Scholar, teacher, preacher, executive, Dr. Coffin is a many-sided man and holds a commanding position in the religious life of America. The Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York City, of which until recently he has been pastor for many years, is one of the finest examples of “organized preaching” in the country, uniting the ends of society as few churches have been able to do.
A New Yorker, born in 1877, Dr. Coffin is a son of two of the old and great families of the city. After graduating from Yale, he studied in New College, Edinburgh, at Marburg in Germany, and at Union Seminary, where for many years he has been professor of practical theology. He is a member of the Corporation of Yale University, and of the National Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church. He was lecturer on the Beecher Foundation at Yale in 1918, and on the Warrack Foundation in Edinburgh in 1926.
Among his many books are The Ten Commandments, sermons on The Creed of Jesus, studies in Christian Convictions, and What is There in Religion?—one of the most helpful and inspiring books of recent years, especially for those who are perplexed in matters of faith. Dr. Coffin was recently elected President of Union Seminary, a post for which he is superbly fitted by genius, training and achievement.
The Jews answered and said unto Him, Say we not well that Thou art a Samaritan? John 8:48.
This is an odd epithet to hurl at Jesus. The Samaritans were a sect of semi-pagan Israelites, mixed in race and with a composite religious faith. They held fast to the Law of Moses in the Pentateuch, but their beliefs and usages had been watered down by infiltrations from the thought and ways of the peoples round about. They were just enough like and unlike genuine Hebrews to be peculiarly distasteful to them, for we always hate more cordially those fairly close to ourselves with whom we disagree, than those so unlike and far from us that we never come in contact with them. One evangelist tells us that Jews had no dealings with Samaritans; and in the Talmud we hear Rabbis saying: “May I never set eyes on a Samaritan,” or “May I never be thrown in his company.” One strict Jew goes so far as to write that eating Samaritan bread is like eating swine’s flesh—the extreme limit for an orthodox Jew of disloyalty to his God. Religious controversies to this day lead otherwise good and kindly men into exaggerated language about their opponents. A Christian minister in this city has indulged in as abusive names for a brother minister as these ancient Jewish theologians used of Samaritans. But why Jesus should be called a Samaritan is obscure. There seems to be nothing about Him or His teaching which suggests the views and customs of these half-heathen Jews.
Quite likely Samaritan had come to be a convenient adjective for any one whose attitude one particularly disliked. The word Bolshevik in recent years has done duty as an uncomplimentary label to fasten on any one who is in opposition to conventional opinions in industry or politics or art or religion, and is freely attached to persons who have no sympathy whatsoever with the economic program of communists in Russia. It merely means that the man who uses it thinks another more radical than himself in some particular. Any malodorous word is good enough to characterize those from whom we heartily dissent, and few people indeed employ language carefully. So conservative Jews in Jesus’ day and later found Samaritan a useful designation of contempt with which to brand the Man of Nazareth.
But there is more in it than that. We do not hear any one calling Paul a Samaritan. Even as a Christian apostle there remained enough of the Pharisee of Pharisees about him to stamp him as totally unlike these half Jews. But Jesus had so much in common with people of every sort and description that one might call Him anything. While on some of the earlier sarcophagi He is portrayed with distinctly Jewish features, is it surprising how shortly artists left these out, and represented Him as one of their own race? Today in Mexican churches one sees swarthy, high-cheek-boned, Indian Christs, and in Chinese Christian books He appears as a Mongolian, and in stained-glass windows in this country He is an Anglo-Saxon. It was not by accident that He was called a Samaritan.
For this text suggests three facts concerning Jesus’ connection with people:
First, those in His own group find Him a stranger. It was so, in the first instance, with every circle in which we see Him. He puzzled His own family: “Son, why hast Thou thus dealt with us?” One can hear Mary saying of one of her other sons, James or Joses or Judas or Simon: “I feel that he really belongs to me and is my own son, but Jesus seems not mine at all.” He was disowned by Nazareth. That small town knew its own; but this Carpenter did not speak its language or think its thoughts. The Jewish Church had no more loyal and devoted member; but its leaders were convinced that He did not belong in her fellowship. The Jewish race never had a greater son—One who summed up completely its noblest heritage; but He seemed to them an outsider: “Say we not well that Thou art a Samaritan?”
