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Trifles

( Originally Published 1908 )

Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment,, mercy and faith.-Jesus.

The whole discourse, of which this sentence is a detached fragment, is full of denunciation against those persons who see life only on its smaller side. As a piece of sarcasm, it is very notable. It is difficult to match it in any literature, ancient or modern.

The aim of satire is not so much to make vice ridiculous as to make it odious. Tried by this test, the satires of Horace and Juvenal and Dean Swift are partial failures. They all awaken laughter, indeed, but . it is a laughter in which the vicious themselves might join. Surely none of the offenders mentioned in this discourse would find themselves in a laughing mood at its close. After reading it, one is not surprised to find that those to whom it was addressed began to lay plans to entrap him who uttered it and bring about his complete undoing.

It would be a dreary task to reproduce, in detail, the conditions surrounding the Jewish people at that time and show how just were the words spoken against them. It can only be said that, in its social and religious phases, life had become, in great measure, an observance of trifles. For years no prophet of the soul had appeared. Existence was a spiritless and monotonous routine. Education consisted in learning by rote a set of formal precepts. The Rabbis were autocrats, demanding implicit obedience to every one of their commands. Sabbaths, feast-days and fast days, offerings, tithes, worship of temple and synagogue, food, clothing, occupations were all prescribed and regulated by them. It was a system admitting no change. Originality was a crime.

In its large import, the Mosaic law was of great value. It lies at the foundation of the social order. It possesses some of the necessary elements of a true civilization. But, as explained and applied by those in authority, it had become weak and meaningless. In its large form it commanded rest on every seventh day. The commanded repose included animals. This was a wise provision. But when the requirement came into small minds it was broken up into all manner of subtle and absurd distinctions. One of the Rabbinical discussions was as to whether it was lawful to eat an egg that had been laid on the seventh day. When Jesus and his followers went through a wheat-field on the Sabbath and, being hungry, ate some of the wheat, they were rebuked by the Pharisees. But their fault was not that they were walking in the fields, for there was permission to walk a given distance on the Sabbath. It was not because they had taken that which did not belong to them. The Mosaic law says :

"When thou comest into the standing corn of thy neighbor, then thou mayest pluck the ears with thine hand; but thou shalt not move a sickle unto thy neighbor's standing corn."

Thus their offense was that, in rubbing the heads of wheat in their hands to separate the grain from the chaff, they had performed an act of labor on the Sabbath day. These cases are selected from many others similar to them to illustrate the fact that life was too much controlled by senseless and puerile laws and customs. Existence was burdened by trifles.

There is, perhaps, no form of mind more rare than that one which can pass beyond the small accidents that cluster around a principle and take its stand by the principle itself. It is much easier and, hence, more popular, to halt among the unimportant and unessential details and judge the case from that standpoint. Thousands had seen steam disturbing the lid of a tea-kettle and apples falling in an orchard; but only one Watt passed from a dancing kettle-lid to a steam-engine, and only one Newton passed from the phenom• ena of falling apples to the law of falling worlds.

We have all heard of the German professor of languages who spent his life-time studying the case-endings of Latin nouns and, on his death-bed, regretted that he had not confined his efforts to the dative case alone. Probably this professor never had an actual existence. Some one created the incident out of material furnished by imagination. But in this fanciful or exaggerated form there is illustration of a common human weakness. Many persons, in their zeal for the small, miss the large meaning of life.

Sometimes students complain that their Greek and Latin teachers seem to understand the grammar of the languages but not the languages themselves in their relation to the literature and history of the world. They know much more about a Greek particle than they do about Greek thought. Some allowance may be made for the youth of these critics. Youth is apt to pass hasty judgment. Yet, some of us, who have left youth behind, can recall teachers who compelled their pupils to move within very narrow limits in the study of languages. The hundreds of variations of the Greek verb were made of more importance than the being or action of which the verb was an imperfect symbol. Of course, a complete knowledge of a thing must include knowledge of its details; and, in acquiring this precise information, the mind receives a much needed discipline. But a study of details should lead to a final grouping of them around a principle ; and the only value of mental discipline is that which results in a freer and better mental action, all directed toward larger and nobler purposes. Literature is a temple of which language is only the vestibule. Its inner and most sacred place is thought. It is a mistake to spend too much time in the outer court. Grammar is a door to language; language is a door to literature; literature is a door to the universal soul of human-kind. From learning, as an uninteresting task, the moods and voices and tenses of a Greek verb, the student should be led onward until some day his heart thrills when he reads of Homer's heroes and his mind is awed by those thoughts of Plato that "pierce the night like stars."

A work of art is not of the hand alone, but of the soul. It should therefore resemble its creator. Virgil tells Dante that art follows nature as the disciple follows his master; and as nature comes from God, art is nothing less than a grandchild of Deity :

"Si the vostr' arte a Dick quasi è nipote."

