THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT by Horatio W. Dresser – The Spirit of The New Thought

The Sermon on the Mount
Horatio Dresser
The Spirit of The New Thought
Edited by Horatio W. Dresser

[From an address at the Green Acre Conferences, Eliot, Maine. Reprinted from Unity, Kansas City, Mo., November, 1912.]

Few scenes in the life of Jesus are more deeply impressive than the one in which the Master is given opportunity to defend himself, but instead holds his peace, calmly and courageously meeting the fate which his enemies were preparing for him. There had been occasions on which he had refrained from visiting certain towns because of their unbelief, and he had gone apart even from his disciples that he might pray in solitude and prepare for the greater events to come. On occasion, too, his ministry among the people implied a forward look with a purpose other than that of the acceptance of events as they came. But on this occasion, although he had declared that he could summon greater powers to his aid, he meets his adversaries with few words and without attempting to secure his freedom. Consistently with this acceptance of civil authority, he goes forward to meet his death on the cross, and to the last moment is faithful to the principles which as teacher he had enunciated. Surely there never was a more splendid example of constancy and courage.

The principle implied in this fidelity to an ideal lies at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount and of the Master’s teaching as a whole. It has often been misinterpreted alike by so-called Christians and by critics outside the faith. The time is opportune for fresh consideration of it, in order that we may gain clearer insight into the essence of Christianity.

Without regard to the ultimate nature of Christ, one may consider the discourses and works by which Jesus sought to establish the kingdom of the Spirit. These principles are good in their own right as parts of an ethical system, and they hold whether or not we deem the Master an example whom all can follow. The important consideration is that we regard these teachings in a spirit which gives the clue to the life of Jesus, and indicates possibilities that lie open to the devotee of the highest moral ideals. Without this spirit we are likely to disregard his teachings as impractical, assailing them because of their departure from the Mosaic law. Clothed by this spirit we may make our way where many readers of the gospel have never trod.

We open the pages of the gospel narrative and find “the man of peace” moving among the spiritually hungry and assuring them that the kingdom is “at hand.” Whatever this kingdom may appear to mean from the point of view of various Messianic expectations, it signifies that the Master comes in an attitude of authority born of experience and conviction, calling on men to forego their allegiance to external things and customs, and look to the inmost world of instincts, habits, motives and love. Without regard to interpretations of the atonement, and independently of any view concerning the resurrection, one may insist that Jesus summons each man to look to himself, change his attitude, purify his heart, so that he may live a genuinely righteous life. It is in this sense, as an appeal to the moral heart or will, that I ask the reader to regard the discourse anew as if it were a fresh utterance in modem psychological terms.

The Sermon on the Mount may not have been spoken in precisely the connected form in which we have it in one of the gospels, not the earliest, and imperfections may have marred the text. However that may be, we may estimate it as representative of the life and teaching of Jesus as a whole, taking care not to single out passages for approval or disapproval to the exclusion of the rest. It comes fresh from the lips of the Master, who lived by it and proved it by his works. To read it with open eye one needs to attain an interior vision of the purity of the ideal inculcated, a vision out of the unity of which the various precepts may be seen to spring.

Taking Jesus at his word, let us say that his mission was to bring the life of the Spirit to men, that they might know and live that life in fullness. First and last he attributed all power and wisdom to God, humbly maintaining that he was obedient to the Father’s will. Hence he made no claim in behalf of his mere self, not even from the point of view of goodness, but spoke ever of the central source from which all men might receive power according to their needs. He invited men to come to him as giver of peace, as the way, the truth, and the life, hut always as to the center within all men where the Christ is revealed, not as if he wished men to deem him, the son of man, the same as God. The Father, invisible in the heavens, yet revealed to each man in the holy places of the heart, is ever his object of appeal. There is indeed a way which leads to the secret place of the soul, and the Master fully believes that he it is who makes that way known. But the essential is the goal — the infinitely tender and loving Father whose care is over all His works, and the kingdom of righteousness which those enter who acknowledge the source of all goodness and efficiency. In vain shall we try to interpret the darker passages of the Sermon on the Mount unless we approach them in the light of this interior illumination.