And it has been so ever since. His own group—the Christian Church—never can feel Him fully our own. He troubles us by seeming to be linked with those who are outside our fellowship. His interests and sympathies are forever overleaping our most broadly flung frontiers, and go so far beyond our thoughts and consciences that we cannot be quite sure where to find Him.
A century or more ago, His Spirit made the churches uncomfortable and sent them to the ends of the earth on the missionary enterprise. Jesus belonged not to Europeans and Americans, who composed the Church, but to Asiatics and Africans. More recently He has been making us uncomfortable in our attitude towards these other races. The feeling of the white man’s superiority, the contemptuous reference of Christians to other faiths as heathen, the undiscriminating identification of Anglo-Saxon habits of life with the principles of Jesus, and the fashion of talking proudly of spreading Western civilization or of inculcating American ideals, come home to us as foreign to Jesus. He seems sympathetic with so much in these races which our race lacks, so much in the other religions which our occidental interpretation of His faith has overlooked, so much in their thought and life which we need to acquire, that once more He appears an outsider to the Church which bears his name.
Nor is this true only of the missionary enterprise. Again and again Christians are startled by discovering in some unfamiliar realm of life, a realm which we have viewed with suspicion as a Samaria, that Jesus seems at home. Time was when Church folk looked askance at fiction, and older people have told me of having to read Scott’s novels on the sly because a strict parent considered anything imaginary immoral. But Jesus captured the imagination of novelists and many of their most moving pages are infused with His Spirit. Then the Church looked with aversion at the stage—not without considerable provocation; but its interpretation of human life was not alien to the interest of Christ. Many a play has been more inspiring than many a sermon. Again scientific investigation, conflicting in its results with cherished views of devout folk, was denounced. There are still preachers and so-called religious papers which inveigh against “godless science.” But instinctively men feel that Jesus is thoroughly sympathetic with the work of all those who try to understand the facts of this universe and report honestly what they discover, no matter how upsetting to venerated opinions. Or again, there are movements of social change, some of them radical in their programs, which the settled and contented folk who make up the mass of the membership of all churches dislike. But there is a widespread feeling that the heart of Jesus is far more responsive to the bitter cry of the unprivileged and the restless than are the hearts of His followers. And among ourselves many are haunted with the sense that we cannot be sure that our Lord is with us in our methods of business or in our national attitude. To His own group He seems an outsider. “Say we not well that Thou art a Samaritan?”
And in that lies the hope of His lifting us out of our confining prejudices and stretching our sympathies and kindling our appreciations of the worth of men and women who have meant nothing to us. When John Muir, as a young man, was puzzling his friends by spending lonely winters in the Yosemite Valley amid the deep snows of the high Sierras, an older woman wrote him a letter in which she spoke disparagingly of living with the ice. Muir replied with charming humor:
But, glaciers, dear friend—ice is only another form of terrestrial love. I have been up Nevada to the top of Lyell and found a living Glacier, but you don’t want that; and I have been to Hetch Hetchy and the cañon above, and I was going to tell you the beauty there; but it is all ice-born beauty, and too cold for you; and I was going to tell about the making of the South Dome, but the ice did that too; and about the hundred lakes that I found, but the ice made them, every one; and I had some groves to speak about—groves of surpassing loveliness in new pathless Yosemites, but they all grew upon glacial drift—and I have nothing to send but what is frozen or freezable.
And John Muir passed winter after winter in the Yosemite, gathering confirmatory evidence to uphold his theory that its marvelous beauties had been made by the ice, and not, as distinguished scientists of the day asserted, by volcanic action. And Muir made his own that particular spot of ice-born grandeur on God’s earth. His friends thought him crack-brained, but gradually he led thousands into his own intelligent appreciations. It is significant that Muir’s name will go down to posterity connected with an Alaskan glacier.
