THE LAST EVENTS IN GALILEE
THE TRIBUTE-MONEY, THE DISPUTE BY THE WAY, THE FORBIDDING OF HIM WHO COULD NOT FOLLOW WITH THE DISCIPLES, AND THE CONSEQUENT TEACHING OF CHRIST.
Matthew 17:22-18:22 ; Mark 9:30-50 ; Luke 9:43-50
Now that the Lord’s retreat in the utmost borders of the land, at Cæsarea Philippi, was known to the Scribes, and that He was again surrounded and followed by the multitude, there could be no further object in His retirement. Indeed, the time was coming that He should meet that for which He had been, and was still, preparing the minds of His disciples – His Decease at Jerusalem. Accordingly, we find Him once more with His disciples in Galilee – not to abide there, 1 nor to traverse it as formerly for Missionary purposes, but preparatory to His journey to the Feast of Tabernacles. The few events of this brief stay, and the teaching connected with it, may be summed up as follows.
It is well known that, on the ground of the injunction in Exodus 30 v 13 &c., every male in Israel, from twenty years upwards, was expected annually to contribute to the Temple-Treasury the sum of one half-shekel 3 of the Sanctuary, 4 that is, one common shekel, or two Attic drachms, 5 equivalent to about 1s. 2d. or 1s. 3d. of our money. Whether or not the original Biblical ordinance had been intended to institute a regular annual contribution, the Jews of the Dispersion would probably regard it in the light of a patriotic as well as religious act.
To the particulars previously given on this subject a few others may be added. The family of the Chief of the Sanhedrin (Gamaliel) seems to have enjoyed the curious distinction of bringing their contributions to the Temple-Treasury, not like others, but to have thrown them down before him who opened the Temple-Chest, 6 when they were immediately placed in the box from which, without delay, sacrifices were provided. 7 Again, the commentators explain a certain passage in the Mishnah 8 and the Talmud 9 as implying that, although the Jews in Palestine had to pay the tribute-money before the Passover, those from neighbouring lands might bring it before the Feast of Weeks, and those from such remote countries as Babylonia and Media as late as the Feast of Tabernacles. 10 Lastly, although the Mishnah lays it down, that the goods of those might be distrained, who had not paid the Temple-tribute by the 25th Adar, it is scarcely credible that this obtained at the time of Christ, 11 at any rate in Galilee. Indeed, this seems implied in the statement of the Mishnah 12 and the Talmud, 13 that one of the ‘thirteen trumpets’ in the Temple, into which contributions were cast, was destined for the shekels of the current, and another for those of the preceding, year. Finally, these Temple-contributions were in the first place devoted to the purchase of all public sacrifices, that is, those which were offered in the name of the whole congregation of Israel, such as the morning and evening sacrifices. It will be remembered, that this was one of the points in fierce dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and that the former perpetuated their triumph by marking its anniversary as a festive day in their calendar. It seems a terrible irony of judgment 14 when Vespasian ordered, after the destruction of the Temple, that this tribute should henceforth be paid for the rebuilding of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.
It will be remembered that, shortly before the previous Passover, Jesus with His disciples had left Capernaum, 16 That they returned to the latter city only for the Sabbath, and that, as we have suggested, they passed the first Paschal days on the borders of Tyre. We have, indeed, no means of knowing where the Master had tarried during the ten days between the 15th and the 25th Adar, supposing the Mishnic arrangements to have been in force in Capernaum. He was certainly not at Capernaum, and it must also have been known, that He had not gone up to Jerusalem for the Passover. Accordingly, when it was told in Capernaum, that the Rabbi of Nazareth had once more come to what seems to have been His Galilean home, it was only natural, that they who collected the Temple-tribute 17 should have applied for its payment. It is quite possible, that their application may have been, if not prompted, yet quickened, by the wish to involve Him in a breach of so well-known an obligation, or else by a hostile curiosity. Would He, Who took so strangely different views of Jewish observances, and Who made such extraordinary claims, own the duty of paying the Temple-tribute? Had it been owing to His absence, or from principle, that He had not paid it last Passover-season? The question which they put to Peter implies, at least, their doubt.
