WHEREVER the ministry of Jesus was in the slightest degree public there we invariably find the Pharisees watching, lying in wait for Him, tempting Him, trying to entrap Him into some mistaken judgment or ruinous decision. But perhaps even their malignity never framed a question to which the answer was so beset with difficulties as when they came to tempt him with the problem, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?"

        The question was beset with difficulties on every side, and for many reasons. In the first place, the institution of Moses on the subject was ambiguously expressed. Then this had given rise to a decided opposition of opinion between the two most important and flourishing of the rabbinic schools. The difference of the schools had resulted in a difference in the customs of the nation. Lastly, the theological, scholastic, ethical, and national difficulties were further complicated by political ones, for the prince in whose domain the question was asked was deeply interested in the answer, and had already put to death the greatest of the prophets for his bold expression of the view which was most hostile to his own practices. Whatever the truckling Rabbis of Galilee might do, St. John the Baptist, at least, had left no shadow of a doubt as to what was his interpretation of the Law of Moses, and he had paid the penalty of his frankness with his life.

        Moses had laid down the rule that when a man had married a wife, and "she find no favour in his eyes because he hath found some uncleanness (marg., 'matter of nakedness,' Heb. ervath dabhar) in her, then let him write a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife." Now in the interpretation of this rule, everything depended on the meaning of the expression ervath dabhar, or rather on the meaning of the single word ervath. It meant, generally, a stain or desecration, and Hillel, with his school, explained the passage in the sense that a man might "divorce his wife for any disgust which he felt towards her;" even—as the celebrated R. Akiba ventured to say—if he saw any other woman who pleased him more; whereas the school of Shammai interpreted it to mean that divorce could only take place in cases of scandalous unchastity. Hence the Jews had the proverb in this matter, as in so many others, "Hillel loosed what Shammai bound."

        Shammai was morally right and exegetically wrong; Hillel exegetically right and morally wrong. Shammai was only right in so far as he saw that the spirit of the Mosaic legislation made no divorce justifiable in foro conscientiae, except for the most flagrant immorality; Hillel only right in so far as he saw that Moses had left an opening for divorce in foro civili in slighter cases than these. But under such circumstances, to decide in favour of either school would not only be to give mortal offence to the other, but also either to exasperate the lax many or to disgust the high-minded few. For in those corrupt days the vast majority acted at any rate on the principle laid down by Hillel, as the Jews in the East continue to do to this day. Such, in fact, was the universal tendency of the times. In the heathen, and especially in the Roman world, the strictness of the marriage bond had been so shamefully relaxed, that, whereas, in the Republic, centuries had passed before there had been one single instance of a frivolous divorce, under the Empire, on the contrary, divorce was the rule, and faithfulness the exception. The days of the Virginias, and Lucretias, and Cornelias had passed; this was the age of the Julias, the Poppaeas, the Messalinas, the Agrippinas—the days in which, as Seneca says, women no longer reckoned their years by the consuls, but by the number of their repudiated husbands. The Jews had caught up the shameful precedent, and since polygamy had fallen into discredit, they made a near approach to it by the ease with which they were able to dismiss one wife and take another. Even Josephus, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, who on every possible occasion prominently lays claim to the character and position of a devout and religious man, narrates, without the shadow of an apology, that his first wife had abandoned him, that he had divorced the second after she had borne him three children, and that he was then married to a third. But if Jesus decided in favour of Shammai—as all His previous teaching made the Pharisees feel sure that in this particular question He would decide—then He would be pronouncing the public opinion that Herod Antipas was a double-dyed adulterer, an adulterer adulterously wedded to an adulterous wife.

