The Jewish Law, as there summarized, sufficiently explains the controversies in which the Pharisaic party now engaged with Jesus. Of these the first was when, going through the cornfields on the Sabbath, His disciples began to pluck and eat the ears of corn. Not, indeed, that this was the first Sabbath-controversy forced upon Christ. But it was the first time that Jesus allowed, and afterwards Himself did, in presence of the Pharisees, what was contrary to Jewish notions, and that, in express and unmistakable terms, He vindicated His position in regard to the Sabbath. This also indicates that we have now reached a further stage in the history of our Lord's teaching.
It was on the Sabbath after the Second Passover Day that Christ and His disciples passed - probably by a field-path - through cornfields, when His disciples, being hungry, as they went, plucked ears of corn and ate them, having rubbed off the husks in their hands. On any ordinary day this would have been lawful, but on the Sabbath it involved, according to Rabbinic statutes (but not the Bible!), at least two sins. For, according to the Talmud, what was really one labor, would, if made up of several acts, each of them forbidden, amount to several acts of labor, each involving sin, punishment, and a sin-offering. This so-called 'division' of labor applied only to infringement of the Sabbath-rest - not of that of feast-days.
Now in this case there were at least two such acts involved: that of plucking the ears of corn, ranged under the sin of reaping, and that of rubbing them, which might be ranged under sifting in a sieve, threshing, sifting out fruit, grinding, or fanning. The following Talmudic passage bears on this: 'In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered as sifting; if she rubs the heads of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she bruises the ears, it is grinding; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing.' One instance will suffice to show the externalism of all these ordinances. If a man wished to move a sheaf on his field, which of course implied labor, he had only to lay upon it a spoon that was in his common use, when, in order to remove the spoon, he might also remove the sheaf on which it lay! And yet it was forbidden to stop with a little wax the hole in a cask by which the fluid was running out, or to wipe a wound!
Holding views like these, the Pharisees, who witnessed the conduct of the disciples, would naturally harshly condemn, what they must have regarded as gross desecration of the Sabbath. Yet it was clearly not a breach of the Biblical, but of the Rabbinic Law. Not only to show them their error, but to lay down principles which would for ever apply to this difficult question, was the object of Christ's reply. Unlike the others of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath Law has in it two elements; the moral and the ceremonial: the eternal, and that which is subject to time and place; the inward and spiritual, and the outward (the one as the mode of realizing the other). In their distinction and separation lies the difficulty of the subject. In its spiritual and eternal element, the Sabbath Law embodied the two thoughts of rest for worship, and worship which pointed to rest. The keeping of the seventh day, and the Jewish mode of its observance, were the temporal and outward form in which these eternal principles were presented. Even Rabbinism, in some measure, perceived this.
It was a principle, that danger to life superseded the Sabbath Law, and indeed all other obligations. Among the curious Scriptural and other arguments by which this principle was supported, that which probably would most appeal to common sense was derived from Leviticus 18:5. It was argued, that a man was to keep the commandments that he might live, certainly not, that by so doing he might die. In other words, the outward mode of observation was subordinate to the object of the observance. Yet this other and kindred principle did Rabbinism lay down, that every positive commandment superseded the Sabbath-rest. This was the ultimate vindication of work in the Temple, although certainly not its explanation. Lastly, we should in this connection, include this important canon, laid down by the Rabbis: 'a single Rabbinic prohibition is not to be heeded, where a graver matter is in question.'
In short, the disciples were guiltless because they were not breaking God's law. They WERE, however, trespassing the over-zealous and riduculously rigid traditions of the "elders" which the Pharisees and others considered more important than actual scripture. It is a matter of scale and judgment. Harvesting a field during the Sabbath would be a sin since it would require lots of time and hard, dedicated labor and would significantly detract from serving God. Rubbing a few kernals of wheat in order to get something to eat and fill a human need (just like David and the shewbread) is not, according to Jesus, a sin on the Sabbath. But to the self-righteous Pharisees, ANY physical labor, no matter how little time it took or minor work involved, was considered by them to be the kind of work forbidden by the commandment.
Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?
"Now it also came to pass on another Sabbath that He went into the synagogue and taught; and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him, whether He would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against Him.
"But He knew their thoughts, and said to the man who had the withered hand, "Arise and stand in the midst." And he arose and stood in their midst. Then Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbaths? to save life or to destroy it?" And after looking around on them all, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he did so, and his hand was restored as sound as the other.
"But they were filled with rage, and consulted with one another as to what they should do with Jesus." (Luke 6:6-11, HBFV)
Although the man with the withered hand could not be classed with those dangerously ill, it could not have been difficult to silence the Rabbis on their own admissions. Clearly, their principle implied, that it was lawful on the Sabbath to do that which would save life or prevent death. To have taught otherwise, would virtually have involved murder. But if so, did it not also, in strictly logical sequence, imply this far wider principle, that it must be lawful to do good on the Sabbath? For, evidently, the omission of such good would have involved the doing of evil. Could this be the proper observance of God's holy day? There was no answer to such an argument; Mark expressly records that they dared not attempt a reply.
On the other hand, Matthew, while alluding to this terribly telling challenge, records yet another and a personal argument. It seems that Christ publicly appealed to them: If any poor man among them, who had one sheep, were in danger of losing it through having fallen into a pit, would he not lift it out? To be sure, the Rabbinic Law ordered that food and drink should be lowered to it, or else that some means should be furnished by which it might either be kept up in the pit, or enabled to come out of it. But even the Talmud discusses cases in which it was lawful to lift an animal out of a pit on a Sabbath. There could be no doubt, at any rate, that even if the Law was, at the time of Christ, as stringent as in the Talmud, a man would have found some device, by which to recover the solitary sheep which constituted his possession. And was not the life of a human being to be more accounted of? Surely, then, on the Sabbath-day it was lawful to do good? Yes - to do good, and to neglect it, would have been to do evil.
