Life and Times of Jesus
Section 3, Part 6

Leper made clean
Jesus heals man, forgives sins
Call of Matthew


"And He preached in all their synagogues in Galilee, and cast out demons. And a leper came to Him, beseeching Him and kneeling down to Him, and saying to Him, "If You will, You have the power to cleanse me." Then Jesus, being moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, "I will. Be cleansed." And as soon as He had spoken, the leprosy immediately departed from him, and he was cleansed.

"Now after strictly commanding him, He sent him away at once, And said to him, "See that you do not say anything to anyone; but go and show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a testimony to them." But after leaving, he began to proclaim it extensively and to spread the matter abroad, so that He was no longer able to enter the city openly, but stayed outside the city in desert places; and they came to Him from every region. (Mark 1:39-45, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV))

The Old Testament, and even Rabbinism, took, in the measures prescribed in leprosy, primarily a moral, or rather a ritual, and only secondarily a sanitary, view of the case. The isolation already indicated, which banished lepers from all intercourse except with those similarly stricken, and forebade their entering not only the Temple or Jerusalem, but any walled city, could not have been merely prompted by the wish to prevent infection. For all the laws in regard to leprosy are expressly stated not to have application in the case of heathens, proselytes before their conversion, and even of Israelites on their birth. The same inference must also be drawn from the circumstance, that the priestly examination and subsequent isolation of the leper were not to commence during the marriage-week, or on festive days, since, evidently, infection would have been most likely to spread in such circumstances.

It has already been stated, that Rabbinism confessed itself powerless in presence of this living death. Although, as Michaelis rightly suggests, the sacrificial ritual for the cleansed leper implies, at least, the possibility of a cure, it is in every instance traced to the direct agency of God. Hence the mythical theory, which, to be rational, must show some precedent to account for the origination of the narrative in the Gospel, here once more breaks down.

In truth, the possibility of any cure through human agency was never contemplated by the Jews. Josephus speaks of it as possibly granted to prayer, but in a manner betokening a pious phraseology without serious meaning. We may go further, and say that not only did Rabbinism never suggest the cure of a leper, but that its treatment of those sufferers presents the most marked contrast to that of the Savior. And yet, as if writing its own condemnation, one of the titles which it gives to the Messiah is 'the Leprous,' the King Messiah being represented as seated in the entrance to Rome, surrounded by, and relieving all misery and disease, in fulfilment of Isaiah 53:4.

We need not here enumerate the various symptoms, by which the Rabbinic law teaches us to recognize true leprosy. Any one capable of it might make the medical inspection, although only a descendant of Aaron could formally pronounce clean or unclean. Once declared leprous, the sufferer was soon made to feel the utter heartlessness of Rabbinism. To banish him outside walled towns may have been a necessity, which, perhaps, required to be enforced by the threatened penalty of forty stripes save one. Similarly, it might be a right, even merciful, provision, that in the Synagogues lepers were to be the first to enter and the last to leave, and that they should occupy a separate compartment (Mechitsah), ten palms high, and six feet wide.

For, from the symbolism and connection between the physical and the psychical, the Old Testament, in its rites and institutions, laid the greatest stress on 'clean and unclean.' To sum it up in briefest compass, and leaving out of view leprosy of clothes or houses, according to the Old Testament, defilement was conveyed only by the animal body, and attached to no other living body than that of man, nor could any other living body than that of man communicate defilement. The Old Testament mentioned eleven principal kinds of defilement. These, as being capable of communicating further defilement, were designated Abhoth hattumeoth - 'fathers of defilements' - the defilement which they produced being either itself an Abh hattumeah, or else a 'Child,' or a 'Child's Child of defilement.'

We find in Scripture thirty-two Abhoth hattumeoth, as they are called. To this Rabbinic tradition added other twenty-nine. Again, according to Scripture, these 'fathers of defilements' affected only in two degrees; the direct effect produced by them being designated 'the beginning,' or 'the first,' and that further propagated, 'the second' degree. But Rabbinic ordinances added a third, fourth, and even fifth degree of defilement. From this, as well as the equally intricate arrangements about purification, the Mishnic section about 'clean and unclean' is at the same time the largest and most intricate in the Rabbinic code, while its provisions touched and interfered, more than any others, with every department of life.

In the elaborate code of defilements leprosy was not only one of 'the fathers of uncleanness,' but, next to defilement from the dead, stood foremost amongst them. Not merely actual contact with the leper, but even his entrance defiled a habitation, and everything in it, to the beams of the roof. But beyond this, Rabbinic harshness or fear carried its provisions to the utmost sequences of an unbending logic.

It is, indeed, true that, as in general so especially in this instance, Rabbinism loved to trace disease to moral causes. 'No death without sin, and no pain without transgression;' 'the sick is not healed, till all his sins are forgiven him.' These are oft-repeated sayings; but, when closely examined, they are not quite so spiritual as they sound. For, first, they represent a reaction against the doctrine of original sin, in the sense that it is not the Fall of man, but one's actual transgression, to which disease and death are to be traced according to the saying: 'Not the serpent kills, but sin.' But their real unspirituality appears most clearly, when we remember how special diseases were traced to particular sins. Thus, childlessness and leprosy are described as chastisements, which indeed procure for the sufferer forgiveness of sins, but cannot, like other chastisements, be regarded as the outcome of love, nor be received in love. And even such sentiments in regard to sufferings are immediately followed by such cynical declarations on the part of Rabbis so afflicted, as that they loved neither the chastisement, nor its reward. And in regard to leprosy, tradition had it that, as leprosy attached to the house, the dress, or the person, these were to be regarded as always heavier strokes, following as each successive warning had been neglected, and a reference to this was seen in Proverbs 19:29. Eleven sins are mentioned which bring leprosy, among them pre-eminently those of which the tongue is the organ.