        But Jesus was never guided in any of His answers by principles of expediency, and was decidedly indifferent alike to the anger of multitudes and to the tyrant's frown. His only object was to give, even to such inquirers as these, such answers as should elevate them to a nobler sphere. Their axiom, "Is it lawful?" had it been sincere, would have involved the answer to their own question. Nothing is lawful to any man who doubts its lawfulness. Jesus, therefore, instead of answering them, directs them to the source where the true answer was to be found. Setting the primitive order side by side with the Mosaic institution—meeting their "Is it lawful?" with "Have ye not read?"—He reminds them that God, who at the beginning had made man male and female, had thereby signified His will that marriage should be the closest and most indissoluble of all relationships—transcending and even, if necessary, superseding all the rest.

        "Why, then," they ask—eager to entangle Him in an opposition to "the fiery law"—"did Moses command to give a writing of divorcement and put her away?" The form of their question involved one of those false turns so common among the worshippers of the letter; and on this false turn they based their inverted pyramid of yet falser inferences. And so Jesus at once corrected them "Moses, indeed, for your hardheartedness permitted you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so;" and then He adds as formal and fearless a condemnation of Herod Antipas—without naming him—as could have been put in language, "Whoever putteth away his wife and marrieth another, except for fornication, committeth adultery; and he who marrieth the divorced woman committeth adultery" and Herod's case was the worst conceivable instance of both forms of adultery, for he, while married to an innocent and undivorced wife, had wedded the guilty but still undivorced wife of Herod Philip, his own brother and host; and he had done this, without the shadow of any excuse, out of mere guilty passion, when his own prime of life and that of his paramour was already past.

        If the Pharisees chose to make any use of this to bring Jesus into collision with Antipas, and draw down upon Him the fate of John, they might; and if they chose to embitter still more against Him the schools of Hillel and of Shammai, both of which were thus shown to be mistaken—that of Hillel from deficiency of moral insight, that of Shammai from lack of exegetical acumen—they might; but meanwhile He had once more thrown a flood of light over the difficulties of the Mosaic legislation, showing that it was provisional, not final—transitory, not eternal. That which the Jews, following their famous Hillel, regarded as a Divine permission of which to be proud, was, on the contrary, a tolerated evil permitted to the outward life, though not to the enlightened conscience or the pure heart—was, in fact, a standing witness against their hard and imperfect state.

        The Pharisees, baffled, perplexed, ashamed as usual, found themselves again confronted by a trancendently loftier wisdom, and a transcendently diviner insight than their own, and retired to hatch fresh plots equally malicious, and destined to be equally futile. But nothing can more fully show the necessity of Christ's teaching than the fact that even the disciples were startled and depressed by it. In this bad age, when corruption was so universal—when in Rome marriage had fallen into such contempt and desuetude that a law had to be passed which rendered celibates liable to a fine—they thought the pure strictness of our Lord's precept so severe that celibacy itself seemed preferable; and this opinion they expressed when they were once more with Him in the house. What a fatal blow would have been given to the world's happiness and the world's morality, had He assented to their rash conclusion! And how marvellous a proof is it of His Divinity, that whereas every other pre-eminent moral teacher—even the very best and greatest of all—has uttered or sanctioned more than one dangerous and deadly error which has been potent to poison the life or peace of nations—all the words of the Lord Jesus were absolutely holy, and divinely healthy words. In his reply He gives none of that entire preference to celibacy which would have been so highly valued by the ascetic and the monk, and would have troubled the consciences of many millions whose union has been blessed by Heaven. He refused to pronounce upon the condition of the celibate so absolute a sanction. All that he said was that this saying of theirs as to the undesirability of marriage had no such unqualified bearing; that it was impossible and undesirable for all but the rare and exceptional few. Some, indeed, there were who were unfitted for holy wedlock by the circumstances of their birth or constitution; some, again, by the infamous, though then common, cruelties and atrocities of the dominant slavery; and some who withdrew themselves from all thoughts of marriage for religious purposes, or in consequence of higher necessities. These were not better than others, but only different. It was the duty of some to marry and serve God in the wedded state; it might be the duty of others not to marry, and so to serve God in the celibate state. There is not in these words of Christ all that amount of difficulty and confusion which some have seen in them. His precepts find their best comment in the 7th and 9th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and His clear meaning is that, besides the rare instances of natural incapacity for marriage, there are a few others—and to these few alone the saying of the disciples applied—who could accept the belief that in peculiar times, or owing to special circumstances, or at the paramount call of exceptional duties, wedlock must by them be rightly and wisely foregone, because they had received from God the gift and grace of continence, the power of a chaste life, resulting from an imagination purified and ennobled to a particular service.

