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SECTION I. COUNSELS OF PERFECTION
After His final departure from Galilee, Jesus found for Himself a new place of abode and scene of labor for the brief remainder of His life, in the region lying to the eastward of the Jordan, at the lower end of its course. “He departed from Galilee, and came into the borders of Judea beyond Jordan.”368368Matt. xix. 1. We may say that He ended His ministry where it began, healing the sick, and teaching the high doctrines of the kingdom in the place which witnessed His consecration by baptism to His sacred work, and where He gained His first disciples.369369See ch. i.
This visit of Jesus to Persia towards the close of His career is a fact most interesting and significant in itself, apart altogether from its accompanying incidents. It was evidently so regarded by John, who not less carefully than the two first evangelists records the fact of the visit, though, unlike them, he gives no details concerning it. The terms in which he alludes to this event are peculiar. Having briefly explained how Jesus had provoked the ill-will of the Jews in Jerusalem at the feast of dedication, he goes on to say: “Therefore they sought again to take Him; but He escaped out of their hands, and went away again beyond Jordan, into the place where John at first baptized.”370370John x. 40. The word “again,” and the reference to the Baptist, are indicative of reflection and recollection — windows letting us see into John’s heart. He is thinking with emotion of his personal experiences connected with the first visit of Jesus to those sacred regions, of his first meeting with his beloved Master, and of the mystic name given to Him by the Baptist, “the Lamb of God” then uncomprehended by the disciples, now on the eve of being expounded by events; and to the evangelist writing his Gospel, clear as day in the bright light of the cross.
It was hardly possible that the disciple whom Jesus loved could do other than think of the first visit when speaking of the second. Even the multitude, as he records, reverted mentally to the earlier occasion while following Jesus in the later. They remembered what John, His forerunner, had said of One among them whom they knew not, and who yet was far greater than himself; and they remarked that his statements, however improbable they might have appeared at the time, had been verified by events, and he himself proved to be a true prophet by Christ’s miracles, if not by his own. “John,” said they to each other, “did no miracle; but all things that John said of this man were true.”371371John x. 41.
If John the disciple, and even the common people, thought of the first visit of Jesus to Persia at the time of His second, we may be sure that Jesus Himself did so also. He had His own reasons, doubt it not, for going back to that hallowed neighborhood. His journey to the Jordan, we believe, was a pilgrimage to holy ground, on which He could not set His foot without profound emotion. For there lay His Bethel, where He had made a solemn baptismal vow, not, as Jacob, to give a tithe of His substance, but to give Himself, body and soul, a sacrifice to His Father, in life and in death; there the Spirit had descended on Him like a dove; there He had heard a celestial voice of approval and encouragement, the reward of His entire self-surrender to His Father’s holy will. All the recollections of the place were heart stirring, recalling solemn obligations, inspiring holy hopes, urging Him on to the grand consummation of His life-work; charging Him by His baptism, His vows, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice from heaven, to crown His labors of love, by drinking of the cup of suffering and death for man’s redemption. To these voices of the past He willingly opened His ear. He wished to hear them, that by their hallowed tones His spirit might be braced and solemnized for the coming agony.
While retiring to Persia for these private reasons, that He might muse on the past and the future, and link sacred memories to solemn anticipations, Jesus did not by any means live there a life of seclusion and solitary meditation. On the contrary, during His sojourn in that neighborhood, He was unusually busy healing the sick, teaching the multitude “as He was wont” (so Mark states, with a mental reference to the past ministry in Galilee), answering inquiries, receiving visits, granting favors. “Many resorted unto Him” there on various errands. Pharisees came, asking entangling questions about marriage and divorce, hoping to catch Him in a trap, and commit Him to the expression of an opinion which would make Him unpopular with some party or school, Hillel’s or Shammai’s,372372The question of divorce was a subject of dispute between these two schools, the loose and the strict schools of morals respectively. it did not matter which. A young ruler came with more honorable intent, to inquire how he might obtain eternal life. Mothers came with their little ones, beseeching for them His blessing, thinking it worth getting, and not fearing denial; and messengers came with sorrowful tidings from friends, who looked to Him as their comfort in the time of trouble.373373John xi.
Though busily occupied among the thronging crowd, Jesus contrived to have some leisure hours with His chosen disciples, during which He taught them some new lessons on the doctrine of the divine kingdom. The subject of these lessons was sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom — a theme congenial to the place, the time, the situation, and the mood of the Teacher. The external occasion suggesting that topic was supplied by the interviews Jesus had had with the Pharisees and the young ruler. These interviews naturally led Him to speak to His disciples on the subject of self-sacrifice under two special forms, — abstinence from marriage and renunciation of property, — though He did not confine His discourse to these points, but went on to set forth the rewards of self-sacrifice in any form, and the spirit in which all sacrifices must be performed, in order to possess value in God’s sight.