We can now imagine the scene in that Synagogue. The place is crowded. Christ probably occupies a prominent position as leading the prayers or teaching: a position whence He can see, and be seen by all. Here, eagerly bending forward, are the dark faces of the Pharisees, expressive of curiosity, malice, cunning. They are looking round at a man whose right hand is withered, perhaps putting him forward, drawing attention to him, loudly whispering, ' Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath-day?' The Lord takes up the challenge. He bids the man stand forth - right in the midst of them, where they might all see and hear. By one of those telling appeals, which go straight to the conscience, He puts the analogous case of a poor man who was in danger of losing his only sheep on the Sabbath: would he not rescue it; and was not a man better than a sheep? Nay, did they not themselves enjoin a breach of the Sabbath-Law to save human life? Then, must He not do so; might He not do good rather than evil?
They were speechless. But a strange mixture of feeling was in the Savior's heart - strange to us, though it is but what Holy Scripture always tells us of the manner in which God views sin and the sinner, using terms, which, in their combination, seem grandly incompatible: ' And when He had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart. ' It was but for a moment, and then, with life-giving power, He bade the man stretch forth his hand. Withered it was no longer, when the Word had been spoken, and a new sap, a fresh life had streamed into it, as, following the Savior's Eye and Word, he slowly stretched it forth. And as He stretched it forth, his hand was restored. The Savior had broken their Sabbath-Law, and yet He had not broken it, for neither by remedy, nor touch, nor outward application had He healed him. He had broken the Sabbath-rest, as God breaks it, when He sends, or sustains, or restores life, or does good: all unseen and unheard, without touch or outward application, by the Word of His Power, by the Presence of His Life.
They had all seen it, this miracle of almost new creation. As He did it, He had been filled with sadness: as they saw it, they were filled with rage. So their hearts were hardened. They could not gainsay, but they went forth and took counsel with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him. Presumably, then, He was within, or quite close by, the dominions of Herod, east of the Jordan. And the Lord withdrew once more, as it seems to us, into the region of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus selects twelve apostles
"Then He went up into the mountain and called to Him those whom He desired, and they came to Him. And He ordained twelve, that they might be with Him, and that He might send them to preach, And to have authority to heal diseases and to cast out demons. Then He chose Simon and added to him the name Peter; And He chose James, the son of Zebedee, and John, the brother of James; and He added to them the name Boanerges, which means "sons of thunder." And He chose Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas. And He chose James, the son of Alpheus; and Thaddeus; and Simon, the Cananean; And Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him. And they went into a house.
"Then a multitude gathered together again, so that they were not able even to eat bread. (Mark 3:13-20, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV))
It was probably on one of those mountain-ranges, which stretch to the north of Capernaum, that Jesus had spent the night of lonely prayer, which preceded the designation of the twelve to the Apostolate. As the soft spring morning broke, He called up those who had learned to follow Him, and from among them chose the twelve, who were to be His Ambassadors and Representatives. But already the early light had guided the eager multitude which, from all parts, had come to the broad level plateau beneath to bring to Him their need of soul or body. To them He now descended with words of comfort and power of healing. But better yet had He to say, and to do for them, and for us all.
Healing of Centurion's Servant
"And when He had finished all His sayings in the ears of the people, He went into Capernaum. Now a certain centurion's servant, who was cherished by him, was ill and about to die. And after hearing about Jesus, he sent the elders of the Jews to beseech Him to come and heal his servant. And after coming to Jesus, they besought Him earnestly, saying that he was worthy to whom He should grant this. "For he loves our nation," they said, "and he built the synagogue for us."
"Then Jesus went with them; but when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, "Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should come under my roof; Therefore, neither did I count myself worthy to come to You; but say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man appointed under authority, having soldiers under myself, and I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
"And when He heard these things, Jesus was amazed at him; and turning to the multitude following Him, He said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith." And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the sick servant in good health." (Luke 7:1-10, HBFV)
We are once again in Capernaum. It is remarkable how much, connected not only with the Ministry of Jesus, but with His innermost Life, gathers around that little fishing town. In all probability its prosperity was chiefly due to the neighboring Tiberias, which Herod Antipas had built, about ten years previously. Noteworthy is it also, how many of the most attractive characters and incidents in the Gospel-history are connected with that Capernaum, which, as a city, rejected its own real glory, and, like Israel, and for the same reason, at last incurred a prophetic doom commensurate to its former privileges.
But as yet Capernaum was still 'exalted up to heaven.' Here was the home of that believing Court-official, whose child Jesus had healed. Here also was the household of Peter; and here the paralytic had found, together with forgiveness of his sins, health of body. Its streets, with their outlook on the deep blue Lake, had been thronged by eager multitudes in search of life to body and soul. Here Matthew-Levi had heard and followed the call of Jesus; and here the good Centurion had in stillness learned to love Israel, and serve Israel's King, and built with no niggard hand that Synagogue, most splendid of those yet exhumed in Galilee, which had been consecrated by the Presence and Teaching of Jesus, and by prayers, of which the conversion of Jairus, its chief ruler, seems the blessed answer. And now, from the Mount of Beatitudes, it was again to His temporary home at Capernaum that Jesus retired. Yet not either to solitude or to rest. For, of that multitude which had hung entranced on His Words many followed Him, and there was now such constant pressure around Him, that, in the zeal of their attendance upon the wants and demands of those who hungered after the Bread of Life, alike Master and disciples found not leisure so much as for the necessary sustenance of the body.
