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In the second part of the _Pilgrim's Progress_, Bunyan tells us how Christiana and her children came to the Interpreter's House, and were taken by the master of it into one of his Significant Rooms. In one of these there was _a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand; there stood also one over his head, with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered him that crown for his muck-rake; but the man did neither look up nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, and dust of the floor_.
The late Sir Noel Paton has taken this as the subject of one of his most famous pictures. The canvas is a large one, and the figures in it are of life-size. That of the man with the muck-rake himself first arrests your eye, and chiefly draws your attention. He is an old man with a grey beard. His face is a handsome one, and you see that he has gifts and powers which might have made him wise and venerable in his old age, if only he had made a good use of them. But instead of the n.o.ble gravity which you might expect to find on such a face, there is nothing but an eager gleam and a senseless smile of perfectly childish and foolish delight. He wears on his head an old broad-rimmed hat, adorned with a gold chain and a peac.o.c.k's feather. At his belt he has several bags full of gold, and also a dagger with which he is ready to defend his possessions. One of the bags has burst, and the coins are dropping on the ground. On his back he carries a wallet, crammed with old law-papers and straw. He kneels on one knee, and his whole body is bent downward. With his left hand he grasps the handle of a rake which has three long p.r.o.ngs. He is using the rake to draw towards him a lot of varied stuff that is littered about in front of him--more straw and papers, a broken necklace of beads, and a heart-shaped brooch, besides coins and feathers, and other such things. A large black beetle creeps near his feet. A little further in front of him more rubbish lies in a heap--a book of fashions, a fan, still more straw, some artificial roses and withered leaves, an old lamp, a skull, and a king's crown, all battered and bent and blood-stained. There is a toad crouching under the fan. Among the other things a snake is crawling, and blowing out of its mouth beautifully coloured bubbles, airy and unsubstantial.
You can see one of them breaking as it touches a stone. It is on these bubbles that the eager, delighted gaze of the old man is fixed, and to grasp them he is stretching out his thin and trembling right hand. His left ankle is bound by a strong fetter of gold. When you have looked at the picture for a little while, you see that he is in a prison cell.
A faint light glimmers through a grated window at the back, where steps come down into the cell by the side of a pillar. Beside the old man a lantern stands on the ground. Its gla.s.s sides are shaped like church windows, but the flame of the candle inside is guttering and going out.
The straw on the floor is bursting into red flames and wreaths of smoke, and the whole pile of rubbish is on the point of being burned up.
Behind the man with the muck-rake is another Figure, tall and straight, yet bending down in pity. It is the Figure of Christ. He stands motionless, with a look of sorrowful patience on His face. One of His hands is laid on the old man's shoulder, and with the other He holds up a bright crown. It is a crown of thorns, the same which He wore Himself, but on the thorns are seven bright stars. They turn it into a crown of glory, and shed a radiance over all the picture. You can see that the Saviour's hands have been pierced, and that the thorns have left bleeding marks upon His brow.
Away in the dim background, hovering on many-tinted pinions, and with hands clasped in prayer, is an angel--the guardian angel of the old man's soul. This angel has a face of unspeakable sadness, and eyes in which you can almost see the trembling of big tears, ready to fall.
These are some of the things that the genius and the exquisite skill of the painter have put into the picture for our eyes to see. What did he mean our minds and hearts to understand by them all? Perhaps I may begin to answer that question by reminding you of what John Banyan meant by the man in his story.
_Then said Christiana_ (to the Interpreter), _I persuade myself that I know somewhat the meaning of this; for this is a figure of a man of this world: is it not, good Sir?_
_Thou hast said the right, said he; and his muck-rake doth show his carnal mind. And whereas thou seest him rather give heed to rake up straws and sticks, and the dust of the floor, than to do what he says that calls to him from above, with the celestial crown in his hand, it is to show that Heaven is but as a fable to some, and that things here are counted the only things substantial. Now, whereas it was also shewed thee that the man could look no way but downwards, it is to let thee know, that earthly things, when they are with power upon men's minds, quite carry their hearts away from G.o.d._
_Then said Christiana, O deliver me from this muck-rake!_
I think I am not wrong in saying that the story and the picture set before us two kinds of life--a poor and worthless one which many people choose, and a high and glorious one from which many people turn away.
The man with the muck-rake represents _The worldly life_--the life of selfishness, of grasping and striving after the good things of this earth alone.
This is a childish kind of life for any one to spend. A look at the old man's face shows us that. G.o.d has given us natures that we can put to the n.o.blest uses; but if we prize and pursue nothing save the pleasures and the riches of this world, we shall carry into our old age the foolishness and senselessness of the youngest children.
Such a life, besides, is a life of bondage and care. We make the world into a prison, and we fetter ourselves with chains, when we make its good things our chief aim and reward. The battered and blood-stained crown shows that the highest earthly ambitions have their pains and miseries even when they are most successful.
Then this kind of life does not satisfy, and does not last. The varied rubbish shows that this world's possessions are not worth much after all. The bursting bubbles show that their attraction is hollow and delusive. The coins escaping from the bags show that we cannot keep our riches for ever, no matter how hard we try. The rising flames remind us that nothing on the earth will endure.
Lastly, a worldly life is an unworthy life. The toad and beetle and snake show that there are often vile things hidden among the treasures of earth. The bent, crouching form of the old man shows how selfishness and greed degrade and bow down our nature. The expiring flame of the lantern warns us that worldly grasping puts out the light of love and goodness in the soul.
The shining crown which Christ holds out calls us to _The unworldly life_. This is a life of love, of giving, of sacrifice like His own.
Such a life is the only one that is truly happy, though it may not seem so pleasant as the other. It is far more blessed to give than to receive.
It is the only life that is truly n.o.ble. There never was such a grand life as the life of the Lord Jesus on earth, and the more our life is like His, the nearer will it come to its highest and best.
It is the life, too, that leads to the richest reward. The thorns are turned into stars. The emblem of pain and sacrifice is changed into a crown of light and glory.
But it is the life of likeness to Christ. It is a share of His own crown and of His own glory that He offers to us, and we cannot get these except by being like Him. We can only win them by following Him.
He has suffered for us, and given Himself for us. We need to learn of Him, and to be filled with His Spirit of self-forgetting, self-denying, self-sacrificing love.
Some of you may be old enough to feel that your life has already been too much like that of the man with the muck-rake. It has been too selfish and too worldly: it has been a life beneath you; a life of chains and bondage; a life perhaps touched with vileness; a life spent in pursuit of worthless trifles; a life degrading and darkened and foolish and vain. Well, this patient Saviour stands beside you. He bends over you in pity. He touches you with His pierced hand. He asks you to yield to His love, and to be loving like Him. He offers you the crown of glory, instead of the rubbish that you have coveted so long.
If you will look up to Him, and meet His look, and take His gift, and follow Him, you will find true light, true freedom, true riches, true n.o.bility. His suffering will be rewarded. His patience will be satisfied. There will be joy in the presence of the angels of G.o.d.