THE sequence of events in the narrative on which we are now about to enter is nearly the same in the first three Gospels. Without neglecting any clear indications given by the other Evangelists, we shall, in this part of the life of Jesus, mainly follow the chronological guidance of St. Luke. The order of St. Matthew and St. Mark appears to be much guided by subjective considerations. Events in their Gospels are sometimes grouped together by their moral or religions bearings. St. Luke, as is evident, pays more attention to the natural sequence, although he also occasionally allows a unity of subject to supersede in his arrangement the order of time.

        Immediately after the missionary journey which we have described, St. Luke adds that when Jesus saw Himself surrounded by a great multitude out of every city, He spake by a parable. We learn from the two other Evangelists the interesting circumstance that this was the first occasion on which He taught in parables, and that they were spoken to the multitude who lined the shore while our Lord sat in His favourite pulpit, the boat which was kept for Him on the Lake.

        We might infer from St. Mark that this teaching was delivered on the afternoon of the day on which he healed the paralytic, but the inference is too precarious to be relied on. All that we can see is that this new form of teaching was felt to be necessary in consequence of the state of mind which had been produced in some, at least, of the hearers among the multitude. The one emphatic word "hearken!" with which He prefaced his address prepared them for something unusual and memorable in what He was going to say.

        The great mass of hearers must now have been aware of the general features in the new Gospel which Jesus preached. Some self-examination, some earnest careful thought of their own, was now requisite, if they were indeed sincere in their desire to profit by His words. "Take heed how ye hear" was the great lesson which He would now impress. He would warn them against the otiose attention of curiosity or mere intellectual interest, and would fix upon their minds a sense of their moral responsibility for the effects produced by what they heard. He would teach them in such a way that the extent of each hearer's profit should depend largely upon his own faithfulness.

        And, therefore, to show them that the only true fruit of good teaching is holiness of life, and that there were many dangers which might prevent its growth, He told them His first parable, the Parable of the Sower. The imagery of it was derived, as usual, from the objects immediately before his eyes—the sown fields of Gennesareth; the springing corn in them; the hard-trodden paths which ran through them, on which no corn could grow; the innumerable birds which fluttered over them ready to feed upon the grain; the weak and withering struggle for life on the stony places; the tangling growth of luxuriant thistles in neglected corners; the deep loam of the general soil, on which already the golden ears stood thick and strong, giving promise of a sixty and hundredfold return as they rippled under the balmy wind. To us, who from infancy have read the parable side by side with Christ's own interpretation of it, the meaning is singularly clear and plain, and we see in it the liveliest images of the danger incurred by the cold and indifferent, by the impulsive and shallow, by the worldly and ambitious, by the preoccupied and the luxurious, as they listen to the Word of God. But it was not so easy to those who heard it. Even the disciples failed to catch its full significance, although they reserved their request for an explanation till they and their Master should be alone. It is clear that parables like this, so luminous to us, but so difficult to these simple listeners, suggested thoughts which to them were wholly unfamiliar.

        It seems clear that our Lord did not on this occasion deliver all of those seven parables—the parable of the tares of the field, of the grain of mustard-seed, of the leaven, of the hid treasure, of the pearl, and of the net—which, from a certain resemblance in their subjects and consecutiveness in their teaching, are here grouped together by St. Matthew. Seven parables delivered at once, and delivered without interpretation, to a promiscuous multitude which He was for the first time addressing in this form of teaching, would have only tended to bewilder and to distract. Indeed, the expression of St. Mark—"as they were able to hear it"—seems distinctly to imply a gradual and non-continuous course of teaching, which would have lost its value if it had given to the listeners more than they were able to remember and to understand. We may rather conclude, from a comparison of St. Mark and St. Luke, that the teaching of this particular afternoon contained no other parables, except perhaps the simple and closely analogous ones of the grain of mustard-seed, and of the blade, the ear, and the full corn in the ear, which might serve to encourage into patience those who were expecting too rapid a revelation of the kingdom of God in their own lives and in the world; and perhaps, with these, the similitude of the candle to warn them not to stifle the light they had received, but to remember that Great Light which should one day reveal all things, and so to let their light shine as to illuminate both their own paths in life, and to shed radiance on the souls of all around.