The circumstances, the incessant work, and the all-consuming zeal which even 'His friends' could but ill understand, led to the apprehension - the like of which is so often entertained by well-meaning persons in all ages, in their practical ignorance of the all-engrossing but also sustaining character of engagements about the Kingdom - that the balance of judgment might be overweighted, and high reason brought into bondage to the poverty of our earthly frame. In its briefness, the account of what these 'friends,' or rather 'those from Him' - His home - said and did, is most pictorial. On tidings reaching them, with reiterated, growing, and perhaps Orientally exaggerating details, they hastened out of their house in a neighboring street to take possession of Him, as if He had needed their charge. It is not necessary to include the Mother of Jesus in the number of those who actually went. Indeed, the later express mention of His 'Mother and brethren' seems rather opposed to the supposition. Still less does the objection deserve serious refutation, that any such procedure, assumedly, on the part of the Virgin-Mother, would be incompatible with the history of Jesus' Nativity.
For, all must have felt, that 'the zeal' of God's House was, literally, 'consuming' Him, and the other view of it, that it was setting on fire, not the physical, but the psychical framework of His humiliation, seems in no way inconsistent with what loftiest, though as yet dim, thought had come to the Virgin about her Divine Son. On the other hand, this idea, that He was 'beside Himself,' afforded the only explanation of what otherwise would have been to them well-nigh inexplicable. To the Eastern mind especially this want of self-possession, the being 'beside' oneself, would point to possession by another - God or Devil. It was on the ground of such supposition that the charge was so constantly raised by the Scribes, and unthinkingly taken up by the people, that Jesus was mad, and had a devil: not a demoniacal possession, be it marked, but possession by the Devil, in the absence of self-possessedness. And hence our Lord characterized this charge as really blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And this also explains how, while unable to deny the reality of His Works, they could still resist their evidential force.
However that incident may for the present have ended, it could have caused but brief interruption to His Work. Presently there came the summons of the heathen Centurion and the healing of His servant, which both Matthew and Luke record, as specially bearing on the progressive unfolding of Christ's Mission. Notably - these two Evangelists; and notably - with variations due to the peculiar standpoint of their narratives. No really serious difficulties will be encountered in trying to harmonise the details of these two narratives; that is, if any one should attach importance to such precise harmony. At any rate, we cannot fail to perceive the reason of these variations. Meyer regards the account of Luke as the original, Keim that of Matthew - both on subjective rather than historical grounds.
If we keep in view the historical object of Matthew, as primarily addressing himself to Jewish, while Luke wrote more especially for Gentile readers, we arrive, at least, at one remarkable outcome of the variations in their narratives. Strange to say, the Judean Gospel gives the pro-Gentile, the Gentile narrative the pro-Jewish, presentation of the event. Thus, in Matthew the history is throughout sketched as personal and direct dealing with the heathen Centurion on the part of Christ, while in the Gentile narrative of Luke the dealing with the heathen is throughout indirect, by the intervention of Jews, and on the ground of the Centurion's spiritual sympathy with Israel. Again, Matthew quotes the saying of the Lord which holds out to the faith of Gentiles a blessed equality with Israel in the great hope of the future, while it puts aside the mere claim of Israel after the flesh, and dooms Israel to certain judgment. On the other hand, Luke omits all this. A strange inversion it might seem, that the Judean Gospel should contain what the Gentile account omits, except for this, that Matthew argues with his countrymen the real standing of the Gentiles, while Luke pleads with the Gentiles for sympathy and love with Jewish modes of thinking.
Apart, then, from explanations which have been shown untenable, what is the impression left on our minds of an event, the record of which is admitted to be authentic? The heathen Centurion is a real historical personage. He was captain of the troop quartered in Capernaum, and in the service of Herod Antipas. We know that such troops were chiefly recruited from Samaritans and Gentiles of Caesarea. Nor is there the slightest evidence that this Centurion was a 'proselyte of righteousness.' The accounts both in Matthew and in Luke are incompatible with this idea. A 'proselyte of righteousness' could have had no reason for not approaching Christ directly, nor would he have spoken of himself as 'unfit' that Christ should come under his roof. But such language quite accorded with Jewish notions of a Gentile, since the houses of Gentiles were considered as defiled, and as defiling those who entered them.
On the other hand, the 'proselytes of righteousness' were in all respects equal to Jews, so that the words of Christ concerning Jews and Gentiles, as reported by Matthew, would not have been applicable to them. The Centurion was simply one who had learned to love Israel and to reverence Israel's God; one who, not only in his official position, but from love and reverence, had built that Synagogue, of which, strangely enough, now after eighteen centuries, the remains, in their rich and elaborate carvings of cornices and entablatures, of capitals and niches, show with what liberal hand he had dealt his votive offerings.
We know too little of the history of the man, to judge what earlier impulses had led him to such reverence for Israel's God. There might have been something to incline him towards it in his early upbringing, perhaps in Caesarea; or in his family relationships; perhaps in that very servant (possibly a Jew) whose implicit obedience to his master seems in part to have led him up to faith in analogous submission of all things to the behests of Christ. The circumstances, the times, the place, the very position of the man, make such suppositions rational, event suggested them. In that case, his whole bearing would be consistent with itself, and with what we know of the views and feelings of the time. In the place where the son of his fellow official at the Court of Herod had been healed by the Word of Jesus, spoken at a distance, in the Capernaum which was the home of Jesus and the scene of so many miracles, it was only what we might expect, that in such case he should turn to Jesus and ask His help. Quiet consistent with his character is the straightforwardness of his expectancy, characteristically illustrated by his military experience - what Bengel designates as the wisdom of his faith beautifully shining out in the bluffness of the soldier.
