ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson


Christ in the Sinner

This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them. -- LUKE xv: 2.

WE have considered how Christ approaches us, offering us His Friendship, under various forms and disguises, placing within our reach, that is to say, certain aspects, or even virtues and graces, of Himself which we cannot otherwise apprehend. He extends, for instance, His Priesthood to us in His human priest, and His Holiness in the saint.

Both these particular disguises of His are simple enough. To those who know anything of His Reality as God, it is actually only through some extraordinary prejudice or blindness that they fail to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd in the words which His priest is authorized to pronounce, or the Sanctity of the Most Holy in the superhuman lives of His closest intimates. It is not so easy to recognize Him in the Sinner; as the Sinner, it would seem, is the one character that He could not possibly assume. Even his dearest disciples seem to have at least been tempted to fail Him when, on the Cross, and yet more in Gethsemane, He "that knew no Sin, for us" was "made Sin."{1}

I. First, however, it is clear that among His most marked characteristics, as recorded in the Gospels, were His Friendship for sinners, His extraordinary sympathy for them, and His apparent ease in their company. It was, in fact, for this very thing that fault was found with Him, who claimed, as He did, to teach a doctrine of perfection. And yet, if we think of it, this characteristic of His is one of His supreme credentials for His Divinity; since none but the Highest could condescend so low -- none but God would be so human. On the one side there is no patronage as from a superior height -- "This man receiveth sinners."{2} He is not content to preach to them: He "eateth with them" as if on their level. And, on the other, not a taint of the silly modern pose of unmorality: His final message is always, "Go, and now sin no more."{3}

So emphatic, indeed, is His Friendship for sinners that it seems, superficially, as if comparatively He cared but little for the saints. "I am not come to call the just," He says, "but sinners."{4} Three times over in a single discourse He drives this lesson home to souls that are naturally prejudiced the other way -- since the chief danger of religious souls lies in Pharisaism -- in three tremendous parables.{5} The piece of silver lost in the house is declared more precious than the nine pieces in the money-box: the single wilful sheep lost in the wilderness more valuable than the ninety-nine in the fold: the rebellious son lost in the world more dear than the elder, and the heir, safe at home.

See, too, how He acted on what He said. It is not merely a vague benevolence that He practises towards sinners in the abstract; but a particular kindness towards sinners in the concrete. He chooses out, it seems, the three types of all sin and unites them in a special manner to His company.

To the careless, reckless, thick-skinned villain He promises Paradise; to the hot-blooded, passionate, sensitive Magdalene He gives absolution and praises her love; and even that sinner most repulsive of all -- the deliberate, cold-hearted traitor who prefers thirty shillings to His Master -- He greets even in the very moment and climax of his treachery with the tenderest title of all -- "Friend," says Jesus Christ, "whereto art thou come?"{6}

One lesson emerges, then from the Gospel story clearly enough. We cannot know Christ in His most characteristic aspect until we find Him among the Sinners.

II. What, however, does this mean? Again and again the world revolts. We can recognize our Priest when he ministers at His altar; our King of Saints when He is transfigured; we can even recognize Him, in a manner, ministering to sinners -- since He ministers to ourselves -- but is there any intelligible sense in which we can say that He identifies Himself with them, in such a sense that we are to seek Him in them, and not merely amongst them?

Yet the example of the saints is clear and unmistakable. Souls that are wholly united to Christ seek nothing except Christ; and, if one thing is plain, it is that such souls, whether they retire from the world to labour in penance and prayer or plunge into the world in effort and activity, are seeking not merely things alien to Christ that they may make them His, but Christ Himself, in a sense, alien to Himself, that they may reconcile them. . . .

After all it is very simple; since Christ is the "Light which enlighteneth every man coming into this world,"{7} and it is the Presence of Christ, and that only, that makes a human soul of any value. Certainly in one sense, the soul lost in sin has lost Christ -- His Presence is no longer in the soul by grace; yet in another sense, and an appallingly real and tragic one, Christ is there still. If a sinner merely drove Christ away by his sin, we could let such a soul go; it is because, in St. Paul's terrifying phrase, the sinful soul holds Christ still, "crucifying" Him and "making Him a mockery,"{8} that we cannot bear to leave him to himself. Such a soul has not yet entered Hell; nor yet lost, finally and eternally, the Presence of God; she is still in a state of probation, and therefore still holds her Saviour in mystical bonds and fetters. There, then, our Friend is not merely pleading with the soul externally, but, in a manner, internally too: there in the half-stifled voice of conscience is the Voice of Jesus Christ entreating through lips bruised once again. There lies the Light of the World, crushed to a glimmering spark by a weight of ashes; the Absolute Truth, half-silenced by Falsehood; the Life of the World to come pressed to the brink of death by a life still in this world, and of it.

