By George MacDonald
from UNSPOKEN SERMONS SERIES II
Used with the permission of Johannesen Printing & Publishing.
'Verily I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence, till
thou have paid the last farthing.' - St. Matthew v. 26.
There is a thing wonderful and admirable in the parables, not readily
grasped, but specially indicated by the Lord himself-their unintelligibility
to the mere intellect. They are addressed to the conscience and not to
the intellect, to the will and not to the imagination. They are strong
and direct but not definite. They are not meant to explain anything, but
to rouse a man to the feeling, 'I am not what I ought to be, I do not the
thing I ought to do!' Many maundering interpretations may be given by the
wise, with plentiful loss of labour, while the child who uses them for
the necessity of walking in the one path will constantly receive light
from them. The greatest obscuration of the words of the Lord, as of all
true teachers, comes from those who give themselves to interpret rather
than do them. Theologians have done more to hide the gospel of Christ than
any of its adversaries. It was not for our understandings, but our will,
that Christ came. He who does that which he sees, shall understand; he
who is set upon understanding rather than doing, shall go on stumbling
and mistaking and speaking foolishness. He has not that in him which can
understand that kind. The gospel itself, and in it the parables of the
Truth, are to be understood only by those who walk by what they find. It
is he that runneth that shall read, and no other. It is not intended by
the speaker of the parables that any other should know intellectually what,
known but intellectually, would be for his injury-what knowing intellectually
he would imagine he had grasped, perhaps even appropriated. When the pilgrim
of the truth comes on his journey to the region of the parable, he finds
its interpretation. It is not a fruit or a jewel to be stored, but a well
springing by the wayside.
Let us try to understand what the Lord himself said about his parables.
It will be better to take the reading of St. Matthew xiii. 14, 15, as it
is plainer, and the quotation from Isaiah (vi. 9, 10) is given in full-after
the Septuagint, and much clearer than in our version from the Hebrew:-in
its light should be read the corresponding passages in the other Gospels:
in St. Mark's it is so compressed as to be capable of quite a different
and false meaning: in St. John's reference, the blinding of the heart seems
attributed directly to the devil:-the purport is, that those who by insincerity
and falsehood close their deeper eyes, shall not be capable of using in
the matter the more superficial eyes of their understanding. Whether this
follows as a psychical or metaphysical necessity, or be regarded as a special
punishment, it is equally the will of God, and comes from him who is the
live Truth. They shall not see what is not for such as they. It is the
punishment of the true Love, and is continually illustrated and fulfilled:
if I know anything of the truth of God, then the objectors to Christianity,
so far as I am acquainted with them, do not; their arguments, not in themselves
false, have nothing to do with the matter; they see the thing they are
talking against, but they do not see the thing they think they are talking
This will help to remove the difficulty that the parables are plainly
for the teaching of the truth, and yet the Lord speaks of them as for the
concealing of it. They are for the understanding of that man only who is
practical-who does the thing he knows, who seeks to understand vitally.
They reveal to the live conscience, otherwise not to the keenest intellect-though
at the same time they may help to rouse the conscience with glimpses of
the truth, where the man is on the borders of waking. Ignorance may be
at once a punishment and a kindness: all punishment is kindness, and the
best of which the man at the time is capable: 'Because you will not do,
you shall not see; but it would be worse for you if you did see, not being
of the disposition to do.' Such are punished in having the way closed before
them; they punish themselves; their own doing results as it cannot but
result on them. To say to them certain things so that they could understand
them, would but harden them more, because they would not do them; they
should have but parables-lanterns of the truth, clear to those who will
walk in their light, dark to those who will not. The former are content
to have the light cast upon their way; the latter will have it in their
eyes, and cannot: if they had, it would but blind them. For them to know
more would be their worse condemnation. They are not fit to know more;
more shall not be given them yet; it is their punishment that they are
in the wrong, and shall keep in the wrong until they come out of it. 'You
choose the dark; you shall stay in the dark till the terrors that dwell
in the dark affray you, and cause you to cry out.' God puts a seal upon
the will of man; that seal is either his great punishment, or his mighty
favour: 'Ye love the darkness, abide in the darkness:' 'O woman, great
is thy faith: be it done unto thee even as thou wilt!'
What special meaning may be read in the different parts of magistrate,
judge, and officer, beyond the general suggestion, perhaps, of the tentative
approach of the final, I do not know; but I think I do know what is meant
by 'agree on the way,' and 'the uttermost farthing.' The parable is an
appeal to the common sense of those that hear it, in regard to every affair
of righteousness. Arrange what claim lies against you; compulsion waits
behind it. Do at once what you must do one day. As there is no escape from
payment, escape at least the prison that will enforce it. Do not drive
Justice to extremities. Duty is imperative; it must be done. It is useless
to think to escape the eternal law of things; yield of yourself, nor compel
God to compel you.
