THE MIRACLE OF BETHESDA.
THERE was in Jerusalem, near the Sheep-gate, a pool, which was believed to possess remarkable healing properties. For this reason, in addition to its usual name, it had been called in Hebrew "Bethesda," or the House of Mercy, and under the porticoes which adorned the pentagonal masonry in which it was enclosed lay a multitude of sufferers from blindness, lameness, and atrophy, waiting to take advantage of the bubbling and gushing of the water, which showed that its medicinal properties were at their highest. There is no indication in the narrative that any one who thus used the water was at once, or miraculously, healed; but the repeated use of an intermittent and gaseous springand more than one of the springs about Jerusalem continue to be of this character to the present daywas doubtless likely to produce most beneficial results.
A very early popular legend, which has crept by interpolation into the text of St. John, attributed the healing qualities of the water to the descent of an angel who troubled the pool at irregular intervals, leaving the first persons who could scramble into it to profit by the immersion. This solution of the phenomenon was in fact so entirely in accordance with the Semitic habit of mind, that, in the universal ignorance of all scientific phenomena, and the utter indifference to close investigation which characterise most Orientals, the populace would not be likely to trouble themselves about the possibility of any other explanation. But whatever may have been the general belief about the cause, the fact that the water was found at certain intervals to be impregnated with gases which gave it a strengthening property, was sufficient to attract a concourse of many sufferers.
Among these was one poor man who, for no less than thirty-eight years, had been lamed by paralysis. He had haunted the porticoes of this pooi, but without effect; for as he was left there unaided, and as the motion of the water occurred at irregular times, others more fortunate and less feeble than himself managed time after time to struggle in before him, until the favourable moment had been lost.
Jesus looked on the man with heartfelt pity. It was obvious that the will of the poor destitute creature was no less stricken with paralysis than his limbs, and his whole life was one long atrophy of ineffectual despair. But Jesus was minded to make His Purim present to the poor, to whom He had neither silver nor gold to give. He would help a fellow-sufferer, whom no one had cared or condescended to help before.
"Willest thou to be made whole?"
At first the words hardly stirred the man's long and despondent lethargy; he scarcely seems even to have looked up. But thinking, perhaps, with a momentary gleam of hope, that this was some stranger who, out of kindness of heart, might help him into the water when it was again agitated, he merely narrated in reply tbe misery of his long and futile expectation. Jesus had intended a speedier and more effectual aid.
"Rise," He said, "take thy couch, and walk."
It was spoken in an accent that none could disobey. The manner of the Speaker, His voice, His mandate, thrilled like an electric spark through the withered limbs and the shattered constitution, enfeebled by a lifetime of suffering and sin. After thirty-eight years of prostration, the man instantly rose, lifted up his pallet and began to walk. In glad amazement he looked round to see and to thank his unknown benefactor; but the crowd was large, and Jesus, anxious to escape the unspiritual excitement which would fain have regarded Him as a thaumaturge alone, had quietly slipped away from observation.
In spite of this, many scrupulous and jealous eyes were soon upon him. In proportion as the inner power and meaning of a religion are dead, in that proportion very often is an exaggerated import attached to its outer forms. Formalism and indifference, pedantic scrupulosity and absolute disbelief, are correlative, and ever flourish side by side. It was so with Judaism in the days of Christ. Its living and burning enthusiasm was quenched; its lofty and noble faith had died away; its prophets had ceased to prophesy; its poets had ceased to sing; its priests were no longer clothed with righteousness; its saints were few. The axe was at the root of the barren tree, and its stem served only to nourish a fungous brood of ceremonials and traditions,
And thus it was that the observance of the Sabbath, which had been intended to secure for weary men a rest full of love and peace and mercy, had become a mere national Fetisha barren custom fenced in with the most frivolous and senseless restrictions. Well-nigh every great provision of the Mosaic law had now been degraded into a mere superfluity of meaningless minutiæ, the delight of small natures, and the grievous incubus of all true and natural piety.
Now, when a religion has thus decayed into a superstition without having lost its external power, it is always more than ever tyrannous and suspicious in its hunting for heresy. The healed paralytic was soon surrounded by a group of questioners. They looked at him with surprise and indignation.
"It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed."
Here was a flagrant case of violation of their law! Had not the son of Shelomith, though half an Egyptian, been stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath day? Had not the prophet Jeremiah expressly said, "Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day?"
