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We may see clearly, that in this exhortation or command there is contained much important doctrine, as well as moral and religious instruction; and the words of the text lead us to consider,
I. The nature of the duty here enjoined;
II. The persons to whom it applies;
III. The manner in which this duty ought to be performed;
IV. The motives to the performance of it.
The nature of the duty here enjoined is charity; and the meaning of charity is a disposition of mind to relieve the wants and distresses of the poor, as far as our ability extends, and as far as their wants and necessities require. I am aware that this is contrary to the received opinion now, that the poor have no right to relief, or even to employment; but I hold an opinion myself, founded upon the authority of God, that they are lawfully entitled to both; and I argue no less from Scripture than from the law of the land, as it existed before the new law.
If it be objected to this opinion, that the new law supersedes the Scriptures and the law of the land, as it before stood, I say that no new law can supersede or abolish either the law of God or the law of the land, as founded upon the law of God. If any man opposes, as I well know and lament that many do oppose, this opinion, I can only say that I leave him to the judgment of God. But I readily admit that we are not to run away with wild and fanciful ideas of charity. We are not to suppose that every man is to interpret the meaning of charity in every sense. Some persons are what the world calls charitable from ostentation; others from self-interest; others from natural feeling; and others from the love of admiration and applause. Finally, not a small number of persons, and those the most estimable among mankind in general, exercise charity, because they think the performance of this duty the sum and substance of religion, and expect from it the blessing and favour of God, and the enjoyment of eternal life.
These persons erroneously suppose that they can purchase heaven at the price set upon it in the Gospel. But they are grievously mistaken; for no man can possibly merit the reward of eternal life by his own good works. However desirable and commendable they may be when performed from right motives and principles, they are not meritorious in the judgment of infinite and perfect Justice. Charity, in the true sense and meaning of the word, denotes both Piety and Benevolence. It consists in kind offices done to the afflicted and distressed, from a principle of love to God and love to our neighbour. All acts of real charity are therefore performed from a sense of duty, as well as from sympathy for the poor and distressed, and from a principle of religion which teaches us to obey the law of God, and to follow the example of him who went about doing good,* both to the souls and bodies of
* Acts x. 38.
men. Having thus defined and explained the meaning of the duty, we will proceed to consider,
II. The proper objects of this charity.
In some sense it may be said that charity is due to all persons in need of it, when we have the means of affording it. But it is plain and obvious, that if charity be universal in its nature, it cannot be unlimited in its extent. It is strictly confined, in all cases, to doing good and doing what is right. Indiscriminate charity is, in this sense, no charity at all; for it may do more harm than good, by encouraging the worthless and the profligate, the drunken and disorderly, the idle and improvident. It is an invariable rule to be observed in the exercise of charity, that the better the character, the higher is the claim. The Apostle has therefore taught Christians to do good unto all men, but especially to them who are of the household of faith.* To relieve the distresses and wants of the religious poor, is a duty of so much importance, that our Lord assures us, that forasmuch as we have done it unto the least of these his brethren, we have done it unto him; and he will accordingly remember it at the final judgment.
Among those in general to whom we ought to perform the good oflices of kindness, are the poor within our own knowledge, and in our own neighbourhood, because it is in our power to do them more good than those who live at a distance, and are comparatively strangers; because those who live in other parishes, or
» Gal. vi. 10.
in other places, may, or ought to, find benefactors there; and because of another reason, that if we neglect those who are, properly speaking, our own poor, they will in all probability receive no relief. This description of persons will serve, in ordinary cases, for those who may be considered as the proper and peculiar objects of Christian charity; and we shall understand this part of the subject better as we proceed to consider, III. The manner in which this duty ought to be performed.
The mode of administering relief should be adapted to the various sufferings and wants of the poor; and it should be administered in that way which is found most effectual to this end. If a poor person be suffering from sickness, charity requires that he should have medical assistance and advice. If he suffer for want of the common necessaries of life, these should be afforded with a liberal hand. If he be in want of employment, that want should be supplied, and he should receive the just wages of his labour. If he has a large family, and is unable both to feed and clothe his children, he should be helped by the bounty of the affluent and rich to accomplish these necessary objects. It is not enough to say, we feel for our poorer brethren in these respects, or merely to express the sentiments of benevolence; but we must take an active part in relieving these wants, as the Apostle has well taught us. If a brother or sister be naked, or destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled,
notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profit f * Nothing is more contrary to reason and religion, than that charity which consists in good words and good wishes only, without effectually endeavouring to do good works; nothing more contemptible than professions of kindness, and leaving the poor and needy to starve and perish without making any efforts to relieve their distress. Perhaps I may be told by some of the theorists of the present time, that all this is now changed and done away, and that in these liberal and enlightened days there is no necessity for charity under the new system of political economy which has become law: but the answer to this objection is plain and undeniable, that the law of charity is the law of God, which changes not and cannot be abolished. There is nothing more important at this time, both in a civil and religious sense, than to convince the poor and distressed that the rich are not their enemies, and to remove the unfavourable impression from their minds, that both justice and charity are denied them. We cannot do this more effectually than by observing the apostolic admonition, to do good and to be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate. We are bound by the most sacred and solemn obligations to make this a part, and a principal part, of our religion, for if we fail in the conscientious performance of this duty, our profession of the Christian faith will be * James ii. 15, 16.