MONDAY IN PASSION WEEKA DAY OF PARABLES.
RISING from His bivouac in the neighhourhood of Bethany while it was still early, Jesus returned at once to the city and the Temple: and on His way He felt hungry. Monday and Thursday were kept by the scrupulous religionists of the day as voluntary fasts, and to this the Pharisee alludes when he says in the Parable, "I fast twice in the week." But this fasting was a mere "work of supererogation," neither commanded nor sanctioned by the Law or the Prophets, and it was alien alike to the habits and precepts of One who came, not by external asceticisms, but with absolute self-surrender, to ennoble by Divine sinlessness the common life of men. It may be that in His compassionate eagerness to teach His people, He had neglected the common wants of life; it may be that there were no means of procuring food in the fields where He had spent the night; it may be again that the hour of prayer and morning sacrifice had not yet come, before which the Jews did not usually take a meal. But, whatever may have been the cause, Jesus hungered, so as to be driven to look for wayside fruit to sustain and refresh Him for the day's work. A few dates or figs, a piece of black bread, a draught of water, are sufficient at any time for an Oriental's simple meal.
There are trees in abundance even now throughout this region, but not the numerous palms, and figs, and walnut trees which made the vicinity of Jerusalem like one umbrageous park, before they were cut down by Titus, in the operations of the siege. Fig-trees especially were planted by the roadside, because the dust was thought to facilitate their growth, and their refreshing fruit was common property. At a distance in front of Him Jesus caught sight of a solitary fig-tree, and although the ordinary season at which figs ripened had not yet arrived, yet, as it was clad with verdure, and as the fruit of a fig sets before the leaves unfold, this tree looked more than usually promising. Its rich large leaves seemed to show that it was fruitful, and their unusually early growth that it was not only fruitful but precociously vigorous. There was every chance, therefore, of finding upon it either the late violet-coloured kermouses, or autumn figs, that often remained hanging on the trees all through the winter, and even until the new spring leaves had come; or the delicious bakkooroth, the first ripe on the fig-tree, of which Orientals are particularly fond. The difficulty raised about St. Mark's expression, that "the time of figs was not yet," is wholly needless. On the plains of Gennesareth Jesus must have been accustomedif we may trust Josephusto see the figs hanging ripe on the trees every month in the year excepting January and February; and there is to this day, in Palestine, a kind of white or early fig which ripens in spring, and much before the ordinary or black fig. On many grounds, therefore, Jesus might well have expected to find a few figs to satisfy the cravings of hunger on this fair-promising leafy tree, although the ordinary fig-season had not yet arrived.
But when He came up to it, He was disappointed. The sap was circulating; the leaves made a fair show; but of fruit there was none. Fit emblem of a hypocrite, whose external semblance is a delusion and a shamfit emblem of the nation in whom the ostentatious profession of religion brought forth no "fruit of good living"the tree was barren. And it was hopelessly barren; for had it been fruitful the previous year, there would still have been some of the kermouses hidden under those broad leaves; and had it been fruitful this year, the bakkooroth would have set into green and delicious fragrance before the leaves appeared; but on this fruitless tree there was neither any promise for the future, nor any gleanings from the past.
And therefore, since it was but deceptive and useless, a barren cumberer of the ground, He made it the eternal warning against a life of hypocrisy continued until it is too late, and, in the hearing of His disciples, uttered upon it the solemn fiat, "Never fruit grow upon thee more!" Even at the word, such infructuous life as it possessed was arrested, and it began to wither away.
