Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones–Mat 18:10
The Savage Are Characterized by Contempt of Others
The spirit of contempt is very strongly developed among savage races. A savage is nurtured to hate or to despise. Between his own tribe and every other tribe there is a deep and quite impassable gulf, and it has never entered into the savage heart that love or kindness should seek to bridge that chasm. If other tribes are powerful they must be hated. If they are weak they must be treated with contempt. There is the belief, then, in the sad creed of many a savage, that there is virtue in despising others.
The Spirit of Disdaining Others
And when we pass from the wild life of savagery to the civilisations of the ancient world, the remarkable thing is that we are immediately confronted with the same spirit of contemptuous disdain. We might have hoped that the culture of the Greek, and his swift appreciation of all things of beauty, would have given him a large sympathy with mankind. We might have expected that the world-conquering Roman, strong in his masculine sense of law and order, would have been too large-hearted to belittle. And above all, we might have trusted that the Jew, to whom had been granted the vision of the eternal, would have learned in the great glory of that vision to call nothing common or unclean. But history tells us a very different story. The old world is flooded with the spirit of contempt. And we do not need to go beyond the Bible story to learn how the Greek looked down on the barbarian, or how the Jew disdained the Gentile world. Everywhere, then, where the spirit of Christ is not, we are confronted with the spirit of contempt. A Christless world, if it believes in anything, believes in the holy duty of disdaining. And it is like the courage of the Lord Jesus Christ that He dared to lift up His voice against the past, to charge it with error in its cherished virtues, to tell it that it had gone utterly astray. For all this our blessed Lord was doing, when He taught the lesson of not despising others.
The Duty of Holy Scorn
Of course we must distinguish this despising from what I might call the passion of noble scorn. A man is a poor creature and a poorer Christian, if he has lost his capacity for scorn. There are deeds that a right-thinking man will scorn to do. There are books that an earnest heart will scorn to read. And there are men and women whom a heaven-touched soul would scorn to number in its list of friends. A man is out of line with Jesus Christ who does not hold scorn for certain things. For if ever in the world there was the passion of scorn, it was in the heart of Jesus in the Temple, when He raised His whip and drove the traders out. Such scorn as that is a very holy thing. It is the kindling of a man’s best into a flame. It is all that is purest and most divine within us raised to white-heat by intolerable evil. And a man must be very lukewarm for the right, and have sadly confused weakness with charity, who is never stirred so in a world like this. But to despise is something very different. There is nothing of moral passion in despising. It does not spring from any love of goodness. It is not rooted in any hate of wrong. True scorn is an utterly self-forgetful thing. But the man who despises is always full of self.
The Evil Brought about by the Spirit of Contempt
And I think it is not difficult to see the evil that is wrought by the spirit of contempt. It was as the Champion of the weak and the oppressed, so that they might have an atmosphere to grow in, that our Lord spoke so sternly of despising. It is easy to be good when we are loved. It is not very hard to play the man when we are hated. But to be courteous, charitable, gentle, loving, kind, when all the time we know we are despised, is a task that would try the powers of an angel. There is nothing so likely to make a brother despicable, as just to let him see that you despise him. There is nothing so certain to touch the flowers with frost-bite, and chill the air, and make the spirit bitter. And I think that Jesus Christ hated contempt, and banished it imperiously from the kingdom, that chilled and suppressed hearts might have a chance. There is only one thing worse than being despised by others. And that is to be despised by one’s own self.
Christ Was Also Despised
And let me say in passing that we must bear that in mind if we would really know the beauty of Christ’s character. The wonder of it is deepened a thousandfold for me, when I remember that He was despised. If it is hard for you to hold fast to lovely and lowly things, if it is difficult to be good and to be tender, when in the eyes that look on you, you see contempt, you may be sure it was not less hard for Jesus. Nay, on the contrary, it was far harder; for Jesus was far more sensitive than you. We have all been dulled and coarsened by our sin; Jesus alone knew nothing of that coarsening. In looks that we could never have interpreted, in words whose sting we never should have felt, Christ felt in its bitterness that He was despised: yet what can match the beauty of His character? Had it been only antagonism that confronted Him, I think I could understand Christ Jesus better. For a man is often roused by fierce antagonism till all his slumbering powers take the field. But that Jesus of Nazareth should have wakened every morning and said to His heart, I shall be despised today; that He should have gone every evening to His rest saying to His heart, Today I was despised; and that in spite of that He should have moved on to the cross, brave, tender, loving–that is the great mystery for me. May it not have been because our Lord knew to its uttermost the temptations of the soul that is despised, that He spoke so strongly on not despising others?
