THERE was to be one more day of oppositionmore bitter, more dangerous, more personal, more implacableone day of open and final rupture between Jesus and the Pharisaic spies from Jerusalembefore He yielded for a time to the deadly hatred of His enemies, and retired to find in heathen countries the rest which He could find no longer in the rich fields and on the green hills of Gennesareth. There were but few days of His earthly life which passed through a series of more heart-shaking agitations than the one which we shall now describe.
Jesus was engaged in solitary prayer, probably at early dawn, and in one of the towns which formed the chief theatre of His Galilæan ministry. While they saw Him standing there with His eyes uplifted to heavenfor standing, not kneeling, was and is the common Oriental attitude in prayerthe disciples remained at a reverent distance; but when His orisons were over, they came to Him with the natural entreaty that He would teach them to pray, as John also taught his disciples. He at once granted their request, and taught them that short and perfect petition which has thenceforth been the choicest heritage of every Christian liturgy, and the model on which all our best and most acceptable prayers are formed. He had, indeed, already used it in the Sermon on the Mount, but we may be deeply thankful that for the sake of His asking disciples He here brought it into greater and more separate prominence. Some, indeed, of the separate clauses may already have existed, at least in germ, among the Jewish forms of prayer, since they resemble expressions which are found in the Talmud, and which we have no reason to suppose were borrowed from Christians. But never before had all that was best and purest in a nation's prayers been thus collected into one noble and incomparable petitiona petition which combines all that the heart of man, taught by the Spirit of God, had found most needful for the satisfaction of its truest aspirations. In the mingled love and reverence with which it teaches us to approach our Father in heavenin the spirituality with which it leads us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousnessin the spirit of universal charity and forgiveness which it inculcatesin that plural form throughout it, which is meant to show us that selfishness must be absolutely and for ever excluded from our petitions, and that no man can come to God as his Father without acknowledging that his worst enemies are also God's childrenin the fact that of its seven petitions one, and one only, is for any earthly blessing, and even that one is only for earthly blessings in their simplest formin the manner in which it discountenances all the vain repetitions and extravagant self-tortures with which so many fanatic worshippers have believed that God could be propitiatedeven in that exquisite brevity which shows us how little God desires that prayer should be made a burden and wearinessit is, indeed, what the Fathers have called it, a breviarium Evangeliithe pearl of prayers.
Not less divine were the earnest and simple words which followed it, and which taught the disciples that men ought always to pray and not to faint, since, if importunity prevails over the selfishness of man, earnestness must be all-powerful with the righteousness of God. Jesus impressed upon them the lesson that if human affection can be trusted to give only useful and kindly gifts, the love of the Great Father, who loves us all, will, much more certainly, give His best and highest gifteven the gift of the Holy Spiritto all that ask Him.
And with what exquisite yet vivid graciousness are these great lessons inculcated! Had they been delivered in the dull, dry, didactic style of most moral teaching, how could they have touched the hearts, or warmed the imaginations, or fixed themselves indelibly upon the memories of those who heard them? But instead of being clothed in scholastic pedantisms, they were conveyed in a little tale founded on the most commonplace incidents of daily life, and of a daily life full of simplicity and poverty. Journeying at night to avoid the burning heat, a man arrives at a friend's house. The host is poor, and has nothing for him; yet, because even at that late hour he will not neglect the duties of hospitality, he gets up, and goes to the house of another friend to borrow three loaves. But this other is in bed; his little children are with him; his house is locked and barred. To the gentle and earnest entreaty he answers crossly and roughly from within, "Trouble me not." But his friend knows that he has come on a good errand, and he persists in knocking, till at last, not from kind motives, but because of his pertinacity, the man gets up and gives him all that he requires. "Even so," it has been beautifully observed "when the heart which has been away on a journey, suddenly at midnight (i.e., the time of greatest darkness and distress) returns home to us that is, comes to itself and feels hungerand we have nothing wherewith to satisfy it, God requires of us bold, importunate faith." If such persistency conquers the reluctance of ungracious man, how much more shall it prevail with One who loves us better than we ourselves, and who is even more ready to hear than we to pray!
It has been well observed that the narrative of the life of Christ on earth is full of lights and shadowsone brief period, or even one day, starting at times into strong relief, while at other times whole periods are passed over in unbroken silence. But we forgetand if we bear this in mind, there will be nothing to startle us in this phenomenon of the Gospel recordwe forget how large and how necessary a portion of His work it was to teach and train His immediate Apostles for the future conversion of the world. When we compare what the Apostles were when Jesus called themsimple and noble indeed, but ignorant, and timid, and slow of heart to believewith what they became when He had departed from them, and shed the gift of His Holy Spirit into their hearts, then we shall see how little intermission there could have been in His beneficent activity, even during the periods in which His discourses were delivered to those only who lived in the very light of His divine personality. Blessed indeed were they above kings and prophets, blessed beyond all who have ever lived in the richness of their privilege, since they could share His inmost thoughts, and watch in all its angelic sweetness and simplicity the daily spectacle of those "sinless years." But if this blessing was specially accorded to them, it was not for their own sakes, but for the sake of that world which it was their mission to elevate from despair and wickedness into purity and sober-mindedness and truthfor the sake of those holy hearts who were henceforth to enjoy a Presence nearer, though spiritual, than if, with the Apostles, they could have climbed with Him the lonely hills, or walked beside Him as He paced at evening beside the limpid lake.