Yes; but why? Because the Sabbath was an ordinance of mercy intended to protect the underlings and the oppressed from a life of incessant toil; because it was essential to save the serfs and labourers of the nation from the over-measure of labour which would have been exacted from them in a nation afflicted with the besetting sin of greed; because the setting apart of one day in seven for sacred rest was of infinite value to the spiritual life of all. That was the meaning of the Fourth Commandment. In what respect was it violated by the fact that a man who had been healed by a miracle wished to carry home the mere pallet which was perhaps almost the only thing that he possessed? What the man really violated was not the law of God, or even of Moses, but the wretched formalistic inferences of their frigid tradition, which had gravely decided that on the Sabbath a nailed shoe might not be worn because it was a burden, but that an un-nailed shoe might be worn; and that a person might go out with two shoes on, but not with only one; and that one man might carry a loaf of bread, but that two men might not carry it between them, and so forth, to the very utmost limit of tyrannous absurdity.
"He that made me whole," replied the man, "He said to me, Take up thy bed and walk."
As far as the man was concerned, they accepted the plea; a voice fraught with miraculous power so stupendous that it could heal the impotence of a lifetime by a word, was clearly, as far as the man was concerned, entitled to some obedience. And the fact was that they were actuated by a motive; they were flying at higher game than this insignificant and miserable sufferer. Nothing was to be gained by worrying him.
"Who is it that"mark the malignity of these Jewish authoritiesnot that made thee whole, for there was no heresy to be hunted out in the mere fact of exercising miraculous powerbut "that gave thee the wicked command to take up thy bed and walk?"
So little apparently, up to this time, was the person of Jesus generally known in the suburbs of Jerusalem, or else so dull and languid had been the man's attention while Jesus was first speaking to him, that he actually did not know who his benefactor was. But he ascertained shortly afterwards. It is a touch of grace about him that we next find him in the Temple, whither he may well have gone to return thanks to God for this sudden and marvellous renovation of his wasted life. There, too, Jesus saw him, and addressed to him one simple memorable warning, "See, thou hast been made whole: continue in sin no longer, lest something worse happen to thee."
Perhaps the warning had been given because Christ read the mean and worthless nature of the man; at any rate, there is something at first sight peculiarly revolting in the 15th verse. "The man went and told the Jewish authorities that it was Jesus who had made him whole." It is barely possible, though most unlikely, that he may have meant to magnify the name of One who had wrought such a mighty work; but as he must have been well aware of the angry feelings of the Jewsas we hear no word of his gratitude or devotion, no word of amazement or glorifying Godas, too, it must have been abundantly clear to him that Jesus in working the miracle had been touched by compassion only, and had been anxious to shun all publicityit must be confessed that the primâ facie view of the man's conduct is that it was an act of needless and contemptible delationa piece of most pitiful self-protection at the expense of his benefactoran almost inconceivable compound of feeble sycophancy and base ingratitude. Apparently the warning of Jesus had been most deeply necessary, as, if we judge the man aright, it was wholly unavailing.
For the consequences were immediate and disastrous. They changed in fact the entire tenor of His remaining life. Untouched by the evidence of a most tender compassion, unmoved by the display of miraculous power, the Jewish inquisitors were up in arms to defend their favourite piece of legalism. "They began to persecute Jesus because He did such things on the Sabbath day."
And it was in answer to this charge that He delivered the divine and lofty discourse preserved for us in the 5th chapter of St. John. Whether it was delivered in the Temple, or before some committee of the Sanhedrin, we cannot tell; but, at any rate, the great Rabbis and Chief Priests who summoned him before them, that they might rebuke and punish Him for a breach of the Sabbath, were amazed and awed; if also they were bitterly and implacably infuriated, by the words they heard. They had brought Him before them in order to warn, and the warnings fell on them. They had wished to instruct and reprove, and then, perhaps, condescendingly, for this once, to pardon; and lo! He mingles for them the majesty of instruction with the severity of compassionate rebuke. They sat round Him in all the pomposities of their office, to overawe Him as an inferior, and, lo! they tremble, and gnash their teeth, though they dare not act, while with words like a flame of fire piercing into the very joints and marrowwith words more full of wisdom and majesty than those which came among the thunders of SinaiHe assumes the awful dignity of the Son of God.
And so the attempt to impress on Him their petty rules and literal pietismsto lecture Him on the heinousness of working miraculous cures on the Sabbath dayperhaps to punish Him for the enormity of bidding a healed man take up his bedwas a total failure. With His very first word He exposes their materialism and ignorance. They, in their feebleness, had thought of the Sabbath as though God ceased from working thereon because He was fatigued; He tells them that that holy rest was a beneficent activity. They thought apparently, as men think now, that God had resigned to certain mute forces His creative energy; He tells them that His Father is working still; and He, knowing His father and loved of Him, was working with Him, and should do greater works than these which He had now done. Already was He quickening the spiritually dead, and the day should come when all in the tombs should hear His voice. Already He was bestowing eternal life on all that believed in Him; hereafter should His voice be heard in that final judgment of the quick and dead which the Father had committed into His hands.