Still, if such had been the real views of Rabbinism one might have expected that Divine compassion would have been extended to those, who bore such heavy burden of their sins. Instead of this, their burdens were needlessly increased. True, as wrapped in mourner's garb the leper passed by, his cry 'Unclean!' was to incite others to pray for him - but also to avoid him. No one was even to salute him; his bed was to be low, inclining towards the ground. If he even put his head into a place, it became unclean. No less a distance than four cubits (six feet) must be kept from a leper; or, if the wind came from that direction, a hundred were scarcely sufficient. Rabbi Meir would not eat an egg purchased in a street where there was a leper. Another Rabbi boasted, that he always threw stones at them to keep them far off, while others hid themselves or ran away. To such extent did Rabbinism carry its inhuman logic in considering the leper as a mourner, that it even forbade him to wash his face.

We can now in some measure appreciate the contrast between Jesus and His contemporaries in His bearing towards the leper. Or, conversely, we can judge by the healing of this leper of the impression which the Savior had made upon the people. He would have fled from a Rabbi; he came in lowliest attitude of entreaty to Jesus. Criticism need not so anxiously seek for an explanation of his approach. There was no Old Testament precedent for it: not in the case of Moses, nor even in that of Elisha, and there was no Jewish expectancy of it. But to have heard Him teach, to have seen or known Him as healing all manner of disease, must have carried to the heart the conviction of His absolute power. And so one can understand this lowly reverence of approach, this cry which has so often since been wrung from those who have despaired of all other help:

"If You will, You have the power to cleanse me."

It is not a prayer, but the ground-tone of all prayer - faith in His Power, and absolute committal to Him of our helpless, hopeless need. And Jesus, touched with compassion, willed it. It almost seems, as if it were in the very exuberance of power that Jesus, acting in so direct contravention of Jewish usage, touched the leper. It was fitting that Elisha should disappoint Naaman's expectancy, that the prophet would heal his leprosy by the touch of his hand. It was even more fitting that Jesus should surprise the Jewish leper by touching, ere by His Word He cleansed him. And so, experience ever finds that in Christ the real is far beyond the ideal. We can understand, how. from his standpoint, Strauss should have found it impossible to understand the healing of leprosy by the touch and Word of Jesus. Its explanation lies in the fact, that He was the God-Man. And yet, as our inner tending after God and the voice of conscience indicate that man is capable of adoption into God's family, so the marked power which in disease mind has over body points to a higher capability in Man Perfect, the Ideal Man, the God-Man, of vanquishing disease by His Will.

It is not quite so easy at first sight to understand, why Christ should with such intense earnestness, almost vehemence, have sent the healed man away - as the term bears, 'cast him out.' Certainly not (as Volkmar - fantastically in error on this, as on so many other points - imagines) because He disapproved of his worship. Rather do we once more gather, how the God-Man shrank from the fame connected with miracles - specially with such an one - which as we have seen, were rather of inward and outward necessity than of choice in His Mission. Not so - followed by a curious crowd, or thronged by eager multitudes of sight-seers, or aspirants for temporal benefits - was the Kingdom of Heaven to be preached and advanced. It would have been the way of a Jewish Messiah, and have led up to His royal proclamation by the populace. But as we study the character of the Christ, no contrast seems more glaring - let us add, more painful - than that of such a scene.

And so we read that, when, notwithstanding the Savior's charge to the healed leper to keep silence, it was nevertheless - nay, as might perhaps have been expected - all the more made known by him - as, indeed, in some measure it could scarcely have remained entirely unknown, He could no more, as before, enter the cities, but remained without in desert places, whither they came to Him from every quarter. And in that withdrawal He spoke, and healed, 'and prayed.'

Yet another motive of Christ's conduct may be suggested. His injunction of silence was combined with that of presenting himself to the priest and conforming to the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law in such cases. It is scarcely necessary to refute the notion, that in this Christ was prompted either by the desire to see the healed man restored to the society of his fellows, or by the wish to have some officially recognized miracle, to which He might afterwards appeal. Not to speak of the un-Christlikeness of such a wish or purpose, as a matter of fact, He did not appeal to it, and the healed leper wholly disappears from the Gospel-narrative. And yet his conforming to the Mosaic Ritual was to be 'a testimony unto them.' The Lord, certainly, did not wish to have the Law of Moses broken - and broken not superseded, it would have been, if its provisions had been infringed before His Death, Ascension, and the Coming of the Holy Spirit had brought their fulfilment.

