THE Inauguration of the Great Doctrine was immediately followed and ratified by mighty signs. Jesus went, says one of the Fathers, from teaching to miracle. Having taught as one who had authority, He proceeded to confirm that authority by accordant deeds.
It might have been thought that after a night of ceaseless prayer under the open sky, followed at early dawn by the choice of Twelve Apostles, and by a long address to them and to a vast promiscuous multitude, our Lord would have retired to the repose which such incessant activity required. Such, however, was very far from being the case, and the next few days, if we rightly grasp the sequence of events, were days of continuous and unwearying toil.
When the Sermon was over, the immense throng dispersed in various directions, and those whose homes lay in the plain of Gennesareth would doubtless follow Jesus through the village of Hattîn, and across the narrow plateau, and then, after descending the ravine, would leave Magdala on the right, and pass through Bethsaida to Capernaum.
As He descended the mountain, and was just entering one of the little towns, probably a short distance in advance of the multitude, who from natural respect would be likely to leave Him undisturbed after His labours, a pitiable spectacle met His eyes. Suddenly, with agonies of entreaty, falling first on his knees, then, in the anguish of his heart and the intensity of his supplication, prostrating himself upon his face, there appeared before Him, with bare head, and rent garments, and covered lip, a leper"full of leprosy"smitten with the worst and foulest form of that loathsome and terrible disease. It must, indeed, have required on the part of the poor wretch a stupendous faith to believe that the young Prophet of Nazareth was One who could heal a disease of which the worst misery was the belief that, when once thoroughly seated in the blood, it was ineradicable and progressive. And yet the concentrated hope of a life broke out in the man's impassioned prayer, "Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean." Prompt as an echo came the answer to his faith, "I will: be thou clean." All Christ's miracles are revelations also. Sometimes, when the circumstances of the case required it, He delayed his answer to a sufferer's prayer. But we are never told that there was a moment's pause when a leper cried to him. Leprosy was an acknowledged type of sin, and Christ would teach us that the heartfelt prayer of the sinner to be purged and cleansed is always met by instantaneous acceptance. When David, the type of all true penitents, cried with intense contrition, "I have sinned against the Lord," Nathan could instantly convey to him God's gracious message, "The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die."
Instantly stretching forth His hand, Our Lord touched the leper, and he was cleansed.
It was a glorious violation of the letter of the Law, which attached ceremonial pollution to a leper's touch; but it was at the same time a glorious illustration of the spirit of the Law, which was that mercy is better than sacrifice. The hand of Jesus was not polluted by touching the leper's body, but the leper's whole body was cleansed by the touch of that holy hand. It was even thus that He touched our sinful human nature, and yet remained without spot of sin.
It was in the depth and spontaneity of His human emotion that our Lord had touched the leper into health. But it was His present desire to fulfil the Mosaic Law by perfect obedience; and both in proof of the miracle, and out of consideration to the sufferer, and in conformity with the Levitical ordinance, He bade the leper go and show himself to the priest, make the customary offerings, and obtain the legal certificate that he was clean. He accompanied the direction with a strict and even stern injunction to say not one word of it to any one. It appears from this that the suddenness with which the miracle had been accomplished had kept it secret from all, except perhaps a few of our Lord's immediate followers, although it had been wrought in open day, and in the immediate neighbourhood of a city, and at no great distance from the following multitudes. But why did our Lord on this, and many other occasions, enjoin on the recipient of the miracles a secrecy which they so rarely observed? The full reason perhaps we shall never know, but that it had reference to circumstances of time and place, and the mental condition of those in whose favour the deeds were wrought, is clear from the fact that on one occasion at least, where the conditions were different, He even enjoined a publication of the mercy vouchsafed. Was it, as St. Chrysostom conjectures, to repress a spirit of boastfulness, and teach men not to talk away the deep inward sense of God's great gifts? or was it to avoid an over-excitement and tumult in the already astonished multitudes of Galilee? or was it that He be regarded by them in His true lightnot as a mighty Wonder-worker, not as a universal Hakim, but as a Saviour by Revelation and by Hope?
Whatever may have been the general reasons, it appears that in this case there must have been some reason of special importance. St. Mark, reflecting for us the intense and vivid impressions of St. Peter, shows us, in his terse but most graphic narrative, that the man's dismissal was accompanied on our Saviour's part with some overpowering emotion. Not only is the word, "He straitly charged him" (Mark i. 43), a word implying an extreme earnestness and even vehemence of look and gesture, but the word for "forthwith sent him away" is literally He "pushed" or "drove him forth." What was the cause for this severely inculcated order, for this instantaneous dismissal? Perhaps it was the fact that by touching the leperthough the touch was healingHe would, in the eyes of an unreasoning and unspiritual orthodoxy, be regarded as ceremonially unclean. And that this actually did occur may be assumed from the expressly mentioned fact that, in consequence of the manner in which this incident was blazoned abroad by the cleansed sufferer, "He could not openly enter into a city, but was without in desert places." St. Luke mentions a similar circumstance, though without giving any special reason for it, and adds that Jesus spent the time in prayer. If, however, the dissemination of the leper's story involved the necessity for a short period of seclusion, it is clear that the multitude paid but little regard to this Levitical uncleanness, for even in the lonely spot to which Jesus had retired they thronged to Him from every quarter.
