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In the next place, a wicked example, as we all know, tends to corrupt in some degree every one that lives within its baneful influence; more particularly if it be found in men of high rank, great wealth, splendid talents, profound erudition, or popular characters. The mischief done by any notorious vices in men of this description is inconceivable. It spreads like a pestilence, and destroys thousands in secrecy and silence, of whom the offender himself knows nothing, and whom, probably, he never meant to injure; and wherever the heart is corrupted, the principle of faith is proportionably weakened; for no man, that gives a loose to his passions, will choose to have so troublesome a monitor near him as the Gospel. When he has learned to disregard the moral precepts of that divine volume, it requires but a very slight effort to reject its doctrines, and then to disbelieve the truth of the whole.
A dissolute life, then, especially in particular classes of men, is one certain way of making our brother to offend, not only in point of practice, but of belief; and there is another method of producing the same effects, nearly allied to this, and that is, immoral publications.
These have the same tendency with bad examples, both in propagating vice and promoting infidelity; but they are still more pernicious, because the sphere of their influence is more extensive.
A bad example, though it operates fatally, operates comparatively within a small circumference. It extends only to those who are near enough to observe it, and fall within the reach of the poisonous infection that spreads around it; but the contagion of a licentious publication, especially if it be (as it too frequently is) in a popular and captivating shape, knows no bounds; it flies to the remotest corners of the earth; it penetrates the obscure and retired habitations of simplicity and innocence; it makes its way into the cottage of the peasant, into the hut of the shepherd, and the shop of the mechanic; it falls into the hands of all ages, ranks, and conditions; but it is peculiarly fatal to the unsuspecting and unguarded minds of the youth of both sexes; and to them its "breath is poison, and its touch is death."
What then have they to answer for, who are every day obtruding these publications on the world, in a thousand different shapes and forms, in history, in biography, in poems, in novels, in dramatic pieces; in all which the prevailing feature is universal philanthropy and indiscri
minate benevolence; under the protection of which the hero of the piece has the privilege of committing whatever irregularities he thinks fit; and while he is violating the most sacred obligations, insinuating the most licentious sentiments, and ridiculing every thing that looks like religion, he is nevertheless held up as a model of virtue; and though he may perhaps be charged with a few little venial foibles, and pardonable infirmities (as they are called), yet we are assured, that he has notwithstanding the very best heart in the world. Thus it is that the principles of our youth are insensibly and almost unavoidably corrupted: and instead of being inspired, as they ought to be, even upon the stage, with a just detestation of vice, they are furnished with apologies for it, which they never forget, and are even taught to consider it as a necessary part of an accomplished character.
And, as if we had not enough of this disgusting nonsense and abominable profligacy in our own country, and in our own language, we are every day importing fresh samples of them from abroad, are ingrafting foreign immorality on our own native stock, and introducing characters on the stage, or into the closet, which are calculated to recommend the most licentious principles, and favour irregularities and attachments that deserve the severest reprehension and punishment.
These are the several modes in which we may weaken or even destroy the moral and religious principles of very sincere Christians, or, in the words of Scripture, "may make our brother to offend." And whoever is guilty of giving this offence, ought most seriously to consider the heavy punishment, and the bitter woe, which our Lord here denounces against it. There is scarce any one sin noticed by him which he reprobates in such strong terms as this: "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences; for it must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh." These are tremendous words; but we cannot wonder that our Lord should express himself thus strongly, when we consider the dreadful consequences of spreading infidelity and immorality among our fellowcreatures. We distress them with doubts and scruples, which never before entered into their thoughts; we rob them of the most invaluable blessings of life, of that
heavenly consolation and support, which is derived from religious sentiments and virtuous habits; of that trust and confidence in the Supreme Disposer of all things, which gives ease and comfort to the afflicted soul; of that unspeakable satisfaction, which results from a conscientious discharge of our duty; and of that peace of God, which passeth all understanding. But what is still worse, we not only deprive them of the truest comforts of the present life, but we cut off all their hopes of happiness in the next; we take from them the only sure ground of pardon and acceptance, the death and merits of a crucified Redeemer: we bar up against them the gates of heaven, into which but for us they might have have entered, and perhaps consign them over to everlasting perdition. Is not this beyond comparison the greatest injury that one human creature can inflict upon another? And does it not justly merit that severe sentence which our Lord has pronounced against it? Let then, every one keep at the utmost distance from this most atrocious crime. Let every man, who commits his thoughts to the public, take especial care, that nothing drop even incidentally from his pen that can offend those whom our Saviour calls little children that believe in him; that can either stagger their faith or corrupt their hearts. Let every father of a family be equally careful that nothing escape his lips, in the unguarded hour of familiar converse, that can be dangerous to the religious principles of his children, his friends, or his servants; nothing that tends to lessen their reverence for the sacred writings, their respect for the doctrines, the precepts, or the sacred ordinances of religion, or raise any doubts or scruples in their minds respecting the truth or divine authority of the Christian revelation. I mention these things, because even the friends of religion are sometimes apt, through mere inadvertence or thoughtlessness, to indulge themselves in pleasantries, even upon serious subjects, which though meant at the time merely to entertain their hearers, or to display their wit, yet often produce a very different effect, and sink much deeper into the minds of those that are present (especially of young people) than they are in the least aware of. More mischief may sometimes be done by incidental levities of this kind, than by grave discourses or elaborate writings against religion.
