JESUS AT NAIN.
IF the common reading in the text of St. Luke (vii. 11) be right, it was on the very day after these events that our Lord took His way from Capernaum to Nain. Possiblyfor, in the dim uncertainties of the chronological sequence, much scope must be left to pure conjecturethe incident of His having touched the leper may have tended to hasten His temporary departure from Capernaum by the comments which the act involved.
Nainnow a squalid and miserable villageis about twenty-five miles from Capernaum, and lies on the north-west slope of Jebel el-Duhy, or Little Hermon. The name (which it still retains) means "fair," and its situation near Endornestling picturesquely on the hill-slopes of the graceful mountain, and full in view of Tabor and the heights of Zebulonjustifies the flattering title. Starting, as Orientals always do, early in the cool morning hours, Jesus, in all probability, sailed to the southern end of the lake, and then passed down the Jordan valley, to the spot where the wadies of the Esdraelon slope down to it; from which point, leaving Mount Tabor on the right hand, and Endor on the left, He might easily have arrived at the little village soon after noon.
At this bright and welcome period of His ministry, He was usually accompanied, not only by His disciples, but also by rejoicing and adoring crowds. And as this glad procession, so full of their high hopes and too-often-erring beliefs about the coming King, was climbing the narrow and rocky ascent which leads to the gate of Nain, they were met by another and a sad procession issuing through it to bury a dead youth outside the walls. There was a pathos deeper than ordinary in the spectacle, and therefore probably, in that emotional race, a wail wilder and sincerer than the ordinary lamentation. For this boy wasin language which is all the more deeply moving from its absolute simplicity, and which to Jewish ears would have involved a sense of anguish yet deeper than to ours"the only son of his mother, and she a widow." The sight of this terrible sorrow appealed irresistibly to the Saviour's loving and gentle heart. Pausing only to say to the mother, "Weep not," He approached, andheedless once more of purely ceremonial observancestouched the bier, or rather the open coffin in which the dead youth lay. It must have been a moment of intense and breathless expectation. Unbidden, but filled with undefinable awe, the bearers of the bier stood still. And then through the hearts of the stricken mourners, and through the hearts of the silent multitude, there thrilled the calm utterance, "Young man, arise!" Would that dread monosyllable thrill also through the unknown mysterious solitudes of death? would it thrill through the impenetrable darkness of the more-than-midnight which has ever concealed from human vision the world beyond the grave? It did. The dead got up, and began to speak; and He delivered him to his mother.
No wonder that a great fear fell upon all. They might have thought of Elijah and the widow of Sarepta; of Elisha and the lady of the not far distant Shunem. They too, the greatest of the Prophets, had restored to lonely women their dead only sons. But they had done it with agonies and energies of supplication, wrestling in prayer, and lying outstretched upon the dead; whereas Jesus had wrought that miracle calmly, incidentally, instantaneously, in His own name, by His own authority, with a single word. Could they judge otherwise than that "God had visited His people?"
It was about this time, possibly even on this same day, that our Lord received a short but agitated message from His own great Forerunner, John the Baptist. Its very brevity added to the sense of doubt and sadness which it breathed. "Art thou," he asked, "the coming Messiah, or are we to expect another?"
Was this a message from him who had first recognised and pointed out the Lamb of God? from him who, in the rapture of vision, had seen heaven opened and the Spirit descending on the head of Jesus like a dove?
It may be so. Some have indeed imagined that the message was merely intended to satisfy the doubts of the Baptist's jealous and disheartened followers; some, that his question only meant, "Art Thou indeed the Jesus to whom I bore my testimony?" some, that the message implied no latent hesitation, but was intended as a timid suggestion that the time was now come for Jesus to manifest Himself as the Messiah of His nation's theocratic hopesperhaps even as a gentle rebuke to Him for allowing His friend and Forerunner to languish in a dungeon, and not exerting on his behalf the miraculous power of which these rumours told. But these suggestionsall intended, as it were, to save the credit of the Baptistare at the best wholly unauthorised, and are partly refuted by the actual expressions of the narrative. St. John Baptist in his heroic greatness needs not the poor aid of our charitable suppositions: we conclude from the express words of Him, who at this very crisis pronounced upon him the most splendid eulogy ever breathed over mortal man, that the great and noble prophet had indeed, for the moment, found a stumbling-block to his faith in what he heard about the Christ.
