We must put ourselves in the other person's place....

The Ministry of Sympathy

"Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel-abib, that dwelt by the river of Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days." Ezekiel 3:15.

L. A. Sutherland: Sorrowful indeed is this picture of Ezekiel and his compatriots exiled at Tel-abib on the banks of the Chebar. The fortunes of Israel were at a low ebb. Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem and had driven its inhabitants into exile in Babylonia. Concerning his visit to his fellow exiles at Tel-abib, Ezekiel relates: "I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days."

"I sat where they sat." At first sight this piece of detail does not seem to call for any special comment. Is not this young priest's attitude in keeping with the circumstances in which he found himself? It does not seem an unusual proceeding for him thus to associate himself with his countrymen in those disastrous hours, and silently muse with them over the common calamity.

Nevertheless, his action is capable of more sublime interpretation - for it is to be noted that Ezekiel was a member of a priestly tribe-separate and distinct from the people by law and tradition. He was a representative of the most exclusive section of Jewish society, and his attitude on this occasion involved a complete break with long cherished opinion. Yet he seemed to read the situation at a glance. He realized that nothing was to be gained by maintaining his customary attitude of aloofness. He knew that these shivering and stupefied men and women needed his comforting presence at that hour. So he threw tradition to the winds. He broke with every force that would stifle his God-given feelings of redemption, and he has left for us this inspiring record: "I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days."

We can readily understand what his quiet sympathetic presence must have meant to these despairing people. Their religious leader, the official administrator of their rites and ceremonies, had laid aside the pomp and circumstance of his office, and had come down to mourn with them awhile. In their loneliness they became aware that a great human soul was sitting among them, one who knew the depths of their grief and was willing to give them the silent sympathy of a heart that knew and understood. I am sure that when these seven days of stupor and sorrow were ended, these exiles must have felt braced by the fellowship and gracious condescension of one in whose hands reposed the leadership of their national and religious destinies.

This compassionate attitude of Ezekiel is one whose importance we have been slow to apprehend. The incident itself forms a silent tribute to the humanity of the Scriptures. The Bible is an intensely human book. There are few if any situations in daily life without their Scriptural counterpart. This inspired record can never become stale or outworn, for it has a message for the human heart in all generations. When we make a survey of history, we recognize indubitably that the men who have lifted others to higher levels of living and thinking have been companions of this Israelitish seer.

There is doubtless a certain stoical bravery in the attitude of the hermit and the monk who, renouncing the comforts of companionship, have betaken themselves to some quiet retreat "far from the madding [rushing] crowd's ignoble strife" [Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard]

Do we not, however, admire more fervently the wiser perceptiveness of those who have moved amid the commerce and conflict of life, who have gone down beside their brothers and sisters in bondage, and pointed them to One who alone can help them to leap and loose their chains? Do not our hearts thrill as we read the story of dauntless souls like Livingstone and Carey, Chalmers and Duff, who saw the heathen of Africa, India and New Guinea bound by the fetters of idolatry and superstition, and who crossed the seas and endured countless hardships that they might sit where their dusky brothers and sisters were sitting and let the light of a wondrous, emancipating Gospel steal into their darkened lives?

Is there not something to set our souls aglow with wonder at the spectacle of those who, know about the social problems of our age, because they have been where the social problems are - those gentle knights-errant in the slums of our great towns and cities, who are trying to help drink-sodden men and women to rise to higher things? History will accord the greater meed [reward] of praise to the Christian worker in the slum, while those who have written and spoken on social circumstances, with which, however, they can claim only theoretical acquaintance, will go down to posterity "unwept, unhonored and unsung" [Sir Walter Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel].

Ezekiel's attitude might with profit be more fully embraced by the Church of our time. We sometimes hear the complaint that the pulpit of to-day is sadly deficient in humanity. We are told that much of our preaching is ethereal, mystical and philosophical, and bears very little relation to human life and its clamant [demanding] needs. We spend precious hours in developing theories which do not minister to the spiritual sustenance of our hearers.

When Casaubon, the great French scholar, was being shown over the hall of the Sorbonne on the occasion of his first visit to Paris, his guide told him: "This is where the theologians have disputed for five hundred years." "Indeed!" was the reply, "and pray, what have they settled?" Does not this caustic query serve to reveal that there has been much idle piety practiced throughout the years of the Church's history? Men have been engaged in intellectual pursuits which have not tended to elevate the life and conduct of their fellows.

There is a growing need for the pulpit to abandon dreamy abstractions and come down to the point of view of the pew. "I sat where they sat." That must be the daily motto of every earnest herald of the Gospel. Assuredly a seat in the pew will accomplish wonders for the occupant of the pulpit. He will henceforth visualize his people's needs. His preaching will touch life at every point and will go home with comfort and conviction to the hungering hearer.

The end and aim of preaching is to set man right with God. That glorious consummation cannot be achieved, unless there is a genuine, sympathetic, prayerful attempt to discover what bars the way to this reconciliation. That attempt will be successful only when the ministry is an intensely human one, when in interchange and social fellowship, pulpit and pew begin to understand one another, and sermons are found rich in spiritual power and persuasiveness from the practice of this prophetic attitude, "I sat where they sat."

To the pew also comes with equal force the summons to follow Ezekiel's policy. The pulpit requires that the pew understand something of the nature of the task which it has undertaken. It is the fashion in some quarters to speak somewhat foolishly about the duties of the ministry. To enter such a vocation in their minds is to ensure for oneself a life of dignified repose, so feeble is their conception of what is involved in the acceptance of the claims and responsibilities of this office.

