THE LAST INCIDENTS IN PEREA
THE YOUNG RULER WHO WENT AWAY SORROWFUL
TO LEAVE ALL FOR CHRIST
PROPHECY OF HIS PASSION
THE REQUEST OF SALOME, AND OF JAMES AND JOHN
Matthew 19:16-30 ; Matthew 20:17-28 ; Mark 10:17-45 ; Luke 18:18-34
As we near the goal, the wondrous story seems to grow in tenderness and pathos. It is as if all the loving condescension of the Master were to be crowded into these days; all the pressing need also, and the human weaknesses of His disciples. And with equal compassion does He look upon the difficulties of them who truly seek to come to Him, and on those which, springing from without, or even from self and sin, beset them who have already come. Let us try reverently to follow His steps, and learn of His words.
As ‘He was going forth into the way’ 1 – we owe this trait, as one and another in the same narrative, to St. Mark – probably at early morn, as He left the house where He had for ever folded into His Arms and blessed the children brought to Him by believing parents – His progress was arrested. It was ‘a young man,’ ‘a ruler,’ probably of the local Synagogue, who came with all haste, ‘running,’ and with lowliest gesture [kneeling], to ask what to him, nay to us all, is the most important question. Remembering that, while we owe to St. Mark the most graphic touches, St. Matthew most fully reports the words that had been spoken, we might feel inclined to adopt that reading of them in St. Matthew which is not only most strongly supported, but at first sight seems to remove some of the difficulties of exposition. This reading would omit in the address of the young ruler the word ‘good’ before ‘Master, what good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’ and would make Christ’s reply read: ‘Why askest thou Me concerning the good [that which is good]? One there is Who is good.’ This would meet not only the objection, that in no recorded instance was a Jewish Rabbi addressed as ‘Good Master,’ but the obvious difficulties connected with the answer of Christ, according to the common reading: ‘Why callest thou Me good? none is good, save only One: God.’ But on the other side it must be urged, that the undoubted reading of the question and answer in St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s Gospels agrees with that of our Authorised Version, and hence that any difficulty of exposition would not be removed, only shifted, while the reply of Christ tallies far better with the words ‘Good Master,’ the strangeness of such an address from Jewish lips giving only the more reason for taking it up in the reply: ‘Why callest thou Me good? none is good save only One: God.’ Lastly, the designation of God as the only One ‘good’ agrees with one of the titles given Him in Jewish writings: ‘The Good One of the world’.
The actual question of the young Ruler is one which repeatedly occurs in Jewish writings, as put to a Rabbi by his disciples. Amidst the different answers given, we scarcely wonder that they also pointed to observance of the Law. And the saying of Christ seems the more adapted to the young Ruler when we recall this sentence from the Talmud: ‘There is nothing else that is good but the Law.’ 9 But here again the similarity is only of form, not of substance. For, it will be noticed, that, in the more full account by St. Matthew, Christ leads the young Ruler upwards through the table of the prohibitions of deeds to the first positive command of deed, and then, by a rapid transition, to the substitution for the tenth commandment in its negative form of this wider positive and all-embracing command: 10 ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Any Jewish ‘Ruler,’ but especially one so earnest, would have at once answered a challenge on the first four commandments by ‘Yes’ – and that not self-righteously, but sincerely, though of course in ignorance of their real depth. And this was not the time for lengthened discussion and instruction; only for rapid awakening, to lead up, if possible, from earnestness and a heart-drawing towards the master to real discipleship. Best here to start from what was admitted as binding – the ten commandments – and to lead from that in them which was least likely to be broken, step by step, upwards to that which was most likely to awaken consciousness of sin.