The Synagogues of Galilee are no longer the quiet scenes of His teaching and miracles; His Word and deeds no longer pass unchallenged. It had never occurred to these Galileans, as they implicitly surrendered themselves to the power of His words, to question their orthodoxy. But now, immediately after this occurrence, we find Him accused of blasphemy. They had not thought it breach of God's Law when, on that Sabbath, He had healed in the Synagogue of Capernaum and in the home of Peter; but after this it became sinful to extend like mercy on the Sabbath to him whose hand was withered. They had never thought of questioning the condescension of his intercourse with the poor and needy; but now they sought to sap the commencing allegiance of His disciples by charging Him with undue intercourse with publicans and sinners, and by inciting against Him even the prejudices and doubts of the half-enlightened followers of His own Forerunner.

All these new incidents are due to one and the same cause; the presence and hostile watchfulness of the Scribes and Pharisees, who now for the first time appear on the scene of His ministry. It is too much then to infer, that, immediately after that Feast at Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities sent their familiars into Galilee after Jesus, and that it was to the presence and influence of this informal deputation that the opposition to Christ, which now increasingly appeared, was due? If so, then we see not only an additional motive for Christ's injunction of silence on those whom He had healed, and for His own withdrawal from the cities and their throng, but we can understand how, as He afterwards answered those, whom John had sent to lay before Christ his doubts, by pointing to His works, so He replied to the sending forth of the Scribes of Jerusalem to watch, oppose, and arrest Him, by sending to Jerusalem as His embassy the healed leper, to submit to all the requirements of the Law. It was His testimony unto them - His, Who was meek and lowly in heart; and it was in deepest accord with what He had done, and was doing. Assuredly, He Who brake not the bruised reed, did not cry nor lift up His Voice in the streets, but brought forth judgment unto truth.

Jesus heals man and forgives his sins

"And after some days, He again entered into Capernaum, and it was reported that He was in the house. And immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer any room, not even at the door; and He preached the Word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paraplegic borne by four men. And since they were not able to come near to Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was; and after breaking it open, they let down the stretcher on which the paraplegic was lying. Now when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paraplegic, "Child, your sins have been forgiven you."

"But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak such blasphemies? Who has the power to forgive sins, except one, and that is God?" And Jesus immediately knew in His spirit what they were reasoning within themselves, and said to them, "Why are you reasoning these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paraplegic, 'Your sins have been forgiven you'? or to say, 'Arise, and take up your stretcher and walk'? But in order that you may understand that the Son of man has authority on the earth to forgive sins," He said to the paraplegic, "I say to you, arise and pick up your stretcher, and go to your house."

"And immediately he arose and, after picking up his stretcher, went out in the presence of them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, 'We have never seen the like!'" (Mark 2:1-12, HBFV)

Note first the unspoken charge of the Scribes, that in forgiving sins Jesus blasphemed by making Himself equal with God, has its exact counterpart in the similar charge against Him in John 5:18, which kindled in them the wish to kill him. Secondly, as in that case the final reply of Jesus pointed to 'the authority' which the Father had given Him for Divine administration on earth, so the healing of the paralytic was to show the Scribes that He had 'authority' for the dispensation upon earth of the forgiveness of sins, which the Jews rightly regarded as the Divine prerogative. Thirdly, the words which Jesus spake to the paralytic:

'Arise, and take up your stretcher and walk'

are very like those he will use to He heal the impotent man at the Pool of Bethesda.

Although in no wise necessary to the understanding of the event, it is helpful to try and realize the scene. We can picture to ourselves the Savior 'speaking the Word' to that eager, interested crowd, which would soon become forgetful even of the presence of the watchful 'Scribes.' Though we know a good deal of the structure of Jewish houses, we feel it difficult to be sure of the exact place which the Savior occupied on this occasion. Meetings for religious study and discussion were certainly held in the Aliyah or upper chamber. But, on many grounds, such a locale seems utterly unsuited to the requirements of the narrative. Similar objections attach to the idea, that it was the front room of one of those low houses occupied by the poor. Nor is there any reason for supposing that the house occupied by Peter was one of those low buildings, which formed the dwellings of the very poor. It must, at any rate, have contained, besides a large family room, accommodation for Peter and his wife, for Peter's mother-in-law, and for Jesus as the honored guest.

The Mishnah calls a small house one that is 9 feet long by 12 broad, and a large house one that is 12 feet long by 15 broad, and adds that a dining-hall is 15 feet square, the height being always computed at half the length and breadth. But these notices seem rather to apply to a single room. They are part of a legal discussion, in which reference is made to a building which might be erected by a man for his son on his marriage, or as a dwelling for his widowed daughter. Another source of information is derived from what we know of the price and rental of houses. We read of a house as costing ten (of course, gold) dinars, which would make the price 250 silver dinars.

All this is so far of present interest as it will help to show, that the house of Peter could not have been a 'small one.' We regard it as one of the better dwellings of the middle classes. In that case all the circumstances fully accord with the narrative in the Gospels. Jesus is speaking the Word, standing in the covered gallery that ran round the courtyard of such houses, and opened into the various apartments. Perhaps He was standing within the entrance of the guest-chamber, while the Scribes were sitting within that apartment, or beside Him in the gallery. The court before Him is thronged, out into the street. All are absorbedly listening to the Master, when of a sudden those appear who are bearing a paralytic on his pallet. It had of late become too common a scene to see the sick thus carried to Jesus to attract special attention. And yet one can scarcely conceive that, if the crowd had merely filled an apartment and gathered around its door, it would not have made way for the sick, or that somehow the bearers could not have come within sight, or been able to attract the attention of Christ. But with a courtyard crowded out into the street, all this would be, of course, out of the question. In such circumstances, what was to be done? Access to Jesus was simply impossible. Shall they wait till the multitude disperses, or for another and more convenient season? Only those would have acted thus who have never felt the preciousness of an opportunity, because they have never known what real need is.