We have already seen what motives prompted the hasty reply of Peter. He might, indeed, also otherwise, in his rashness, have given an affirmative answer to the inquiry, without first consulting the Master. For there seems little doubt, that Jesus had on former occasions complied with the Jewish custom. But matters were now wholly changed. Since the first Passover, which had marked His first public appearance in the Temple at Jerusalem, He had stated – and quite lately in most explicit terms – that He was the Christ, the Son of God. To have now paid the Temple-tribute, without explanation, might have involved a very serious misapprehension. In view of all this, the history before us seems alike simple and natural. There is no pretext for the artificial construction put upon it by commentators, any more than for the suggestion, that such was the poverty of the Master and His disciples, that the small sum requisite for the Temple-tribute had to be miraculously supplied.
We picture it to ourselves on this wise. Those who received the Tribute-money had come to Peter, and perhaps met him in the court or corridor, and asked him: ‘Your Teacher (Rabbi), does He not pay the didrachma?’ While Peter hastily responded in the affirmative, and then entered into the house to procure the coin, or else to report what has passed, Jesus, Who had been in another part of the house, but was cognisant of all, ‘anticipated him.’ 18 Addressing him in kindly language as ‘Simon,’ He pointed out the real state of matters by an illustration which must, of course, not be too literally pressed, and of which the meaning was: Whom does a King intend to tax for the maintenance of his palace and officers? Surely not his own family, but others. The inference from this, as regarded the Temple-tribute, was obvious. As in all similar Jewish parabolic teaching, it was only indicated in general principle: ‘Then are the children free.’ But even so, be it as Peter had wished, although not from the same motive. Let no needless offence be given; for, assuredly, they would not have understood the principle on which Christ would have refused the Tribute money, 19 and all misunderstanding on the part of Peter was now impossible. Yet Christ would still further vindicate His royal title. He will pay for Peter also, and pay, as heaven’s King, with a Stater, or four-drachma piece, miraculously provided.
Thus viewed, there is, we submit, a moral purpose and spiritual instruction in the provision of the Stater out of the fish’s mouth. The rationalistic explanation of it need not be seriously considered; for any mythical interpretation there is not the shadow of support in Biblical precedent or Jewish expectancy. But the narrative in its literality has a true and high meaning. And if we wished to mark the difference between its sober simplicity and the extravagances of legend, we would remind ourselves, not only of the well-known story of the Ring of Polycrates, but of two somewhat kindred Jewish Haggadahs. They are both intended to glorify the Jewish mode of Sabbath observance. One of them bears that one Joseph, known as ‘the honourer’ of the Sabbath, had a wealthy heathen neighbour, to whom the Chaldæans had prophesied that all his riches would come to Joseph. To render this impossible, the wealthy man converted all his property into one magnificent gem, which he carefully concealed within his head-gear. Then he took ship, so as for ever to avoid the dangerous vicinity of the Jew. But the wind blew his head-gear into the sea, and the gem was swallowed by a fish. And lo! it was the holy season, and they brought to the market a splendid fish. Who would purchase it but Joseph, for none as he would prepare to honour the day by the best which he could provide. But when they opened the fish, the gem was found in it – the moral being: ‘He that borroweth for the Sabbath, the Sabbath will repay him.’
The other legend is similar. It was in Rome (in the Christian world) that a poor tailor went to market to buy a fish for a festive meal. 21 Only one was on sale, and for it there was keen competition between the servant of a Prince and the Jew, the latter at last buying it for not less than twelve dinars. At the banquet, the Prince inquired of his servants why no fish had been provided. When he ascertained the cause, he sent for the Jew with the threatening inquiry, how a poor tailor could afford to pay twelve dinars for a fish? ‘My Lord,’ replied the Jew, ‘there is a day on which all our sins are remitted us, and should we not honour it?’ The answer satisfied the Prince. But God rewarded the Jew, for, when the fish was opened, a precious gem was found in it, which he sold, and ever afterwards lived of the proceeds.
The reader can scarcely fail to mark the absolute difference between even the most beautiful Jewish legends and any trait in the Evangelic history.
As we look at it, in the light of the then mental and spiritual state of the Apostles, not in that in which, perhaps naturally, we regard them, what happened seems not difficult to understand. As St. Mark puts it, 23 by the way they had disputed among themselves which of them would be the greatest – as St. Matthew explains, 24 in the Messianic Kingdom of Heaven. They might now the more confidently expect its near Advent from the mysterious announcement of the Resurrection on the third day, 25 which they would probably connect with the commencement of the last Judgment, following upon the violent Death of the Messiah. Of a dispute, serious and even violent, among the disciples, we have evidence in the exhortation of the Master, as reported by St. Mark, in the direction of the Lord how to deal with an offending brother, and in the answering inquiry of Peter. Nor can we be at a loss to perceive its occasion. The distinction just bestowed on the three, in being taken up the Mount, may have roused feelings of jealousy in the others perhaps of self-exaltation in the three. Alike the spirit which John displayed in his harsh prohibition of the man that did not follow with the disciples, and the self-righteous bargaining of Peter about forgiving the supposed or real offences of a brother, give evidence of anything but the frame of mind which we would have expected after the Vision on the Mount.
In truth, most incongruous as it may appear to us, looking back on it in the light of the Resurrection, day, nay, almost incredible – evidently, the Apostles were still greatly under the influence of the old spirit. It was the common Jewish view, that there would be distinctions of rank in the Kingdom of Heaven. It can scarcely be necessary to prove this by Rabbinic quotations, since the whole system of Rabbinism and Pharisaism, with its separation from the vulgar and ignorant, rests upon it. But even within the charmed circle of Rabbinism, there would be distinctions, due to learning, merit, and even to favouritism. In this world there were His special favourites, who could command anything at His hand, to use the Rabbinic illustration, like a spoilt child from its father. 30 31 And in the Messianic age God would assign booths to each according to his rank. 32 On the other hand, many passages could be quoted bearing on the duty of humility and self-abasement. But the stress laid on the merit attaching to this shows too clearly, that it was the pride that apes humility. One instance, 33 previously referred to, will suffice by way of illustration. When the child of the great Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai was dangerously ill, he was restored through the prayer of one Chanina ben Dosa. On this the father of the child remarked to his wife: ‘If the son of Zakkai had all day long put his head between his knees, no heed would have been given to him.’ ‘How is that?’ asked his wife; ‘is Chanina greater than thou?’ ‘No,’ was the reply, ‘he is like a servant before the King, while I am like a prince before the King’ (he is always there, and has thus opportunities which I, as a lord, do not enjoy).
How deep-rooted were such thoughts and feelings, appears not only from the dispute of the disciples by the way, but from the request proffered by the mother of Zebedee’s children and her sons at a later period, in terrible contrast to the near Passion of our Lord. 34 It does, indeed come upon us as a most painful surprise, and as sadly incongruous, this constant self-obtrusion, self-assertion, and low, carnal self-seeking; this Judaistic trifling in face of the utter self-abnegation and self-sacrifice of the Son of Man. Surely, the contrast between Christ and His disciples seems at times almost as great as between Him and the other Jews. If we would measure His Stature, or comprehend the infinite distance between His aims and teaching and those of His contemporaries, let it be by comparison with even the best of His disciples. It must have been part of His humiliation and self-examination to bear with them. And is it not, in a sense, still so as regards us all?
We have already seen, that there was quite sufficient occasion and material for such a dispute on the way from the Mount of Transfiguration to Capernaum. We suppose Peter to have been only at the first with the others. To judge by the later question, how often he was to forgive the brother who had sinned against him, he may have been so deeply hurt, that he left the other disciples, and hastened on with the Master, Who would, at any rate, sojourn in his house. For, neither he nor Christ seem to have been present when John and the others forbade the man, who would not follow with them, to cast out demons in Christ’s name. Again, the other disciples only came into Capernaum, and entered the house, just as Peter had gone for the Stater, with which to pay the Temple-tribute for the Master and himself. And, if speculation be permissible, we would suggest that the brother, whose offences Peter found it so difficult to forgive, may have been none other than Judas. In such a dispute by the way, he, with his Judaistic views, would be specially interested; perhaps he may have been its chief instigator; certainly, he, whose natural character, amidst its sharp contrasts to that of Peter, presented so many points of resemblance to it, would, on many grounds, be specially jealous of, and antagonistic to him.