And the young Ruler did not, as that other Pharisee, reply by trying to raise a Rabbinic disputation over the ‘Who is neighbour to me?’ 11 but in the sincerity of an honest heart answered that he had kept – that is, so far as he knew them – ‘all these things from his youth.’ On this St. Matthew puts into his mouth the question – ‘What lack I yet?’ Even if, like the other two Evangelists, he had not reported it, we would have supplied this from what follows. There is something intensely earnest, genuine, generous, even enthusiastic, in the higher cravings of the soul in youth, when that youth has not been poisoned by the breath of the world, or stricken with the rottenness of vice. The soul longs for the true, the higher, the better, and, even if strength fails of attainment, we still watch with keen sympathy the form of the climber upwards. Much more must all this have been the case with a Jewish youth, especially in those days; one, besides, like this young Ruler, in whose case affluence of circumstances not only allowed free play, but tended to draw out and to give full scope to the finer feelings, and where wealth was joined with religiousness and the service of a Synagogue. There was not in him that pride of riches, nor the self-sufficiency which they so often engender; nor the pride of conscious moral purity and aim after righteousness before God and man; nor yet the pride of the Pharisee or of the Synagogue-Ruler. What he had seen and heard of the Christ had quickened to greatest intensity all in him that longed after God and heaven, and had brought him in this supreme moral earnestness, lowly, reverently, to the Feet of Him in Whom, as he felt, all perfectness was, and from Whom all perfectness came. He had not been first drawn to Christ, and thence to the pure, as were the publicans and sinners; but, like so many – even as Peter, when in that hour of soul-agony he said: ‘To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life,’ – he had been drawn to the pure and the higher, and therefore to Christ. To some the way to Christ is up the Mount of Transfiguration, among the shining Beings of another world; to some it is across dark Kedron, down the deep Garden of Gethsemane with its agonies. What matters it, if it equally lead to Him, and equally bring the sense of need and experience of pardon to the seeker after the better, and the sense of need and experience of holiness to the seeker after pardon?
And Jesus saw it all: down, through that intense upward look; inwards, through that question, ‘What lack I yet?’ far deeper down than that young man had ever seen into his own heart – even into depths of weakness and need which he had never sounded, and which must be filled, if he would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus saw what he lacked; and what He saw, He showed him. For, ‘looking at him’ in his sincerity and earnestness, ‘He loved him’ – as He loves those that are His Own. One thing was needful for this young man: that he should not only become His disciple, but that, in so doing, he should ‘come and follow’ Christ. We can all perceive how, for one like this young man, such absolute and entire coming and following Christ was needful. And again, to do this, it was in the then circumstances both of this young man and of Christ necessary, that he should go and part with all that he had. And what was an outward, was also, as we perceive it, an inward necessity; and so, as ever, Providence and Grace would work together. For, indeed, to many of us some outward step is often not merely the means of but absolutely needful for, spiritual decision. To some it is the first open profession of Christ; to others, the first act of self-denial, or the first distinct ‘No’-saying; to some, it may be, it is the first prayer, or else the first act of self-consecration. Yet it seems, as if it needed not only the word of God but a stroke of some Moses’-rod to make the water gush forth from the rock. And thus would this young Ruler have been ‘perfect;’ and what he had given to the poor have become, not through merit nor by way of reward, but really ‘treasure in heaven.’
What he lacked – was earth’s poverty and heaven’s riches; a heart fully set on following Christ: and this could only come to him through willing surrender of all. And so this was to him alike the means, the test, and the need. To him it was this; to us it may be something quite other. Yet each of us has a lack – something quite deep down in our hearts, which we may never yet have known, and which we must know and give up, if we would follow Christ. And without forsaking, there can be no following. This is the law of the Kingdom – and it is such, because we are sinners, because sin is not only the loss of the good, but the possession of something else in its place.