Details of art cannot be omitted, but they ought to be surpassed. There is the anecdote of an apprentice, who, collecting the bits of colored glass that had been broken and thrown aside, of them made a cathedral window so far, in beauty, surpassing all the others that in vexation his master killed himself. The story may be true or false. But, if true, it proves not only faithfulness in detail, but also that the creative instinct, the power of utilizing details, of grouping them in such way as to make them minister to the large and, ideal, was very strong in the youth. There is a life lesson in the incident. The small affairs need not be neglected, but they should be utilized to further some-thing greater than themselves. Architecture is some-thing more than a mass of different kinds of material assembled in such way as to enclose a given amount of space. The larger purpose of the grouping must be clearly manifest. A building is a form of soul. A face or a landscape on canvas should do more than call attention to the painter's art. A face ought to suggest the soul of which it is the expression. A landscape ought to remind the beholder of the power and beauty back of it. For the listener, the value of music is not in a critical attention to details, but in being swept along by its great motives and harmonies. The technical part cannot be neglected. An acquaintance with the office which flats and sharps perform, with open and closed tones, and the intricacies of double and triple and quadruple counter-point, is doubtless essential on the part of those who would know the science and practice the art of music. A knowledge of these intricate things may be necessary to make a professional musician ; but to make a real musician something more is needed. One does not go to see a concert ; he goes to hear music. He wishes to forget the small things of life for two blessed hours. How great the disappointment, if instead of being borne aloft where all small things are forgotten, he is chained to earth by being compelled to witness a performance whose chief merit consists in the dexterity with which many complicated details are mastered by the per-former ! The critics all agree that the technique is wonderful, but often the uninstructed listener notes the absence of the divine soul of music itself. He may be astonished by the brilliant performance, but he is not awed and sublimed and swung away toward the infinite. A juggler may surprise, but only a great soul can inspire us. When the appeal is as much to the eye as to the ear, and a great number of technical intricacies are mastered by the performer on piano or violin, the curiosity is satisfied ; but a tight-rope walker can do as much as that for us. When Samuel Johnson was told that a piece of music, to which he had just listened, was very difficult, he said: "I wish to heaven it was impossible."

That we are not in cynical mood, and not merely reciting a private whim, let us recall a common occurrence:

When some brilliant performer, with instrument or voice, has finished a piece full of technical difficulties, and the audience is astounded at the number of notes struck in a minute, or at the superiority of the flexibility and power of adjustment of the trained vocal chords in the human throat over those of any other creature—such runs and roulades and quavers it can execute—in its astonishment, the audience often demands another performance. The etiquette of the occasion seems to prescribe that the second piece be something less difficult and nearer the appreciations and emotions of the common human heart. It is as if the performer should say : "Now that I have shown what a master of technique I am, I will give you some music." Then it often occurs that a simple but rich melody pours itself into the souls of the listeners. When it has ceased there may be no thunderous applause, but there is something much more impressive —introverted thought and silence. One does not hear a buzz of admiration for the performer and the performance, but, if he were to look, he would see tear-dimmed eyes all around him. We admire the per-former who has mastered the details of his art: But we love the musician who, rising far above details, discloses to the hoping and inspiring mortal the pathos, the exultation and wonder of worlds as yet unrealized. Exact information and long and patient discipline are necessary ; but they are only means to an end. Some knowledge of botany is well ; but a blossoming cherry tree can awaken greater thoughts and emotions than all the botanical books ever printed.

In the conduct of affairs, the aim is sometimes eclipsed by the means. An office may seem more important than the public welfare. Party interests are elevated above human interests. Hope of a second term has often prevented a man from being a candid and large statesman during his first term. In distributing all the minor rewards of partisan zeal and success where they will add to his personal benefit, he forgets that for which his office alone exists—the triumph of justice and the reign of happiness in the nation.

There is an ancient story to this effect: Having returned from a tour of observation on earth, Satan reported to God that every man had his price. God asked him if Job were not a just man, and Satan replied that he was righteous from selfish motives. If he were only sufficiently tried he, too, would surrender his integrity. Denying the insinuation, God gave Satan permission to make the experiment. One misfortune followed another. First property was swept away. Then children were destroyed. Then sickness seized upon him. His wife told him it was a hopeless case; he might as well curse God and die. Then some of his friends came and lectured to him on moral philosophy and told him that his afflictions came as a punishment for his sins. In spite of everything, how-ever, he maintained his integrity. All other things might go, but not that.

The story has passed into history as standing illustration of the triumph of the honorable soul over circumstances. We rejoice that humanity has believed in the possible existence of such a moral hero. But one wonders what might have occurred if Satan had been a large stockholder in a street railway, or president of an insurance company, or a railroad president, and Job had been a member of some city council or state legislature. Perhaps the drama would never have been written ; or, if it had, its ending would have been very different.

It cannot be too often said that there are many men in politics and business of high character. They place the large public welfare above their private gain. They cannot be too much honored. If they are in politics, no tradition concerning tenure of office should have any force. But for the purchasable minority, who will trail the honor of city or state or nation in the mire for the sake of their own little power or pecuniary profit, or bring reproach upon all legitimate business enterprises by their own illegitimate business methods, no contempt can be too great. The whole pirate breed should be treated as such.