        And then, like a touching and beautiful comment on these high words, and the strongest of all proofs that there was in the mind of Christ no admiration for the "voluntary service" which St. Paul condemns, and the "works of supererogation" which an erring Church upholds—as a proof of His belief that marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled—He took part in a scene that has charmed the imagination of poet and painter in every age. For as though to destroy all false and unnatural notions of the exceptional glory of religious virginity, He, among whose earliest acts it had been to bless a marriage festival, made it one of His latest acts to fondle infants in His arms. It seems to have been known in Peræa that the time of His departure was approaching; and conscious, perhaps, of the words which He had just been uttering, there were fathers and mothers and friends who brought to Him the fruits of holy wedlock—young children and even babes—that He might touch them and pray over them. Ere He left them for ever, they would bid Him a solemn farewell; they would win, as it were, the legacy of His special blessing for the generation yet to come, The disciples thought their conduct forward and officious. They did not wish their Master to be needlessly crowded and troubled; they did not like to be disturbed in their high colloquies. They were indignant that a number of mere women and children should come obtruding on more important persons and interests. Women were not honoured, nor children loved in antiquity as now they are; no halo of romance and tenderness encircled them; too often they were subjected to shameful cruelties and hard neglect. But He who came to be the friend of all sinners, and the helper of all the suffering and the sick, came also to elevate woman to her due honour, centuries before the Teutonic element of modern society was dreamt of, and to be the protector and friend of helpless infancy and innocent childhood. Even the unconscious little ones were to be admitted into His Church by His sacrament of baptism, to be made members of Him, and inheritors of His kingdom. He turned the rebuke of the disciples on themselves; He was as much displeased with them as they had been with the parents and children. "Suffer the little children," He said, in words which each of the Synoptists has preserved for us in all their immortal tenderness—"Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven." And when He had folded them in His arms, laid His hands upon them, and blessed them, He added once more His constantly needed, and therefore constantly repeated, warning, "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, shall not enter therein."

        When this beautiful and deeply instructive scene was over, St. Matthew tells us that He started on His way, probably for that new journey to the other Bethany of which we shall hear in the next chapter; and on this road occurred another incident, which impressed itself so deeply on the minds of the spectators that it, too, has been recorded by the Evangelists in a triple narrative.

        A young man of great wealth and high position seems suddenly to have been seized with a conviction that he had hitherto neglected an invaluable opportunity, and that One who could alone explain to him the true meaning and mystery of life was already on his way to depart from among them. Determined, therefore, not to be too late, he came running, breathless, eager—in a way that surprised all who beheld it—and, prostrating himself before the feet of Jesus, exclaimed, "Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may inherit life?"

        If there was something attractive in the mingled impetuosity and humility of one so young and distinguished, yet so candid and earnest, there was in his question much that was objectionable. The notion that he could gain eternal life by "doing some good thing," rested on a basis radically false. If we may combine what seems to be the true reading of St. Matthew, with the answer recorded in the other Evangelists, our Lord seems to have said to him, "Why askest thou me about the good? and why callest thou me good? One is the good, even God." He would as little accept the title "Good," as He would accept the title "Messiah," when given in a false sense. He would not be regarded as that mere "good Rabbi," to which, in these days, more than ever, men would reduce Him. So far, Jesus would show the youth that when He came to Him as to one who was more than man, his entire address, as well as his entire question, was a mistake. No mere man can lay any other foundation than that which is laid, and if the ruler committed the error of simply admiring Jesus as a Rabbi of pre-eminent sanctity, yet no Rabbi, however saintly, was accustomed to receive the title of "good," or prescribe any amulet for the preservation of a virtuous life. And in the same spirit, He continued: "But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments."