There is something deeply pathetic in the mode in which St. Mark describes it: ‘he was sad’ – the word painting a dark gloom that overshadowed the face of the young man. Did he then not lack it, this one thing? We need scarcely here recall the almost extravagant language in which Rabbinism describes the miseries of poverty; we can understand his feelings without that. Such a possibility had never entered his mind: the thought of it was terribly startling. That he must come and follow Christ, then and there, and in order to do so, sell all that he had and give it away among the poor, and be poor himself, a beggar, that he might have treasure in heaven; and that this should come to him as the one thing needful from that Master in Whom he believed, from Whose lips he would learn the one thing needful, and who but a little before had been to him the All in All! It was a terrible surprise, a sentence of death to his life, and of life to his death. And that it should come from His lips, at Whose Feet he had run to kneel, and Who held for him the keys of eternal life! Rabbinism had never asked this; if it demanded alms-giving, it was in odious boastfulness; while it was declared even unlawful to give away all one’s possessions – at most, only a fifth of them might be dedicated.
And so, with clouded face he gazed down into what he lacked – within; but also gazed up in Christ on what he needed. And, although we hear no more of him, who that day went back to his rich home very poor, because ‘very sorrowful,’ we cannot but believe that he, whom Jesus loved, yet found in the poverty of earth the treasure of heaven.
Nor was this all. The deep pity of Christ for him, who had gone that day, speaks also in his warning to his disciples. But surely those are not only riches in the literal sense which make it so difficult for a man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven – so difficult, as to amount almost to that impossibility which was expressed in the common Jewish proverb, that a man did not even in his dreams see an elephant pass through the eye of a needle. But when in their perplexity the disciples put to each other the saddened question: Who then can be saved? He pointed them onward, then upward, as well as inward, teaching them that, what was impossible of achievement by man in his own strength, God would work by His Almighty Grace.
It almost jars on our ears, and prepares us for still stranger and sadder to come, when Peter, perhaps as spokesman of the rest, seems to remind the Lord that they had forsaken all to follow Him. St. Matthew records also the special question which Simon added to it: ‘What shall we have therefore?’ and hence his Gospel alone makes mention of the Lord’s reply, in so far as it applied only to the Apostles. For, that reply really bore on two points: on the reward which all who left everything to follow Christ would obtain; and on the special acknowledgment awaiting the Apostles of Christ. In regard to the former we mark, that it is twofold. They who had forsaken all ‘for His sake’ ‘and the Gospel’s,’ ‘for the Kingdom of God’s sake’ – and these three expressions explain and supplement each other – would receive ‘in this time’ ‘manifold more’ of new, and better, and closer relationships of a spiritual kind for those which they had surrendered, although, as St. Mark significantly adds, to prevent all possible mistakes, ‘with persecutions.’ But by the side of this stands out unclouded and bright the promise for ‘the world to come’ of ‘everlasting life.’ As regarded the Apostles personally, some mystery lies on the special promise to them. 26 We could quite understand, that the distinction of rule to be bestowed on them might have been worded in language taken from the expectations of the time, in order to make the promise intelligible to them. But, unfortunately, we have no explanatory information to offer. The Rabbis, indeed, speak of a renovation or regeneration of the world which was to take place after the 7,000 or else 5,000 years of the Messianic reign. Such a renewal of all things is not only foretold by the prophets, and dwelt upon in later Jewish writings, but frequently referred to in Rabbinic literature. But as regards the special rule or ‘judgment’ of the Apostles, or ambassadors of the Messiah, we have not, and, of course, cannot expect any parallel in Jewish writings. That the promise of such rule and judgment to the Apostles is not peculiar to what is called the Judaic Gospel of St. Matthew, appears from its renewal at a later period, as recorded by St. Luke. Lastly, that it is in accordance with Old Testament promise, will be seen by a reference to Daniel 7 v 9,10, 14,27; and there are few references in the New Testament to the blessed consummation of all things in which such renewal of the world, and even the rule and judgment of the representatives of the Church, are not referred to.
