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CHAPTER XI.

THE MAGNANIMITY OF JESUS.

To be tremblingly alive to gentle impressions, and yet to be able to preserve, when the prosecution of a design requires it, an immoveable heart, amidst the most imperious causes of subduing emotion, is perhaps not an impossible constitution of mind, but it must be the rarest endowment of humanity.”—Foster, Essays.

I BEG leave here to admonish the reader, that I do not aim at anything like completeness in the repre

was immediately asked to produce the sign of his authority for doing what he had done, his reply is, “ Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up.” In this obscure allusion to his death and resurrection, how undesignedly is his foreknowledge of these events revealed ! Again, when at another time a sign was demanded, his answer is, “An evil and adulterous generation is seeking after a sign, but no sign shall be given it but the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Here again how unconsciously is his knowledge of his death and resurrection implied ! Had the narrators designed to ascribe to him a foreknowledge which he did not possess, they never would have wrapt up the evidences of it in such obscure allusions. The reference to the prophet Jonah, by the way, is wonderfully pointed ; if, as we may with great probability suppose, those, who asked for a sign, desired to witness some dazzling exhibition of miraculous power. It is as if he had said, “You are seeking a luminous and overpowering display of my authority. I tell you, that the true sign of my author. ity will be given in events shortly to occur— -(my death and resurrection,) which, so far from corresponding to your ideas of the Messiah's glory, can be likened to nothing among all the splendid signs and won. ders of your history, so appropriately as to the humiliation of the prophet Jonah.']

THE MAGNANIMITY OF JESUS.

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sentation I have undertaken of the character of Jesus Christ. To prove the honesty of this disavowal, it is not necessary that I should indulge in any of those expressions of self-disparagement, by which one so seldom convinces others, and so often deceives himself. It is enough to say that since, after the lapse of eighteen hundred years, the moral significance of the life of Jesus remains unexhausted, I do not believe that it is now to be fathomed at a glance, even by the best and wisest. Nay, after a period of equal length a thousand times told, I am persuaded the treasures of moral life, truth, and beauty, hidden in Jesus Christ, will remain absolutely inexhaustible. The least of the things of God in the humblest department of his universe presents an infinite variety of aspects, and opens an unfathomable depth for contemplation. It is not therefore to be for a moment supposed that, within any definite space, the character of Jesus will be so understood and appreciated, that little will remain to be told of it.

It would be easy enough to enumerate the virtues, and ascribe them all to him in a mass; to heap upon him the phraseology of panegyric, and then fancy that we have completed his portrait. But the effect of his character has been injured by nothing, scarcely, so much as by the loose and indiscriminate manner in which it has been described. It has been divested of all vitality, by the general and unqualified language of praise, and converted into a dim and lifeless abstraction, a feeble personification of Virtue. It seems to have been thought that extravagance is impossible when Jesus Christ is the theme. And yet

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THE MAGNANIMITY OF JESUS.

it may almost be questioned, whether those who have lavished

upon

him the loftiest terms of commendation, going the length of literally deifying him, have even caught a glimpse of his real greatness. It may be I have no doubt that it is beyond the power of language to do him justice. Still we are extravagant when we speak of him in terms that exceed our own distinct impressions, and allow ourselves to deal in vague generalities; and the effect cannot but be injurious. It is very difficult, I know, to avoid falling into an exaggerated tone, when the heart has been touched in the slightest degree by pure moral beauty. I cannot flatter myself that I have wholly escaped this difficulty, I can only say that I endeavour anxiously to guard against it, and to justify the expressions of my reverence for Jesus by numerous and decisive facts, being chiefly desirous to see clearly so far as I see, and recognizing discrimination as of the first importance.

I have entitled this chapter “The Magnanimity of Jesus.” The true greatness of his mind has already been shown in his use of the extraordinary gifts with which he was endowed, and in the calm and steady confidence with which he cherished a lofty purpose. I wish to pursue the illustration of this quality, because it is so uniformly disclosed through the whole tenor of these narratives of his life. In all the relations in which he is placed—under all the circumstances detailed, the same noble being appears, and, on the part of the historians, all is related quietly, unostentatiously, unconsciously.

For the most expressive manifestations of the men

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THE MAGNANIMITY OF JESUS.

217 tal and moral greatness of Jesus, I do not refer to those precepts of his, in which he inculcates universal charity and benevolence, the forgiveness of injuries, and the overcoming of evil with good. The verbal lessons which he gave of these virtues are doubtless emphatic and eloquent. Still in no case are the words of an individual, taken by themselves, a decisive index of his spirit. It is possible to express the most comprehensive benevolence, and at the same time to be enslaved by the narrowest prejudices. Numerous enough are those who are happily described by the author of the History of Enthusiasm as "closet philanthropists, dreaming of impracticable reforms and grudging the cost of effective relief.” I do not therefore appeal to the precepts of Christ, clear and beautiful as they are, to demonstrate the quality of his spirit.

In that prayer which burst from his heart amidst the agonies of crucifixion, what a greatness of soul is revealed ! “ Father! forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Oftentimes as this passage has been commented upon, I have sometimes thought that it has never been fully felt. The deep, natural, inextinguishable generosity of feeling which dictated it, appears to me to be enfeebled in the general apprehension, through the absence of a distinct impression of the persons for whom Jesus uttered this prayer. He is commonly supposed to have made this generous plea in behalf of the whole multitude assembled around him, or of the Jews in particular. I will not deny that it was so. Still, when I attempt to picture the

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FATHER! FORGIVE THEM !” circumstances of that terrible occasion, I cannot feel that it is altogether a fanciful conjecture, especially since the connexion does not discountenance it,* to imagine that this prayer was uttered at the moment when the Roman soldiers were nailing Jesus to the cross; and that it was under the torture which this operation caused, and with immediate reference to those savage executioners, as ignorant as they were cruel, that the sufferer prayed. I do not mean to imply that any present were excepted in his mind from this plea. But the incident receives new point and

my view, when I consider this sublime ejaculation as bursting from his inmost soul, under peculiar and intense agony, and as referring immediately to those by whom this agony was inflicted. O what a heart was that upon which the acutest suffering had no effect, but to cause it to feel, and pray, and plead for those by whom the suffering was caused ! Not in corroding bitterness, but in cleansing, healing streams of mercy, did the sensibility of that heart flow out over the very hands which were seeking to crush it, and were already stained with its blood! “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” They must have been forgiver.. If “the effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man availeth much,” this, the divinest prayer that God ever heard,

Hymn'd by archangels when they sing of mercy," could not have ascended in vain. At some period of their existence in this state of being, or in another, the true knowledge of Jesus, as I cannot but believe, must dawn upon the minds of those savage men, and

* See Luke xxiii. 33, 34.

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