Whether the healing of the centurion's servant took place before or after this retirement is uncertain; but from the fact that both St. Matthew and St. Luke place it in close connection with the Sermon on the Mount, we may suppose that the thronging of the multitudes to seek Him, even in desert places, may have shown him that it would not be possible for Him to satisfy the scruples of the Legalists by this temporary retirement from human intercourse.
Our Lord had barely reached the town of Capernaum, where He had fixed His temporary home, when He was met by a deputation of Jewish eldersprobably the batlanîm of the chief synagogueto intercede with Him on behalf of a centurion, whose faithful and beloved slave lay in the agony and peril of a paralytic seizure. It might have seemed strange that Jewish elders should take this amount of interest in one who, whether a Roman or not, was certainly a heathen, and may not even have been a "proselyte of the gate." They explained, however, that not only did he love their nationa thing most rare in a Gentile, for, generally speaking, the Jews were regarded with singular detestationbut had even, at his own expense, built them a synagogue, which, although there must have been several in Capernaum, was sufficiently beautiful and conspicuous to be called "the synagogue." The mere fact of their appealing to Jesus shows that this event belongs to an early period of His ministry, when myriads looked to him with astonishment and hope, and before the deadly exasperation of after days had begun. Christ immediately granted their request. "I will go," he said, "and heal him." But on the way they met other messengers from the humble and devout centurion, entreating Him not to enter the unworthy roof of a Gentile, but to heal the suffering slave (as He had healed, the son of a courtier) by a mere word of power. As the centurion, though in a subordinate office, yet had ministers ever ready to do his bidding, so could not Christ bid viewless messengers to perform His will, without undergoing this personal labour? The Lord was struck by so remarkable a faith, greater than any which He had met with even in Israel. He had found in the oleaster what He had not found in the olive; and He drew from this circumstance the lesson, which fell with such a chilling and unwelcome sound on Jewish ears, that when many of the natural children of the kingdom should he cast into outer darkness, many should come from the East and the West, and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the centurion's messengers found on their return that the healing word had been effectual and that the cherished slave had been restored to health.
It is not strange that, after days as marvellous as these, it was impossible for Jesus to find due repose. From early dawn on the mountain-top to late evening in whatever house He had selected for His nightly rest, the multitudes came crowding about Him, not respecting His privacy, not allowing for His weariness, eager to see him, eager to share His miracles, eager to listen to His words. There was no time even to eat bread. Such a life is not only to the last degree trying and fatiguing, but to a refined and high-strung nature, rejoicing in noble solitude, finding its purest and most perfect happiness in lonely prayer, this incessant publicity, this apparently illimitable toil becomes simply maddening, unless the spirit be sustained by boundless sympathy and love. But the heart of the Saviour was so sustained. It is probably to this period that the remarkable anecdote belongs which is preserved for us by St. Mark alone. The kinsmen and immediate family of Christ, hearing of all that He was doing, came from their homeperhaps at Cana, perhaps at Capernaumto get possession of His person, to put Him under constraint. Their informants had mistaken the exaltation visible in all His words and actionsthe intense glow of compassionthe burningflame of love; they looked upon it as over-excitement, exaggerated sensibility, the very delirium of beneficence and zeal. To the world there has ever been a tendency to confuse the fervour of enthusiasm with the eccentricity of a disordered genius. "Paul, thou art mad," was the only comment which the Apostle's passion of exalted eloquence produced on the cynical and blasé intellect of the Roman Procurator. "He hath a devil," was the inference suggested to many dull and worldly hearers after some of the tenderest and divinest sayings of our Lord. "Brother Martin has a fine genius," was the sneering allusion of Pope Leo X. to Luther. "What crackbrained fanatics," observed the fine gentlemen of the eighteenth century when they spoke of Wesley and Whitefield. Similar, though not so coarse, was the thought which filled the mind of Christ's wondering relatives, when they heard of this sudden and amazing activity, after the calm seclusion of thirty unknown and unnoticed years. As yet they were out of sympathy with Him; they knew him not, did not fully believe in Him; they said, "He is beside Himself." It was needful that they should be henceforth taught by several decisive proofs that He was not of them; that this was no longer the Carpenter, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, but the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.