THE DAY OF CONFLICT.
UP to this point the events of this great day had been sufficiently agitating, but they were followed by circumstances yet more painful and exciting.
The time for the mid-day meal had arrived, and a Pharisee asked Him to come and lunch at his house. There was extremely little hospitality or courtesy in the invitation. If not offered in downright hostility and bad faithas we know was the case with similar Pharisaic invitationsits motive at the best was but curiosity to see more of the new Teacher, or a vanity which prompted him to patronise so prominent a guest. And Jesus, on entering, found Himself, not among publicans and sinners, where He could soothe, and teach, and blessnot among the poor to whom He could preach the kingdom of heavennot among friends and disciples who listened with deep and loving reverence to His wordsbut among the cold, hard, threatening faces, the sneers and frowns, of haughty rivals and open enemies. The Apostles do not seem to have been invited. There was no sympathy of a Thomas to sustain Him, no gentleness of a Nathanael to encourage Him, no ardour of a Peter to defend, no beloved John to lean his head upon His breast. Scribe, Lawyer, and Pharisee, the guests ostentatiously performed their artistic ablutions, and theneach with extreme regard for his own precedenceswept to their places at the board. With no such elaborate and fantastic ceremonies, Jesus, as soon as He entered, reclined at the table. It was a short and trivial meal, and outside thronged the dense multitude, hungering still and thirsting for the words of eternal life. He did not choose, therefore, to create idle delays and countenance a needless ritualism by washings, which at that moment happened to be quite superfluous, and to which a foolish and pseudo-religious importance was attached.
Instantly the supercilious astonishment of the host expressed itself in his countenance; and, doubtless, the lifted eyebrows and deprecating gestures of those unsympathising guests showed as much as they dared to show of their disapproval and contempt. They were forgetting utterly who He was, and what He had done. Spies and calumniators from the first, they were now debasing even their pretentious and patronising hospitality into fresh opportunity for treacherous conspiracy. The time was come for yet plainer language, for yet more unmeasured indignation; and He did not spare them. He exposed, in words which were no parables and could not be mistaken, the extent to which their outward cleanliness was but the thin film which covered their inward wickedness and greed. He denounced their contemptible scrupulosity in the tithing of potherbs, their flagrant neglect of essential virtues; the cant, the ambition, the publicity, the ostentation of their outward orthodoxy, the deathful corruption of their inmost hearts. Hidden graves were they over which men walk, and, without knowing it, become defiled.
And at this point, one of the lawyers who were presentsome learned professor, some orthodox Masoretventures to interrupt the majestic torrent of His rebuke. He had, perhaps, imagined that the youthful Prophet of NazarethHe who was so meek and lowly of heartHe whose words among the multitude had hitherto breathed the spirit of such infinite tenderness was too gentle, too loving, to be in earnest. He thought, perhaps, that a word of interpolation might check the rushing storm of His awakened wrath. He had not yet learnt that no strong or great character can be devoid of the element of holy anger. And so, ignorant of all that was passing in the Saviour's mind, amazed that people of such high distinction could be thus plainly and severely dealt with, he murmured in deprecatory tones, "Master, thus saying, thou reproachest us also!"
Yes, He reproached them also: they, too, heaped on the shoulders of others the burdens which themselves refused to bear; they, too, built the sepulchres of the prophets whom their sins had slain; they, too, set their backs against the door of knowledge, and held the key, so that none could enter in; on them too, as on all that guilty generation, should come the blood of all the prophets, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zacharias, who perished between the altar and the Temple.
The same discourse, but yet fuller and more terrible, was subsequently uttered by Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem in the last great week of His life on earth; but thus did He, on this occasion, hurl down upon them from the heaven of His moral superiority the first heart-scathing lightnings of His seven-times-uttered-woe. They thought, perhaps, that He would have been deceived by their specious smoothness and hypocritical hospitality; but He knew that it was not out of true heart that they offered Him even the barest courtesies of life. The fact that He was alone among them, and that He should have been, as it were, betrayed into such company, was but an additional reason why the flames of warning and judgment should thus play about their heads, which hereafter, unless they repented, should strike them to the earth. Not for an instant could they succeed in deceiving Him. There is a spurious kindness, a bitter semblance of friendship, which deserves no respect. It may pass current in the realms of empty fashion and hollow civility, where often the words of men's mouths are softer than butter, having war in their heart, and where, though their throat is an open sepulchre, they flatter with their tongue; but it shrivels to nothing before the refining fire of a divine discernment, and leaves nothing but a sickening fume behind. The time had come for Him to show to these hypocrites how well he knew the deceitfulness of their hearts, how deeply He hated the wickedness of their lives.
They felt that it was an open rupture. The feast broke up in confusion. The Scribes and Pharisees threw off the mask. From fawning friends and interested inquirers, they suddenly sprang up in their true guise as deadly opponents. They surrounded Jesus, they pressed upon Him vehemently, persistently, almost threateningly; they began to pour upon Him a flood of questions, to examine, to catechise Him, to try and force words out of Him, lying in ambush, like eager hunters, to spring upon any confession of ignorance, on any mistake of factabove all, on any trace of heresy on which they might found that legal accusation by which before long they hoped to put Him down.
