THE DAY OF MATTHEW'S FEAST.
THE events just described had happened apparently in the early morning, and it might perhaps be noon when Jesus reached once more the Plain of Gennesareth. People had recognised the sail of His returning vessel, and long before He reached land the multitudes had lined the shore, and were waiting for Him, and received Him gladly.
If we may here accept as chronological the order of St. Matthewto whom, as we shall see hereafter, this must have been a very memorable dayJesus went first into the town of Capernaum, which was now regarded as "His own city." He went at once to the houseprobably the house of St. Peterwhich He ordinarily used when staying at Capernaum. There the crowd gathered in ever denser numbers, filling the house, and even the court-yard which surrounded it, so that there was no access even to the door. But there was one poor sufferera man bedridden from a stroke of paralysiswho, with his friends, had absolutely determined that access should be made for him; he would be one of those violent men who would take the kingdom of heaven by force. And the four who were carrying him, finding that they could not reach Jesus through the crowd, made their way to the roof, perhaps by the usual outer staircase, and making an aperture in the roof by the removal of a few tiles, let down the paralytic, on his humble couch, exactly in front of the place where Christ was sitting. The man was silent, perhaps awe-struck at his manner of intrusion into the Lord's presence; but Jesus was pleased at the strength and unhesitating boldness of faith which the act displayed, and bestowing first upon the man a richer blessing than that which he primarily sought, He gently said to him, as He had said to the woman who was a sinner, "Be of good courage, son; thy sins are forgiven thee." Our Lord had before observed the unfavourable impression produced on the bystanders by those startling words. He again observed it now in the interchanged glances of the Scribes who were present, and the look of angry disapproval on their countenances. But on this occasion He did not, as before, silently substitute another phrase. On the contrary, he distinctly challenged attention to His words, and miraculously justified them. Reading their thoughts, He reproved them for their fierce unuttered calumnies of which their hearts were full, and put to them a direct question. "Which," He asked, "is easier? to say to the paralytic, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee;' or to say, 'Arise and walk?'" May not anybody say the former without its being possible to tell whether the sins are forgiven or not? but who can say the latter, and give effect to his own words, without a power from above? If I can by a word heal this paralytic, is it not clear that I must be One who has also power on earth to forgive sins? The unanswerable question was received with the silence of an invincible obstinacy; but turning once more to the paralytic, Jesus said to him, "Arise, take up thy bed, and walk." At once power was restored to the palsied limbs, peace to the stricken soul. The man was healed. He rose, lifted the light couch on which he had been lying, and, while now the crowd opened a passage for him, he went to his house glorifying God; and the multitude, when they broke up to disperse, kept exchanging one with another exclamations of astonishment not unmixed with fear, "We saw strange things to-day!" "We never saw anything like this before!"
From the houseperhaps to allow of more listeners hearing His wordsJesus seems to have adjourned to His favourite shore; and thence, after a brief interval of teaching, He repaired to the house of Matthew, in which the publican, who was now an Apostle, had made a great feast of farewell to all his friends. As he had been a publican himself, it was natural that many of these also would be "publicans and sinners"the outcasts of society, objects at once of hatred and contempt. Yet Jesus and His disciples, with no touch of scorn or exclusiveness, sat down with them at the feast: "for there were many, and they were His followers." A charity so liberal caused deep dissatisfaction, on two grounds, to two powerful bodiesthe Pharisees and the disciples of John. To the former, mainly because this contact with men of careless and evil lives violated all the traditions of their haughty scrupulosity; to the latter, because this ready acceptance of invitations to scenes of feasting seemed to discountenance the necessity for their half-Essenian asceticism. The complaints could hardly have been made at the time, for unless any Pharisees or disciples of John merely looked in from curiosity during the progress of the meal, their own presence there would have involved them in the very blame which they were casting on their Lord. But Jesus probably heard of their murmurs before the feast was over. There was something characteristic in the way in which the criticism was made. The Pharisees, still a little dubious as to Christ's real character and mission, evidently overawed by His greatness, and not yet having ventured upon any open rupture with Him, only vented their ill-humour on the disciples, asking them "why their Master ate with publicans and sinners?" The simple-minded Apostles were perhaps unable to explain; but Jesus at once faced the opposition, and told these murmuring respectabilities that He came not to the self-righteous, but to the conscious sinners. He came not to the folded flock, but to the straying sheep. To preach the Gospel to the poor, to extend mercy to the lost, was the very object for which He tabernacled among men. It was His will not to thrust His grace on those who from the very first wilfully steeled their hearts against it, but gently to extend it to those who needed and felt their need of it. His teaching was to be "as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass." And then, referring them to one of those palmary passages of the Old Testament (Hos. vi. 6) which even in those days had summed up the very essence of all that was pleasing to God in love and mercy, He borrowed the phrase of their own Rabbis, and bade themthese teachers of the people, who claimed to know so muchto "go and learn" what that meaneth, "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice." Perhaps it had never before occurred to their astonished minds, overlaid as they were by a crust of mere Nevitism and tradition, that the love which thinks it no condescension to mingle with sinners in the effort to win their souls, is more pleasing to God than thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil.