However mysterious, therefore, in their details, these things seem clear, and may without undue curiosity or presumption be regarded as the teaching of our Lord: the renewal of earth; the share in His rule and judgment which He will in the future give to His saints; the special distinction which He will bestow on His Apostles, corresponding to the special gifts, privileges, and rule with which He had endowed them on earth, and to their nearness to, and their work and sacrifices for Him; and, lastly, we may add, the preservation of Israel as a distinct, probably tribal, nation. 35 As for the rest, as so much else, it is ‘behind the veil,’ and, even as we see it, better for the Church that the veil has not been further lifted.
The reference to the blessed future with its rewards was followed by a Parable, recorded, as, with one exception, all of that series, only by St. Matthew. It will best be considered in connection with the last series of Christ’s Parables. 36 But it was accompanied by what, in the circumstances, was also a most needful warning. Thoughts of the future Messianic reign, its glory, and their own part in it might have so engrossed the minds of the disciples as to make them forgetful of the terrible present, immediately before them. In such case they might not only have lapsed into that most fatal Jewish error of a Messiah-King, Who was not Saviour, the Crown without the Cross, but have even suffered shipwreck of their faith, when the storm broke on the Day of His Condemnation and Crucifixion. If ever, it was most needful in that hour of elation to remind and forewarn them of what was to be expected in the immediate future. How truly such preparation was required by the disciples, appears from the narrative itself.
There was something sadly mysterious in the words with which Christ had closed His Parable, that the last should be first and the first last – and it had carried dark misgivings to those who heard it. And now it seemed all so strange! Yet the disciples could not have indulged in illusions. His own sayings on at least two previous occasions, 40 however ill or partially understood, must have led them to expect at any rate grievous opposition and tribulations in Jerusalem, and their endeavour to deter Christ from going to Bethany to raise Lazarus proves, that they were well aware of the danger which threatened the Master in Judea. 41 Yet not only ‘was He now going up 42 to Jerusalem,’ but there was that in His bearing which was quite unusual. As St. Mark writes, He was going ‘before them’ – we infer, apart and alone, as One, busy with thoughts all engrossing, Who is setting Himself to do His great work, and goes to meet it. ‘And going before them was Jesus; and they were amazed [utterly bewildered, viz. the Apostles]; and those who were following, were afraid.’ 43 It was then that Jesus took the Apostles apart, and in language more precise than ever before, told them how all things that were ‘written by the prophets shall be accomplished on the Son of Man’ 44 – not merely, that all that had been written concerning the Son of Man should be accomplished, but a far deeper truth, all-comprehensive as regards the Old Testament: that all its true prophecy ran up into the sufferings of the Christ. As the three Evangelists report it, the Lord gave them full details of His Betrayal, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. And yet we may, without irreverence, doubt whether on that occasion He had really entered into all those particulars. In such case it would seem difficult to explain how, as St. Luke reports, ‘they understood none of these things, and the saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken;’ and again, how afterwards the actual events and the Resurrection could have taken them so by surprise. Rather do we think, that the Evangelists report what Jesus had said in the light of after-events. He did tell them of His Betrayal by the leaders of Israel, and that into the hands of the Gentiles; of His Death and Resurrection on the third day – yet in language which they could, and actually did, misunderstand at the time, but which, when viewed in the light of what really happened, was perceived by them to have been actual prediction of those terrible days in Jerusalem and of the Resurrection-morning. At the time they may have thought that it pointed only to His rejection by Jews and Gentiles, to Sufferings and Death – and then to a Resurrection, either of His Mission or to such a reappearance of the Messiah, after His temporary disappearance, as Judaism expected.
But all this time, and with increasing fierceness, were terrible thoughts contending in the breast of Judas; and beneath the tramp of that fight was there only a thin covering of earth, to hide and keep from bursting forth the hellish fire of the master-passion within.