Turning to the great discourse with this clue in mind, we find it not only a guide to the inmost life, but see that it is in this intimately interior sense that the law of love comes “not to destroy but to fulfill.” Jesus begins by praising those who have been touched by the life of the Spirit and are therefore merciful, humble, pure in heart, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, seeking to establish peace among their fellows, faithful even under accusation and persecution. When he promises recompense it is of the interior sort. If we are about to fulfill a vow, if we would reform our brothers, he bids us remember that we should first adjust whatever is not right in our spiritual attitude, that we may clearly see how to take the lead. So in regard to sin — it is the inmost consciousness that is of moment; the fact of sin is driven home with the pronouncement that even to lust in thought is to break the law. It follows that purity begins within, and involves cleanness of heart, thought and action. Hence great emphasis is put on the honesty or sincerity of the one whose righteousness far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Prayer, too, is genuine only in the light of openness and purity of heart; it begins with the soul’s inmost receptivity and is rather an act of adjustment than of petition, since our wants are already known by the Father. All our judgments or condemnatory utterances emanate from within, and inevitably bring their like upon us. The possibility of righteous judgment is held up as a standard for the attainment of those who exercise their moral powers to the full. In so far as an external rule may be required, it is given in the declaration that men may be estimated in accordance with the fruits of their conduct, and there are warnings for those who might perchance mistake the false for the true Christ. But the center of interest and of conduct is still the realm of motives. In place of the anxiety and distrust which so often characterize the inner life, one should first and last substitute love and longing for the kingdom, the pursuit of God and the life of righteousness, from which shall follow what is requisite for the external life.

The inner emphasis is also seen in the counsel to seek treasures that are eternal in the heavens, in contrast with things that perish. The difference turns on the fact that no man can fully give his consciousness to two objects at the same time, and the fact that to love the one is to despise the other. Hence concentration, the single eye, is absolutely requisite. Whatever our pretensions, it is where the heart is that shows what really rules. Hence the special meaning attached to all that is said about purity of heart, constancy in the pursuit of the kingdom of righteousness, even in the face of practical needs that apparently call for anxious consideration. Sufficient unto the day is its own evil or trouble, that is, the problem of the hour. To believe in all sincerity in the ethics of the heart is to give entire allegiance to the task, the opportunity for service just now at hand. Our part is to concentrate on the activities that are within our power, trusting the results as in the keeping of the moral spirit, the providence of God.

One cannot give to the genuinely worthy, instead of casting pearls before swine, without first raising the question, Who is worthy? This leads to an estimate of the springs of moral action. Hence we are again compelled to begin with ourselves. Since we are bidden to act as we would be done by, we are constrained to consider what we would really wish done unto us. We cannot seriously reflect upon this question unless we possess a moral ideal. But to be moral is to know the self, know what is worthy of realization. The self is not an isolated entity, but is intimately related to all men. Thus the golden rule implies the law of service or love. Or, again, if assured that by asking we shall receive answer, if by seeking we shall find, everything will depend upon what we ask for and seek in accordance with our ideal. Rightly to ask, one must obviously possess a moral standard. But this again implies the law of prayer already inculcated, since the soul’s sincerest need has been provided for. Thus each phase of the principle leads back to its center in the heart or attitude of the soul.

The Father’s all-foreseeing care pertains first to the inner life, the spiritual essentials, then to the outer things that are needed or are in correspondence. Spiritual joy centers above all about the results of fidelity and righteousness, including the knowledge of the fruits that follow when one is persecuted or opposed. These results, hard to bear as they may be, are sure signs along the highway of the moral life. Straight and narrow indeed is that way, yet it is the one that leadeth unto life. To let the inner light shine, to practice the word, lead the life — this is the one essential. The life shows whether or no we have found the kingdom. To seek it in absolute seriousness is to aspire to be perfect, even as the Father in heaven is perfect.

Now all this strikes to the center and involves sharp distinctions, calling to account those who merely obey the letter of the law, exposing hypocrisy, doing away with all compromise. To let one’s speech be “Yea, yea; nay, nay,” discarding all else as evil, implies a far keener type of self-examination and purification than even the Jews with all their righteousness were accustomed to employ. It were easy to love one’s neighbor, and despise one’s enemy. But now comes the admonition to love one’s enemies and even pray for them. How can this be unless one lift the righteous life to a higher level by beginning at the inmost center? The force of this new command will come out clearly if we put it in contrast with the ordinary situation in human life.

What do we usually do when we encounter the enmity and opposition of our fellows, when people condemn us? If so far civilized as to refrain from talking arms and returning blow for blow, we rise in self-defense and in self-justification, looking after our rights, and making sure that our enemy shall not steal in unawares. Our courts, our civil customs and our affairs in general are founded on the supposition that everything shall receive its equivalent. We are so accustomed to this basis that we unthinkingly assume it to be the only law, putting aside unheard any other utterance on the subject. Likewise in our own selfhood we ordinarily meet whatever is hostile by a show of force, and our moral ideals largely center about the belief that fire can drive out fire. Immersed in the conflict of instincts, impulses, habits, opinions and emotions, we do not know what else to do. Hence we move forward on the same level, ever looking for light there, hoping to conquer there.