Is it not so with Christ? There are out-lying regions of humanity, despised or overlooked by His Church, but mysteriously He makes them seem His own, by His interest and His appreciation, and takes us out to them, despite our traditional aversions and antipathies. Take the movement in thought with which you most thoroughly disagree, or the sphere of life to which you are least drawn or the man or woman for whom you feel the heartiest dislike, and connect them in thought with Him, and somewhere He makes a point of contact and shows Himself more in sympathy than are you. And to follow Him takes you and me to Samaria.
Second, those in other groups recognize Him as kin of theirs. The woman of Sychar began by asking: “How is it that Thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a Samaritan woman?” But as the conversation proceeded, she forgot all about the differences of Jew and Samaritan. Here was One who knew her with an understanding that was uncanny: “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did.” And He found no difficulty in talking frankly to her. He seldom said as much to any one. And when the men of Sychar came out to see Him for themselves, they never mention His Jewish connection. He impresses them as “the Saviour of the world.”
It annoys us sometimes to hear all sorts of groups claiming Jesus as one of themselves. Here is a vast ecclesiastical establishment, Roman or Greek or Protestant, asserting Christ as theirs. Here is a company of Socialists insisting that He is theirs. Here is a group with some particular theory of spiritual healing, or with some other philosophy of existence, declaring that Christ is the chief exponent of their views or manner of life. We do well to point out plainly where the Jesus of history differs from various systems—ecclesiastical, theological, economic, medical—that have been identified with Him. But let us be thankful that so many instinctively feel Him theirs. It is Christ’s marvelous capacity for entering into the outlooks and feelings of others. John Morley had in carved letters upon his chimney-piece Bacon’s word: “The nobler a soul the more objects of compassion it hath.” And compassion is not pity. It is the exact Latin equivalent of the two Greek words which form sympathy. Cum, like sun, means “with”; “The nobler a soul, the more objects it feels with.” You may recall a saying of Frederick Denison Maurice: “I feel that I ought to be High Churchman, Evangelical and Rationalist, that, being all, I might escape the curse of each.” It is part of Christ’s inexplicable universality that He seems to belong to all, and they recognize the kinship. In William Morris’ Sir Galahad there are two lines which describe
One sitting on the altar as a throne,
Whose face no man could say he did not know.
Strange as He always is to us, outside and beyond any group to which we are accustomed, Jesus is never to any man a foreigner. Go the world over, and in every land there are souls who have instinctively recognized Him as their hoped-for Friend. Walt Whitman once wrote:
Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow
As the water follows the moon, silently, with fluid steps, anywhere around the globe.
“My sheep hear My voice,” and He invariably has “other sheep” “not of this” or of any classified fold.
Very likely in a company as large as this congregation, there is at least one who for some reason feels himself an outsider. He does not share the faith or the interests or the point of view or the principles of the majority of people about him. And that sense of “not belonging” often piles up needless barriers and walls of division. Never mind now whether to good folks you seem a Samaritan or even more remote than Samaria; think of Jesus Christ. Is there not something about him which makes you feel that He would understand you, and that you might enter into some understanding with Him? That He belongs in some sense to you, and you belong to Him? Recognize that tie. All others do not count. Interpret Him as you like. That is your privilege. But agree with Him, and form a personal attachment to Him. That alone matters.
Third, he felt Himself a member of every group He touched. In the first public scene of His career, among that motley throng who were listening to John at the Jordan—soldiers, tax-collectors, harlots, church-leaders—He insisted that their guilt for Israel was His, and that He, too, must receive with them the symbol of repentance and a new life. “It becometh us”—putting them all and John and Himself into one penitent fellowship—“It becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.”
When He was among sick folk, their illnesses became His. Matthew quotes from a prophet, “Himself took our infirmities and bare our diseases.” And there is a saying of Jesus which escaped our evangelists, but which was remembered in the early Church and is quoted by Origen: “For them that were sick, I was sick.” It is told of a very earnest and effective although unconventional city missionary in the Boston of two generations ago that, on entering a home where the father had died leaving his wife with several mere babies, the tender-hearted man began his prayer: “O, God, we are a widow.”
