From “Triumph Over Hindrances,” Sermons on Bible Subjects (1855)
The sympathy of Jesus was fellow-feeling for all that is human. He did not grieve with Zacchaeus about his trials. He did not talk to him “about his soul.” He did not preach to him about his sins. He did not force His way into his house to lecture him. He simply said, ” I will abide at thy house; ” thereby identifying himself with a publican; thereby acknowledging a publican for a brother. Zacchaeus a publican? Zacchaeus a sinner? Yes; but Zacchaeus is a man. His heart throbs at cutting words. He has a sense of human honor. He feels the burning shame of the world’s disgrace. Lost? Yes. But the Son of Man, with the blood of the human race in his veins, is a brother to the lost.
It is in this entire and perfect sympathy with all humanity that the heart of Jesus differs from every other heart that is found among the sons of men. And it is this — oh ! it is this, which is the chief blessedness of having such a Savior. If you are poor, you can only get a begrudging sympathy from the rich; with the best intentions they cannot understand you. Their sympathy is awkward. If you are in pain, it is only a factitious and constrained sympathy you get from those in health — feelings forced, adopted kindly, but imperfect still. They sit, when the regular condolence is done, beside you, conversing on topics with each other that jar upon the ear. They sympathize? Miserable comforters are they all. If you are miserable, and tell out your grief, you have the shame of feeling that you were not understood; and that you have bared your inner self to a rude gaze.
If you are in doubt, you cannot tell your doubts to religious people; no, not even to the ministers of Christ — for they have no place for doubts in their largest system. They ask, “What right have you to doubt?” They suspect your character. They shake their heads; and whisper gravely, that you read strange books, that you are verging on infidelity. If you are depressed with guilt, to whom shall you tell your tale of shame? You cannot speak to your brother man, for you injure him by doing so, or else weaken yourself. You cannot tell it to society, for society judges in the gross by general rules, and cannot take into account the delicate differences of transgression. It banishes the frail penitent, and does homage to the daring hard transgressor.
Then it is that, repulsed on all sides and lonely, we turn to Him whose mighty heart understands and feels all. “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” And then it is that, exactly like Zacchaeus, misunderstood, suspected by the world, suspected by our own hearts — the very voice of God apparently against us — isolated and apart, we speak to him from the loneliness of the sycamore-tree, heart to heart, and pulse to pulse. ” Lord, thou knowest all things;” Thou knowest my secret charities, and my untold self-denials. “Thou knowest that I love thee.”
Remark the power of this sympathy on Zacchaeus’ character. Salvation that day came to Zacchaeus’ house. What brought it? What touched him? Of course, “the gospel.” Yes; but what is the gospel? What was his gospel? Speculations or revelations concerning the Divine Nature? The scheme of the atonement? or of the incarnation? or baptismal regeneration?
Nay, but the divine sympathy of the divinest man. The personal love of God, manifested in the face of Jesus Christ. The floodgates of his soul were opened, and the whole force that was in the man flowed forth. Whichever way you take that expression, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.” If it referred to the future, then, touched by unexpected sympathy, finding himself no longer an outcast, he made that resolve in gratefulness. If to the past, then, still touched by sympathy, he who had never tried to vindicate himself before the world, was softened to tell out the tale of his secret munificence. This is what I have been doing all the time they slandered me, and none but God knew it.
It required something to make a man like that talk of things which he had not suffered his own left hand to know, before a scorning world. It was the manifested fellowship of the Son of Man, which brought salvation to that house.
Frederick W. Robertson (1816-1853) was an English Anglican priest, one of the most famous preachers of his age. After serving parishes in Winchester and Cheltenham, he served for the final six years of his short life at Holy Trinity Church, Brighton, where he attracted great crowds with sermons famed for their deep insight into the spiritual life. Many were published after his death, including Sermons on Bible Subjects, first published in 1855.