Was He merely bearing witness of Himself? Nay, there were three mighty witnesses which had testified, and were testifying, of HimJohn, whom, after a brief admiration, they had rejected; Moses, whom they boasted of following, and did not understand; God Himself, whom they professed to worship, but had never seen or known. They themselves had sent to John and heard his testimony; but He needed not the testimony of man, and mentioned it only for their sakes, because even they for a time had been willing to exult in that great Prophet's God-enkindled light. But He had far loftier witness than that of Johnthe witness of a miraculous power, exerted not as prophets had exerted it, in the name of God, but in His own name, because His Father had given such power into His hand. That Father they knew not: His light they had abandoned for the darkness; His word for their own falsehoods and ignorances; and they had rejected Him whom He had sent. But there was a third testimony. If they knew nothing of the Father, they at least knew, or thought they knew, the Scriptures; the Scriptures were in their hands; they had counted the very letters of them; yet they were rejecting Him of whom the Scriptures testified. Was it not clear that theythe righteous, the pious, the scrupulous, the separatists, the priests, the religious leaders of their nationyet had not the love of God in them, if they thus rejected His prophet, His word, His works, his Son?
And what was the fibre of bitterness within them which produced all this bitter fruit? Was it not pride? How could they believe, who sought honour of one another, and not the honour that cometh of God only? Hence it was that they rejected One who came in His Father's name, while they had been, and should be, the ready dupes and the miserable victims of every false Messiah, of every Judas, and Theudas, and Bar-Cochebasand, in Jewish history, there were more than sixty suchwho came in his own name.
And yet He would not accuse them to the Father; they had another accuser, even Moses, in whom they trusted. Yes, Moses, in whose lightest word they professed to trustover the most trivial precept of whose law they had piled their mountain loads of tradition and commentaryeven him they were disbelieving and disobeying. Had they believed Moses, they would have believed Him who spoke to them, for Moses wrote of Him; but if they thus rejected the true meaning of the written words (grámmasin) which they professed to adore and love, how could they believe the spoken words (hrémasin) to which they were listening with rage and hate?
We know with what deadly exasperation these high utterances were received. Never before had the Christ spoken so plainly. It seemed as though in Galilee He had wished the truth respecting Him to rise like a gradual and glorious dawn upon the souls and understandings of those who heard His teaching and watched his works; but as though at Jerusalemwhere his ministry was briefer, and His followers fewer, and His opponents stronger, and His mighty works more rareHe had determined to leave the leaders and rulers of the people without excuse, by revealing at once to their astonished ears the nature of His being. More distinctly than this He could not have spoken. They had summoned him hefore them to explain His breach of the Sabbath; so far from excusing the act itself, as He sometimes did in Galilee, by showing that the higher and moral law of love supersedes and annihilates the lower law of mere literal and ceremonial obedienceinstead of showing that He had but acted in the spirit in which the greatest of saints had acted before Him, and the greatest of prophets taughtHe sets Himself wholly above the Sabbath, as its Lord, nay, even as the Son and Interpreter of Him who had made the Sabbath, and who in all the mighty course of Nature and of Providence was continuing to work thereon.
Here, then, were two deadly charges ready at hand against this Prophet of Nazareth: He was a breaker of their Sabbath; He was a blasphemer of their God. The first crime was sufficient cause for opposition and persecution; the second an ample justification of persistent and active endeavours to being about His death.
But at present they could do nothing; they could only rage in impotent indignation; they could only gnash with their teeth and melt away. Whatever may have been the cause, as yet they dared not act. A power greater than their own restrained them. The hour of their triumph was not yet come; only, from this moment, there went forth against Him from the hearts of those Priests and Rabbis and Pharisees the inexorable irrevocable sentence of violent death.
And under such circumstances it was useless, and worse than useless, for Him to remain in Judæa, where every day was a day of peril from these angry and powerful conspirators. He could no longer remain in Jerusalem for the approaching Passover, but must return to Galilee; but He returned with a clear vision of the fatal end, with full knowledge that the hours of light in which He could still work were already fading into the dusk, and that the rest of His work would be accomplished with the secret sense that death was hanging over His devoted head.