Never was the ministry confronted with so great difficulties as in these frankly materialistic days, and it demands, for the successful discharge of its solemn obligations, the ceaseless sympathy and prayers of those among whom its lot is cast. Nothing more weakens ministerial effectiveness than the absence of sympathetic discernment on the part of Church members, while words are inadequate to describe the joy that surges in the soul of Christ's ambassador as he stands in the pulpit clothed in all the panoply of his people's prayers. God grant that such a spirit of mutual supplication and sympathy may deepen and develop as the years go by, so that Christ's servants may be used to help each other on the way to that more abundant life which is promised to the faithful at the breaking of the day.

Ezekiel's attitude also contains a plea for a deeper sympathy in the world of human affairs. "Put yourself in his place." This was Charles Reade's [1814-1884] motto for all social disagreements. Were such a counsel universally followed, much of the unrest of modern days would be dissipated. Yet we are so strong about our own point of view, that we think it is the only point of view, and we do not seem to be able to see the other side of the picture. In these disputes in the realm of industry much misery might be avoided, if those involved could obey Ezekiel's dictum: "I sat where they sat." Surely there is a common ground on which both sides can meet for the amicable and equitable settlement of all differences.

Would not great good result also if the scattered ranks of Christ's followers could emulate Ezekiel in his conduct at Tel-abib? We rejoice to see the increasing spirit of unity among the various branches of Christ's Church. Such a happy state of affairs has been brought about by the exercise of sympathetic imagination. We are seeking to realize one another's position, to find whither our spiritual aims and purposes are tending, and nothing but good can accrue to the Church at large from the exercise of this spirit of comprehending fellowship.

We respond to the timely suggestion of a noted preacher of our age when he asks, "If among all the denominations, we sought for the largest common denominator, would not the explanation be productive of great spiritual wealth?" United in a common love to our Lord Jesus Christ, in a common devotion to His all-availing Cross, nothing could stem the advance of the forces of the Kingdom into human hearts and lives. Let us realize we all belong to a great regenerating fellowship.

"Brother clasps the hand of brother,
Stepping fearless through the night."
John Bunyan (?)

Ezekiel, in his wise sympathy, finally serves to rebuke those of us who are inclined harshly to judge the man who has fallen. How many of us can sit with the sinner in a spirit of understanding love and pity? When someone near and dear to us gives way to some sordid temptation, what are our feelings regarding his downfall? Does not anger most frequently possess us as we think of this gross betrayal of the family honour, this stain upon the family name?

Dramatic indeed is the picture which Ian Maclaren has drawn for us of Lachlan Campbell, that sternest and strictest of the elders at Drumtochty, who, when his daughter Flora wandered from the fold, immediately struck her name out of the family Bible. He was summarily dealt with by that gracious soul, Margot Howe, who was relentless in her criticism of the severity of his attitude. "Wae's [Woe is] me," she sobbed, "if oor Father had blotted oor names oot o' the Lamb's Book of Life when we left His Hoose. But He sent His ain [own] Son to seek us, and a weary road He cam'. Puir [Poor] Flora! Tae hae sic' [To have such] a father!" The rebuke had the desired effect. That austere old man realized his awful error. The wanderer at length came home, and on the night she returned, she was welcomed with a love which she never credited her father with possessing, and her name was re-entered on the family Bible.

"I sat where they sat." It is a terrible thing to see a soul sitting in that state of gaunt despair to which sin brings its victims. Yet you and I will best interpret the mind of Christ, if to the lonely wanderer we stretch forth a hand branded with the marks of the Lord Jesus; for we shall never sit with Christ in the [Kingdom of] Heaven yonder if we deliberately avoid sitting with some soul in hell here.

The love that descends to the uttermost of disloyalty and degradation is the love that had its consummation at a place called Calvary "I sat where they sat." Well might the Lord of glory echo these words of His herald Ezekiel, ere [before] He cried with a loud voice, "It is finished," (John 19:30) and entered the darkness of death. His earthly ministry was one of comprehending consolation for the tried and the fallen. He sat where they sat.

There was a memorable day, when four men lowered a paralytic through the roof of a house where the Master was preaching, and when Jesus saw him, He seemed to sense the real malady of the invalid, and the first words He said to him were, "Thy sins are forgiven thee" (Luke 5:20). He saw past the physical defect to the spiritual. He saw in that invalid a great heart-agony because of sin, and He healed his soul as well as his body. He sat where the paralytic was sitting, and joy was re-born in that despairing heart.

And "His touch has still its ancient power." Would that we were all more like Him! Would that we could bid depart for ever that spirit of censoriousness [severity on others] which so often possesses us, and with something of the mystic love of our Master, lead those who are bruised and broken by sin into health and peace again!

"If we knew all," one has said, "we should forgive all." [Mme.de Staël (?)]

Let us covet Christ's sympathy now and always. For still He sits among life's broken earthenware. Still His gentle Spirit hovers very near "those that are broken in their hearts and grieved in their minds."

Is there a soul before me as I speak who is conscious of a loneliness which sin can alone explain, who has come into the house of prayer scarcely knowing why or how - only realizing the intolerable burden of sin unforgiven and longing, oh, so unutterably, for the peace which Christ alone can give? Be of good cheer! Christ sits where you sit to-night in that very pew, here and now. He has been with you all the time.

"Have I been so long with you?" He gently asks, "and yet hast thou not known Me?" (John 14:9) It is the query of unrecognized and unrequited love. Can you delay to answer it? Can you go out into the night again with that weight still upon your back? You may - but you need not. He waits to bless. May it be yours to cry now with Thomas of old, "My Lord and my God." (John 20:28)

Sermon preached by Lewis A. Sutherland, Inverness, Scotland, ca. 1920

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