Inmost in the hearts of those who bore the paralysed was the belief, that Jesus could, and that he would, heal. They must have heard it from others; they must have witnessed it themselves in other instances. And inmost in the heart of the paralytic was, as we infer from the first words of Jesus to him, not only the same conviction, but with it weighed a terrible fear, born of Jewish belief, lest his sins might hinder his healing. And this would make him doubly anxious not to lose the present opportunity.

And so their resolve was quickly taken. If they cannot approach Jesus with their burden, they can let it down from above at His feet. Outside the house, as well as inside, a stair led up to the roof. They may have ascended it in this wise, or else reached it by what the Rabbis called 'the road of the roofs,' passing from roof to roof, if the house adjoined others in the same street. The roof itself, which had hard beaten earth or rubble underneath it, was paved with brick, stone, or any other hard substance, and surrounded by a balustrade which, according to Jewish Law, was at least three feet high. It is scarcely possible to imagine, that the bearers of the paralytic would have attempted to dig through this into a room below, not to speak of the interruption and inconvenience caused to those below by such an operation. But no such objection attaches if we regard it, not as the main roof of the house, but as that of the covered gallery under which we are supposing the Lord to have stood. This could, of course, have been readily reached from above. In such case it would have been comparatively easy to 'unroof' the covering of 'tiles,' and then, 'having dug out' an opening through the lighter framework which supported the tiles, to let down their burden 'into the midst before Jesus.'

All this, as done by four strong men, would be but the work of a few minutes. But we can imagine the arresting of the discourse of Jesus, and the breathless surprise of the crowd as this opening through the tiles appeared, and slowly a pallet was let down before them. Busy hands would help to steady it, and bring it safe to the ground. And on that pallet lay one paralysed - his fevered face and glistening eyes upturned to Jesus.

It must have been a marvellous sight, even at a time and in circumstances when the marvellous might be said to have become of every-day occurrence. This energy and determination of faith exceeded aught that had been witnessed before. Jesus saw it, and He spake. For, as yet, the blanched lips of the sufferer had not parted to utter his petition. He believed, indeed, in the power of Jesus to heal, with all the certitude that issued, not only in the determination to be laid at His feet, but at whatever trouble and in any circumstances, however novel or strange. It needed, indeed, faith to overcome all the hindrances in the present instance; and still more faith to be so absorbed and forgetful of all around, as to be let down from the roof through the broken tiling into the midst of such an assembly. And this open outburst of faith shone out the more brightly, from its contrast with the covered darkness and clouds of unbelief within the breast of those Scribes, who had come to watch and ensnare Jesus.

As yet no one had spoken, for the silence of expectancy had fallen on them all. Could He, and, if He could, would He help - and what would He do? But He, Who perceived man's unspoken thoughts, knew that there was not only faith, but also fear, in the heart of that man. He had, indeed, got beyond the coarse Judaic standpoint, from which suffering seemed an expiation of sin. It was argued by the Rabbis, that, if the loss of an eye or a tooth liberated a slave from bondage, much more would the sufferings of the whole body free the soul from guilt; and, again, that Scripture itself indicated this by the use of the word 'covenant,' alike in connection with the salt which rendered the sacrifices meet for the altar, and sufferings, which did the like for the soul by cleansing away sin. We can readily believe, as the recorded experience of the Rabbis shows, that such sayings brought neither relief to the body, nor comfort to the soul of real sufferers. But this other Jewish idea was even more deeply rooted, had more of underlying truth, and would, especially in presence of the felt holiness of Jesus, have a deep influence on the soul, that recovery would not be granted to the sick unless his sins had first been forgiven him.

It was this deepest, though, perhaps, as yet only partially conscious, want of the sufferer before Him, which Jesus met when, in words of tenderest kindness, He spoke forgiveness to his soul, and that not as something to come, but as an act already past: 'Child, your sins have been forgiven you.' We should almost say, that He needed first to speak these words, before He gave healing: needed, in the psychological order of things; needed, also, if the inward sickness was to be healed, and because the inward stroke, or paralysis, in the consciousness of guilt, must be removed, before the outward could be taken away.

In another sense, also, there was a higher 'need be' for the word which brought forgiveness, before that which gave healing. Although it is not for a moment to be supposed, that, in what Jesus did, He had primary intention in regard to the Scribes, yet here also, as in all Divine acts, the undesigned adaptation and the undesigned sequences are as fitting as what we call the designed. For, with God there is neither past nor future; neither immediate nor mediate; but all is one, the eternally and God-pervaded Present. Let us recall, that Jesus was in the presence of those in whom the Scribes would feign have wrought disbelief, not of His power to cure disease - which was patent to all - but in His Person and authority; that, perhaps, such doubts had already been excited. And here it deserves special notice, that, by first speaking forgiveness, Christ not only presented the deeper moral aspect of His miracles, as against their ascription to magic or Satanic agency, but also established that very claim, as regarded His Person and authority, which it was sought to invalidate.

