history, here, in these directing motives, are the main elements in which your responsibility consists, the chief data on which your final sentence must be based.
And if you are not competent to judge yourself, how will you dare to judge another? While you cannot track the windings of your own heart, to which you have free admission, how can you fathom the secrets of your neighbour's, where entrance is absolutely barred to you? Of his motives you can knozv nothing. You can only hazard a conjecture. Your conjecture will be wrong in numberless cases; it must be inadequate in all. Yet on the motive the true character of the action depends. And how, again, can you strip off the mask, which men assume to disguise their real selves? Here is one man, who has been guilty of a crime, punishable by law. He is suspected. By bold and consistent lying he repels the charge. Society takes him at his word, receives him back into favour, perhaps regards him as an injured man. Here is another, who has committed the same crime. A single falsehood would save him from the consequence of his guilt. But conscience asserts herself. He has fallen carelessly into the sin, but he cannot deliberately tell the lie. He will face the loss of liberty, the brand of infamy, the forfeiture of all that makes life worth having, rather than do violence to his supreme convictions. He confesses, and is condemned. The world howls in execration over the deed. Need I ask whether the verdict of the world in these cases will be ratified at the bar of Eternal Justice?
And still less can you estimate those manifold influences of external circumstance, which separate class from class and man from man, and which in the eye of the Omniscient Judge must constitute infinite gradations in the heinousness of the same sin. I have alluded already to the special temptations of exalted rank, of boundless resources, of absolute power. It is quite impossible for us common men to realise them. An impenetrable barrier interposes, and shuts off our sympathies. Let us turn now to the other extreme of the social scale. You are shocked with some exposure of degraded vice, which appears in our police reports. Have you thought of the infected moral atmosphere which that offender has breathed from infancy? Have you realised the squalid court, the crowded room, the want, the blasphemy, the depravity? Has it occurred to you to ask yourself, whether you could have withstood all these influences for evil? Spare not the sin. Hate it; for it is hateful; but do not steel your heart against the sinner. Remember the infinite tenderness of the Son of Man, Whose disciple you are; and do not withhold the sympathy of your pity or the charity of your hope, as you yourself trust to be forgiven through God's infinite mercy in the last day.
For there will be manifold surprises, strange reversals of our human verdicts, in that final Court of Appeal; strange reversals, when the respectable citizen shall be condemned, and the convicted felon acquitted; strange reversals, when the preacher of righteousness shall be shut out, and the outcast of the streets welcomed into the everlasting abodes. These things must be. The voice of Christ has said it; the claims of justice demand it. Ponder over these things, and judge nothing before the time. Judge not, lest you judge wrongfully; judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged.