THE DAY OF TEMPTATIONSTHE LAST AND GREATEST DAY
ON the following morning Jesus rose with His disciples to enter for the last time the Temple Courts. On their way they passed the solitary fig-tree, no longer gay with its false leafy garniture, but shrivelled, from the root upwards, in every bough. The quick eye of Peter was the first to notice it, and he exclaimed, "Master, behold the fig-tree which thou cursedst is withered away." The disciples stopped to look at it, and to express their astonishment at the rapidity with which the denunciation had been fulfilled. What struck them most was the power of Jesus; the deeper meanings of His symbolic act they seem for the time to have missed; and, leaving these lessons to dawn upon them gradually, Jesus addressed the mood of their minds at the moment, and told them that if they would but have faith in Godfaith which should enable them to offer up their prayers with perfect and unwavering confidencethey should not only be able to perform such a wonder as that done to the fig-tree, but even "if they bade this mountain"and as He spoke He may have pointed either to Olivet or to Moriah"to be removed, and cast into the sea, it should obey them." But, since in this one instance the power had been put forth to destroy, He added a very important warning. They were not to suppose that this emblematic act gave them any licence to wield the sacred powers which faith and prayer would bestow on them, for purposes of anger or vengeance; nay, no power was possible to the heart that knew not how to forgive, and the unforgiving heart could never be forgiven. The sword, and the famine, and the pestilence were to be no instruments for them to wield, nor were they even to dream of evoking against their enemies the fire of heaven or the "icy wind of death." The secret of successful prayer was faith; the road to faith in God lay through pardon of transgression; pardon was possible to them alone who were ready to pardon others.
He was scarcely seated in the Temple when the result of the machinations of His enemies on the previous evening showed itself in a new kind of strategy, involving one of the most perilous and deeply laid of all the schemes to entrap and ruin Him. The deadly nature of the plot appeared in the fact that, to carry it out, the Pharisees were united in ill-omened conjunction with the Herodians; so that two parties, usually ranked against each other in strong opposition, were now reconciled in a conspiracy for the ruin of their common enemy. Devotees and sycophantshierarchical scrupulosity and political indifferentismthe school of theocratic zeal and the school of crafty expediencywere thus united to dismay and perplex Him. The Herodians occur but seldom in the Gospel narrative. Their very designationa Latinised adjective applied to the Greek-speaking courtiers of an Edomite prince who, by Roman intervention, had become a Judæan kingshowed at once their hybrid origin. Their existence had mainly a political significance, and they stood outside the current of religious life, except so far as their Hellenising tendencies and worldly interests led them to show an ostentatious disregard for the Mosaic law. They were, in fact, mere provincial courtiers; men who basked in the sunshine of a petty tyranny which, for their own personal ends, they were anxious to uphold. To strengthen the family of Herod by keeping it on good terms with Roman imperialism, and to effect this good understanding by repressing every distinctively Jewish aspirationthis was their highest aim. And in order to do this they Græcised their Semitic names, adopted ethnic habits, frequented amphitheatres, familiarly accepted the symbols of heathen supremacy, even went so far as to obliterate, by such artificial means as they could, the distinctive and covenant symbol of Hebrew nationality. That the Pharisees should tolerate even the most temporary partnership with such men as these, whose very existence was a violent outrage on their most cherished prejudices, enables us to gauge more accurately the extreme virulence of hatred with which Jesus had inspired them. And that hatred was destined to become deadlier still. It was already at red-heat; the words and deeds of this day were to raise it to its whitest intensity of wrath.
The Herodians might come before Jesus without raising a suspicion of sinister motives; but the Pharisees, astutely anxious to put Him off his guard, did not come to Him in person. They sent some of their younger scholars, who (already adepts in hypocrisy) were to approach Him as though in all the guileless simplicity of an inquiring spirit. They evidently designed to raise the impression that a dispute had occurred between them and the Herodians, and that they desired to settle it by referring the decision of the question at issue to the final and higher authority of the Great Prophet. They came to Him circumspectly, deferentially, courteously. "Rabbi," they said to Him with flattering earnestness, "we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men." It was as though they would entreat Him, without fear or favour, confidentially to give them His private opinion; and as though they really wanted His opinion for their own guidance in a moral question of practical importance, and were quite sure that He alone could resolve their distressing uncertainty. But why all this sly undulatory approach and serpentine ensalivation? The forked tongue and the envenomed fang appeared in a moment. "Tell us, therefore," since you are so wise, so true, so courageous"tell us, therefore, is it lawful to give tribute to Cæsar, or not?" This capitation tax, which we all so much detest, but the legality of which these Herodians support, ought we, or ought we not, to pay it? Which of us is in the right?we who loathe and resent, or the Herodians who delight in it?