In this forgiveness of sins He presented His Person and authority as Divine, and He proved it such by the miracle of healing which immediately followed. Had the two been inverted, there would have been evidence, indeed, of His power, but not of His Divine Personality, nor of His having authority to forgive sins; and this, not the doing of miracles, was the object of His Teaching and Mission, of which the miracles were only secondary evidence.

Thus the inward reasoning of the Scribes, which was open and known to Him Who reads all thoughts, issued in quite the opposite of what they could have expected. Most unwarranted, indeed, was the feeling of contempt which we trace in their unspoken words, whether we read them:

"Why does this man speak such blasphemies?"

Yet from their point of view they were right, for God alone can forgive sins; nor has that power ever been given or delegated to man. But was He a mere man, like even the most honored of God's servants? Man, indeed; but 'the Son of Man ' in the emphatic and well-understood sense of being the Representative Man, who was to bring a new life to humanity; the Second Adam, the Lord from Heaven. It seemed easy to say: 'Thy sins have been forgiven.' But to Him, Who had 'authority' to do so on earth, it was neither more easy nor more difficult than to say: 'Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.' Yet this latter, assuredly, proved the former, and gave it in the sight of all men unquestioned reality. And so it was the thoughts of these Scribes, which, as applied to Christ, were 'evil' - since they imputed to Him blasphemy - that gave occasion for offering real evidence of what they would have impugned and denied. In no other manner could the object alike of miracles and of this special miracle have been so attained as by the 'evil thoughts' of these Scribes, when, miraculously brought to light, they spoke out the inmost possible doubt, and pointed to the highest of all questions concerning the Christ.

As the healed man slowly rose, and, still silent, rolled up his pallet, a way was made for him between this multitude which followed him with wondering eyes.

In two things chiefly does the fundamental difference appear between Christianity and all other religious systems, notably Rabbinism. And in these two things, therefore, lies the main characteristic of Christ's work; or, taking a wider view, the fundamental idea of all religions. Subjectively, they concern sin and the sinner; or, to put it objectively, the forgiveness of sin and the welcome to the sinner. But Rabbinism, and every other system down to modern humanitarianism - if it rises so high in its idea of God as to reach that of sin, which is its shadow - can only generally point to God for the forgiveness of sin. What here is merely an abstraction, has become a concrete reality in Christ. He speaks forgiveness on earth, because He is its embodiment. As regards the second idea, that of the sinner, all other systems know of no welcome to him till, by some means (inward or outward), he have ceased to be a sinner and become a penitent. They would first make him a penitent, and then bid him welcome to God; Christ first welcomes him to God, and so makes him a penitent. The one demands, the other imparts life. And so Christ is the Physician Whom they that are in health need not, but they that are sick.

Thus it is that Jesus, when His teaching becomes distinctive from that of Judaism, puts these two points in the foreground: the one at the cure of the paralytic, the other in the call of Matthew which we will next review. And this, also, further explains His miracles of healing as for the higher presentation of Himself as the Great Physician, while it gives some insight into the nexus of these two events, and explains their chronological succession. It was fitting that at the very outset, when Rabbinism followed and challenged Jesus with hostile intent, these two spiritual facts should be brought out, and that, not in a controversial, but in a positive and practical manner. For, as these two questions of sin and of the possible relation of the sinner to God are the great burden of the soul in its upward striving after God, so the answer to them forms the substance of all religions. Indeed, all the cumbrous observances of Rabbinism - its whole law - were only an attempted answer to the question: How can a man be just with God?

But, as Rabbinism stood self-confessedly silent and powerless as regarded the forgiveness of sins, so it had emphatically no word of welcome or help for the sinner. The very term 'Pharisee,' or 'separated one,' implied the exclusion of sinners. With this the whole character of Pharisaism accorded; perhaps, we should have said, that of Rabbinism, since the Sadducean would here agree with the Pharisaic Rabbi. The contempt and avoidance of the unlearned, which was so characteristic of the system, arose not from mere pride of knowledge, but from the thought that, as 'the Law' was the glory and privilege of Israel - indeed, the object for which the world was created and preserved - ignorance of it was culpable. Thus, the unlearned blasphemed his Creator, and missed or perverted his own destiny. It was a principle, that 'the ignorant cannot be pious.' On the principles of Rabbinism, there was logic in all this, and reason also, though sadly perverted. The yoke of 'the Kingdom of God' was the high destiny of every true Israelite. Only, to them it lay in external, not internal conformity to the Law of God: 'in meat and drink,' not 'in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.'

True, they also perceived, that 'sins of thought' and purpose, though uncommitted, were 'more grievous than even sins of outward deed;' but only in this sense, that each outward sin was traceable to inward dereliction or denial of the Law - 'no man sinneth, unless the spirit of error has first entered into him.' On this ground the punishment of infidelity or apostasy in the next world was endless, while that of actual transgressions was limited in duration.

