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“Langland's work was that of a reformer; and the English reformers of the sixteenth century were right when they saw in him a forerunner. The Puritan element, which was destined to impress itself so powerfully upon English life and literature in the seventeenth century, broke forth for the first time in Langland. One of the greatest in the majestic line of English poets, whose muse was inspired by the highest interests of man, those of religion, he was the worthy predecessor of Milton. . . . Out of somewhat ruder materials he created a style whose dignity, vigour, and national spirit endure beside the more perfect art of Latin and greater poets” (Ten Brink, “ English Literature," vol. i. p. 367).
“ He shall stand at the right hand of the poor.”—Psalm cix. 31. The Divine Founder of our religion, the great Head of our Church, is known in the sacred records, and has been designated from time to time in the long history of the Christian Society, by many names and
Is there any true sense in which it is right for you and me, without irreverence, to speak of Jesus Christ as the greatest of Social Emancipators, the most potent of Social Reformers? Is there in the personality of Jesus any element of character which, if we were speaking of a modern leader of thought or action, we should feel obliged to designate as democratic or socialistic? Is there in the religion of Jesus Christ any specific quality which of itself seems to create a social Message such as our modern world especially needs to hear ?
I think that there is. At any rate with this thought in your minds let me ask you, by way of introduction to my lecture to-day, to go back for a moment or two, and try to feel once more if you will the social significance of that life manifested in Galilee all those years ago.
Now there is no fact more removed from controversy than this, that the supreme concern of Jesus Christ, as exhibited in the sacred record of His ministry on earth, was the disclosure to each individual human soul of its right relation to God. One of His earliest disciples, S. Philip, quite accurately interpreted that central desire of His Master when he said: “Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” And to that revelation of the Father all else in the Gospel of Jesus Christ was subordinate. All the rest of His teaching, in fact, may be regarded as by-products thrown off or precipitated in the process of reaching the special result desired. And such a by-product-most valuable no doubt, but still a by-product-was, in my opinion, the teaching of Jesus Christ in regard to social questions. Jesus was not, therefore, in the first place, a social reformer. He was a revealer of the spiritual basis of all true life. He was not primarily a social agitator with a plan. He was a poetic idealist with a vision.
He looked at the social world from above and always approached its problems from within. In a word, revelation--not revolution—was His method. He offered to humanity, therefore, not social reform by organisation but social reform by inspiration. “I am come,” He said, “that ye might have life and have it more abundantly.” The communication of vitality, the contagion of personality, this is the secret of Jesus --for the individual first and then for society — for what is born in the bone of the individual must eventually show itself in the blood of society.
But having said this—and I shall have further to emphasise this thought of the essential individualism of Christ's teaching before I close—it must not be forgotten that there was much in the attitude of Jesus Christ towards the social environment of His own time which explains, if it does not entirely justify, the position of those who from time to time, in the course of the Church's history, have emphasised the profoundly socialistic import of the Gospel."
The Church has never been able, thank God, to forget that when Christ came He came as a poor man in the outward rank of an artisan. He was a true child of the people. In the very song of praise which burst from His mother's lips, when she knew that of her was the Christ to be born, the democratic note is first sounded which has echoed on through the history of the Church.1
You and I are so familiar with the words of the Magnificat, as we sing them day by day at Evensong in our churches, that, in all probability, we miss the significance of that note. But when the Church, evening after evening all through the parishes of Christendom, is singing this hymn, she is unconsciously foretelling—the most ignorant and prejudiced of her priests are foretelling — that greatest of all revolutions which the mother of Jesus saw to be involved in the birth and work of Christ. To Mary at that moment of inspiration in which her lips poured forth this birth-song of democracy, was revealed the stupendous reversal, political and social, which the birth of the Son of God, as the Son of Man, as the
son of the poor carpenter's wife, was bound, sooner or later, to produce in all the world.
You will find that same democratic note, the note of social passion, struck by Jesus Himself, when, in the full bloom of manhood, He stood for the first time face to face with his brother men in the synagogue of Nazareth :
“ The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
No wonder that the common people heard Him gladly, and listened with delight to the gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth.
It would have been strange had they not done so, when we remember how completely such doctrine seemed to satisfy the popular ideal. Of all histories the history of the Jewish people is the one, notwithstanding the outward form of their national constitution, in which the democratic spirit most constantly predominates. No tribunes of the people have ever been so bold as the prophets of Israel. They were, in fact, the champions of popular liberty and popular justice at a time when those virtues met with little regard from either priests or kings. The Old Testament, the Bible of the Israelites, was pre-eminently a Poor Man's Book. The thought that God was the protector of the poor, and the avenger of the oppressed, , was to be found on almost every page of it.