        A method of instruction so rare, so stimulating, so full of interest—a method which, in its unapproachable beauty and finish, stands unrivalled in the annals of human speech—would doubtless tend to increase beyond measure the crowds that thronged to listen. And through the sultry afternoon He continued to teach them, barely succeeding in dismissing them when the evening was come. A sense of complete weariness and deep unspeakable longing for repose, and solitude, and sleep, seems then to have come over our Lord's spirit. Possibly the desire for rest and quiet may have been accelerated by one more ill-judged endeavour of His mother and His brethren to assert a claim upon His actions. They had not indeed been able "to come at Him for the press," but their attempt to do so may have been one more reason for a desire to get away, and be free for a time from this incessant publicity, from these irreverent interferences. At any rate, one little touch, preserved for us as usual by the graphic pen of the Evangelist St. Mark, shows that there was a certain eagerness and urgency in His departure, as though in His weariness, and in that oppression of mind which results from the wearing contact with numbers, He could not return to Capernaum, but suddenly determined on a change of plan. After dismissing the crowd, the disciples took Him, "as He was," in the boat, no time being left, in the urgency of His spirit, for preparation of any kind, He yearned for the quiet and deserted loneliness of the eastern shore. The western shore also is lonely now, and the traveller will meet no human being there but a few careworn Fellahîn, or a Jew from Tiberias, or some Arab fishermen, or an armed and mounted Sheykh of some tribe of Bedawîn. But the eastern shore is loneliness itself; not a tree, not a village, not a human being, not a single habitation is visible; nothing but the low range of hills, scarred with rocky fissures, and sweeping down to a narrow and barren strip which forms the margin of the Lake. In our Lord's time the contrast of this thinly-inhabited region with the busy and populous towns that lay close together on the Plain of Gennesareth must have been very striking; and though the scattered population of Peræa was partly Gentile, we shall find Him not unfrequently seeking to recover the tone and calm of His burdened soul by putting those six miles of water between himself and the crowds He taught.

        But before the boat could be pushed off, another remarkable interruption occurred. Three of His listeners in succession—struck perhaps by the depth and power of this His new method of teaching, dazzled too by this zenith of His popularity—desired or fancied that they desired to attach themselves to Him as permanent disciples. The first was a Scribe, who, thinking no doubt that his official rank would make him a most acceptable disciple, exclaimed with confident asseveration, "Lord, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest." But in spite of the man's high position, in spite of His glowing promises, He who cared less than nothing for lip-service, and who preferred "the modesty of fearful duty" to the "rattling tongue of audacious eloquence," coldly checked His would-be follower. He who had called the hated publican gave no encouragement to the reputable scribe. He did not reject the proffered service, but neither did He accept it. Perhaps "in the man's flaring enthusiasm, He saw the smoke of egotistical self-deceit." He pointed out that His service was not one of wealth, or honour, or delight; not one in which any could hope for earthly gain. "The foxes," He said, "have holes, and the birds of the air have resting-places, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head."

        The second was already a partial disciple, but wished to become an entire follower, with the reservation that he might first be permitted to bury his father. "Follow me!" was the thrilling answer, "and let the dead bury their dead;" that is, leave the world and the things of the world to mind themselves. He who would follow Christ must in comparison hate even father and mother. He must leave the spiritually dead to attend to their physically dead.

        The answer to the third aspirant was not dissimilar. Ho too pleaded for delay—wished not to join Christ immediately in His voyage, but first of all to bid farewell to his friends at home. "No man," was the reply—which has become proverbial for all time—"No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of heaven." To use the fine image of St. Augustine, "the East was calling him, he must turn his thoughts from the fading West." It was in this spirit that the loving souls of St. Thomas of Aquino, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis Xavier, and so many more of the great saints in the Church's history consoled and fortified themselves, when forced to resign every family affection, and for Christ's sake to abandon every earthly tie.

        So, then, at last, these fresh delays were over, and the little vessel could spread her sails for the voyage. Yet even now Jesus was, as it were, pursued by followers, for, as St. Mark again tells us, "other little ships were with Him." But they, in all probability—since we are not told of their reaching the other shore—were soon scattered or frightened back by the signs of a gathering storm. At any rate, in His own boat, and among his own trusted disciples, Jesus could rest undisturbed, and long before they were far from shore, had lain His weary bead on the leather cushion of the steersman, and was sleeping the deep sleep of the worn and weary—the calm sleep of those who are at peace with God.