Rabbinic teaching about the need of repentance runs close to that of the Bible. But the vital difference between Rabbinism and the Gospel lies in this: that whereas Jesus Christ freely invited all sinners, whatever their past, assuring them of welcome and grace, the last word of Rabbinism is only despair, and a kind of Pessimism. For, it is expressly and repeatedly declared in the case of certain sins, and, characteristically, of heresy, that, even if a man genuinely and truly repented, he must expect immediately to die - indeed, his death would be the evidence that his repentance was genuine, since, though such a sinner might turn from his evil, it would be impossible for him, if he lived, to lay hold on the good, and to do it.

It is in the light of what we have just learned concerning the Rabbinic views of forgiveness and repentance that the call of Matthew must be read, if we would perceive its full meaning.

Call of Matthew

"Then He went by the sea again; and all the multitude came to him, and He taught them. Now as He was passing by, He saw Levi, the son of Alpheus, sitting at the tax office; and He said to him, "Follow Me." And he arose and followed Him.

"And it came to pass that, when He sat down to eat in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat down with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. But when the scribes and the Pharisees saw Him eating with tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, "Why is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?" And after hearing this, Jesus said to them, "Those who are strong do not need a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Mark 2:13- 17, HBFV)

Few, if any, could have enjoyed better opportunities for hearing, and quietly thinking over the teaching of the Prophet of Nazareth, than Levi (Matthew). There is no occasion for speculating which was his original, or whether the second name was added after his conversion, since in Galilee it was common to have two names - one the strictly Jewish, the other the Galilean. Nor do we wonder, that in the sequel the first or purely Jewish name of Levi was dropped, and only that of Matthew retained. The latter which is the equivalent of Nathanael, or of the Greek Theodore (gift of God), seems to have been frequent. We read that it was that of a former Temple-official, and of several Rabbis. It is perhaps of more interest, that the Talmud names five as the disciples of Jesus, and among them these two whom we can clearly identify: Matthew and Thaddaeus.

Sitting before his custom-house, as on that day when Jesus called him, Matthew must have frequently heard Him as He taught by the sea-shore. For this would be the best, and therefore often chosen, place for the purpose. Thither not only the multitude from Capernaum could easily follow; but here was the landing-place for the many ships which traversed the Lake, or coasted from town to town. And this not only for them who had business in Capernaum or that neighborhood, but also for those who would then strike the great road of Eastern commerce, which led from Damascus to the harbors of the West. Touching the Lake in that very neighborhood, it turned thence, northwards and westwards, to join what was termed the Upper Galilean road.

We know much, and yet, as regards details, perhaps too little about those 'tolls, dues, and customs,' which made the Roman administration such sore and vexatious exaction to all 'Provincials,' and which in Judea loaded the very name of publican with contempt and hatred. They who cherished the gravest religious doubts as to the lawfulness of paying any tribute to Caesar, as involving in principle recognition of a bondage to which they would fain have closed their eyes, and the substitution of heathen kingship for that of Jehovah, must have looked on the publican as the very embodiment of antinationalism. But perhaps men do not always act under the constant consciousness of such abstract principles. Yet the endless vexatious interferences, the unjust and cruel exactions, the petty tyranny, and the extortionate avarice, from which there was neither defense nor appeal, would make it always well-nigh unbearable. It is to this that the Rabbis so often refer. If 'publicans' were disqualified from being judges or witnesses, it was, at least so far as regarded witness-bearing, because 'they exacted more than was due.' Hence also it was said, that repentance was specially difficult for tax-gatherers and custom-house officers.

It is of importance to notice, that the Talmud distinguishes two classes of 'publicans:' the tax-gatherer in general (Gabbai), and the Mokhes, or Mokhsa, who was specially the douanier or custom-house official. Although both classes fall under the Rabbinic ban, the douanier - such as Matthew was - is the object of chief execration. And this, because his exactions were more vexatious, and gave more scope to rapacity. The Gabbai, or tax-gatherer, collected the regular dues, which consisted of ground-, income-, and poll-tax. The ground-tax amounted to one-tenth of all grain and one-fifth of the wine and fruit grown; partly paid in kind, and partly commuted into money. The income-tax amounted to 1 per cent.; while the head-money, or poll-tax, was levied on all persons, bond and free, in the case of men from the age of fourteen, in that of women from the age of twelve, up to that of sixty-five.

If this offered many opportunities for vexatious exactions and rapacious injustice, the Mokhes might inflict much greater hardship upon the poor people. There was tax and duty upon all imports and exports; on all that was bought and sold; bridge-money, road-money, harbor-dues, town-dues, and so on. The classical reader knows the ingenuity which could invent a tax, and find a name for every kind of exaction, such as on axles, wheels, pack-animals, pedestrians, roads, highways; on admission to markets; on carriers, bridges, ships, and quays; on crossing rivers, on dams, on licences, in short, on such a variety of objects, that even the research of modern scholars has not been able to identify all the names. On goods the ad valorem duty amounted to from 2½ to 5%, and on articles of luxury to even 12½%. But even this was as nothing, compared to the vexation of being constantly stopped on the journey, having to unload all one's pack-animals, when every bale and package was opened, and the contents tumbled about, private letters opened, and the Mokhes ruled supreme in his insolence and rapacity.