The criticisms upon this miracle have been singularly idle and singularly irreverent, because they have been based for the most part on ignorance or on prejudice. By those who reject the divinity of Jesus, it has been called a penal miracle, a miracle of vengeance, a miracle of unworthy anger, a childish exhibition of impatience under disappointment, an uncultured indignation against innocent Nature. No one, I suppose, who believes that the story represents a real and miraculous fact, will daringly arraign the motives of Him who performed it; but many argue that this is an untrue and mistaken story, because it narrates what they regard as an unworthy display of anger at a slight disappointment, and as a miracle of destruction which violated the rights of the supposed owner of the tree, or of the multitude. But, as to the first objection, surely it is amply enough to say that every page of the New Testament shows the impossibility of imagining that the Apostles and Evangelists had so poor and false a conception of Jesus as to believe that He avenged His passing displeasure on an irresponsible object. Would He who, at the Tempter's bidding, refused to satisfy His wants by turning the stones of the wilderness into bread, be represented as having "flown into a rage"no other expression is possiblewith an unconscious tree? An absurdity so irreverent might have been found in the Apocryphal Gospels; but had the Evangelists been capable of perpetuating it, then, most unquestionably, they could have had neither the capacity nor the desire to paint that Divine and Eternal portrait of the Lord Jesus, which their knowledge of the truth, and the aid of God's Holy Spirit, enabled them to present to the world for ever, as its most priceless possession. And as for the withering of the tree, has the householder of the parable been ever severely censured because he said of his barren fig-tree, "Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?" Has St. John the Baptist been ever blamed for violence and destructiveness because he cried, "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the tree: every tree, therefore, which bringeth not forth good fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire?" Or has the ancient Prophet been charged with misrepresenting the character of God, when he says, "I, the Lord, have dried up the green tree," as well as "made the dry tree to flourish?" When the hail beats down the tendrils of the vineyardwhen the lightning scathes the olive, or "splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak"do any but the utterly ignorant and brutal begin at once to blaspheme against God? Is it a crime under any circumstances to destroy a useless tree? if not, is it more a crime to do so by miracle? Why, then, is the Saviour of the worldto whom Lebanon would be too little for a burnt-offeringto be blamed by petulant critics because He hastened the withering of one barren tree, and founded, on the destruction of its uselessness, three eternal lessonsa symbol of the destruction of impenitence, a warning of the peril of hypocrisy, an illustration of the power of faith?
They went on their way, and, as usual, entered the Temple; and scarcely had they entered it, when they were met by another indication of the intense incessant spirit of opposition which actuated the rulers of Jerusalem. A formidable deputation approached them, imposing alike in its numbers and its stateliness. The chief priestsheads of the twenty-four coursesthe learned scribes, the leading rabbis, representatives of all the constituent classes of the Sanhedrin were there, to overawe Himwhom they despised as the poor ignorant Prophet of despicable Nazarethwith all that was venerable in age, eminent in wisdom, or imposing in authority in the great Council of the nation. The people whom He was engaged in teaching made reverent way for them, lest they should pollute those floating robes and ample fringes with a touch; and when they had arranged themselves around Jesus, they sternly and abruptly asked Him, "By what authority doest thou these things, and who gave thee this authority?" They demanded of Him His warrant for thus publicly assuming the functions of Rabbi and Prophet, for riding into Jerusalem amid the hosannas of attendant crowds, for purging the Temple of the traffickers, at whose presence they connived?
The answer surprised and confounded them. With that infinite presence of mind, of which the world's history furnishes no parallel, and which remained calm under the worst assaults, Jesus told them that the answer to their question depended on the answer which they were prepared to give to His question. "The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?" A sudden pause followed. "Answer me," said Jesus, interrupting their whispered colloquy. And surely they, who had sent a commission to inquire publicly into the claims of John, were in a position to answer. But no answer came. They knew full well the import of the question. They could not for a moment put it aside as irrelevant. John had openly and emphatically testified to Jesus, had acknowledged Him, before their own deputies, not only as a Prophet, but as a Prophet far greater than himselfnay, more, as the Prophet, the Messiah. Would they recognise that authority, or would they not? Clearly Jesus had a right to demand their reply to that question before He could reply to theirs. But they could not, or rather they would not answer that question. It reduced them in fact to a complete dilemma. They would not say "from heaven," because they had in heart rejected it; they dared not say "of men," because the belief in John (as we see even in Josephus) was so vehement and so unanimous that openly to reject him would have been to endanger their personal safety. They were reduced, thereforethey, the masters of Israelto the ignominious necessity of saying, "We cannot tell."