Quite natural in view of this dispute by the way is another incident of the journey, which is afterwards related. 35 As we judge, John seems to have been the principal actor in it; perhaps, in the absence of Peter, he claimed the leadership. They had met one who was casting out demons in the Name of Christ – whether successfully or not, we need scarcely inquire. So widely had faith in the power of Jesus extended; so real was the belief in the subjection of the demons to Him; so reverent was the acknowledgment of Him. A man, who, thus forsaking the methods of Jewish exorcists, owned Jesus in the face of the Jewish world, could not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven; at any rate, he could not quickly speak evil of Him. John had, in name of the disciples, forbidden him, because he had not cast in his lot wholly with them. It was quite in the spirit of their ideas about the Messianic Kingdom, and of their dispute, which of His close followers would be greatest there. And yet, they might deceive themselves as to the motives of their conduct. If it were not almost impertinence to use such terms, we would have said that there was infinite wisdom and kindness in the answer which the Saviour gave, when referred to on the subject. To forbid a man, in such circumstances, would be either prompted by the spirit of the dispute by the way – or else must be grounded on evidence that the motive was, or the effect would ultimately be (as in the case of the sons of Sceva) to lead men ‘to speak evil’ of Christ, or to hinder the work of His disciples. Assuredly, such could not have been the case with a man, who invoked His Name, and perhaps experienced its efficacy. More than this – and here is an eternal principle: ‘He that is not against us is for us;’ he that opposeth not the disciples, really is for them – a saying still more clear, when we adopt the better reading in St. Luke, 36 ‘He that is not against you is for you.’ 37
There was reproof in this, as well as instruction, deeply consistent with that other, though seemingly different, saying: 38 ‘He that is not with Me is against Me.’ The distinction between them is twofold. In the one case it is ‘not against,’ in the other it is ‘not with;’ but chiefly it lies in this: in the one case it is not against the disciples in their work, while in the other it is – not with Christ. A man who did what he could with such knowledge of Christ as he possessed, even although he did not absolutely follow with them, was ‘not against’ them. Such an one should be regarded as thus far with them; at least be let alone, left to Him Who knew all things. Such a man would not lightly speak evil of Christ – and that was all the disciples should care for, unless, indeed, they sought their own. Quite other was it as regarded the relation of a person to the Christ Himself. There neutrality was impossible – and that which was not with Christ, by this very fact was against Him. The lesson is of the most deep-reaching character, and the distinction, alas! still overlooked – perhaps, because ours is too often the spirit of those who journeyed to Capernaum. Not, that it is unimportant to follow with the disciples, but that it is not ours to forbid any work done, however imperfectly, in His Name, and that only one question is really vital – whether or not a man is decidedly with Christ.
Such were the incidents by the way. And now, while withholding from Christ their dispute, and, indeed, anything that might seem personal in the question, the disciples, on entering the house where He was in Capernaum, addressed to Him this inquiry (which should be inserted from the opening words of St. Matthew’s narrative): ‘Who, then, is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ It was a general question – but Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts; 39 He knew about what they had disputed by the way, 40 and now asked them concerning it. The account of St. Mark is most graphic. We almost see the scene. Conscience-stricken ‘they held their peace.’ As we read the further words: 41 ‘And He sat down,’ it seems as if the Master had a first gone to welcome the disciples on their arrival, and they, ‘full of their dispute,’ had, without delay, addressed their inquiry to him in the court or antechamber, where they met Him, when, reading their thoughts, He had first put the searching counter-question, what had been the subject of their dispute. Then, leading the way into the house, ‘He sat down,’ not only to answer their inquiry, which was not a real inquiry, but to teach them what so much they needed to learn. He called a little child – perhaps Peter’s little son – and put him in the midst of them. Not to strive who was to be greatest, but to be utterly without self-consciousness, like a child – thus, to become turned and entirely changed in mind: ‘converted,’ was the condition for entering into the Kingdom of Heaven. Then, as to the question of greatness there, it was really one of greatness of service – and that was greatest service which implied most self-denial. Suiting the action to the teaching, the Blessed Saviour took the happy child in His Arms. Not, to teach, to preach, to work miracles, nor to do great things, but to do the humblest service for Christ’s sake – lovingly, earnestly, wholly, self-forgetfully, simply for Christ, was to receive Christ – nay, to receive the Father. And the smallest service, as it might seem – even the giving a cup of cold water in such spirit, would not lose its reward. Blessed teaching this to the disciples and to us; blessed lesson, which, these many centuries of scorching heat, has been of unspeakable refreshing, alike to the giver and the receiver of the cup of water in the Name of Christ, in the love of Christ, and for the sake of Christ. 42