The answer to the somewhat querulous question asked Him by John's disciples was less severe in tone. No doubt He pitied that natural dejection of mind which arose from the position of the great teacher, to whom alone they had as yet learned to look, and who now lay in the dreary misery of a Machærus dungeon. He might have answered that fasting was at the best a work of supererogationuseful, indeed, and obligatory, if any man felt that thereby he was assisted in the mortification of anything which was evil in his naturebut worse than useless if it merely ministered to his spiritual pride, and led him to despise others. He might have pointed out to them that although they had instituted a fast twice in the week, this was but a traditional institution, so little sanctioned by the Mosaic law, that in it but one single day of fasting was appointed for the entire year. He might, too, have added that the reason why fasting had not been made a universal duty is probably that spirit of mercy which recognised how differently it worked upon different temperaments, fortifying some against the attacks of temptations, but only hindering others in the accomplishment of duty. Or again, He might have referred them to those passages in their own Prophets which pointed out that, in the sight of God, the true fasting is not mere abstinence from food, while all the time the man is "smiting with the fist of wickedness;" but rather to love mercy, and to do justice, and to let the oppressed go free. But instead of all these lessons, which, in their present state, might only have exasperated their prejudices, The answers them only by a gentle argumentum ad hominem. Referring to the fine image in which their own beloved and revered teacher had spoken of Him as the bridegroom, He contented Himself with asking them, "Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast while the bridegroom is with them?" and then, looking calmly down at the deep abyss which yawned before Him, He uttered a saying whichalthough at that time none probably understood itwas perhaps the very earliest public intimation that He gave of the violent end which awaited Him"But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days." Further He told them, in words of yet deeper significance, though expressed, as so often, in the homeliest metaphors, that His religion is, as it were, a robe entirely new, not a patch of unteazled cloth upon an old robe, serving only to make worse its original rents; that it is not new wine, put, in all its fresh fermenting, expansive strength, into old and worn wineskins, and so serving only to burst the wine-skins and be lost, but new wine in fresh wine-skins. The new spirit was to be embodied in wholly renovated forms; the new freedom was to be untrammelled by obsolete and meaningless limitations; the spiritual doctrine was to be sundered for ever from mere elaborate and external ceremonials.
St. Luke also has preserved for us the tender and remarkable addition"No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is excellent." Perhaps the fact that these words were found to be obscure has caused the variety of readings in the original text. There is nothing less like the ordinary character of man than to make allowance for difference of opinion in matters of religion; yet it is the duty of doing this which the words imply. He had been showing them that His kingdom was something more than a restitution (ápokatástasis); it was a re-creation (paliggevesía); but He knew how hard it was for men trained in the tradition of the Pharisees, and in admiration for the noble asceticism of the Baptist, to accept truths which were to them both new and strange; and, therefore, even when He is endeavoring to lighten their darkness, He shows that He can look on them "with larger other eyes, to make allowance for them all."