There is an admirable Hebrew proverb which says, "Teach thy tongue to say, 'I do not know.'" But to say "We do not know" in this instance, was a thing utterly alien to their habits, disgraceful to their discernment, a death-blow to their pretensions. It was ignorance in a sphere wherein ignorance was for them inexcusable. They, the appointed explainers of the Lawthey, the accepted teachers of the peoplethey, the acknowledged monopolisers of Scriptural learning and oral traditionand yet to be compelled, against their real convictions, to say, and that before the multitude, that they could not tell whether a man of immense and sacred influencea man who acknowledged the Scriptures which they explained, and carried into practice the customs which they reverencedwas a divinely inspired messenger or a deluding impostor! Were the lines of demarcation, then, between the inspired Prophet (nabî) and the wicked seducer (mesîth) so dubious and indistinct? It was indeed a fearful humiliation, and one which they never either forgot or forgave! And yet how just was the retribution which they had thus brought on their own heads! The curses which they had intended for another had recoiled upon themselves; the pompous question which was to be an engine wherewith another should be crushed, had sprung back with sudden rebound, to their own confusion and shame.
Jesus did not press upon their discomfiturethough He well knewas the form of His answer showedthat their "do not know" was a "do not choose to say." Since, however, their failure to answer clearly absolved Him from any necessity to tell them further of an authority about which, by their own confession, they wore totally incompetent to decide, He ended the scene by simply saying, "Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things."
So they retired a little into the background. He continued the instruction of the people which they had interrupted, and began once more to speak to them in parables, which both the multitude and the members of the Sanhedrin who were present could hardly fail to understand. And He expressly called their attention to what He was about to say. "What think ye?" He asked, for now it is their turn to submit to be questioned; and then, telling them of the two sons, of whom the one first flatly refused his father's bidding, but afterwards repented and did it, the other blandly promised an obedience which he never performed, He asked, "Which of these two did his father's will?" They could but answer "the first;" and He then pointed out to them the plain and solemn meaning of their own answer. It was, that the very publicans and harlots, despite the apparent open shamelessness of their disobedience, were yet showing themthem, the scrupulous and highly reputed legalists of the holy nationthe way into the kingdom of heaven. Yes, these sinners, whom they despised and hated, were streaming before them through the door which was not yet shut. For John had come to these Jews on their own principles and in their own practices, and they had pretended to receive him, but had not; but the publicans and the harlots had repented at his bidding. For all their broad fringes and conspicuous phylacteries, theythe priests, the separatists, the Rabbis of these peoplewere worse in the sight of God than sinners whom they would have scorned to touch with one of their fingers.
Then He bade them "hear another parable," the parable of the rebellious husbandmen in the vineyard, whose fruits they would not yield. That vineyard of the Lord of Hosts was the house of Israel, and the men of Judah were His pleasant plants; and they, the leaders and teachers, were those to whom the Lord of the vineyard would naturally look for the rendering of the produce. But in spite of all that He had done for His vineyard, there were no grapes, or only wild grapes. "He looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry." And since they could not render any produce, and dared not own the barren fruitlessness, for which they, the husbandmen, were responsible, they insulted, and beat, and wounded, and slew messenger after messenger whom the Lord of the vineyard sent to them. Last of all, He sent His Son, and that Sonthough they recognised Him, and could not but recognise himthey beat, and flung forth, and slew. When the Lord of the vineyard came, what would He do to them? Either the people, out of honest conviction, or the listening Pharisees, to show their apparent contempt for what they could not fail to see was the point of the parable, answered that He would wretchedly destroy those wretches, and let out the vineyard to worthier and more faithful husbandmen. A second time they had been compelled to an admission, which fatally, out of their own mouths, condemned themselves; they had confessed with their own lips that it would be in accordance with God's justice to deprive them of their exclusive rights, and to give them to the Gentiles.