        Even that sleep, so sorely needed, was destined to speedy and violent disturbance. One of the fierce storms peculiar to that deep hollow in the earth's surface, swept down with sudden fury on the little inland sea. With scarcely a moment's notice, the air was filled with whirlwind and the sea buffeted into tempest. The danger was extreme. The boat was again and again buried amid the foam of the breakers which burst over it; yet though they must have covered Him with their dashing spray as He lay on the open deck at the stern, He was calmly sleeping on—undisturbed, so deep was his fatigue, by the tempestuous darkness—and as yet no one ventured to awake Him. But now the billows were actually breaking into the boat itself, which was beginning to be filled and to sink. Then, with sudden and vehement cries of excitement and terror, the disciples woke Him. "Lord! Master! Master! save! we perish!" Such were the wild sounds which, mingled with the howling of the winds and the dash of the mastering waves, broke confusedly upon his half-awakened ear. It is such crises as these—crises of sudden unexpected terror, met without a moment of preparation, which test a man, what spirit he is of—which show not only his nerve, but the grandeur and purity of his whole nature. The hurricane which shook the tried courage and baffled the utmost skill of the hardy fishermen, did not ruffle for one instant the deep inward serenity of the Son of Man. Without one sign of confusion, without one tremor of alarm, Jesus simply raised Himself on His elbow from the dripping stern of the labouring and half-sinking vessel, and, without further movement, stilled the tempest of their souls by the quiet words, "Why so cowardly, O ye of little faith?" And then rising up, standing in all the calm of a natural majesty on the lofty stern, while the hurricane tossed, for a moment only, His fluttering garments and streaming hair, He gazed forth into the darkness, and His voice was heard amid the roaring of the troubled elements, saying, "Peace, be still! "And instantly the wind dropped, and there was a great calm. And as they watched the starlight reflected on the now unrippled water, not the disciples only but even the sailors whispered to one another, "What manner of man is this?"

        This is a stupendous miracle, one of those which test whether we indeed believe in the credibility of the miraculous or not; one of those miracles of power which cannot, like many of the miracles of healing, be explained away by existing laws. It is not my object in this book to convince the unbeliever, or hold controversy with the doubter. Something of what I had to say on this subject I have done my little best to say in my Lectures on The Witness of History to Christ; and yet, perhaps, a few words may here be pardoned. Some, and they neither irreverent nor unfaithful men, have asked whether the reality may not have been somewhat different? whether we may not understand this narrative in a sense like that in which we should understand it if we found it in the reasonably-attested legend of some mediæval saint—a St. Nicholas or a St. Brandan? whether we may not suppose that the fact which underlies the narrative was in reality not a miraculous exercise of power over those elements which are most beyond the reach of man, but that Christ's calm communicated itself by immediate and subtle influence to His terrified companions, and that the hurricane, from natural causes, sank as rapidly as it had arisen? I reply, that if this were the only miracle in the life of Christ; if the Gospels were indeed the loose, exaggerated, inaccurate, credulous narratives which such an interpretation would suppose; if there were something antecedently incredible in the supernatural; if there were in the spiritual world no transcendant facts which lie far beyond the comprehension of those who would bid us see nothing in the universe but the action of material laws; if there were no providences of God during these nineteen centuries to attest the work and the divinity of Christ—then indeed there would be no difficulty in such an interpretation. But if we believe that God rules; if we believe that Christ rose; if we have reason to hold, among the deepest convictions of our being, the certainty that God has not delegated His sovereignty or His providence to the final, unintelligent, pitiless, inevitable working of material forces; if we see on every page of the Evangelists the quiet simplicity of truthful and faithful witnesses; if we see in every year of succeeding history, and in every experience of individual life, a confirmation of the testimony which they delivered—then we shall neither clutch at rationalistic interpretations, nor be much troubled if others adopt them. He who believes, he who knows, the efficacy of prayer, in what other men may regard as the inevitable certainties or blindly-directed accidents of life—he who has felt how the voice of a Saviour, heard across the long generations, can calm wilder storms than ever buffeted into fury the bosom of the inland lake—he who sees in the person of his Redeemer a fact more stupendous and more majestic than all those observed sequences which men endow with an imaginary omnipotence, and worship under the name of Law—to him, at least, there will be neither difficulty nor hesitation in supposing that Christ, on board that half-wrecked fishing-boat, did utter His mandate, and that the wind and the sea obeyed; that His WORD was indeed more potent among the cosmic forces than miles of agitated water or leagues of rushing air.