When he had learned to own Israel's God, and to believe in the absolute unlimited power of Jesus, no such difficulties would come to him, nor, assuredly, such cavils rise, as in the minds of the Scribes, or even of the Jewish laity. Nor is it even necessary to suppose that, in his unlimited faith in Jesus, the Centurion had distinct apprehension of His essential Divinity. In general, it holds true, that, throughout the Evangelic history, belief in the Divinity of our Lord was the outcome of experience of His Person and Work, not the condition and postulate of it, as is the case since the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit and His indwelling in the Church.
In view of these facts, the question with the Centurion would be: not, Could Jesus heal his servant, but, Would He do so? And again, this other specifically: Since, so far as he knew, no application from any in Israel, be it even publican or sinner, had been doomed to disappointment, would he, as a Gentile, be barred from share in this blessing? was he 'unworthy,' or, rather, 'unfit' for it? Thus this history presents a crucial question, not only as regarded the character of Christ's work, but the relation to it of the Gentile world. Quiet consist with this - nay, its necessary outcome - were the scruples of the Centurion to make direct, personal application to Jesus. In measure as he reverenced Jesus, would these scruples, from his own standpoint, increase.
As the houses of Gentiles were 'unclean,' entrance into them, and still more familiar fellowship, would 'defile.' The Centurion must have known this; and the higher he placed Jesus on the pinnacle of Judaism, the more natural was it for him to communicate with Christ through the elders of the Jews, and not to expect the Personal Presence of the Master, even if the application to him were attended with success. And here it is important (for the criticism of this history) to mark that, alike in the view of the Centurion, and even in that of the Jewish elders who under-took his commission, Jesus as yet occupied the purely Jewish stand-point.
Closely considered, whatever verbal differences, there is not any real discrepancy in this respect between the Judean presentation of the event in Matthew and the fuller Gentile account of it by Luke. From both narratives we are led to infer that the house of the Centurion was not in Capernaum itself, but in its immediate neighborhood, probably on the road to Tiberias. And so in Matthew 8:7, we read the words of our Savior when consenting: 'I, having come, will heal him; ' just as in Luke's narrative a space of time intervenes, in which intimation is conveyed to the Centurion, when he sends 'friends' to arrest Christ's actual coming into his house. Nor does Matthew speak of any actual request on the part of the Centurion, even though at first sight his narrative seems to imply a personal appearance. The general statement 'beseeching Him' - although it is not added in what manner, with what words, nor for what special thing - must be explained by more detailed narrative of the embassy of Jewish Elders.
The Centurion in the fullest sense believes in the power of Jesus to heal, in the same manner as he knows his own commands as an officer would be implicitly obeyed; for, surely, no thoughtful reader would seriously entertain the suggestion, that the military language of the Centurion only meant, that he regarded disease as caused by evil demons or noxious power who obeyed Jesus, as soldiers or servants do their officer or master. Such might have been the underlying Jewish view of the times; but the fact, that in this very thing Jesus contrasted the faith of the Gentile with that of Israel, indicates that the language in question must be taken in its obvious sense. But in his self-acknowledged 'unfitness' lay the real 'fitness' of this good soldier for membership with the true Israel; and his deep-felt 'unworthiness' the real 'worthiness' for 'the Kingdom' and its blessings. It was this utter disclaimer of all claim, outward or inward, which prompted that absoluteness of trust which deemed all things possible with Jesus, and marked the real faith of the true Israel. Here was one, who was in the state described in the first clauses of the 'Beatitudes,' and to whom came the promise of the second clauses; because Christ is the connecting link between the two, and because He consciously was such to the Centurion, and, indeed, the only possible connecting link between them.
And so we mark it, in what must be regarded as the high-point in this history, so far as its teaching to us all, and therefore the reason of its record in the New Testament, is concerned: that participation in the blessedness of the kingdom is not connected with any outward relationship towards it, nor belongs to our inward consciousness in regard to it; but is granted by the King to that faith which in deepest simplicity realizes, and holds fast by Him. And yet, although discarding every Jewish claim to them - or, it may be, in our days, everything that is merely outwardly Christian - these blessings are not outside, still less beyond, what was the hope of the Old Testament, nor in our days the expectancy of the Church, but are literally its fulfilment; the sitting down 'with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.' Higher than, and beyond this not even Christ's provision can take us.
But for the fuller understanding of the words of Christ, the Jewish modes of thought, which He used in illustration, required to be briefly explained. It was common belief, that in the day of the Messiah redeemed Israel would be gathered to a great feast, together with the patriarchs and heroes of the Jewish faith. This notion, which was but a coarsely literal application of such prophetic figures as in Isaiah 25:6, had perhaps yet another and deeper meaning. As each weekly Sabbath was to be honored by a feast, in which the best which the family could procure was to be placed on the board, so would the world's great Sabbath be marked by a feast in which the Great Householder, Israel's King, would entertain His household and Guests. Into the painfully, and, from the notions of the times, grossly realistic description of this feast, it is needless here to enter. One thing, however, was clear: Gentiles could have no part in that feast.
In fact, the shame and anger of 'these' foes on seeing the 'table spread' for this Jewish feast was among the points specially noticed as fulfilling the predictions of Psalm 23:5. On this point, then, the words of Jesus in reference to the believing Centurion formed the most marked contrast to Jewish teaching.
To complete our apprehension of the contrast between the views of the Jews and the teaching of Jesus, we must bear in mind that, as the Gentiles could not possibly share in the feast of the Messiah, so Israel had claim and title to it. To use Rabbinic terms, the former were 'children of Gehinnom,' but Israel 'children of the Kingdom,' or, in strictly Rabbinic language, 'royal children,' 'children of God,' 'of heaven,' 'children of the upper chamber' (the Aliyah) and 'of the world to come.' In fact, in their view, God had first sat down on His throne as King, when the hymn of deliverance (Exodus 15:1) was raised by Israel - the people which took upon itself that yoke of the Law which all other nations of the world had rejected.