One other incident, more strange and sad than any that had preceded, and the Peraean stay is for ever ended. It almost seems, as if the fierce blast of temptation, the very breath of the destroyer, were already sweeping over the little flock, as if the twilight of the night of betrayal and desertion were already falling around. And now it has fallen on the two chosen disciples, James and John – ‘the sons of thunder,’ and one of them, ‘the beloved disciple!’ Peter, the third in that band most closely bound to Christ, had already had his fierce temptation, 45 and would have it more fiercely – to the uprooting of life, if the Great High-Priest had not specially interceded for him. And, as regards these two sons of Zebedee and of Salome, 46 we know what temptation had already beset them, how John had forbidden one to cast out devils, because he followed not with them, 47 and how both he and his brother, James, would have called down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans who would not receive Christ. 48 It was essentially the same spirit that now prompted the request which their mother Salome preferred, 49 not only with their full concurrence, but, as we are expressly told, 50 with their active participation. There is the same faith in the Christ, the same allegiance to Him, but also the same unhallowed earnestness, the same misunderstanding – and, let us add, the same latent self-exaltation, as in the two former instances, in the present request that, as the most honoured of His guests, and also as the nearest to Him, they might have their places at His Right Hand and at His Left in His Kingdom. 51 Terribly incongruous as is any appearance of self-seeking at that moment and with that prospect before them, we cannot but feel that there is also an intenseness of faith and absoluteness of love almost sublime, when the mother steps forth from among those who follow Christ to His Suffering and Death, to proffer such a request with her sons, and for them.
And so the Saviour seems to have viewed it. With unspeakable patience and tenderness, He, Whose Soul is filled with the terrible contest before Him, bears with the weakness and selfishness which could cherish such thoughts and ambitions even at such a time. To correct them, He points to that near prospect, when the Highest is to be made low. ‘Ye know not what ye ask!’ The King is to be King through suffering – are they aware of the road which leads to that goal? Those nearest to the King of sorrows must reach the place nearest to Him by the same road as He. Are they prepared for it; prepared to drink that cup of soul-agony, which the Father will hand to Him – to submit to, to descend into that baptism of consecration, when the floods will sweep over Him? 52 In their ignorance, and listening only to the promptings of their hearts, they imagine that they are. Nay, in some measure it would be so; yet, finally to correct their mistake: to sit at His Right and at His Left Hand, these were not marks of mere favour for Him to bestow – in His own words: it ‘is not Mine to give except to them for whom it is prepared of My Father.’
But as for the other ten, when they heard of it, it was only the pre-eminence which, in their view, James and John had sought, which stood out before them, to their envy, jealousy, and indignation. 53 And so, in that tremendously solemn hour would the fierce fire of controversy have broken out among them, who should have been most closely united; would jealousy and ambition have filled those who should have been most humble, and fierce passions, born of self, the world and Satan, have distracted them, whom the thought of the great love and the great sacrifice should have filled. It was the rising of that storm on the sea, the noise and tossing of those angry billows, which He hushed into silence when He spoke to them of the grand contrast between the princes of the Gentiles as they ‘lord it over them,’ or the ‘great among them’ as they ‘domineer’ 54 over men, and their own aims – how, whosoever would be great among them, must seek his greatness in service – not greatness through service, but the greatness of service; and, whosever would be chief or rather ‘first’ among them, let it be in service. And had it not been thus, was it not, would it not be so in the Son of Man – and must it not therefore be so in them who would be nearest to Him, even His Apostles and disciples? The Son of Man – let them look back, let them look forward – He came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. And then, breaking through the reserve that had held Him, and revealing to them the inmost thoughts which had occupied Him when He had been alone and apart, going before them on the way, He spoke for the first time fully what was the deepest meaning of His Life, Mission, and Death: ‘to give His Life a ransom for many’ 55 56 – to pay with His Life-Blood the price of their redemption, to lay down His Life for them: in their room and stead, and for their salvation.
These words must have sunk deep into the heart of one at least in that company. A few days later, and the beloved disciple tells us of this Ministry of His Love at the Last Supper, and ever afterwards, in his writings or in his life, does he seem to bear them about with him, and to re-echo them. Ever since also have they remained the foundation-truth, on which the Church has been built: the subject of her preaching, and the object of her experience.