And to show them that their own Scriptures had prophecied of this their conduct, He asked them whether they had never read (in the 118th Psalm) of the stone which the builders rejected, which nevertheless, by the marvellous purpose of God, became the headstone of the corner? How could they remain builders any longer, when the whole design of their workmanship was thus deliberately overruled and set aside? Did not their old Messianic prophecy clearly imply that God would call other builders to the work of His Temple? Woe to them who even stumbledas they were doingat that rejected stone; but even yet there was time for them to avoid the more crushing annihilation of those on whom that stone should fall. To reject Him in His humanity and humiliation involved pain and loss; but to be found still rejecting Him when He should come again in His glory, would not this be "utter destruction from the presence of the Lord?" To sit on the seat of judgment and condemn Himthis should be ruin to them and their nation; but to be condemned by Him, would not this be to be "ground to powder?"
They saw now, more clearly than ever, the whole bent and drift of these parables, and longed for the hour of vengeance But, as yet, fear restrained them; for, to the multitude, Christ was still a prophet.
One more warning utterance He spoke on this Day of Parablesthe Parable of the Marriage of the King's Son. In its basis and framework it closely resembled the Parable of the Great Supper uttered, during His last journey, at a Pharisee's house; but in many of its details, and in its entire conclusion, it was different. Here the ungrateful subjects who receive the invitation, not only make light of it, and pursue undisturbed their worldly avocations, but some of them actually insult and murder the messenger who had invited them, anda point at which the history merges into prophecyare destroyed and their city burned. And the rest of the story points to yet further scenes, pregnant with still deeper meanings. Others are invited; the wedding feast is furnished with guests both bad and good; the king comes in, and notices one who had thrust himself into the company in his own rags, without providing or accepting the wedding garment, which the commonest courtesy required.
This rude intruding presumptuous guest is cast forth by attendant angels into outer darkness, where shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth; and then follows, for the last time, the warning urged in varying similitudes, with a frequency commensurate to its importance, that "many are called, but few are chosen."
Teachings so obvious in their import filled the minds of the leading Priests and Pharisees with a more and more bitter rage. He had begun the day by refusing to answer their dictatorial question, and by more than justifying that refusal. His counter-question had not only shown His calm superiority to the influence which they so haughtily exercised over the people, but had reduced them to the ignominious silence of an hypocrisy, which was forced to shield itself under the excuse of incompetence. Then followed His parables. In the first of these He had convicted them of false professions, unaccompanied by action; in the second, He had depicted the trust and responsibility of their office, and had indicated a terrible retribution for its cruel and profligate abuse; in the third, He had indicated alike the punishment which would ensue upon a violent rejection of His invitations, and the impossibility of deceiving the eye of His Heavenly Father by a mere nominal and pretended acceptance. Lying lip-service, faithless rebellion, blind presumption, such were the sins which He had striven to bring home to their consciences. And this was but a superficial outline of all the heart-searching power with which His words had been to them like a sword of the Spirit, piercing even to the dividing of the joints and marrow. But to bad men nothing is so maddening as the exhibition of their own self-deception. So great was the hardly-concealed fury of the Jewish hierarchy, that they would gladly have seized Him that very hour. Fear restrained them, and He was suffered to retire unmolested to His quiet resting-place. But, either that night or early on the following morning, His enemies held another councilat this time they seem to have held them almost dailyto see if they could not make one more combined, systematic, overwhelming effort "to entangle Him in His talk," to convict Him of ignorance or of error, to shake His credit with the multitude, or embroil Him in dangerous relations towards the civil authority. We shall see in the following chapter the result of their machinations.