How Jesus escaped from this unseemly spectaclehow He was able to withdraw Himself from this display of hostilitywe are not told. Probably it might be sufficient for Him to waive His enemies aside, and bid them leave Him free to go forth again. For, meanwhile, the crowd had gained some suspicion, or received some intimation, of what was going on within. They had suddenly gathered in dense myriads, actually treading on each other in their haste and eagerness. Perhaps a dull, wrathful murmur from without warned the Pharisees in time that it might be dangerous to proceed too far, and Jesus came out to the multitude with His whole spirit still aglow with the just and mighty indignation by which it had been pervaded. Instantlyaddressing primarily His own disciples, but through them the listening thousandsHe broke out with a solemn warning, "Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." He warned them that there was One before whose eyeten thousand times brighter than the sunsecrecy was impossible. He bade them not be afraid of mana fear to which the sad perturbances of these last few days might well have inclined thembut to fear Him who could not only destroy the body, but cast the soul also into the Gehenna of fire. The God who loved them would care for them; and the Son of Man would, before the angels of God, confess them who confessed Him before men.
While He was thus addressing them, His discourse was broken in upon by a most inopportune interruptionnot this time of hostility, not of ill-timed interference, not of overpowering admiration, but of simple policy and self-interest. Some covetous and half-instructed member of the crowd, seeing the listening throngs, hearing the words of authority and power, aware of the recent discomfiture of the Pharisees, expecting, perhaps, some immediate revelation of Messianic power, determined to utilise the occasion for his own worldly ends. He thoughtif the expression may be allowedthat he could do a good stroke of business, and most incongruously and irreverently broke in with the request
"Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me."
Almost stern was our Lord's rebuke to the man's egregious self-absorption. He seems to have been one of those not uncommon characters to whom the whole universe is pervaded by self; and he seems to have considered that the main object of the Messiah's coming would be to secure for him a share of his inheritance, and to overrule this unmanageable brother. Jesus at once dispelled his miserably carnal expectations, and then warned him, and all who heard, to beware of letting the narrow horizon of earthly comforts span their hopes. How brief, yet how rich in significance, is that little parable which He told them, of the rich fool who, in his greedy, God-forgetting, presumptuous selfishness, would do this and that, and who, as though there were no such thing as death, and as though the soul could live by bread, thought that "my fruits" and "my goods," and "my barns," and to "eat and drink and be merry," could for many years to come sustain what was left him of a soul, but to whom from heaven pealed as a terrible echo to his words the heart-thrilling sentence of awful irony, "Thou fool, this night!"
And then our Lord expanded the thought. He told them that the life was more than meat, and the body than raiment. Again He reminded them how God clothes, in more than Solomon's glory, the untoiling lilies, and feeds the careless ravens that neither sow nor reap. Food and raiment, and the multitude of possessions, were not life: they had better things to seek after and to look for; let them not be tossed on this troubled sea of faithless care; be theirs the life of fearless hope, of freest charity, the life of the girded loin and the burning lampas servants watching and waiting for the unknown moment of their lord's return.
The remarks had mainly been addressed to the disciples, though the multitudes also heard them, and were by no means excluded from their import. But here Peter's curiosity got the better of him, and he asks "whether the parable was meant specially for them, or even for all?"
To that question our Lord did not reply, and His silence was the best reply. Only let each man see that he was that faithful and wise servant; blessed indeed should he then be; but terrible in exact proportion to his knowledge and his privileges should be the fate of the gluttonous, cruel, faithless drunkard whom the Lord should surprise in the midst of his iniquities.
And thenat the thought of that awful judgmenta solemn agony passed over the spirit of Christ. He thought of the rejected peace, which should end in furious war; he thought of the divided households and the separated friends. He had a baptism to be baptised with, and His soul was straitened with anguish till it was accomplished. He had come to fling fire upon the earth, and oh, that it were already kindled!that fire was as a spiritual baptism, the refining fire, which should at once inspire and blind, at once illuminate and destroy, at once harden the clay and melt the gold. And here we are reminded of one of those remarkable though only traditional utterances attributed to Christ, which may possibly have been connected with the thought here expressed
"He who is near me is near the fire! he who is far from me is far from the kingdom."
But from these sad thoughts He once more descended to the immediate needs of the multitude. From the reddening heaven, from the rising clouds, they could foretell that the showers would fall or that the burning wind would blowwhy could they not discern the signs of the times? Were they not looking into the far-off fields of heaven for signs which were in the air they breathed, and on the ground they trod upon; and, most of allhad they but searched rightlyin the state of their own most inmost souls? If they would see the star which should at once direct their feet and influence their destiny, they must look for it, not in the changing skies of outward circumstance, but each in the depth of his own heart. Let them seize the present opportunity to make peace with God. For men and for nations the "too late" comes at last.
And there the discourse seems to have ended. It was the last time for many days that they were to hear His words. Surrounded by enemies who were not only powerful, but now deeply exasperatedobnoxious to the immediate courtiers of the very king in whose dominion He was livingdogged by the open hatred and secret conspiracies of spies whom the multitude had been taught to reverencefeeling that the people understood Him not, and that in the minds of their leaders and teachers sentence of death and condemnation had already been passed upon HimHe turned His back for a time upon His native land, and went to seek in idolatrous and alien cities the rest and peace which were denied Him in his home.