Spirit of Contempt Rooted in Lack of Understanding
Now what are the sources of this contemptuous spirit? Why is it we are so ready to despise? Well, I take it that contempt has two main roots, and the first of them is want of understanding. There is a great text in Job of which I often think; it occurs where Elihu is justifying God to men. And he says, “God is mighty and despiseth not any; He is great in strength of understanding.” Now Elihu was not a very brilliant person; one can hardly imagine even patient Job listening patiently to Elihu’s preaching. But I could forgive Elihu a whole volume of commonplace for this one thought that flashed on his poor brain. For Elihu means that just because God is great, and knows each separate heart with perfect knowledge, and reads, without an error in one syllable, the intricate story of the worst and weakest, because of that, God is a God of pity: “He is mighty and despiseth not any.” That means that if we knew our brother as God knows him, we should never dare to despise him anymore. In the last analysis man may be a sinner, but in the last analysis–thank God–man is not despicable. If only we knew what the weakest and worst had borne, if only we understood how they were tempted, if we could read the story of their secret battle, could fathom their wretchedness, could hear their cry; if only we realised that under that dull exterior there are heaven, hell, loneliness, cravings, love, I think we should cease despising in that hour. God understands all that, and therefore despises no one. We despise because we do not know.
Contempt Rooted in Lack of Love
And then the other root is want of love. Where love is, there can be no contempt. A man may have twenty despicable traits, but to the one who loves him he is still a hero. And that is why, in the love of Christian homes, men who are not thought much of in the city are sometimes wonderfully good and gentle. They are not hypocrites. It is the absence of even the suspicion of contempt at home that brings out all that is best and brightest in them. I have seen a deformed or crippled little boy or girl sadly despised in the playground and the street. They have had to stand many a bitter jest–for children can be terribly cruel. But though all those in the playground despise the shrunken limbs, and make very merry at the arrested brain, there is one at home who would sooner lie down in her grave, than think of despising that little shattered frame. Where a mother’s love is, there is no contempt. It is want of love, then, and want of understanding, that lie at the roots of most of our despising. And the question I wish to ask in closing is this: How does the Gospel of Jesus combat that? Christ never says do this, and leaves us there. When He commands, He gives the power to fulfil. And I wish to ask what are these powers, that have been called into action by the Christian Gospel, to banish the contemptuous spirit from the kingdom?
The Christian Ideal
First, then, there is the height of the ideal that dawns on a man when he becomes a Christian. In his new standards of the measurements of things, there is less difference between him and others than he thought. A little green hillock of some thirty feet high might well despise the molehill in the field. But place them both under the shadow of Ben Nevis, and there is little room for boasting or contempt. The schoolboy who has mastered Caesar despises his junior still struggling with the rudiments. But in the presence of a ripe Latin scholar there is not so much difference between the brothers after all. Just so when a man sees little higher than himself, it is tolerably easy to despise. But when the ideal is lifted into the glory of Christ our superiority has a strange trick of vanishing. It was the Pharisee, whose standard of all things was the Pharisee, who thanked God that he was not as other men. But the poor publican, with his God-touched conscience, and his vision of the splendour and purity of heaven, could only cry, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” With such heights to scale, and with such depths to loathe, it was impossible to despise the sorriest brother. And every man who has been wakened to the eternal has been wakened to the sight of heights and depths like that. It is that heightening and deepening that comes through Christ that robs a man of shallow self-content. And to rob a man of shallow self-content is a sure way to guard him from despising.
The Gospel Teaches Human Brotherhood
And then the Gospel insists on human brotherhood. “Our Father which art in heaven” is its prayer. Did the cultured Greek look down on the barbarian? Did the elect and covenanted Jew despise the Gentile? Did the free man look with an infinite disdain upon the slave? Clear as a trumpet, strong as the voice of God, there rang this message on a dying world: there is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but all are one in Christ. Yes, and when that word of command was obeyed, and the Gospel of Jesus was carried to the heathen, and when the peace and hope and joy and comfort of it was offered in all its fulness to the slave, slowly, like a dark cloud, the contemptuous spirit of paganism scattered, and the star of brotherhood rose in the sky. It is our kinship in Christ, then, that is blotting out contempt. It is our brotherhood that has lightened that burden of despising. God meant us to be like that tiny lass in Edinburgh who was carrying a strapping infant in her arms, and when a stranger said, “Why, what a burden for you,” she answered, “Please, sir, he’s not a burden, he’s my brother.”
Who Can Despise Someone for Whom Christ Died?
But the greatest power of all has still to be named. It is the life and death of our Saviour Jesus Christ. No man can struggle to be true to that ideal, nor feel the love that brought Him to the cross, without the contemptuous spirit we are all so prone to, taking to itself wings and flying away. I ask you to trace the story of that life, and tell me if you find a trace of despising there. The fact is, Christ was despised for not despising: the Jew could never understand His charity. Did He despise the woman of Samaria though all her village held her in contempt? Did He despise the publican, the harlot? Did He ever look with disdain on the little children? Christ saw the worst as you have never seen it–felt all the loathsomeness and guilt of sin–yet for the worst all things were yet possible; there was some chord still capable of music. The sorriest sinner was good enough to live for. The sorriest sinner was good enough to die for. A man may be poor, unsuccessful, vulgar, very dull; but if he can say “Christ Jesus died for me,” I do not think I shall despise that man again.