From such a soul, therefore, our Lover cries with the bitterest pathos of all -- "Have mercy on me, 0 my friends. . . . In the words of my priest I can still perform actions of wonder and mercy; in the lives of my Saints I can live again a holy life on earth; by every soul in grace I am at least tolerated and left in peace, if not actually welcomed. But in the soul of this sinner I am powerless. I speak, but I am not heard; I struggle and am struck down. . . . 'Attend, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow.'{9}. . . Behold, 'I thirst'{10}. . ."

There then is Christ, in the disguise of one who has rejected Him.

III. Now this recognition of Christ in the Sinner is the single essential to our capacity for helping the sinner. We must believe in his possibilities. And his only "possibility" is Christ. We have to recognize, that is to say, that beneath his apparent absence of faith there is still, at any rate, a spark of hope; beneath his hopelessness, at least a glimmer of charity. Mere pleading and rebuke are worse than useless. We have to do, on the level of our own capacities, something of what Christ did in His Omnipotent love -- identify ourselves with the sinner, penetrate through his lovelessness and his darkness down to the love and light of Christ Who has not yet wholly left him to himself. We have, in a word, to make the best of him and not the worst (as our Lord does for ourselves every time He forgives us our sins), to forgive his trespasses as we hope that God will forgive our own. To recognize Christ in the sinner is not only to Christ's service, but to the sinner's as well.

Yet how pitiable is the failure of Christians to understand this -- or, at any rate, to act upon it! It is easy enough to persuade men to take part, let us say, in a liturgical function where Christ is evidently honoured; to adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament; to reverence Him in His priests; to celebrate the feast of a saint. But it is terribly difficult to persuade them to engage in work whose material lies in Christ's dishonour -- to support, let us say, Rescue Societies, or guilds for the conversion of the heathen. We are terribly apt to hug ourselves in our own religion, to leave sinners to themselves, to draw the curtains close, to make small cynical remarks, and to forget that a failure to recognize the claim of the heathen and the publican is a failure to recognize the Lord whom we profess to serve, under the disguise in which He most urgently desires our friendship.

Look at the crucifix. Then turn and look at the Sinner. Both are, in themselves, repulsive and horrible to the eyes of cold and godless perfection: both are lovely and desirable, since Christ is in both: both are infinitely pathetic and appealing, since in both He "that knew no sin" is "made sin."{11} . . . For the crucifix and the Sinner are profoundly, and not merely superficially, alike in this -- that both are what the rebellious self-will of man has made of the Image of God; and therefore should be the object of the deepest devotion of all who desire to see that Image restored again to glory -- of all who pretend even to any sympathy with Him who not only is the Friend of Sinners, but chooses to identify Himself with them.

To fail to recognize Christ, therefore, in the sinner is to fail to recognize Christ when He is most fully and characteristically Himself. All the devotion in the world to the White Host in the monstrance; all the adoration in the world to the Stainless Child in the arms of His Stainless Mother -- all this fails utterly to attain to its true end, unless there accompanies it a passion for the souls of those who dishonour Him, since, beneath all the filth and the corruption of their sins, He who is in the Blessed Sacrament and the Crib dwells here also, and cries to us for help.

Lastly, it is necessary to remember that if we are to have pity on Christ in the Sinner, we must therefore have pity on Christ in ourself. . . .

{1} II Cor. v: 21.

{2} Luke xv: 2.

{3} John viii: 11.

{4} Matt. ix: 23.

{5} Luke xv.

{6} Matt. xxvi: 50.

{7} John i: 9.

{8} Heb. vi: 6.

{9} Lam. i: 22.

{10} John xix: 28.

{11} II Cor. v: 21.

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