To the honest man, to the man who would fain be honest, the word is
of right gracious import. To the untrue, it is a terrible threat; to him
who is of the truth, it is sweet as most loving promise. He who is of God's
mind in things, rejoices to hear the word of the changeless Truth; the
voice of the Right fills the heavens and the earth, and makes his soul
glad; it is his salvation. If God were not inexorably just, there would
be no stay for the soul of the feeblest lover of right: 'thou art true,
O Lord: one day I also shall be true!' 'Thou shalt render the right, cost
you what it may,' is a dread sound in the ears of those whose life is a
falsehood: what but the last farthing would those who love righteousness
more than life pay? It is a joy profound as peace to know that God is determined
upon such payment, is determined to have his children clean, clear, pure
as very snow; is determined that not only shall they with his help make
up for whatever wrong they have done, but at length be incapable, by eternal
choice of good, under any temptation, of doing the thing that is not divine,
the thing God would not do.
There has been much cherishing of the evil fancy, often without its
taking formal shape, that there is some way of getting out of the region
of strict justice, some mode of managing to escape doing all that is required
of us; but there is no such escape. A way to avoid any demand of righteousness
would be an infinitely worse way than the road to the everlasting fire,
for its end would be eternal death. No, there is no escape. There is no
heaven with a little of hell in it-no plan to retain this or that of the
devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather!
Neither shalt thou think to be delivered from the necessity of being good
by being made good. God is the God of the animals in a far lovelier way,
I suspect, than many of us dare to think, but he will not be the God of
a man by making a good beast of him. Thou must be good; neither death nor
any admittance into good company will make thee good; though, doubtless,
if thou be willing and try, these and all other best helps will be given
thee. There is no clothing in a robe of imputed righteousness, that poorest
of legal cobwebs spun by spiritual spiders. To me it seems like an invention
of well-meaning dulness to soothe insanity; and indeed it has proved a
door of escape out of worse imaginations. It is apparently an old 'doctrine;'
for St. John seems to point at it where he says, 'Little children, let
no man lead you astray; he that doeth righteousness is righteous even as
he is righteous.' Christ is our righteousness, not that we should escape
punishment, still less escape being righteous, but as the live potent creator
of righteousness in us, so that we, with our wills receiving his spirit,
shall like him resist unto blood, striving against sin; shall know in ourselves,
as he knows, what a lovely thing is righteousness, what a mean, ugly, unnatural
thing is unrighteousness. He is our righteousness, and that righteousness
is no fiction, no pretence, no imputation.
One thing that tends to keep men from seeing righteousness and unrighteousness
as they are, is, that they have been told many things are righteous and
unrighteous, which are neither the one nor the other. Righteousness is
just fairness-from God to man, from man to God and to man; it is giving
every one his due-his large mighty due. He is righteous, and no one else,
who does this. And any system which tends to persuade men that there is
any salvation but that of becoming righteous even as Jesus is righteous;
that a man can be made good, as a good dog is good, without his own willed
share in the making; that a man is saved by having his sins hidden under
a robe of imputed righteousness-that system, so far as this tendency, is
of the devil and not of God. Thank God, not even error shall injure the
true of heart; it is not wickedness. They grow in the truth, and as love
casts out fear, so truth casts out falsehood.
I read, then, in this parable, that a man had better make up his mind
to be righteous, to be fair, to do what he can to pay what he owes, in
any and all the relations of life-all the matters, in a word, wherein one
man may demand of another, or complain that he has not received fair play.
Arrange your matters with those who have anything against you, while you
are yet together and things have not gone too far to be arranged; you will
have to do it, and that under less easy circumstances than now. Putting
off is of no use. You must. The thing has to be done; there are means of
'In this affair, however, I am in the right.'
'If so, very well-for this affair. But I have reason to doubt whether
you are capable of judging righteously in your own cause:-do you hate the
'No, I don't hate him.'
'Do you dislike him?'
'I can't say I like him.'
'Do you love him as yourself?'
'Oh, come! come! no one does that!'
'Then no one is to be trusted when he thinks, however firmly, that he
is all right, and his neighbour all wrong, in any matter between them.'
'But I don't say I am all right, and he is all wrong; there may be something
to urge on his side: what I say is, that I am more in the right than he.'
'This is not fundamentally a question of things: it is a question of
condition, of spiritual relation and action, towards your neighbour. If
in yourself you were all right towards him, you could do him no wrong.
Let it be with the individual dispute as it may, you owe him something
that you do not pay him, as certainly as you think he owes you something
he will not pay you.'
'He would take immediate advantage of me if I owned that.'
'So much the worse for him. Until you are fair to him, it does not matter
to you whether he is unfair to you or not.'