These words about receiving Christ, and ‘receiving in the Name of Christ,’ had stirred the memory and conscience of John, and made him half wonder, half fear, whether what they had done by the way, in forbidding the man to do what he could in the name of Christ, had been right. And so he told it, and received the further and higher teaching on the subject. And, more than this, St. Mark and, more fully, St. Matthew, record some further instruction in connection with it, to which St. Luke refers, in a slightly different form, at a somewhat later period. But it seems so congruous to the present occasion, that we conclude it was then spoken, although, like other sayings, 44 it may have been afterwards repeated under similar circumstances. 45 Certainly, no more effective continuation, and application to Jewish minds, of the teaching of our Lord could be conceived than that which follows. For, the love of Christ goes deeper than the condescension of receiving a child, utterly un-Pharisaic and un-Rabbinic as this is. 46 To have regard to the weaknesses of such a child – to its mental and moral ignorance and folly, to adapt ourselves to it, to restrain our fuller knowledge and forego our felt liberty, so as not ‘to offend’ – not to give occasion for stumbling to ‘one of these little ones,’ that so through our knowledge the weak brother for whom Christ died should not perish: this is a lesson which reaches even deeper than the question, what is the condition of entrance into the Kingdom, or what service constitutes real greatness in it. A man may enter into the Kingdom and do service – yet, if in so doing he disregard the law of love to the little ones, far better his work should be abruptly cut short; better, one of those large millstones, turned by an ass, were hung about his neck and he cast into the sea! We pause to note, once more, the Judaic, and, therefore, evidential, setting of the Evangelic narrative. The Talmud also speaks of two kinds of millstones – the one turned by hand, referred to in Luke 17 v 35; the other turned by an ass, just as the Talmud also speaks of ‘the ass of the millstone’. 8 Similarly, the figure about a millstone hung round the neck occurs also in the Talmud – although there as figurative of almost insuperable difficulties. 49 Again, the expression, ‘it were better for him,’ is a well-known Rabbinic expression. Lastly, according to St. Jerome, the punishment which seems alluded to in the words of Christ, and which we know to have been inflicted by Augustus, was actually practised by the Romans in Galilee on some of the leaders of the insurrection under Judas of Galilee.
And yet greater guilt would only too surely be incurred! Woe unto the world! Occasions of stumbling and offence will surely come, but woe to the man through whom such havoc was wrought. What then is the alternative? If it be a question as between offence and some part of ourselves, a limb or member, however useful – the hand, the foot, the eye – then let it rather be severed from the body, however painful, or however seemingly great the loss. It cannot be so great as that of the whole being in the eternal fire of Gehenna, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. it hand, foot, or eye – practice, pursuit, or research – which consciously leads us to occasions of stumbling, it must be resolutely put aside in view of the incomparably greater loss of eternal remorse and anguish.
Here St. Mark abruptly breaks off with a saying in which the Saviour makes general application, although the narrative is further continued by St. Matthew. The words reported by St. Mark are so remarkable, so brief, we had almost said truncated, as to require special consideration. 53 It seems to us that, turning from this thought that even members which are intended for useful service may, in certain circumstances, have to be cut off to avoid the greatest loss, the Lord gave to His disciples this as the final summary and explanation of all: ‘For every one shall be salted for the fire’ 54 – or, as a very early gloss, which has strangely crept into the text, 55 paraphrased and explained it, ‘Every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.’ 56 No one is fit for the sacrificial fire, no one can himself be, nor offer anything as a sacrifice, unless it have been first, according to the Levitical Law, covered with salt, symbolic of the incorruptible. ‘Salt is good; but if the salt,’ with which the spiritual sacrifice is to be salted for the fire, ‘have lost its savour, wherewith will ye season it?’ Hence, ‘have salt in yourselves,’ but do not let that salt be corrupted by making it an occasion of offence to others, or among yourselves, as in the dispute by the way, or in the disposition of mind that led to it, or in forbidding others to work who follow not with you, but ‘be at peace among yourselves.’