        Not even on the farther shore was Jesus to find peace or rest. On the contrary, no sooner had He reached that part of Peræa which is called by St. Matthew the "country of the Gergesenes," than He was met by an exhibition of human fury, and madness, and degradation, even more terrible and startling than the rage of the troubled sea. Barely had He landed when, from among the rocky cavern-tombs of the Wady Semakh, there burst into His presence a man troubled with the most exaggerated form of that raging madness which was universally attributed to demoniacal possession. Amid all the boasted civilisation of antiquity, there existed no hospitals, no penitentiaries, no asylums; and unfortunates of this class, being too dangerous and desperate for human intercourse, could only be driven forth from among their fellow-men, and restrained from mischief by measures at once inadequate and cruel. Under such circumstances they could, if irreclaimable, only take refuge in those holes along the rocky hill-sides which abound in Palestine, and which were used by the Jews as tombs. It is clear that the foul and polluted nature of such dwelling-places, with all their associations of ghastliness and terror, would tend to aggravate the nature of the malady; and this man, who had long been afflicted, was beyond even the possibility of control. Attempts had been made to bind him, but in the paroxysms of his mania he had exerted that apparently supernatural strength which is often noticed in such forms of mental excitement, and had always succeeded in rending off his fetters and twisting away or shattering his chains; and now he had been abandoned to the lonely hills and unclean solitudes which, night and day, rang with his yells as he wandered among them, dangerous to himself and to others, raving, and gashing himself with stones.

        It was the frightful figure of this naked and homicidal maniac that burst upon our Lord almost as soon as He had landed at early dawn; and perhaps another demoniac, who was not a Gadarene, and who was less grievously afflicted, may have hovered about at no great distance, although, beyond this allusion to his presence, he plays no part in the narrative. The presence, the look, the voice of Christ, even before He addressed these sufferers, seems always to have calmed and overawed them, and this demoniac of Gergesa was no exception. Instead of falling upon the disciples, he ran to Jesus from a distance, and fell down before Him in an attitude of worship. Mingling his own perturbed individuality with that of the multitude of unclean spirits which he believed to be in possession of His soul, he entreated the Lord, in loud and terrified accents, not to torment him before the time.

        It is well known that to recall a maniac's attention to his name, to awake his memory, to touch his sympathies by past association, often produces a lucid interval, and perhaps this may have been the reason why Jesus said to the man, "What is thy name?" But this question only receives the wild answer, "My name is Legion, for we are many." The man had, as it were, lost his own name; it was absorbed in the hideous tyranny of that multitude of demons under whose influence his own personality was destroyed. The presence of Roman armies in Palestine had rendered him familiar with that title of multitude, and as though six thousand evil spirits were in him he answers by the Latin word which had now become so familiar to every Jew. And still agitated by his own perturbed fancies, he entreats, as though the thousands of demons were speaking by his mouth, that they might not be driven into the abyss, but be suffered to take refuge in the swine.

        The narrative which follows is to us difficult of comprehension, and one which, however literally accepted, touches upon regions so wholly mysterious and unknown that we have no clue to its real significance, and can gain nothing by speculating upon it. The narrative in St. Luke runs as follows:—

        "And there was an herd of many swine feeding upon the mountain; and they besought Him that He would suffer them to enter into them. And He suffered them. Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine; and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked."

        That the demoniac was healed—that in the terrible final paroxysm which usually accompanied the deliverance from this strange and awful malady, a herd of swine was in some way affected with such wild terror as to rush headlong in large numbers over a steep hill-side into the waters of the lake—and that, in the minds of all who were present, including that of the sufferer himself, this precipitate rushing of the swine was connected with the man's release from his demoniac thraldom—thus much is clear. And indeed, so far, there is no difficulty whatever. Any one who believes in the Gospels, and believes that the Son of God did work on earth deeds which far surpass mere human power, must believe that among the most frequent of His cures were those of the distressing forms of mental and nervous malady which we ascribe to purely natural causes, but which the ancient Jews, like all Orientals, attribute to direct supernatural agency. And knowing too how singular an extent the mental impressions of man affect by some unknown electric influence the lower animals—knowing, for instance, that man's cowardice and exultation, and even his superstitious terrors, do communicate themselves to the dog which accompanies him, or the horse on which he rides—there can be little or no difficulty in understanding that the shrieks and gesticulations of a powerful lunatic might strike uncontrollable terror into a herd of swine. We know further that the spasm of deliverance was often attended with fearful convulsions, sometimes perhaps with an effusion of blood; and we know that the sight and smell of human blood produces strange effects in many animals. May there not have been something of this kind at work in this singular event?