Never, surely, could the Judaism of His hearers have received more rude shock than by this inversion of all their cherished beliefs. There was a feast of Messianic fellowship, a recognition on the part of the King of all His faithful subjects, a joyous festive gathering with the fathers of the faith. But this fellowship was not of outward, but of spiritual kinship. There were 'children of the Kingdom,' and there was an 'outer darkness' with its anguish and despair. But this childship was of the Kingdom, such as He had opened it to all believers; and that outer darkness theirs, who had only outward claims to present.
And so this history of the believing Centurion is at the same time an application of the 'Sermon on the Mount.' Negatively, it differentiated the Kingdom from Israel; while, positively, it placed the hope of Israel, and fellowship with its promises, within reach of all faith, whether of Jew or Gentile. He Who taught such new and strange truth could never be called a mere reformer of Judaism. There cannot be 'reform,' where all the fundamental principles are different. Surely He was the Son of God, the Messiah of men, Who, in such surrounding, could so speak to Jew and Gentile of God and His Kingdom. And surely also, He, Who could so bring spiritual life to the dead, could have no difficulty by the same word, 'in the self-same hour,' to restore life and health to the servant of him, whose faith had inherited the Kingdom. The first grafted tree of heathendom that had so blossomed could not shake off unripe fruit. If the teaching of Christ was new and was true, so must His work have been. And in this lies the highest vindication of this miracle - that He is the Miracle.
Widow's son resurrrected from the dead
That early spring-tide in Galilee was surely the truest realization of the picture in the Song of Solomon, when earth clad herself in garments of beauty, and the air was melodious with songs of new life. It seemed as if each day marked a widening circle of deepest sympathy and largest power on the part of Jesus; as if each day also brought fresh surprise, new gladness; opened hitherto unthought-of possibilities, and pointed Israel far beyond the horizon of their narrow expectancy. Yesterday it was the sorrow of the heathen Centurion which woke an echo in the heart of the Supreme Commander of life and death; faith called out, owned, and placed on the high platform of Israel's worthies. Today it is the same sorrow of a Jewish mother, which touches the heart of the Son of Mary, and appeals to where denial is unthinkable. In that Presence grief and death cannot continue. As the defilement of a heathen house could not attach to Him, Whose contact changed the Gentile stranger into a true Israelite, so could the touch of death not render unclean Him, Whose Presence vanquished and changed it into life. Jesus could not enter Nain, and its people pass Him to carry one dead to the burying. We pick up the story in the book of Mark.
"Now it came to pass on the next day that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a great multitude. And as He drew near to the gate of the city, behold, one who had died was being carried out, an only son to his mother, and she was a widow; and a considerable crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, He was moved with compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep."
"And He came up to the bier and touched it, and those who were bearing it stopped. Then He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise!" And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and He gave him to his mother. Then fear seized everyone, and they glorified God, saying, 'A great prophet has risen up among us," and, "God has visited His people.'" (Luke 7:11-16, HBFV)
For our present purpose it matters little, whether it was the very 'day after' the healing of the Centurion's servant, or 'shortly afterwards,' that Jesus left Capernaum for Nain. Probably it was the morrow of that miracle, and the fact that 'much people,' or rather 'a great multitude,' followed Him, seems confirmatory of it. The way was long - as we reckon, more than twenty-five miles; but, even if it was all taken on foot, there could be no difficulty in reaching Nain ere the evening, when so often funerals took place. Various roads lead to, and from Nain; that which stretches to the Lake of Galilee and up to Capernaum is quite distinctly marked. It is difficult to understand, how most of those who have visited the spot could imagine the place, where Christ met the funeral procession, to have been the rock-hewn tombs to the west of Nain and towards Nazareth. For, from Capernaum the Lord would not have come that way, but approach it from the north-east by Endor. Hence there can be little doubt, that Canon Tristram correctly identifies the now unfenced burying-ground, about ten minutes' walk to the east of Nain, as that whither, on that spring afternoon, they were carrying the widow's son. On the path leading to it the Lord of Life for the first time burst open the gates of death.
It is all desolate now. A few houses of mud and stone with low doorways, scattered among heaps of stones and traces of walls, is all that remains of what even these ruins show to have been once a city, with walls and gates. The rich gardens are no more, the fruit trees cut down, 'and there is a painful sense of desolation' about the place, as if the breath of judgment had swept over it. And yet even so we can understand its ancient name of Nain, 'the pleasant,' which the Rabbis regarded as fulfilling that part of the promise to Isaachar: 'he saw the land that it was pleasant.' From the elevation on which the city stood we look northwards, across the wide plain, to wooded Tabor, and in the far distance to snow-capped Hermon. On the left (in the west) rise the hills beyond which Nazareth lies embosomed; to the right is Endor; southwards Shunem, and beyond it the Plain of Jezreel. By this path, from Endor, comes Jesus with His disciples and the great following multitude.
Here, near by the city gate, on the road that leads eastwards to the old burying-ground, has this procession of the 'great multitude,' which accompanied the Prince of Life, met that other 'great multitude' that followed the dead to his burying. Which of the two shall give way to the other? We know what ancient Jewish usage would have demanded. For, of all the duties enjoined, none more strictly enforced by every consideration of humanity and piety, even by the example of God Himself, than that of comforting the mourners and showing respect to the dead by accompanying him to the burying. The popular idea, that the spirit of the dead hovered about the unburied remains, must have given intensity to such feelings.