But a day dawns when we realize that on the lower level there never would be an end. The self would never be satisfied, though the whole world should sit at its feet in abject apology. This is seen in the case of an argument where each partner to the discussion seeks to come out ahead, but where no one is convinced of anything. Now, it requires courage to “agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art with him in the way,” but to be willing to make the venture means that one is ready to press forward. To remain on the lower level is to be sure of one result, namely, suffering or reward in kind; the question is whether by adopting the method of love and peace we shall receive the higher reward. Jesus assures us that we will, and that the Father’s care is especially concerned with the provisions required on this level.

It is often said that the command to refrain from resisting evil is an impracticable precept that might have value in an ideal world, but has no meaning in the present social order; that Christians do not believe it and do not undertake to live by it. Tried in the light of the foregoing exposition let us see if we can understand this precept. The Sermon on the Mount centers, we have seen, about the world of motives, promptings, and the tendencies within man which impede the righteous life. We are justified, then, in regarding this precept from the inmost point of view. What would it be to restrain ourselves when we are tempted to combat evil ?What is non-resistance psychologically?

In the first place, if we examine our consciousness, we discover that it is the nature of mental life always to be in pursuit, to be striving to attain an end. That is, volitional activity is central, and pure passivity is impossible. To hold yourself still you must concentrate, and concentration means focusing of power. To check an emotion such as fear, an impulse such as the tendency to strike, or even a thought of the most quiet type, you must exert activity. Far more power is often required to refrain from giving blow for blow, with tongue or pen, than would be required to express the impulse. Hence non-resistance on the lower level means inhibition or resistance from the higher, a checking of the prompting by an act of will adequate to overcome it. This victory should not be described in negative but in positive terms. The love that hinders the hate, the spirit of forgiveness that overcomes the sentiment of anger or jealousy, must be greater in power than its adversary. For psychology shows us that the strongest motive prevails. The strongest motive is not necessarily the most vigorous impulse, but may be the moral incentive which overcomes the consciousness of that which is by the realization of that which ought to be. Nor does the strongest motive necessarily express itself in directly observable external conduct. Indeed, when a man is most quiet externally, and apparently least responsive, he may be most under interior restraint. The greatest power psychologically resides in the idea or object of consciousness which has power to inhibit all other ideas or incentives just then active in the field of consciousness, and master that field by substituting itself. The calmest state, that is, calmest at the center, is the one which possesses the greatest power and may lead to the most far-reaching consequences. What is true psychologically is also true spiritually. The devotee of the inner ideal looks forward to the time when his power of inhibition will be such that love shall in every instance be triumphant, when there shall be control or poise enough to insure perfect coincidence between the divinest prompting and the human will. How can the moral ideal be fully realized in any other way?

To check the impulse to return blow for blow means that the energy immanent in the impulse is transformed, or expressed in another way interiorly. If instead of contending with the evil man in his own terms, I pause that I may treat him as my brother, really feeling love for him — not merely claiming that I love him — I do not by any means assume a passive attitude, allowing him to do what he will; instead I give expression to a greater power. Whether or not I turn the other cheek, or give my cloak also, is a secondary matter, and I am not undertaking to imitate the letter of the law. The principle in question is interior and spiritual, hence everything depends upon what I do in spirit, whether or not I fall in line outwardly and walk with him two miles when he would go but one. I cannot help resisting in some fashion, but am bidden not to condemn him as a soul, not to attack him as an external agent, or yield in spirit to the temptation to display passion in return. As a human being I might be merely capable of responding in gentleness and love to those who manifest gentleness and love to me; but the divine love to which I render myself open is capable of displaying love to all, even those who are evil. On the higher level I am a recipient of goodness, it is the Father who is the giver of life and of love.

The non-resistant attitude is not effeminate, but is manly in fullest measure. Meekness and humility become powerful when regarded in the light of the accompanying self-restraint and the inhibition of lower impulses. Non-resistance is forgiveness, charity, where external resistance would be condemnation and hatred. It is selective, for there are three kinds of resistance and non-resistance, namely, physical, mental and moral or spiritual; and he who has power to practice non-resistance chooses between the three possible forms of response. Hence, non-resistance is by no means the mild acceptance of circumstances which it has been supposed to be.

Now this method is not so remote from common life as it appears, but coincides at many points with common sense. Every one knows from experience that there are occasions when it would be useless to intervene, people who cannot be persuaded, those whom one could not by any means influence through anything external. Consequently one waits, depending on silence and the power of example. When misunderstood we learn to bide our time, saying not a word, never defending ourselves, but continuing loyal to the truth as we see it. In dealing with children, we know the value of what may be called the flank movement in meeting their unruliness, and every time we have patience or take thought we see the superiority of the gentler method by which we guide their interests in another direction.