        The youth had not expected a reply so obvious and so simple. He cannot believe that He is merely referred to the Ten Commandments, and so he asks, in surprise, "What sort of commandments?" Jesus, as the youth wanted to do something, tells him merely of those of the Second Table, for, as has been well remarked, "Christ sends the proud to the Law, and invites the humble to the Gospel." "Master," replied the young man in surprise, "all these have I observed from my youth." Doubtless in the mere letter he may have done so, as millions have; but he evidently knew little of all that those commandments had been interpreted by the Christ to mean. And Jesus, seeing his sincerity, looking on him loved him, and gave him one short crucial test of his real condition. He was not content with the common-place; he aspired after the heroical, or rather thought that he did; therefore Jesus gave him an heroic act to do. "One thing," He said, "thou lackest" and bade him go, sell all that he had, distribute it to the poor, and come and follow Him.

        It was too much. The young ruler went away very sorrowful, grief in his heart, and a cloud upon his brow, for he had great possessions. He preferred the comforts of earth to the treasures of heaven, he would not purchase the things of eternity by abandoning those of time; he made, as Dante calls it, "the great refusal." And so he vanishes from the Gospel history; nor do the Evangelists know anything of him farther. But the sad stern imagination of the poet follows him, and there, among the myriads of those who are blown about like autumn leaves on the confines of the outer world, blindly following the flutter of a giddy flag, rejected by Heaven, despised even by hell, hateful alike to God and to his enemies, he sees

"l'ombra di colui
Che fece per viltate il gran rifiuto."

DANTE, Inferno, iii. 60.        

(The shade of him, who made through cowardice the great refusal.)

        We may—I had almost said we must—hope and believe a fairer ending for one whom Jesus, as He looked on him, could love. But the failure of this youth to meet the test saddened Jesus, and looking round at His disciples, He said, "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven." The words once more struck them as very severe. Could then no good man be rich, no rich man be good? But Jesus only answered—softening the sadness and sternness of the words by the affectionate title "children"—"Children, how hard it is to enter into the kingdom of God;" hard for any one, but, He added, with an earnest look at His disciples, and specially addressing Peter, as the Gospel according to the Hebrews tells us, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." They might well be amazed beyond measure. Was there then no hope for a Nicodemus, for a Joseph of Arimathæa? Assuredly there was. The teaching of Jesus about riches was as little Ebionite as His teaching about marriage was Essene. Things impossible to nature are possible to grace; things impossible to man are easy to God.

        Then, with a touch—was it of complacency, or was it of despair?—Peter said, "Lo, we have forsaken all, and followed thee," and either added or implied, In what respect, then, shall we be gainers? The answer of Jesus was at once a magnificent encouragement and a solemn warning. The encouragement was that there was no instance of self-sacrifice which would not, even in this world, and even in the midst of persecutions, receive its hundred-fold increase in the harvest of spiritual blessings, and would in the world to come be rewarded by the infinite recompense of eternal life; the warning was that familiar one which they had heard before, that many of the first should be last, and the last first. And to impress upon them still more fully and deeply that the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of mercenary calculation or exact equivalent—that there could be no bargaining with the Heavenly Householder—that before the eye of God's clearer and more penetrating judgment Gentiles might he admitted before Jews, and Publicans before Pharisees, and young converts before aged Apostles—He told them the memorable Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. That parable, amid its other lessons, involved the truth that, while all who serve God should not be defrauded of their just and full and rich reward, there could be in heaven no murmuring, no envyings, no jealous comparison of respective merits, no base strugglings for precedency, no miserable disputings as to who had performed the maximum of service or who had received the minimum of grace.

<< Previous ChapterContents | Home PageNext Chapter >>