To this explanation of the words of Christ it may, perhaps, be added that, from their form, they must have conveyed a special meaning to the disciples. It is well-known law, that every sacrifice burned on the Altar must be salted with salt. 57 Indeed, according to the Talmud, not only every such offering, but even the wood with which the sacrificial fire was kindled, was sprinkled with salt. Salt symbolised to the Jews of that time the incorruptible and the higher. Thus, the soul was compared to the salt, and it was said concerning the dead: ‘Shake off the salt, and throw the flesh to the dogs.’ 59 The Bible was compared to salt; so was acuteness of intellect. 60 Lastly, the question: ‘If the salt have lost its savour, wherewith will ye season it?’ seems to have been proverbial, and occurs in exactly the same words in the Talmud, apparently to denote a thing that is impossible.
Most thoroughly anti-Pharisaic and anti-Rabbinic as all this was, what St. Matthew further reports leads still farther in the same direction. We seem to see Jesus still holding this child, and, with evident reference to the Jewish contempt for that which is small, point to him and apply, in quite other manner than they had ever heard, the Rabbinic teaching about the Angels. In the Jewish view, 63 only the chiefest of the Angels were before the Face of God within the curtained Veil, or Pargod, while the others, ranged in different classes, stood outside and awaited his behest. The distinction which the former enjoyed was always to behold His Face, and to hear and know directly the Divine counsels and commands. This distinction was, therefore, one of knowledge; Christ taught that it was one of love. Not the more exalted in knowledge, and merit, or worth, but the simpler, the more unconscious of self, the more receptive and clinging – the nearer to God. Look up from earth to heaven; those representative, it may be, guardian, Angels nearest to God, are not those of deepest knowledge of God’s counsel and commands, but those of simple, humble grace and faith – and so learn, not only not to despise one of these little ones, but who is truly greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven!
Viewed in this light, there is nothing incongruous in the transition: ‘For the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost.’ This, His greatest condescension when He became the Babe of Bethlehem, is also His greatest exaltation. He Who is nearest the Father, and, in the most special and unique sense, always beholds His Face, is He that became a Child, and, as the Son of Man, stoops lowest, to save that which was lost. The words are, indeed, regarded as spurious by most critics, because certain leading manuscripts omit them, and they are supposed to have been imported from Luke 19 v 10. But such a transference from a context wholly unconnected with this section 66 seems unaccountable, while, on the other hand, the verse in question forms, not only an apt, but almost necessary, transition to the Parable of the Lost Sheep. It seems, therefore, difficult to eliminate it without also striking out that Parable; and yet it fits most beautifully into the whole context. Suffice it for the present to note this. The Parable itself is more fully repeated in another connection, in which it will be more convenient to consider it.
Yet a further depth of Christian love remained to be shown, which, all self-forgetful, sought not its own, but the things of others. This also bore on the circumstances of the time, and the dispute between the disciples, but went far beyond it, and set forth eternal principles. Hitherto it had been a question of not seeking self, nor minding great things, but Christ-like and God-like, to condescend to the little ones. What if actual wrong had been done, and just offence given by a ‘brother’? In such case, also, the principle of the Kingdom – which, negatively, is that of self-forgetfulness, positively, that of service of love – would first seek the good of the offending brother. We mark, here, the contrast to Rabbinism, which directs that the first overtures must be made by the offender, not the offended; 69 and even prescribes this to be done in the presence of numerous witnesses, and, if needful, repeated three times. 70 As regards the duty of showing to a brother his fault, and the delicate tenderness of doing this in private, so as not to put him to shame, Rabbinism speaks the same as the Master of Nazareth. In fact, according to Jewish criminal law, punishment could not be inflicted unless the offender (even the woman suspected of adultery) had previously been warned before witnesses. Yet, in practice, matters were very different: and neither could those be found who would take reproof, nor yet such as were worthy to administer it.