Intellectually stated, this is the constructive method by which we seek the good in others and in their doctrines, emphasizing the points of harmony and agreement. More thought is required to do this, because it is necessary not only to note the points of disagreement, but to pass reflectively beyond them to the larger truth in which they are fulfilled. Hence we learn to transcend appearances, no longer giving expression to the first opinion that may arise in our mind. The implication is that ultimately all truth is one, that there is a unitary point of view which includes the differences and contrasts which on lower levels separate men into sects and opposing groups of various types. Steadily to pursue this ideal is to dwell on the spirit rather than the form, to seek the universal truth which voices itself among all peoples.

Likewise in dealing with our fellows, when we are wise and pause to consider, we penetrate behind appearances to the motive, the highest intent or purpose, seeking to judge by that. For a man is like society at large in this respect — a mere collection of tendencies making toward a goal. To love a man, to do one’s best for him, is to regard him in the light of the centralizing ideal toward which he is striving. So in the case of one’s own self; to make sure headway is to let the eye be single to the consistent individual we hope to be, never allowing ourselves to regard the processes of evolution as aught more than means to the moral and spiritual end.

Apply this method to the affairs of the nations, and you have arbitration, the ways and means of the idea instead of those of the sword. It only remains to convince the world that this is the true method.

But what of those who, like Tolstoi, and the Quakers, and the Hindoos, undertake to live solely and consistently by the principle of non-resistance? Everything depends upon our understanding of the principle as viewed from within, whatever we may say of the partial successes of those who advocate the principle. The real question is, Can one in this world, with its insistence on financial and other objective standards, live by the law of the Spirit? Surely, for this is God’s world; the real cosmos is moral, spiritual, and there is I nothing else a consistent Christian can do except seriously to believe the promise that he who first seeks the kingdom of God and its righteousness shall be provided for. The important consideration is that you and I shall 1 take ourselves inwardly as we are, considering what each must now do in order to lift the activities of life to the higher level.

As a laborer in the vineyard of the Lord, I should hardly have reason to expect my labor to be worthy of its hire, and to bring support by the law of moral attraction, unless I do what I am best fitted to accomplish with all my mind and heart. Hence the significance of the prayer, “What wilt thou have me to do?” uttered at every turning point in the pathway of the soul. What I can best do comports with the work assigned to my brother and my sister. What I am able to give, some man needs, and if I hold myself open I shall be led to him who hungers and thirsts. While 1 do my work there is no tribulation which I shall be unable to endure. Yea, the very word I should speak will be given me, if only I have control enough over my lower consciousness to pause and seek it. Hence to refrain from external rebuke or violence does not mean to become empty, but rather to be filled.

The lower level is merely personal, private, exclusive; the higher is divine, universal, inclusive. When I act on the higher level I am not concerned lest justice be not accomplished, but I realize that I am acting with the powers which make for righteousness. My reward will depend upon my zeal, the uprightness and purity of my heart. In so far as I fail, the one resource is to yield myself more fully to the divine promptings of my being. What comes in response may sometimes involve suffering, I may be led into the way of the cross, but it will correspond with my present need and my present opportunity.

This principle applies in the economic world, also, and the gap between everyday life and the life of the Spirit is not so wide as it appears. The difficulty is that we have not analyzed the situation sufficiently to see these relationships from the inner point of view. In fact, the more I give of the Spirit, of the morally best, the more generously will my fellows respond, the better my wares will sell, if you please. In the courage and persuasiveness of the man who gives himself fully to his cause, who persistently does his work, there is a tremendous power. The failures are due to half-heartedness and compromise, not, as some suppose, to the principle itself.

But even on the ground of faith, without special reference to moral causes, we have known of instances which illustrate the response that awaits constancy and devotion. Sometimes the man who lives by this principle must wait until the eleventh hour, but only by so waiting shall he enjoy the full prerogatives of faith. For those who are still in doubt, here is the central hypothesis, if you choose to call it so, namely, the proposition of this sermon that every need has been provided for. He who believes that the principle is without exception has a rule of life as exact as mathematics: as we judge we shall be judged; as we sow we shall reap; he who manifests devoted love shall be cared for in proportion to his consecration.