The day which had begun with that lesson of loving and confiding prayer was not destined to proceed thus calmly. Few days of His life during these years can have passed without His being brought into distressing contact with the evidences of human sin and human suffering; but on this day the spectacle was brought before Him in its wildest and most terrible form. A man blind and dumb and mad, from those strange unaccountable influences which the universal belief attributed to demoniac possession, was brought before Him. Jesus would not leave him a helpless victim to the powers of evil. By his look and by His word He released the miserable sufferer from the horrible oppressioncalmed, healed, restored him"insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw."
It appears from our Lord's own subsequent words that there existed among the Jews certain forms of exorcism, which to a certain extent, at any rate, were efficacious; but there are traces that the cures so effected were only attempted in milder and simpler cases. The dissolution of so hideous a spell as that which had bound this manthe power to pour light on the filmed eyeball, and to restore speech to the cramped tongue, and intelligence to the bewildered soulwas something that the people had never witnessed. The miracle produced a thrill of astonishment, a burst of unconcealed admiration. For the first time they openly debated whether He who had such power could be any other than their expected Deliverer. "Can this man," they incredulously asked, "can he be the son of David?"
His enemies could not deny that a great miracle had been performed, and since it did not convert, it only hardened and maddened them. But how could they dissipate the deep impression which it had made on the minds of the amazed spectators? The Scribes who came from Jerusalem, more astute and ready than their simple Galilæan brethren, at once invented a ready device for this purpose. "This fellow hath Beelzebul"such was their notable and insolent solution of the difficulty, "and it is only by the prince of the devils that He casteth out the devils." Strange that the ready answer did not spring to every lip, as it did afterwards to the lips of some who heard the same charge brought against Him in Jerusalem, "These are not the words of one that hath a devil." But the people of Galilee were credulous and ignorant; these grave and reverend inquisitors from the Holy City possessed an immense and hereditary ascendancy over their simple understandings, and, offended as they had been more than once by the words of Jesus, their whole minds were bewildered with a doubt. The awfulness of His personal ascendancythe felt presence, even amid His tenderest condescensions, of something more than humanHis power of reading the thoughtsthe ceaseless and sleepless energy of His beneficencethe strange terror which He inspired in the poor demoniacsthe speech which some-times rose into impassioned energy of denunciation, and sometimes, by its softness and beauty, held them hushed as infants at the mother's breastthe revulsion of their unbelieving hearts against that new world of fears and hopes which He preached to them as the kingdom of Godin a word, the shuddering sense that in some way His mere look and presence placed them in a nearer relation than they had ever been before with the Unseen Worldall this, as it had not prepared them to accept the truth, tended from the first to leave them the ready victims of insolent, blasphemous, and authoritative falsehood.
And therefore, in a few calm words, Jesus shattered the hideous sophism to atoms. He showed them the gross absurdity of supposing that Satan could be his own enemy. Using an irresistible argumentum ad hominem, He convicted them by an appeal to the exorcisms so freely, but almost ineffectually, professed by themselves and their pupils. And when He had thus showed that the power which He exercised must be at once superior to Satan and contrary to Satan, and must therefore be spiritual and divine, He warned them of the awful sinfulness and peril of this their blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of God, and how nearly it bordered on the verge of that sin which alone, of all sins, could neither here nor hereafter be forgiven. And then, after these dim and mysterious warnings, speaking to them in language of yet plainer significance, He turned the light of truth into their raging and hypocritical hearts, and showed them how this Dead Sea fruit of falsehood and calumny could only spring from roots and fibres of hidden bitterness; how only from evil treasures hid deep in darkness, where the very source of light was quenched, could be produced these dark imaginings of their serpentine malignity. Lastly, and with a note of warning which has never since ceased to vibrate, He warned them that the words of man reveal the true nature of the heart within, and that for those, as for all other false and lightly uttered words of idle wickedness, they should give account at the last day. The weight and majesty of these wordsthe awful solemnity of the admonition which they conveyedseem for a time to have reduced the Pharisees to silence, and to have checked the reiteration of their absurd and audacious blasphemy. And in the hush that ensued some woman of the company, in an uncontrollable enthusiasm of admirationaccustomed indeed to reverence these long-robed Pharisees, with their fringes and phylacteries, but feeling to the depth of her heart on how lofty a height above them the Speaker stoodexclaimed to Him in a loud voice, so that all could hear
"Blessed is the womb that bare Thee, and the breasts that Thou hast sucked."