Quite other was it in the Kingdom of Christ, where the theory was left undefined, but the practice clearly marked. Here, by loving dealing, to convince of his wrong, him who had done it, was not humiliation nor loss of dignity or of right, but real gain: the gain of our brother to us, and eventually to Christ Himself. But even if this should fail, the offended must not desist from his service of love, but conjoin in it others with himself so as to give weight and authority to his remonstrances, as not being the outcome of personal feeling or prejudice – perhaps, also, to be witnesses before the Divine tribunal. If this failed, a final appeal should be made on the part of the Church as a whole, which, of course, could only be done through her representatives and rulers, to whom Divine authority had been committed. And if that were rejected, the offer of love would, as always in the Gospel, pass into danger of judgment. Not, indeed, that such was to be executed by man, but that such an offender, after the first and second admonition, was to be rejected. 73 He was to be treated as was the custom in regard to a heathen or a publican – not persecuted, despised, or avoided, but not received in Church-fellowship (a heathen), nor admitted to close familiar intercourse (a publican). And this, as we understand it, marks out the mode of what is called Church discipline in general, and specifically as regards wrongs done to a brother. Discipline so exercised (which may God restore to us) has the highest Divine sanction, and the most earnest reality attaches to it. For, in virtue of the authority which Christ has committed to the Church in the persons of her rulers and representatives, 74 what they bound or loosed – declared obligatory or non-obligatory – was ratified in heaven. Nor was this to be wondered at. The incarnation of Christ was the link which bound earth to heaven: through it whatever was agreed upon in the fellowship of Christ, as that which was to be asked, would be done for them of his Father Which was in heaven. 75 Thus, the power of the Church reached up to heaven through the power of prayer in His Name Who made God our Father. And so, beyond the exercise of discipline and authority, there was the omnipotence of prayer – ‘if two of you shall agree . . . as touching anything . . . it shall be done for them’ – and, with it, also the infinite possibility of a higher service of love. For, in the smallest gathering in the Name of Christ, His Presence would be, 76 and with it the certainty of nearness to, and acceptance with, God.
It is bitterly disappointing that, after such teaching, even a Peter could – either immediately afterwards, or perhaps after he had had time to think it over, and apply it – come to the Master with the question, how often he was to forgive an offending brother, imagining that he had more than satisfied the new requirements, if he extended it to seven times. Such traits show better than elaborate discussions the need of the mission and the renewing of the Holy Ghost. And yet there is something touching in the simplicity and honesty with which Peter goes to the Master with such a misapprehension of His teaching, as if he had fully entered into its spirit. Surely, the new wine was bursting the old bottles. It was a principle of Rabbinism that, even if the wrongdoer had made full restoration, he would not obtain forgiveness till he had asked it of him whom he had wronged, but that it was cruelty in such circumstances to refuse pardon. The Jerusalem Talmud 80 adds the beautiful remark: ‘Let this be a token in thine hand – each time that thou showest mercy, God will show mercy on thee; and if thou showest not mercy, neither will God show mercy on thee.’ And yet it was a settled rule, that forgiveness should not be extended more than three times. Even so, the practice was terribly different. The Talmud relates, without blame, the conduct of a Rabbi, who would not forgive a very small slight of his dignity, though asked by the offender for thirteen successive years, and that on the Day of Atonement – the reason being, that the offended Rabbi had learned by a dream that his offending brother would attain the highest dignity, whereupon he feigned himself irreconcilable, to force the other to migrate from Palestine to Babylon, where, unenvied by him, he might occupy the chief place!
And so it must have seemed to Peter, in his ignorance, quite a stretch of charity to extend forgiveness to seven, instead of three offences. It did not occur to him, that the very act of numbering offences marked an externalism which had never entered into, nor comprehended the spirit of Christ. Until seven times? Nay, until seventy times seven! The evident purport of these words was to efface all such landmarks. Peter had yet to learn, what we, alas! too often forget: that as Christ’s forgiveness, so that of the Christian, must not be computed by numbers. It is qualitative, not quantitative: Christ forgives sin, not sins – and he who has experienced it, follows in His footsteps.