Putting aside later superstitions, so little has changed in the Jewish rites and observances about the dead, that from Talmudic and even earlier sources, we can form a vivid conception of what had taken place in Nain. The watchful anxiety; the vain use of such means as were known, or within reach of the widow; the deepening care, the passionate longing of the mother to retain her one treasure, her sole earthly hope and stay; then the gradual fading out of the light, the farewell, the terrible burst of sorrow: all these would be common features in any such picture. But here we have, besides, the Jewish thoughts of death and after death; knowledge just sufficient to make afraid, but not to give firm consolation, which would make even the most pious Rabbi uncertain of his future; and then the desolate thoughts connected in the Jewish mind with childlessness. We can realize it all: how Jewish ingenuity and wisdom would resort to remedies real or magical; how the neighbors would come in with reverent step, feeling as if the very Shekhinah were unseen at the head of the pallet in that humble home; how they would whisper sayings about submission, which, when realization of God's love is wanting, seem only to stir the heart to rebellion against absolute power; and how they would resort to the prayers of those who were deemed pious in Nain.
But all was in vain. And now the well-known blast of the horn has carried tidings, that once more the Angel of Death has done his dire behest. In passionate grief the mother has rent her upper garment. The last sad offices have been rendered to the dead. The body has been laid on the ground; hair and nails have been cut, and the body washed, anointed, and wrapped in the best the widow could procure; for, the ordinance which directed that the dead should be buried in 'wrappings' or as they significantly called it, the 'provision for the journey' of the most inexpensive, linen, is of later date than our period. It is impossible to say, whether the later practice already prevailed, of covering the body with metal, glass, or salt, and laying it either upon earth or salt.
And now the mother was left Oneneth (moaning, lamenting) - a term which distinguished the mourning before from that after burial. She would sit on the floor, neither eat meat, nor drink wine. What scanty meal she would take, must be without prayer, in the house of a neighbor, or in another room, or at least with her back to the dead. Pious friends would render neighborly offices, or busy themselves about the near funeral. If it was deemed duty for the poorest Jew, on the death of his wife, to provide at least two flutes and one mourning woman, we may feel sure that the widowed mother had not neglected what, however incongruous or difficult to procure, might be regarded as the last tokens of affection. In all likelihood the custom obtained even then, though in modified form, to have funeral orations at the grave.
For, even if charity provided for an unknown wayfarer the simplest funeral, mourning-women would be hired to chaunt in weird strains the lament: 'Alas, the lion! alas. the hero!' or similar words, while great Rabbis were 'wont to bespeak for themselves a warm funeral oration.' For, from the funeral oration a man's fate in the other world might be inferred; and, indeed, 'the honor of a sage was in his funeral oration.' and in this sense the Talmud answers the question, whether a funeral oration is intended to honor the survivors or the dead.
But in all this painful pageantry there was nothing for the heart of the widow, bereft of her only child. We can follow in spirit the mournful procession, as it started from the desolate home. As it issued, chairs and couches were reversed, and laid low. Outside, the funeral orator, if such was employed, preceded the bier, proclaiming the good deeds of the dead. Immediately before the dead came the women, this being peculiar to Galilee, the Midrash giving this reason of it, that woman had introduced death into the world. The body was not, as afterwards in preference, carried in an ordinary coffin of wood, if possible, cedarwood - on one occassion, at least, made with holes beneath; but laid on a bier, or in an open coffin.
We cannot, then, be mistaken in supposing that the body of the widow's son was laid on the 'bed', or in the 'willow basket,' already described. Nor can we doubt that the ends of handles were borne by friends and neighbors, different parties of bearers, all of them unshod, at frequent intervals relieving each other, so that as many as possible might share in the good work. During these pauses there was loud lamentation; but this custom was not observed in the burial of women. Behind the bier walked the relatives, friends, and then the sympathising 'multitude.' For it was deemed like mocking one's Creator not to follow the dead to his last resting-place, and to all such want of reverence Proverbs 17:5 was applied. If one were absolutely prevented from joining the procession, although for its sake all work, even study, should be interrupted, reverence should at least be shown by rising up before the dead. And so they would go on to what the Hebrews beautifully designated as the 'house of assembly' or 'meeting,' the 'hostelry,' the 'place of rest,' or 'of freedom,' the 'field of weepers,' the 'house of eternity,' or 'of life.'
We can now transport ourselves into that scene. Up from the city close by came this 'great multitude' that followed the dead, with lamentations, wild chaunts of mourning women, accompanied by flutes and the melancholy tinkle of cymbals, perhaps by trumpets, amidst expressions of general sympathy. Along the road from Endor streamed the great multitude which followed the 'Prince of Life.' Here they met: Life and Death. The connecting link between them was the deep sorrow of the widowed mother. He recognized her as she went before the bier, leading him to the grave whom she had brought into life. He recognized her, but she recognized Him not, had not even seen Him. She was still weeping; even after He had hastened a step or two in advance of His followers, quite close to her, she did not heed Him, and was still weeping. But, 'beholding her,' the Lord 'had compassion on her.' Those bitter, silent tears which blinded her eyes were strongest language of despair and utmost need, which never in vain appeals to His heart, Who has borne our sorrows.
We remember, by way of contrast, the common formula used at funerals in Palestine, 'Weep with them, all ye who are bitter of heart!' It was not so that Jesus spoke to those around, nor to her, but characteristically: 'Be not weeping.' And what He said, that He wrought. He touched the bier - perhaps the very wicker basket in which the dead youth lay. He dreaded not the greatest of all defilements - that of contact with the dead, which Rabbinism, in its elaboration of the letter of the Law, had surrounded with endless terrors. His was other separation than of the Pharisees: not that of submission to ordinances, but of conquest of what made them necessary.