"Yea"or as we may render it"Nay, rather," He answered, "blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it."
The woman, with all the deep and passionate affection of her sex, had cried, How blest must be the mother of such a Son! and blessed indeed that mother was, and blessed was the fruit of her wombblessed she was among women, and blessed because she believed: yet hers was no exclusive blessedness; there is a blessedness yet deeper and loftier, the blessedness of obedience to the Word of God. "How many women," says St. Chrysostom, "have blessed that Holy Virgin, and desired to be such a mother as she was! What hinders them? Christ has made for us a wide way to this happiness, and not only women, but men may tread itthe way of obedience; this it is which makes such a mother, not the throes of parturition."
But the Pharisees, though baffled for a moment, did not intend to leave Jesus long in peace. He had spoken to them in language of lofty warning, nay, even of stern rebuketo them, the leaders and religious teachers of His time and country. What gave such boldness to onea mere "empty cistern," a mere am ha-aretswho had but just emerged from the obscure and ignorant labours of a provincial artisan? how did He dare thus to address them? Let Him at least show them some signsome sign from heaven, no mere exorcism or act of healing, but some great, indisputable, decisive sign of His authority. "Master, we would see a sign from Thee."
It was the old question which had assailed Him at His very earliest ministry. "What sign showest Thou unto us, seeing that Thou doest these things?"
To such appeals, made only to insult and temptmade by men who, unconvinced and unsoftened, had just seen a mighty sign, and had attributed it at once without a blush to demoniac agencymade, not from hearts of faith, but out of curiosity, and hatred, and unbeliefJesus always turned a deaf ear. The Divine does not condescend to limit the display of its powers by the conditions of finite criticism, nor is it conformable to the council of God to effect the conversion of human souls by their mere astonishment at external signs. Had Jesus given them a sign from heaven, is it likely that it would have produced any effect on the spiritual children of ancestors who, according to their own accepted history, in the very sight, nay, under the very precipices of the burning hill, had sat down to eat and to drink, and risen up to play? Would it have had any permanent significance for the moral heirs of those who were taunted by their own prophets with having taken up the tabernacles of Moloch, and the star of their god Remphan, though they were guided by the fiery pillar, and quenched their thirst from the smitten rock? Signs they had seen and wonders in abundance, and now they were seeing the highest sign of a Sinless Life, and yet they did but rebel and blaspheme the more. No sign should be given, then, save in the prophecies which they could not understand. "That evil and adulterous generation," He exclaimed, turning to the densely crowded multitude, "should have no sign, save the sign of Jonah the prophet. Saved after a day and night amid the dark and tempestuous sea, he had been a sign to the Ninevites; so should the Son of Man be saved from the heart of the earth. And those men of Nineveh, who repented at the preaching of Jonah, and the Queen of Sheba, who came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, should alike rise up in the judgment and condemn a generation that despised and rejected one greater than Solomon or than Jonah. For that generation had received every blessing: by the Babylonian captivity, by the Maccabæan revival, by the wise and noble rule of the Asmonæan princes, recently by the preaching of John, the evil spirit of idolatry and rebellion which distempered their fathers had been cast out of them; its old abode had been swept and garnished by the proprieties of Pharisees, and the scrupulosities of Scribes; but, alas! no good spirit had been invited to occupy the empty shrine, and now the old unclean possessor had returned with seven spirits more wicked than himself, and their last state was worse than the first."
His discourse was broken at this point by a sudden interruption. News had again reached His family that He was surrounded by a dense throng, and was speaking words more strange and terrible than ever He had been known to utter; above all, that He had repudiated with open scorn, and denounced with uncompromising indignation, the great teachers who had been expressly sent from Jerusalem to watch His words. Alarm seized them; perhaps their informant had whispered to them the dread calumny which had thus called forth His stern rebukes. From the little which we can learn of His brethren, we infer that they were Hebrews of the Hebrews, and likely to be intensely influenced by Rabbinical and sacerdotal authority; as yet, too, they either did not believe on Him, or regarded His claims in a very imperfect light. Is not the time again come for them to interfere? can they not save Jesus, on whom they looked as their Jesus, from Himself? can they not exercise over Him such influence as shall save Him from the deadly perils to which His present teaching would obviously expose Him? can they not use towards Him such gentle control as should hurry Him away for a time into some region of secrecy and safety? They could not, indeed, reach Him in the crowd, but they could get some one to call His attention to their presence. Suddenly He is informed by one of His audience"Behold, Thy mother and Thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with Thee." Alas! had they not yet learnt that if they would not enter, their sole right place was to stand without? that His hour was now come to pass far beyond the circle of mere human relationship, infinitely above the control of human brethren? Must their bold intrusive spirit receive one more check? It was even so; but the check should be given gently, and so as to be an infinite comfort to others. "Who is My mother?" He said to the man who had spoken, "and who are My brethren?" And then stretching forth His hand towards His disciples, He said, "Behold My mother and My brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother!"