I have dwelt the longer on this interesting topic, because few people are aware of the enormity of the sin here reproved by our Lord, of the irreparable injury it may do to others, and of the danger to which it exposes themselves. But when they reflect, that by the commission of this crime they endanger the present peace and the future salvation of their fellow-creatures, and expose themselves to the woes which our Lord has in the passage before us denounced against those from whom these offences come, they will probably feel it their duty to be more guarded in this instance than men generally are; and will take heed to their ways, that they offend not either with their pen or with their tongue.
I now go on with the remaining part of our Lord's admonition to his disciples.
After having said, in the seventh verse, "Woe unto the world because of offences; for it must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh;" he then adds, " Wherefore, if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off and cast them from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire; and if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire."
Our Saviour here applies to the particular sin, which he was then condemning, the very same words which he had used before, in his sermon on the Mount, with reference to the crime of adultery, and the meaning is this:
The heinous sin, against which I have been here cautioning you, that of offending your Christian brethren, of causing them by your misconduct to renounce their faith in me, or to desert the paths of virtue, has its origin in your depraved appetites and passions; as in the present instance it is your ambition, your eagerness after worldly honours and distinctions, which it is to be feared will give offence and scandal to those that observe it, and may impress them with an unfavourable idea of that religion, which seems to inspire such sentiments. You must, therefore, go at once to the root of the evil; you must extirpate those corrupt passions and propensities that have taken possession of your hearts, though it may be as difficult for you to part with them as it would
be to pluck out an eye, or tear off a limb from the body. For it is better that you should renounce what is most dear to you in this life, than that you should suffer those dreadful punishments in the next, which I have told you will assuredly be inflicted on all impenitent offenders, and more particularly on those who offend in the way here specified.
He then returns to the main subject of his exhortation: "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones: for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. That is, I again repeat to you, take heed that ye treat not with scorn and contempt such little children as you now see before you, or those believers in me, who resemble these children in docility, meekness, humility, and indifference to all that the world calls great and honourable. Take care that you do not consider their welfare, their salvation, as below your notice and regard, and wantonly endanger both, by giving way to your own irregular desires; for I say unto you, that, however contemptibly you may think of them, your heavenly Father regards them with a more favourable eye. He even condescends to take them under his protection; he sends his most favoured angels, those ministers of his that do his pleasure, and stand always in his presence, ready to execute his commands, even these he deputes to guard and watch over these little children, and those humble Christians, who are like them in purity and innocence of mind.
From this passage some have inferred, that every child and every faithful servant of Christ has an angel constantly attached to his person, to superintend, direct, and protect him; and this is the opinion of the learned Grotius himself; whilst others only suppose, that those ce lestial spirits, who (as we are told of Gabriel) stand before God, are occasionally sent to assist the pious Christian in imminent danger, in severe trials, or great emergencies. And hence, perhaps, the favourite and popular doctrine of guardian angels; a doctrine which has prevailed more or less in every age of the church, which is, without question, most soothing and consolatory to hu man nature, and is certainly countenanced by this and several other passages of holy writ, as well as by the authority of Origen, Tertullian, and other ancient fathers and commentators. In the Psalms it said, "The an