And is this unnatural? is it an indecision which any one who knows anything of the human heart will venture for a moment to condemn? The course of the greatest of the Prophets had been brief and tragicala sad calendar of disaster and eclipse. Though all men flocked in multitudes to listen to the fiery preacher of the wilderness, the real effect on the mind of the nation had been neither permanent nor deep. We may say with the Scotch poet
"Who listened to his voice? obeyed his cry?
Even before Jesus had come forth in the fulness of His ministry, the power and influence of John had paled like a star before the sunrise. He must have felt very soonand that is a very bitter thing for any human heart to feelthat his mission for this life was over; that nothing appreciable remained for him to do. Similar moments of intense and heart-breaking despondency had already occurred in the lives of his very greatest predecessorsin the lives of even a Moses and an Elijah. But the case was far worse with John the Baptist than with them. For though his Friend and his Saviour was living, was at no great distance from him, was in the full tide of His influence, and was daily working the miracles of love which attested His mission, yet John saw that Friend and Saviour on earth no more. There were no visits to console, no intercourse to sustain him; he was surrounded only by the coldness of listeners whose curiosity had waned, and the jealousy of disciples whom his main testimony had disheartened. And then came the miserable climax. Herod Antipasthe pettiest, meanest, weakest, most contemptible of titular princelingspartly influenced by political fears, partly enraged by John's just and blunt rebuke of his adulterous life, though at first he had listened to the Baptist with the superstition which is the usual concomitant of cunning, had ended by an uxorious concession to the hatred of Herodias, and had flung him into prison.
Josephus tells us that this prison was the fortress of Machærus, or Makor, a strong and gloomy castle, built by Alexander Jannæus and strengthened by Herod the Greaton the borders of the desert, to the north of the Dead Sea, and on the frontiers of Arabia. We know enough of solitary castles and Eastern dungeons to realise what horrors must have been involved for any man in such an imprisonment; what possibilities of agonising torture, what daily risk of a violent and unknown death. How often in the world's history have even the most generous and dauntless spirits been crushed and effeminated by such hopeless captivity! When the first noble rage, or heroic resignation, is overwhen the iron-hearted endurance is corroded by forced inactivity and maddening solitudewhen the great heart is cowed by the physical lassitude and despair of a life left to rot away in the lonely darknesswho can be answerable for the level of depression to which he may sink? Savonarola, and Jerome of Prague, and Luther were men whose courage, like that of the Baptist, had enabled them to stand unquailing before angry councils and threatening kings: will any one, in forming an estimate of their goodness and their greatness, add one shade of condemnation because of the wavering of the first and of the second in the prison-cells of Florence and Constance, or the phantasies of incipient madness which agitated, in the castle of Wartburg, the ardent spirit of the third? And yet to St. John Baptist imprisonment must have been a deadlier thing than even to Luther; for in the free wild life of the hermit he had lived in constant communion with the sights and sounds of nature, had breathed with delight and liberty the free winds of the wilderness, and gazed with a sense of companionship on the large stars which beam from the clear vault of the Eastern night. To a child of freedom and of passion, to a rugged, passionate, untamed spirit like that of John, a prison was worse than death. For the palms of Jericho and the balsams of Engedi, for the springing of the beautiful gazelles amid the mountain solitudes, and the reflection of the moonlight on the mysterious waves of the Salt Lake, he had nothing now but the chilly damps and cramping fetters of a dungeon, and the brutalities of such a jailor as a tetrarch like Antipas would have kept in a fortress like Makor. In that black prison, among its lava streams and basaltic rocks, which was tenanted in reality by far worse demons of human brutality and human vice than the "goats" and "satyrs" and doleful creatures believed by Jewish legend to haunt its whole environment, we cannot wonder if the eye of the caged eagle began to film.