Not long ago some of us were reading a fascinating book by one who had spent many years in central Africa, and suggestively entitled his volume Thinking Black. He had lived in the dark continent and shared the life of its people, until he had acquired the native point of view, their ways of reasoning, their mental habit—“Thinking Black.” May we not say that He who has impressed subsequent generations as belonging to another sphere—a visitor from heaven in our dark earth—so entered into the heart and mind of our race that His parables may be entitled “Thinking Human”? How feelingly he interprets the wistful father and the heart-sick prodigal and the complacent and indignant elder brother! How movingly He voices the despair of the unemployed who have stood all the day idle because no man hired them! How unerringly He sketches character after character in a few telling strokes—usually in a dozen words at the most—so that they live forever in the thoughts of men!
And among them there is no finer parable than one which we may label “Thinking Samaritan.” It is certainly not spoken from the standpoint of strict Jews. In scathing exposure of the self-righteous superiority of His own people He pictures representatives of its exalted religion—priest and Levite—passing by a wretched man, wounded and robbed, while a big-hearted and self-spending Samaritan makes this abused stranger his responsibility. Perhaps it was this parable, so offensive to a patriotic Jew, which made them think that Jesus must have a connection with this despised race, one of whose members He had so lauded: “Say we not well that Thou art a Samaritan?” Jesus had reason to know of what some of this race of “untouchables” were capable. The believing inhabitants of Sychar, and later that leper who alone of ten came back to express gratitude for his cure, had given Him evidence of the capacities of Samaritans. He had been so drawn to them that He could put Himself into one of their race and sketch His own portrait in a native of Samaria. To this day there is no more typical Christian figure, no more distinctive embodiment of the heart and conscience of Christ, than this character of His own creating whom we call the Good Samaritan.
Perhaps they were not wholly wrong when they flung this despised name at Him. Do you remember how Thackeray in one of his asides to the reader, remarks: “The Samaritan, who rescued you, most likely, has been robbed and has bled in his day, and it is a wounded arm that bandages yours when bleeding.” Jesus could pick up this race of ill repute and appreciate its hidden worth and immortalize it in His parable because He knew what it was to be an outcast, scorned, deemed disloyal to God and false to the traditions of His people. He was responsive to all disesteemed folk, the discarded, the lost, because no one was willing to use them. What Jew would have employed a Samaritan as the hero of an instructive and inspiring tale?
And this helps us to explain the supreme, and to us always baffling, climax of Jesus’ career, when He identified Himself with sinful men and voluntarily offered His life a vicarious sacrifice upon the cross, the Just for the unjust. To His sensitive spirit the sundering difference between God and His children, even the best of them, was frightfully apparent. Our Father and we were so glaringly unlike—He in His largeness, we in our pettiness; He in His love, we in our self-interest. For Himself Jesus knew that He belonged with God. He had heard in His conscience the assuring “Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well pleased.” He felt Himself God’s unique Representative, the only One who understood His mind, and could bring His children to know Him. At the same time He felt that He belonged with His sinning brethren, and He would not disown them. On their behalf—a ransom for many—He would let His life be taken. It was the inevitable consequence of His conscience and sympathy that He should feel Himself one with sinful men. They had called Him Samaritan, and they were not wholly mistaken. Now they nailed Him up on a cross between two robbers, and He felt that He belonged there—“made sin for us, He who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
And through the ages since every sinning man who has been brought under the spell of the Crucified has felt an outreach of His sympathy, and an assurance that Christ was with him in his struggle to down evil. You remember the ancient tale of Theseus, about to enter the black labyrinth, sword in hand, to battle with the monster whose lair was this gloomy and bewildering fastness; and how his sister, Ariadne, tied around his ankle a silken thread, and told him that whenever he felt a pull on that thread he would know that she was thinking of him, and was with him in his hazardous search and combat, and how thus fortified with her sympathy, Theseus slew the destroying Minotaur. There is a like pull on the heart-strings of men from the cross of Christ, in our conflicts with the woes and wrongs and evils of life, which makes us aware of His spiritual fellowship, and renders us more than conquerors through this Kinsman of ours who loves us.