The principle, then, is not new, and it had long been practised in a measure in the Orient previous to the coming of Jesus. It is not dependent on the incarnation, but is universally discoverable in human life. In what, then, does its special significance consist as exemplified in the life of Jesus? Not primarily in the precept, not in the Sermon on the Mount, but in the life of the Master, in the power that went forth from him through his ministry and the crucial events of his career. We have seen to a degree in our own experience that there is no surer way to attain an end, no greater power over our fellows than the way and the power of love, of life. Your adversary may confute you on every point, or seem to confute you, save so far as you have lived, as you have realised, and then all tongues are silent, all enemies are disarmed. When you comprehend a principle, you are not concerned because substitutes appear to thrive. In so far as you know truth, you are calmly sure that it will triumph by way of its own, without defense on your part. Likewise when you discern a person’s real character, you are confident even when this person is decried and maligned. Now, if you are able to go a step further, and rejoice even under persecution, you have touched the confines at least of the region revealed to us by Jesus. You will then welcome each event that comes, giving thanks that the law is fulfilled, realizing that changes for the better will come when you yourself change at heart.

As our elder brother and leader, Jesus walks in the way of life, and shows that by utter fidelity the supreme goal can be reached. It is not the newness of the utterance, I insist, not the forms of speech or the precepts, but the power of the life which is expressed through the various discourses, the good works, the fidelity of will illustrated in the crucifixion. Thereby a balance of power was established which otherwise would have been impossible. And why not express this triumph as the victory of life rather than with reference to death through sacrifice? The triumph is not negative, but positive. It is not a question of external defeat, but of the power set into activity by the inmost attainment. Hence the supreme word is life, life.

But how shall any one know the law except so far as he endeavors to live it in his own person, turning directly to the Father as the giver of wisdom and power? What is it to live by the Spirit of God, to find the kingdom to which all else shall be added? Let us say in brief that it is to find the inmost center of consciousness, of thought, of feeling, of love, and to be able to relate that center to the world, to humanity and God. To be centered is, as Emerson says, to be “wise and at home today.” “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust doth consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through and steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.” Go to the sources of life for yourself, read human history, observe the courses of nature and the habitual activities of your fellows, enter into life reflectively and transform fact into law, see the meanings of things. There is no obstacle to keep you from advancing in this region where things eternal are seen, “Ask and ye shall receive; seek and ye shall find.” The cosmos of the moral order shall be yours if you are willing to react upon it, to make it your own by purity of thought, word and deed.

You can scarcely look within for a moment, or isolate yourself for a season of silent meditation or inmost prayer, without realizing that there are alternatives. To renounce, to dedicate yourself afresh, or indulge in new resolutions — however you may state the case — is to find that the forces of the lower level rise around you, so that you enact the temptation over again. The circumstances of our life tend, with the steadiest persistence, to draw us away and into the whirl. But ever there is the contrasting power, the life of the Spirit, in silent attendance upon us.

St. Paul, who in his Epistle to the Romans so frequently dwells upon the conflict between the good that we would achieve and the unruly member which outwits us, evidently held that evil could be overcome with good. Hence in the hierarchy of values he placed love at the head, intimating that a time would come when because of the light of love shining through our eyes we should no longer see as in a glass darkly, but face to face. He who is most vividly aware of the conflict may at the same time have the clearest insight into the principle which brings success. The temptations increase, the darkness gathers, and the struggle becomes more intense as the way of life narrows. Thus it is St. Paul who has most graphically portrayed the contest, and it is Jesus who is represented as encountering the greatest temptation. Hence, too, it is Jesus to whom it is given to walk the way of the cross to its summit, meeting issues such that even in all the power of his knowledge and his will he is reported to have cried out momentarily to have the cup removed, and again as if forsaken. It is the humanness of all this that brings the gospel home to us and makes us all akin, gives the classic expression once for all to the age-long struggles of the soul. But it is the humanity of these great contests that also makes them forever divine, since in the weaknesses and in the power of the soul’s wrestlings we likewise behold the goodness and the love of God. The sons of men and the divine Father meet in that creative moment, the moment of the Christ, of supreme fidelity to the heavenly ideal.

Well may the critic cry out that this is not the Messiah whom he expected. It is no wonder that the evasive ones have tried to make out that mere acceptance of a creed is sufficient, that Christ died tor us, that our sins are washed away by “the blood of the Lamb.” It is natural, too, that some should depend on the vain repetitions which Jesus advises his hearers not to employ. His words strike home with tremendous power, putting the burden of proof upon us, showing us that in our own efforts at self-cleansing and fidelity of conduct salvation lies. Hence the alternatives are emphasized as never before. The man of peace was also he who came to bring a sword. The same words that win some drive others away. Controversies are aroused, enmities result, and even the disciples fall away for a time. The conflicts have continued ever since. But the triumphant last word is the power of the personality, the sweet presence of him who could say, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

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