And as He touched the bier, they who bore it stood still. They could not have anticipated what would follow. But the awe of the coming wonder - as it were, the shadow of the opening gates of life, had fallen on them. One word of sovereign command, 'And the dead man sat up and began to speak.' Not of that world of which he had had brief glimpse. For, as one who suddenly passes from dream-vision to waking, in the abruptness of the transition, loses what he had seen, so he, who from that dazzling brightness was hurried back to the dim light to which his vision had been accustomed. It must have seemed to him, as if he woke from long sleep. Where was he now? who those around him? what this strange assemblage? and Who He, Whose Light and Life seemed to fall upon him?
And still was Jesus the link between the mother and the son, who had again found each other. And so, in the truest sense, 'He gave him to his mother.' Can any one doubt that mother and son henceforth owned, loved, and trusted Him as the true Messiah? If there was no moral motive for this miracle, outside Christ's sympathy with intense suffering and the bereavement of death, was there no moral result as the outcome of it? If mother and son had not called upon Him before the miracle, would they not henceforth and for ever call upon Him? And if there was, so to speak, inward necessity, that Life Incarnate should conquer death - symbolic and typic necessity of it also - was not everything here congruous to the central fact in this history? The simplicity and absence of all extravagant details; the Divine calmness and majesty on the part of the Christ, so different from the manner in which legend would have colored the scene, even from the intense agitation which characterized the conduct of an Elijah, an Elisha, or a Peter, in somewhat similar circumstances; and, lastly, the beauteous harmony where all is in accord, from the first touch of compassion till when, forgetful of the bystanders, heedless of 'effect,' He gives the son back to his mother - are not all these worthy of the event, and evidential of the truth of the narrative?
Lesson in Forgiveness
In the unfolding of His Mission to Man, Jesus progressively placed Himself in antagonism to the Jewish religious thought of His time, from out of which He had historically sprung. In this part of His earthly course the antagonism appeared, indeed, so to speak, in a positive rather than negative form, that is, rather in what He affirmed than in what He combated, because the opposition to Him was not yet fully developed; whereas in the second part of His course it was, for a similar reason, rather negative than positive. From the first this antagonism was there in what He taught and did; and it appeared with increasing distinctness in proportion as He taught. We find it in the whole spirit and bearing of what he did and said - in the house at Capernaum, in the Synagogues, with the Gentile Centurion, at the gate of Nain, and especially here, in the history of the much forgiven woman who had much sinned. A Jewish Rabbi, however gentle and pitiful, would in word and deed have taken precisely the opposite direction from that taken by Jesus.
The invitation of Simon the Pharisee to his table does not necessarily indicate, that he had been impressed by the teaching of Jesus, any more than the supposed application to his case of what is called the 'parable' of the much and the little forgiven debtor implies, that he had received from the Savior spiritual benefit, great or small. If Jesus had taught in the 'city,' and, as always, irresistibly drawn to Him the multitude, it would be only in accordance with the manners of the time if the leading Pharisee invited the distinguished 'Teacher' to his table. As such he undoubtedly treated Him. The question in Simon's mind was, whether He was more than 'Teacher' - even 'Prophet;' and that such question rose within him indicates, not only that Christ openly claimed a position different from that of Rabbi, and that His followers regarded Him at least as a prophet, but also, within the breast of Simon, a struggle in which strong Jewish prejudice was bearing down the mighty impression of Christ's Presence.
Let us take a look at the scriptures regarding Jesus' confrontation with a Pharisee regarding (amongst other issues) forgiveness.
"Now one of the Pharisees invited Him to eat with him. And after going into the Pharisee's house, He sat down at the table. And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that He was sitting in the Pharisee's house, took an alabaster flask of ointment; And she stood weeping behind Him, and knelt at His feet, and began to wash His feet with her tears and to wipe them with the hairs of her head; and she was ardently kissing His feet and anointing them with the ointment. But when he saw this, the Pharisee who had invited Him spoke within himself, saying, 'This man, if He were a prophet, would have known who and what the woman is who is touching Him because she is a sinner.'
"Then Jesus answered and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he said, "Teacher, say on." "There were two debtors of a certain creditor; one owed five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. But when they did not have anything with which to pay him, he forgave them both. Tell Me then, which of them will love him most?" And Simon answered and said, "I suppose the one whom he forgave the most." And He said to him, 'You have judged rightly.'
"And after turning to the woman, He said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman? I came into your house, and you did not provide any water to wash My feet; but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head. You did not give Me a kiss; but she, from the time I came in, has not ceased to ardently kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil; but she has anointed My feet with ointment. For this cause, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, he loves little.' And He said to her, 'Your sins have been forgiven.'
"Then those who were sitting with Him began to say within themselves, '"Who is this, Who even forgives sins?' But He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." (Luke 7:36-50, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV))
They were all sitting, or rather 'lying' - the Mishnah sometimes also calls it 'sitting down and leaning' - around the table, the body resting on the couch, the feet turned away from the table in the direction of the wall, while the left elbow rested on the table. And now, from the open courtyard, up the verandah-step, perhaps through an antechamber, and by the open door, passed the figure of a woman into the festive reception-room and dining-hall - the Teraglin of the Rabbis. How did she obtain access? Had she mingled with the servants, or was access free to all - or had she, perhaps, known the house and its owner? It little matters - as little as whether she 'had been,' or 'was' up to that day, 'a sinner,' in the terrible acceptation of the term. But we must bear in mind the greatness of Jewish prejudice against any conversation with woman, however lofty her character, fully to realize the absolute incongruity on the part of such a woman in seeking access to the Rabbi, Whom so many regarded as the God-sent Prophet.