The railway is one of the greatest triumphs of human genius. But it has become in part a victim of our race for inordinate wealth. The question is not so much how to build and equip great steam thorough-fares through the continent, to serve the public, but how to set up in great wealth a few railway magnates and bond speculators. The science of railroading is degraded to exalt the stock market. The creeds of the church are not the only point at which the human mind reveals its small infirmities. The whole conduct of life shows equal smallness and weakness. The government of cities is often as foolish as the government of the church. Politicians are as imperfect as theologians. The selfishness and silliness of ecclesiastical councils are fully equalled by the selfishness and silliness of city councils. We can picture a Christianity composed of great enduring principles, whose sole aim is the welfare of the world. But we can also picture a politics and a business founded upon great unchanging principles whose aim is universal human welfare. The railroads, the cities, the press, the state, medicine, law, and trade should be subject to principles as indusive and as constant as those which hold the planets in their places.

In its great sense, Christianity is a spirit rather than a form. It is not a little creed, but a survey of the world made from a point from which the whole landscape of mankind is seen plainly outspread. It has often been made something very different from this. The personality of Christ has been made of more importance than his ethical and spiritual principles. In-stead of reverencing the God of the universe, theologians have quarreled about the God defined in the creeds. Instead of seeking some spiritual inspiration for themselves, they have contended for some theory of inspiration. What separations and quarrels there have been over the form of baptism! But, in a real religion, how unimportant is that rite ! It is the ceremony of a moment and has not the least influence upon a life. In those churches which baptize in infancy a record is kept so that, in after years, adults may know whether they have enjoyed that means of grace. It cannot be discovered from their characters. A church warden's record may tell whether a man has been baptized or not, but it can tell us nothing as to whether or not he is a Christian. Many a bad person has, and many a good person has not, been baptized. Hence the rite may be observed or neglected without any resulting benefit or injury. But whether one is imbued with a noble spirit is of very great importance. Upon this subject church records give us no information. But baptism is only one among many small things upon which undue emphasis has been placed. The authorship of Genesis or Isaiah or the fourth Gospel has no more to do with religion than has the authorship of Homer or the poems of Ossian to do with good citizenship. Belief in the number of persons in the Godhead has no more influence upon character than has belief in the number of distinct elements in chemistry. Religion does not consist in scrupulous exactness about small things, but in loyalty to great ethical and spiritual principles. The zeal for tithing mint and anise and cummin cannot atone for neglect of justice, mercy, and faith.

In attempts at reform much energy is wasted on trifles. There are critics who make their minds a microscope. Having found the small defects in some work of art, they become frenzied. There are those for whom a mispronounced word would outbalance all the principles and all the eloquence of Burke's or Webster's greatest oration. Thus in so-called reforms much energy is wasted upon small and sometimes purely imaginary evils. We must have or must not have single tax; or municipal ownership; or federal control of corporations. Catholics should be kept out of office or they should not be kept out of office. There is damnation in the Sunday newspaper; or in cards ; or in dancing ; or in the army canteen ; or in the primaries ; or in small families; or in spelling ; or in ginger ale. Let us form a society whose aim shall be the extermination of these evils. Let us ask the legislature to enact a law making it a felony to drink coffee, eat yeast bread, or wear a bird feather in a hat. Mean-while the great and unmistakable evils may go on. Don Quixote has many successors. What valorous charges on windmills ! What swords drawn against inoffensive sheep !

The voice coming from Palestine in behalf of the larger meaning of existence is made all the more commanding by the world's history. To all it comes. To the artist it says : Seek only those forms which endure. To the student it says: Pass from nouns and verbs to the great language and literature of which they are symbols. To the musician it says: Move forward into the infinite realm of harmony. To the statesman it says: Enact laws for the benefit of the whole country. To the reformer it says : Work, not for yourself or your favorite scheme, but for mankind. To those who make life only an opportunity to add dollar to dollar or amusement to amusement, it says : Do not underestimate your world; its possibilities are unbounded. To the theologians it says : Your Thirty-nine Articles and your Catechisms are not religion. Their pages are many, but the only great page is that one which affirms the being of Deity. You may take away baptism, communion, public profession, Bible, and yet religion will survive their loss. As earth carries all our race on its broad expanse, so the doctrine of a God carries all religions in its arms. They are all the effort to express the will of this one Being or to persuade mankind to bow to Him in reverence. Christ is great because he lived in harmony with His law, and man is great because he came from God and is going back to him.

Thus all things join in offering us great meanings of themselves. It is well for us to recognize this greatness. When the heart learns to study all things on their larger side, their greatness soon reflects itself on the heart and it becomes greater. It is better able to steady itself when it sees the many changes occurring all around it. The coming and going of enactments and rites and customs bring no dismay, because they are to principles only as the leaves are to a forest. Legislative measures come and go, but law is eternal. Forms of art perish, but beauty endures. Amusements change, but happiness is constant. Creed and ceremonial die, but hope and faith and wonder are born anew in every heart. In death, what is there of life that perishes? Everything,—except Life itself.

Sermons By Reed Stuart:
Nature As A Means Of Grace

A Perpetual Gospel

The Palestine Philosophy Of Life

Rational Epicureanism

A Twenty Years Pastorate

Business

The Home

Friendship

Words

Trifles

Read More Articles About: Sermons By Reed Stuart



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