He must, they thought, answer "Yes" or "No;" there is no possible escape from a plain question so cautiously, sincerely, and respectfully put. Perhaps he will answer, "Yes, it is lawful." If so, all apprehension of Him on the part of the Herodians will be removed, for then He will not be likely to endanger them or their views. For although there is something which looks dangerous in this common enthusiasm for Him, yet if one, whom they take to be the Messiah, should openly adhere to a heathen tyranny, and sanction its most galling imposition, such a decision will at once explode and evaporate any regard which the people may feel for Him. If, on the other hand, as is all but certain, He should adopt the views of His countryman Judas the Gaulonite, and answer, "No, it is not lawful," then, in that case too, we are equally rid of Him; for then He is in open rebellion against the Roman power, and these new Herodian friends of ours can at once hand Him over to the jurisdiction of the Procurator. Pontius Pilatus will deal very roughly with His pretensions, and will, if need be, without the slightest hesitation, mingle His blood, as he has done the blood of other Galilæans, with the blood of the sacrifices.
They must have awaited the answer with breathless interest; but even if they succeeded in concealing the hate which gleamed in their eyes, Jesus at once saw the sting and heard the hiss of the Pharisaic serpent. They had fawned on Him with their "Rabbi," and "true," and "impartial," and "fearless;" He "blights them with the flash" of one indignant word, "Hypocrites!" That word must have undeceived their hopes, and crumbled their craftiness into dust. "Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Bring me the tribute-money." They would not be likely to carry with them the hated Roman coinage with its heathen symbols, though they might have been at once able to produce from their girdles the Temple shekel. But they would only have to step outside the Court of the Gentiles, and borrow from the money-changers' tables a current Roman coin. While the people stood round in wondering silence they brought Him a denarius, and put it in His hand. On one side were stamped the haughty, beautiful features of the Emperor Tiberius, with all the wicked scorn upon the lip; on the obverse his title of Pontifex Maximus! It was probably due to mere accident that the face of the cruel, dissolute tyrant was on this particular coin, for the Romans, with that half-contemptuous concession to national superstitions which characterised their rule, had allowed the Jews to have struck for their particular use a coinage which recorded the name without bearing the likeness of the reigning emperor. "Whose image and superscription is this?" He asked. They say unto Him, "Cæsar's." There, then, was the simplest possible solution of their cunning question. "Render, therefore, unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's." That alone might have been enough, for it implied that their national acceptance of this coinage answered their question, and revealed its emptiness. The very word which He used conveyed the lesson. They had asked, "Is it lawful to give" (doûnai)? He corrects them, and says, "Render""Give back" (apódote). It was not a voluntary gift, but a legal due; not a cheerful offering but a political necessity. It was perfectly understood among the Jews, and was laid down in the distinctest language by their greatest Rabbis in later days, that to accept the coinage of any king was to acknowledge his supremacy. By accepting the denarius, therefore, as a current coin, they were openly declaring that Caesar was their sovereign, and theythe very best of them had settled the question that it was lawful to pay the poll-tax, by habitually doing so. It was their duty, then, to obey the power which they had deliberately chosen, and the tax, under these circumstances, only represented an equivalent for the advantages which they received. But Jesus could not leave them with this lesson only. He added the far deeper and weightier words"and to God the things that are God's." To Cæsar you owe the coin which you have admitted as the symbol of his authority, and which bears his image and superscription; to God you owe yourselves.* Nothing can more fully reveal the depth of hypocrisy in these Pharisaic questioners than the fact that, in spite of the Divine answer, and in spite of their own secret and cherished convictions, they yet make it a ground of clamorous accusation against Jesus, that He had "forbidden to give tribute unto Cæsar!" (Luke xxiii. 2.)