'I beg your pardon-it is just what does matter! I want nothing but my
rights. What can matter to me more than my rights?'
'Your duties-your debts. You are all wrong about the thing. It is a
very small matter to you whether the man give you your rights or not; it
is life or death to you whether or not you give him his. Whether he pay
you what you count his debt or no, you will be compelled to pay him all
you owe him. If you owe him a pound and he you a million, you must pay
him the pound whether he pay you the million or not; there is no business-parallel
here. If, owing you love, he gives you hate, you, owing him love, have
yet to pay it. A love unpaid you, a justice undone you, a praise withheld
from you, a judgment passed on you without judgment, will not absolve you
of the debt of a love unpaid, a justice not done, a praise withheld, a
false judgment passed: these uttermost farthings-not to speak of such debts
as the world itself counts grievous wrongs-you must pay him, whether he
pay you or not. We have a good while given us to pay, but a crisis will
come-come soon after all-comes always sooner than those expect it who are
not ready for it-a crisis when the demand unyielded will be followed by
The same holds with every demand of God: by refusing to pay, the man
makes an adversary who will compel him-and that for the man's own sake.
If you or your life say, 'I will not,' then he will see to it. There is
a prison, and the one thing we know about that prison is, that its doors
do not open until entire satisfaction is rendered, the last farthing paid.
The main debts whose payment God demands are those which lie at the
root of all right, those we owe in mind, and soul, and being. Whatever
in us can be or make an adversary, whatever could prevent us from doing
the will of God, or from agreeing with our fellow-all must be yielded.
Our every relation, both to God and our fellow, must be acknowledged heartily,
met as a reality. Smaller debts, if any debt can be small, follow as a
matter of course.
If the man acknowledge, and would pay if he could but cannot, the universe
will be taxed to help him rather than he should continue unable. If the
man accepts the will of God, he is the child of the Father, the whole power
and wealth of the Father is for him, and the uttermost farthing will easily
be paid. If the man denies the debt, or acknowledging does nothing towards
paying it, then-at last-the prison! God in the dark can make a man thirst
for the light, who never in the light sought but the dark. The cells of
the prison may differ in degree of darkness; but they are all alike in
this, that not a door opens but to payment. There is no day but the will
of God, and he who is of the night cannot be for ever allowed to roam the
day; unfelt, unprized, the light must be taken from him, that he may know
what the darkness is. When the darkness is perfect, when he is totally
without the light he has spent the light in slaying, then will he know
I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all,
the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe; I will endeavour to convey
what I think it may be.
It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city
of which God is the light-where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the
dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over.
Every sense has its signs, and they were all misused: there is no sense,
no sign more-nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from
the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness-such a loneliness as
in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a
hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him. All
is dark, dark and dumb; no motion-not the breath of a wind! never a dream
of change! not a scent from far-off field! nothing to suggest being or
thing besides the man himself, no sign of God anywhere. God has so far
withdrawn from the man, that he is conscious only of that from which he
has withdrawn. In the midst of the live world he cared for nothing but
himself; now in the dead world he is in God's prison, his own separated
self. He would not believe in God because he never saw God; now he doubts
if there be such a thing as the face of a man-doubts if he ever really
saw one, ever anything more than dreamed of such a thing:-he never came
near enough to human being, to know what human being really was-so may
well doubt if human beings ever were, if ever he was one of them.
Next after doubt comes reasoning on the doubt: 'The only one must be
God! I know no one but myself: I must myself be God-none else!' Poor helpless
dumb devil!-his own glorious lord god! Yea, he will imagine himself that
same resistless force which, without his will, without his knowledge, is
the law by which the sun burns, and the stars keep their courses, the strength
that drives all the engines of the world. His fancy will give birth to
a thousand fancies, which will run riot like the mice in a house but just
deserted: he will call it creation, and his. Having no reality to set them
beside, nothing to correct them by; the measured order, harmonious relations,
and sweet graces of God's world nowhere for him; what he thinks, will be,
for lack of what God thinks, the man's realities: what others can he have!
Soon, misery will beget on imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which
he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences-a
whole world of miserable contradictions and cold-fever-dreams.
But no liveliest human imagination could supply adequate representation
of what it would be to be left without a shadow of the presence of God.
If God gave it, man could not understand it: he knows neither God nor himself
in the way of the understanding. For not he who cares least about God was
in this world ever left as God could leave him. I doubt if any man could
continue following his wickedness from whom God had withdrawn.