        It is true that the Evangelists (as their language clearly shows) held, in all its simplicity, the belief that actual devils passed in multitudes out of the man and into the swine. But is it not allowable here to make a distinction between actual facts and that which was the mere conjecture and inference of the spectators from whom the three Evangelists heard the tale? if we are not bound to believe the man's hallucination that six thousand devils were in possession of his soul, are we bound to believe the possibility, suggested by his perturbed intellect, that the unclean spirits should pass from him into the swine? If indeed we could be sure that Jesus directly encouraged or sanctioned in the man's mind the belief that the swine were indeed driven wild by the unclean spirits which passed objectively from the body of the Gergesene into the bodies of these dumb beasts, then we could, without hesitation, believe as a literal truth, however incomprehensible, that so it was. But this by no means follows indisputably from what we know of the method of the Evangelists. Let all who will, hold fast to the conviction that men and beasts may be quite literally possessed of devils; only let them beware of confusing their own convictions, which are binding on themselves alone, with those absolute and eternal certainties which cannot be rejected without moral blindness by others. Let them remember that a hard and denunciative dogmatism approaches more nearly than anything else to that Pharisaic want of charity which the Lord whom they love and worship visited with His most scathing anger and rebuke. The literal reality of demoniac possession is a belief for which more may perhaps be said than is admitted by the purely physical science of the present day, but it is not a necessary article of the Christian creed; and if any reader imagines that in this brief narrative, to a greater extent than in any other, there are certain nuances of expression in which subjective inferences are confused with exact realities, he is holding a view which has the sanction of many wise and thoughtful Churchmen, and has a right to do so without the slightest imputation on the orthodoxy of his belief.

        That the whole scene was violent and startling appears in the fact that the keepers of the swine "fled and told it in the city and in the country." The people of Gergesa, and the Gadarenes and Gerasenes of all the neighbouring district, flocked out to see the Mighty Stranger who had thus visited their coasts. What livelier or more decisive proof of His power and His beneficence could they have had than the sight which met their eyes? The filthy and frantic demoniac who had been the terror of the country, so that none could pass that way—the wild-eyed dweller in the tombs who had been accustomed to gash himself with cries of rage, and whose untamed fierceness broke away all fetters—was now calm as a child. Some charitable hand had flung an outer robe over his naked figure, and he was sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind.

        "And they were afraid"—more afraid of that Holy Presence than of the previous furies of the possessed. The man indeed was saved; but what of that, considering that some of their two thousand unclean beasts had perished! Their precious swine were evidently in danger; the greed and gluttony of every apostate Jew and low-bred Gentile in the place were clearly imperilled by receiving such a one as they saw that Jesus was. With disgraceful and urgent unanimity they entreated and implored Him to leave their coasts. Both heathens and Jews had recognised already the great truth that God sometimes answers bad prayers in His deepest anger. Jesus Himself had taught His disciples not to give that which was holy to the dogs, neither to cast their pearls before swine, "lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." He had gone across the lake for quiet and rest, desiring, though among lesser multitudes, to extend to these semi-heathens also the blessings of the kingdom of God. But they loved their sins and their swine, and with a perfect energy of deliberate preference for all that was base and mean, rejected such blessings, and entreated Him to go away. Sadly, but at once, He turned and left them. Gergesa was no place for Him; better the lonely hill-tops to the north of it; better the crowded strand on the other side.

        And yet He did not leave them in anger. One deed of mercy had been done there; one sinner had been saved; from one soul the unclean spirits had been cast out. And just as the united multitude of the Gadarenes had entreated for His absence, so the poor saved demoniac entreated henceforth to be with Him. But Jesus would fain leave one more, one last opportunity for those who had rejected Him. On others for whose sake miracles had been performed He had enjoined silence; on this man—since He was now leaving the place—he enjoined publicity. "Go home," He said, "to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee." And so the demoniac of Gergesa became the first great missionary to the region of Decapolis, bearing in his own person the confirmation of his words; and Jesus, as His little vessel left the inhospitable shore, might still hope that the day might not be far distant—might come, at any rate, before over that ill-fated district burst the storm of sword and fire—when

   "E'en the witless Gadarene,
Preferring Christ to swine, would feel
   That life is sweetest when 'tis clean."

<< Previous ChapterContents | Home PageNext Chapter >>