The very word Mokhes seems, in its root-meaning, associated with the idea of oppression and injustice. He was literally, as really, an oppressor. The Talmud charges them with gross partiality, remitting in the case of those to whom they wished to show favor, and exacting from those who were not their favorites. They were a criminal race, to which Leviticus 20:5 applied. It was said, that there never was a family which numbered a Mokhes, in which all did not become such. Still, cases are recorded when a religious publican would extend favor to Rabbis, or give them timely notice to go into hiding. If one belonging to the sacred association (a Chabher) became either a Gabbai or a Mokhes, he was at once expelled, although he might be restored on repentance. That there was ground for such rigour, appears from such an occurrence, as when a Mokhes took from a defenseless person his ass, giving him another, and very inferior, animal for it. Against such unscrupulous oppressors every kind of deception was allowed; goods might be declared to be votive offerings, or a person pass his slave as his son.

The Mokhes was called 'great' if he employed substitutes, and 'small' if he stood himself at the receipt of custom. Till the time of Caesar the taxes were farmed in Rome, at the highest bidding, mostly by a joint-stock company of the knightly order, which employed publicans under them. But by a decree of Caesar, the taxes of Judea were no longer farmed, but levied by publicans in Judea, and paid directly to the Government, the officials being appointed by the provincials themselves. This was, indeed, a great alleviation, although it perhaps made the tax-gatherers only more unpopular, as being the direct officials of the heathen power. This also explains how, if the Mishnah forbids even the changing of money from the guilt-laden chest of a Mokhes, or douanier, the Gemara adds, that such applied to custom-house officers who either did not keep to the tax appointed by the Government, or indeed to any fixed tax, and to those who appointed themselves to such office - that is, as we take it, who would volunteer for the service, in the hope of making profit on their own account. An instance is, however, related of a Gabbai, or tax-gatherer, becoming a celebrated Rabbi, though the taint of his former calling deterred the more rigid of his colleagues from intercourse with him.

On heathen feast days toll was remitted to those who came to the festival. Sometimes this was also done from kindness. The following story may serve as a final illustration of the popular notions, alike about publicans and about the merit of good works. The son of a Mokhes and that of a very pious man had died. The former received from his townsmen all honor at his burial, while the latter was carried unmourned to the grave. This anomaly was Divinely explained by the circumstance, that the pious man had committed one transgression, and the publican had done one good deed. But a few days afterwards a further vision and dream was vouchsafed to the survivors, when the pious was seen walking in gardens beside water-brooks, while the publican was described stretching out his tongue towards the river to quench his thirst, but unable to reach the refreshing stream.

What has been described in such detail, will cast a peculiar light on the call of Matthew by the Savior of sinners. For, we remember that Matthew was not only a 'publican,' but of the worst kind: a 'Mokhes' or douanier; a 'little Mokhes,' who himself stood at his custom-house; one of the class to whom, as we are told, repentance offered special difficulties. And, of all such officials, those who had to take toll from ships were perhaps the worst, if we are to judge by the proverb: 'Woe to the ship which sails without having paid the dues.' And yet, after all, Matthew may have been only one of that numerous class to whom religion is merely a matter quite outside of, and in another region from life, and who, having first gone astray through ignorance, feel themselves ever farther repelled, or rather shut out, by the narrow, harsh uncharitableness of those whom they look upon as the religious and pious.

But now quite another day had dawned on him. The Prophet of Nazareth was not like those other great Rabbis, or their pietist, self-righteous imitators. There was that about Him which not only aroused the conscience, but drew the heart - compelling, not repelling. What He said opened a new world. His very appearance bespoke Him not harsh, self-righteous, far away, but the Helper, if not even the Friend, of sinners. There was not between Him and one like Matthew, the great, almost impassable gap of repentance. He had seen and heard Him in the Synagogue - and who that had heard His Words, or witnessed His power, could ever forget, or lose the impression? The people, the rulers, even the evil spirits, had owned His authority. But in the Synagogue Jesus was still the Great One, far-away from him; and he, Matthew, the 'little Mokhes' of Capernaum, to whom, as the Rabbis told him, repentance was next to impossible. But out there, in the open, by the seashore, it was otherwise. All unobserved by others, he observed all, and could yield himself, without reserve, to the impression. Now, it was an eager multitude that came from Capernaum; then, a long train bearing sufferers, to whom gracious, full, immediate relief was granted - whether they were Rabbinic saints, or sinners. And still more gracious than His deeds were His Words.

And so Matthew sat before his custom-house, and hearkened and hoped. Those white-sailed ships would bring crowds of listeners; the busy caravan on that highway would stop, and its wayfarers turn aside to join the eager multitude - to hear the Word or see the Word. Surely, it was not 'a time for buying and selling,' and Levi would have little work, and less heart for it at his custom-house. Perhaps he may have witnessed the call of the first Apostles; he certainly must have known the fishermen and shipowners of Capernaum. And now it appeared, as if Jesus had been brought still nearer to Matthew. For, the great ones of Israel, 'the Scribes of the Pharisees,' and their pietest followers, had combined against Him, and would exclude Him, not on account of sin, but on account of the sinners. And so, we take it, long before that eventful day which for ever decided his life, Matthew had, in heart, become the disciple of Jesus. Only he dared not, could not, have hoped for personal recognition - far less for call to discipleship. But when it came, and Jesus fixed on him that look of love which searched the inmost deep of the soul, and made Him the true Fisher of men, it needed not a moment's thought or consideration.