The most frightful idea of what could, to his own consciousness, befall
a man, is that he should have to lead an existence with which God had nothing
to do. The thing could not be; for being that is caused, the causation
ceasing, must of necessity cease. It is always in, and never out of God,
that we can live and do. But I suppose the man so left that he seems to
himself utterly alone, yet, alas! with himself-smallest interchange of
thought, feeblest contact of existence, dullest reflection from other being,
impossible: in such evil case I believe the man would be glad to come in
contact with the worst-loathed insect: it would be a shape of life, something
beyond and besides his own huge, void, formless being! I imagine some such
feeling in the prayer of the devils for leave to go into the swine. His
worst enemy, could he but be aware of him, he would be ready to worship.
For the misery would be not merely the absence of all being other than
his own self, but the fearful, endless, unavoidable presence of that self.
Without the correction, the reflection, the support of other presences,
being is not merely unsafe, it is a horror-for anyone but God, who is his
own being. For him whose idea is God's, and the image of God, his own being
is far too fragmentary and imperfect to be anything like good company.
It is the lovely creatures God has made all around us, in them giving us
himself, that, until we know him, save us from the frenzy of aloneness-for
that aloneness is Self, Self, Self. The man who minds only himself must
at last go mad if God did not interfere.
Can there be any way out of the misery? Will the soul that could not
believe in God, with all his lovely world around testifying of him, believe
when shut in the prison of its own lonely, weary all-and-nothing? It would
for a time try to believe that it was indeed nothing, a mere glow of the
setting sun on a cloud of dust, a paltry dream that dreamed itself-then,
ah, if only the dream might dream that it was no more! that would be the
one thing to hope for. Self-loathing, and that for no sin, from no repentance,
from no vision of better, would begin and grow and grow; and to what it
might not come no soul can tell-of essential, original misery, uncompromising
self-disgust! Only, then, if a being be capable of self-disgust, is there
not some room for hope-as much as a pinch of earth in the cleft of a rock
might yield for the growth of a pine? Nay, there must be hope while there
is existence; for where there is existence there must be God; and God is
for ever good, nor can be other than good. But alas, the distance from
the light! Such a soul is at the farthest verge of life's negation!-no,
not the farthest! a man is nearer heaven when in deepest hell than just
ere he begins to reap the reward of his doings-for he is in a condition
to receive the smallest show of the life that is, as a boon unspeakable.
All his years in the world he received the endless gifts of sun and air,
earth and sea and human face divine, as things that came to him because
that was their way, and there was no one to prevent them; now the poorest
thinning of the darkness he would hail as men of old the glow of a descending
angel; it would be as a messenger from God. Not that he would think of
God! it takes long to think of God; but hope, not yet seeming hope, would
begin to dawn in his bosom, and the thinner darkness would be as a cave
of light, a refuge from the horrid self of which he used to be so proud.
A man may well imagine it impossible ever to think so unpleasantly of
himself! But he has only to let things go, and he will make it the real,
right, natural way to think of himself. True, all I have been saying is
imaginary; but our imagination is made to mirror truth; all the things
that appear in it are more or less after the model of things that are;
I suspect it is the region whence issues prophecy; and when we are true
it will mirror nothing but truth. I deal here with the same light and darkness
the Lord dealt with, the same St. Paul and St. John and St. Peter and St.
Jude dealt with. Ask yourself whether the faintest dawn of even physical
light would not be welcome to such a soul as some refuge from the dark
of the justly hated self.
And the light would grow and grow across the awful gulf between the
soul and its haven-its repentance-for repentance is the first pressure
of the bosom of God; and in the twilight, struggling and faint, the man
would feel, faint as the twilight, another thought beside his, another
thinking Something nigh his dreary self-perhaps the man he had most wronged,
most hated, most despised-and would be glad that some one, whoever, was
near him: the man he had most injured, and was most ashamed to meet, would
be a refuge from himself-oh, how welcome!
So might I imagine a thousand steps up from the darkness, each a little
less dark, a little nearer the light-but, ah, the weary way! He cannot
come out until he have paid the uttermost farthing! Repentance once begun,
however, may grow more and more rapid! If God once get a willing hold,
if with but one finger he touch the man's self, swift as possibility will
he draw him from the darkness into the light. For that for which the forlorn,
self-ruined wretch was made, was to be a child of God, a partaker of the
divine nature, an heir of God and joint heir with Christ. Out of the abyss
into which he cast himself, refusing to be the heir of God, he must rise
and be raised. To the heart of God, the one and only goal of the human
race-the refuge and home of all and each, he must set out and go, or the
last glimmer of humanity will die from him. Whoever will live must cease
to be a slave and become a child of God. There is no half-way house of
rest, where ungodliness may be dallied with, nor prove quite fatal. Be
they few or many cast into such prison as I have endeavoured to imagine,
there can be no deliverance for human soul, whether in that prison or out
of it, but in paying the last farthing, in becoming lowly, penitent, self-refusing-so
receiving the sonship, and learning to cry, Father!