Not once or twice alone in the world's history has God seemed to make His very best and greatest servants drink to the very dregs the cup of apparent failurecalled them suddenly away by the sharp stroke of martyrdom, or down the long declivities of a lingering disease, before even a distant view of their work has been vouchsafed to them; flung them, as it were, aside like broken instruments, useless, for their destined purpose, ere He crowned with an immortality of success and blessing the lives which fools regarded as madness, and the end that has been without human honour. It is but a part of that merciful fire in which He is purging away the dross from the seven-times-refined gold of a spirit which shall be worthy of eternal bliss. But to none could this disciplinary tenderness have come in more terrible disguise than to St. John. For he seemed to be neglected not only by God above, but by the living Son of God on earth. John was pining in Herod's prison while Jesus, in the glad simplicity of His early Galilæan ministry, was preaching to rejoicing multitudes among the mountain lilies or from the waves of the pleasant lake. Oh, why did his Father in heaven and his Friend on earth suffer him to languish in this soul-clouding misery? Had not his life been innocent? had not his ministry been faithful? had not his testimony been true? Oh, why did not He, to whom he had borne witness beyond Jordan, call down fire from heaven to shatter those foul and guilty towers? Among so many miracles might not one be spared to the unhappy kinsman who had gone before His face to prepare his way before Him? Among so many words of mercy and tenderness might not some be vouchsafed to him who had uttered that Voice in the wilderness? Why should not the young Son of David rock with earthquake the foundations of these Idumæan prisons, where many a noble captive had been unjustly slain, or send but one of His twelve legions of angels to liberate His forerunner and His friend, were it but to restore him to his desert solitude once morecontent there to end his life among the wild beasts, so it were far from man's tyrannous infamy, and under God's open sky? What wonder, we say again, if the eye of the caged eagle began to film!
"Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?"
Jesus did not directly answer the question. He showed the messengers, He let them see with their own eyes, some of the works of which hitherto they had only heard by the hearing of the ear. And then, with a reference to the 61st chapter of Isaiah, He bade them take back to their master the message, that blind men saw, and lame walked, and lepers were cleansed, and deaf heard, and dead were raised; and above all, and more than all, that to the poor the glad tidings were being preached: and then, we can imagine with how deep a tenderness, He added, "And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me"blessed (that is) is he who shall trust Me, even in spite of sorrow and persecutionhe who shall believe that I know to the utmost the will of Him that sent Me, and how and when to finish His work.
We may easily suppose, though nothing more is told us, that the disciples did not depart without receiving from Jesus other words of private affection and encouragement for the grand prisoner whose end was now so nearly approachingwords which would be to him sweeter than the honey which had sustained his hunger in the wilderness dearer than water springs in the dry ground. And no sooner had the disciples departed than He who would not seem to be guilty of idle flattery, but yet wished to prevent His hearers from cherishing one depreciatory thought of the great Prophet of the Desert, uttered over his friend and Forerunner in language of rhythmic and perfect loveliness, the memorable eulogy that he was indeed the promised Voice in the new dawn of a nobler day, the greatest of all God's herald messengersthe Elias who, according to the last word of ancient prophecy, was to precede the Advent of the Messiah, and to prepare His way.
"What went you out in the wilderness for to see?
"Yea, I say unto you, and far more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee."
And having pronounced this rhythmic and impassioned eulogy, He proceeded to speak to them more calmly respecting Himself and John, and to tell them that though John was the last and the greatest of the Old Dispensation, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he. The brevity with which the words are repeated leaves their meaning uncertain; but the superiority intended is a superiority doubtless in spiritual privileges, not in moral exaltation. "The least of that which is greatest," says a legal maxim, "is greater than the greatest of that which is least;" and in revealed knowledge, in illimitable hope, in conscious closeness of relationship to His Father and His God, the humblest child of the New Covenant is more richly endowed than the greatest prophet of the Old. And into that kingdom of God whose advent was now proclaimed, henceforth with holy and happy violence they all might press. Such eager violencenatural to those who hunger and thirst after righteousnesswould be only acceptable in the sight of God.
Many who heard these words, and especially the publicans and those who were scorned as the "people of the earth," accepted with joy and gratitude this approbation of their confidence in John. But there were othersthe accredited teachers of the written and oral Lawwho listened to such words with contemptuous dislike. Struck with these contrasts, Jesus drew an illustration from peevish children who fretfully reject every effort of their fellows to delight or to amuse them. Nothing could please such soured and rebellious natures. The flute and dance of the little ones who played at weddings charmed them as little as the long wail of the simulated funeral. God's "richly-variegated wisdom" had been exhibited to them in many fragments, and by many methods, yet all in vain. John had come to them in the stern asceticism of the hermit, and they called him mad; Jesus joined in the banquet and the marriage-feast, and they called Him "an eater and a wine-drinker." Even so! yet Wisdom has been ever justified at her children's hands. Those children have not disgraced their divine original. Fools might account their life as madness, and their end to be without honour; but how is the very humblest of them numbered among the children of God, and their lot among the saints!