It could not have been long after this - probably almost immediately - that the memorable gathering took place in the house of Matthew, which gave occasion to that cavil of the Pharisaic Scribes, which served further to bring out the meaning of Levi's call. For, opposition ever brings into clearer light positive truth, just as judgment comes never alone, but always conjoined with display of higher mercy. It was natural that all the publicans around should, after the call of Matthew, have come to his house to meet Jesus. Even from the lowest point of view, the event would give them a new standing in the Jewish world, in relation to the Prophet of Nazareth. And it was characteristic that Jesus should improve such opportunity. When we read of 'sinners' as in company with these publicans, it is not necessary to think of gross or open offenders, though such may have been included. For, we know what such a term may have included in the Pharisaic vocabulary. Equally characteristic was it, that the Rabbinists should have addressed their objection as to fellowship with such, not to the Master, but to the disciples.

Perhaps, it was not only, nor chiefly, from moral cowardice, though they must have known what the reply of Jesus would have been. On the other hand, there was wisdom, or rather cunning, in putting it to the disciples. They were but initial learners - and the question was one not so much of principle, as of acknowledged Jewish propriety. Had they been able to lodge this cavil in their minds, it would have fatally shaken the confidence of the disciples in the Master; and, if they could have been turned aside, the cause of the new Christ would have been grievously injured, if not destroyed. It was with the same object, that they shortly afterwards enlisted the aid of the well-meaning, but only partially-instructed disciples of John on the question of fasting, which presented a still stronger consensus of Jewish opinion as against Christ, all the more telling, that here the practice of John seemed to clash with that of Jesus.

But then John was at the time in prison, and passing through the temporary darkness of a thick cloud towards the fuller light. But Jesus could not leave His disciples to answer for themselves. What, indeed, could or would they have had to say? And He ever speaks for us, when we cannot answer for ourselves. From their own standpoint and contention - nay, also in their own form of speech - He answered the Pharisees. And He not only silenced their gain-saying, but further opened up the meaning of His acting - His very purpose and Mission.

"Those who are strong do not need a physician, but those who are sick."

It was the very principle of Pharisaism which He thus set forth, alike as regarded their self-exclusion from Him and His consorting with the diseased. And, as the more Hebraic Matthew adds, applying the very Rabbinic formula, so often used when superficial speciousness of knowledge is directed to further thought and information: 'Go and learn!' Learn what? What their own Scriptures meant; what was implied in the further prophetic teaching, as correction of a one-sided literalism and externalism that misinterpreted the doctrine of sacrifices - learn that fundamental principle of the spiritual meaning of the Law as explanatory of its mere letter, 'I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.' They knew no mercy that was not sacrifice - with merit attaching; He no sacrifice, real and acceptable to God, that was not mercy. And this also is a fundamental principle of the Old Testament, as spiritually understood; and, being such a fundamental principle, He afterwards again applied this saying of the prophet to His own mode of viewing and treating the Sabbath-question.

This was one aspect of it, as Jesus opened up anew the Old Testament, of which their key of knowledge had only locked the door. There was yet another and higher, quite explaining and applying alike this saying and the whole Old Testament, and thus His Own Mission. And this was the fullest unfolding and highest vindication of it:

"I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

Adapted from
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
by A. Edersheim
Jewish World in First Century A.D.
Hellenism prepares
people for gospel
Jesus cleanses
the temple
John the Baptist killed
Five Thousand fed
Walking on Water
Parable of Great
Supper, Lost Sheep,
The Prodigal Son
Judas arranges betrayal
The Last Passover
Jews and the
Roman Empire
Jesus and Nicodemus
The Samaritans
The Bread of Life
Vain religious traditions
Lazarus resurrected
Jewish Burial Rites
The True Vine
Garden of Gethsemane
Arrested and betrayed
Coming of
John the Baptist
Jesus' First
Public Message
Four Thousand Fed
Demands for a sign
Is divorce allowed?
Blessing of Children
Peter denies Jesus
Judas commits suicide
Beaten and crucified
What Messiah did
the Jews Expect?
The Sermon
on the Mount
Jesus rebukes Peter
The Transfiguration
The Triumphal Entry
Barren Fig Tree cursed
Forsaken and stabbed
Death and Burial
Birth of Jesus
Visit of the Magi
Jesus heals man
and forgives sins
The Good Shepherd
Jesus pays temple tax
Parable of Vineyard
and Wedding Feast.
Spies try to entrap Jesus
Jewish views on Angels,
Demons, Fall of Angels,
Magic and Magicians
A Voice in
the Wilderness
Jesus selects apostles
Widow's Son resurrected
Seventy sent to preach
The Good Samaritan
Marriage - Resurrection
Is Christ son of David?
The Widow's Mites
Old Testament verses applied to Messiah
in Jewish Writings
Jesus' First Disciples
and First Public Miracle
Jesus attends Feast
Parables of Sower, Tares,
Mustard Seed, Pearl
The foolish Rich Man
Jesus almost stoned
End Time prophecies
Parable of the Ten
Virgins and Talents
The Theology
of Ancient Rabbis
Temptation of
Jesus by Satan
A Legion of demons Ruler's daughter raised

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