To the women Jesus was the Prophet sent from God with the good news that opened even to her the Kingdom of Heaven, and laid its yoke upon her, not bearing her down to very hell, but easy of wear and light of burden. She knew that it was all as He said, in regard to the heavy load of her past; and, as she listened to those Words, and looked on that Presence, she learned to believe that it was all as He had promised to the heavy burdened. And she had watched, and followed Him afar off to the Pharisee's house. Or, perhaps, if it be thought that she had not that day heard for herself, still, the sound of that message must have reached her, and wakened the echoes of her heart.
And so she knelt behind the feet of Jesus. She had brought with her an alabastron (phial, or flask, commonly of alabaster) of perfume. We know that perfumes were much sought after, and very largely in use. Some, such as true balsam, were worth double their weight in silver; others, like the spikenard (whether as juice or unguent, along with other ingredients), though not equally costly, were also 'precious.' We have evidence that perfumed oils - notably oil of rose, and of the iris plant, but chiefly the mixture known in antiquity as foliatum, were largely manufactured and used in Palestine. A flask with this perfume was worn by women round the neck, and hung down below the breast. So common was its use as to be allowed even on the Sabbath.
This 'flask,' not always of glass, but of silver or gold, probably often also of alabaster - containing 'palyeton' was used both to sweeten the breath and perfume the person. Hence it seems at least not unlikely, that the alabastron which she brought, who loved so much, was none other than the 'flask of foliatum' so common among Jewish woman.
As she stood behind Him at His Feet, reverently bending, a shower of tears, like sudden, quick summer-rain, that refreshes air and earth, 'bedewed' His Feet. As if surprised, or else afraid to awaken His attention, or defile Him by her tears, she quickly wiped them away with the long tresses of her hair that had fallen down and touched Him, as she bent over His Feet. Nay, not to wash them in such impure waters had she come, but to show such loving gratefulness and reverence as in her poverty she could, and in her humility she might offer. And, now that her faith had grown bold in His Presence, she is continuing to kiss those Feet which had brought to her the 'good tidings of peace,' and to anoint them out of the alabastron round her neck. And still she spake not, nor yet He. For, as on her part silence seemed most fitting utterance, so on His, that He suffered it in silence was best and most fitting answer to her.
A more painful contrast than that of 'the Pharisee' in this scene, can scarcely be imagined. We do not insist that the designation 'this Man,' given to Christ in his spoken thoughts, or the manner in which afterwards he replied to the Savior's question by a supercilious 'I suppose,' or 'presume,' necessarily imply contempt. But they certainly indicate the mood of his spirit. One thing, at least, seems now clear to this Pharisee: If 'this Man,' this strange, wandering, popular idol, with His strange, novel ways and words, Whom in politeness he must call 'Teacher,' Rabbi, were a Prophet, He would have known who the woman was, and, if He had known who she was, then would He never have allowed such approach. So do we, also, often argue as to what He would do, if He knew.
But He does know; and it is just because He knoweth that He doeth what, from our lower standpoint, we cannot understand. Had He been a Rabbi, He would certainly, and had he been merely a Prophet, He would probably, have repelled such approach. The former, if not from self-righteousness, yet from ignorance of sin and forgiveness; the latter, because such homage was more than man's due. But, He was more than a prophet - the Savior of sinners; and so she might quietly weep over His Feet, and then quickly wipe away the 'dew' of the 'better morning,' and then continue to Kiss His Feet and to anoint them.
And yet Prophet He also was, and in far fuller sense than Simon could have imagined. For, He had read Simon's unspoken thoughts. Presently He would show it to him; yet not, as we might, by open reproof, that would have put him to shame before his guests, but with infinite delicacy towards His host, and still in manner that he could not mistake. What follows is not, as generally supposed, a parable but an illustration. Accordingly, it must in no way be pressed. With this explanation vanish all the supposed difficulties about the Pharisees being 'little forgiven,' and hence 'loving little.'
To convince Simon of the error of his conclusion, that, if the life of that woman had been known, the prophet must have forbidden her touch of love, Jesus entered into the Pharisee's own modes of reasoning. Of two debtors, one of whom owned ten times as much as the other, who would best love the creditor who had freely forgiven them? Though to both the debt might have been equally impossible of discharge, and both might love equally, yet a Rabbi would, according to his Jewish notions, say, that he would love most to whom most had been forgiven. If this was the undoubted outcome of Jewish theology - the so much for so much - let it be applied to the present case. If there were much benefit, there would be much love; if little benefit, little love. And conversely: in such case much love would argue much benefit; little love, small benefit. Let him then apply the reasoning by marking this woman, and contrasting her conduct with his own. To wash the feet of a guest, to give him the kiss of welcome, and especially to anoint him, were not, indeed, necessary attentions at a feast. All the more did they indicate special care, affection, and respect. None of these tokens of deep regard had marked the merely polite reception of Him by the Pharisee.
But, in a twofold climax of which the intensity can only be indicated, the Savior now proceeds to show, how different it had been with her, to whom, for the first time, He now turned! On Simon's own reasoning, then, he must have received but little, she much benefit. This, by Simon's former admission, would explain and account for her much love, as the effect of much forgiveness. On the other hand - though in delicacy the Lord does not actually express it - this other inference would also hold true, that Simon's little love showed that 'little is being forgiven.'
And this was now the final gift of Jesus to her. As formerly for the first time He had turned so now for the first time He spoke to her - and once more with tenderest delicacy - 'Your sins have been forgiven.' Nor does He now heed the murmuring thoughts of those around, who cannot understand Who this is that forgiveth sins also. But to her, and truly, though not literally, to them also, and to us, He said in explanation and application of it all: "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."