Amazed and humiliated at the sudden and total frustration of a plan which seemed irresistiblecompelled, in spite of themselves, to admire the guileless wisdom which had in an instant broken loose from the meshes of their sophistical malicethey sullenly retired. There was nothing which even they could take hold of in His words. But now, undeterred by this striking failure, the Sadducees thought that they might have better success. There was something more supercilious and offhand in the question which they proposed, and they came in a spirit of less burning hatred, but of more sneering scorn. Hitherto these cold Epicureans had, for the most part, despised and ignored the Prophet of Nazareth. Supported as a sect by the adhesion of some of the highest priests, as well as by some of the wealthiest citizenson better terms than the Pharisees both with the Herodian and the Roman powerthey were, up to this time, less terribly in earnest, and proposed to themselves no more important aim than to vex Jesus, by reducing Him into a confession of difficulty. So they came with an old stale piece of casuistry, conceived in the same spirit of self-complacent ignorance as are many of the objections urged by modern Sadducees against the resurrection of the body, but still sufficiently puzzling to furnish them with an argument in favour of their disbeliefs, and with a "difficulty" to throw in the way of their opponents. Addressing Jesus with mock respect, they called His attention to the Mosaic institution of levirate marriages, and then stated, as though it had actually occurred, a coarse imaginary case, in which, on the death without issue of an eldest brother, the widow had been espoused in succession by the six younger brethren, all of whom had died one after another, leaving the widow still surviving. "Whose wife in the resurrection, when people shall rise," they scoffingly ask, "shall this sevenfold widow be?" The Pharisees, if we may judge from Talmudical writings, had already settled the question in a very obvious way, and quite to their own satisfaction, by saying that she should in the resurrection be the wife of the first husband. And even if Jesus had given such a poor answer as this, it is difficult to seesince the answer had been sanctioned by men most highly esteemed for their wisdomhow the Sadducees could have shaken the force of the reply, or what they would have gained by having put their inane and materialistic question. But Jesus was content with no such answer, though even Hillel and Shammai might have been. Even when the idioms and figures of His language constantly resembled that of previous or contemporary teachers of His nation, His spirit and precepts differ from theirs toto caelo. He might, had He been like any other merely human teacher, have treated the question with that contemptuous scorn which it deserved; but the spirit of scorn is alien from the spirit of the dove, and with no contempt He gave to their conceited and eristic dilemma a most profound reply. Though the question came upon Him most unexpectedly, His answer was everlastingly memorable. It opened the gates of Paradise so widely that men might see therein more than they had ever seen before, and it furnished against one of the commonest forms of disbelief an argument that neither Rabbi nor Prophet had conceived. He did not answer these Sadducees with the same concentrated sternness which marked His reply to the Pharisees and Herodians, because their purpose betrayed rather an insipid frivolity than a deeply-seated malice; but He told them that they erred from ignorance, partly of the Scriptures, and partly of the power of God. Had they not been ignorant of the power of God, they would not have imagined that the life of the children of the resurrection was a mere reflex and repetition of the life of the children of this world. In that heaven beyond the grave, though love remains, yet all the mere earthlinesses of human relationship are superseded and transfigured. "They that shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; neither can they die anymore; but are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection." Then as to their ignorance of Scripture, He asked if they had never read in that section of the Book of Exodus which was called "the Bush," how God had described Himself to their great lawgiver as the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. How unworthy would such a title have been, had Abraham and Isaac and Jacob then been but grey handfuls of crumbling dust, or dead bones, which should moulder in the Hittite's cave! "He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err." Would it have been possible that He should deign to call Himself the God of dust and ashes? How new, how luminous, how profound a principle of Scriptural interpretation was this! The Sadducees had probably supposed that the words simply meant, "I am the God in whom Abraham and Isaac and Jacob trusted;" yet how shallow a designation would that have been, and how little adapted to inspire the faith and courage requisite for an heroic enterprise! "I am the God in whom Abraham and Isaac and Jacob trusted;" and to what, if there were no resurrection, had their trust come? To death, and nothingness, and an everlasting silence, and "a land of darkness, as darkness itself," after a life so full of trials that the last of these patriarchs had described it as a pilgrimage of few and evil years! But God meant more than this. He meantand so the Son of God interpreted itthat He who helps them who trust Him here, will be their help and stay for ever and for ever, nor shall the future world become for them "a land where all things are forgotten."