The Pharisees, we read, “came unto Him, tempting Him, and saying, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” To this question Jesus replied, by laying down the primitive principle, that divorce was justified only by conjugal infidelity, and by explaining, that any thing to the contrary in the law of Moses was simply an accommodation to the hardness of men’s hearts. The disciples heard this reply, and they made their own remarks on it. They said to Jesus: “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” The view enunciated by their Master, which took no account of incompatibility of temper, involuntary dislike, uncongeniality of habits, differences in religion, quarrels among relatives, as pleas for separation, seemed very stringent even to them; and they thought that a man would do well to consider what he was about before committing himself to a life-long engagement with such possibilities before him, and to ask himself whether it would not be better, on the whole, to steer clear of such a sea of troubles, by abstaining from wedlock altogether.
The impromptu remark of the disciples, viewed in connection with its probable motives, was not a very wise one; yet it is to be observed that Jesus did not absolutely disapprove of it. He spoke as if He rather sympathized with the feeling in favor of celibacy, — as if to abstain from marriage were the better and wiser way, and only not to be required of men because for the majority it was impracticable. “But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.” Then going on to enumerate the cases in which, from any cause, men remained unmarried, He spoke with apparent approbation of some who voluntarily, and from high and holy motives, denied themselves the comfort of family relationships: “There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Such, He finally gave His disciples to understand, were to be imitated by all who felt called and able to do so. “He that is able to receive (this high virtue), let him receive it,” He said; hinting that, while many men could not receive it, but could more easily endure all possible drawbacks of married life, even on the strictest views of conjugal obligation, than preserve perfect chastity in an unmarried state, it was well for him who could make himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven, as he would not only escape much trouble, but be free from carefulness, and be able to serve the kingdom without distraction.
The other form of self-sacrifice — the renunciation of property — became the subject of remark between Jesus and His disciples, in consequence of the interview with the young man who came inquiring about eternal life. Jesus, reading the heart of this anxious inquirer, and perceiving that he loved this world’s goods more than was consistent with spiritual freedom and entire singleness of mind, had concluded His directions to him by giving this counsel: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and then thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, and follow me.” The young man having thereon turned away sorrowful, because, though desiring eternal life, he was unwilling to obtain it at such a price, Jesus proceeded to make his case a subject of reflection for the instruction of the twelve. In the observations He made He did not expressly say that to part with property was necessary to salvation, but He did speak in a manner which seemed to the disciples almost to imply that. Looking round about, He remarked to them first, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” The disciples being astonished at this hard saying, He softened it somewhat by altering slightly the form of expression. “Children,” he said, “how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!”374374Mark x. 24. The reading here, however, is doubtful; some copies giving a reading to this effect: “How hard it is to enter into the kingdom of God’ (πῶς δύσκολόν ἐστιν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ εἰσελθεῖν). Alford regards this reading as a mistake of the copyist, due to similar ending of ἐστιν and χρήμασιν (the words omitted being τούς πεποιθότας ἐπὶ χρήμασιν). The abbreviated reading is adopted by Tischendorf (8th ed.), and by Westcott and Hort in their valuable edition of the Greek Testament. The revisers adhere to the old text. hinting that the thing to be renounced in order to salvation was not money, but the inordinate love of it. But then He added a third reflection, which, by its austerity, more than cancelled the mildness of the second. “It is easier,” He declared, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” That assertion, literally interpreted, amounts to a declaration that the salvation of a rich man is an impossibility, and seems to teach by plain implication, that the only way for a rich man to get into heaven is to cease to be rich, and become poor by a voluntary renunciation of property. Such seems to have been the impression made thereby on the minds of the disciples: for we read that they were astonished above measure, and said among themselves, “Who then can be saved?”375375Mark x. 23-27.
It is an inquiry of vital moment what our Lord really meant to teach on the subjects of marriage and money. The question concerns not merely the life to come, but the whole character of our present life. For if man’s life on earth doth not consist wholly in possessions and family relations, these occupy a very prominent place therein. Family relations are essential to the existence of society, and without wealth there could be no civilization. Did Jesus, then, frown or look down on these things, as at least unfavorable to, if not incompatible with, the interests of the divine kingdom and the aspirations of its citizens?
This question up till the time of the Reformation was for the most part answered by the visible church in the affirmative. From a very early period the idea began to be entertained that Jesus meant to teach the intrinsic superiority, in point of Christian virtue, of a life of celibacy and voluntary poverty, over that of a married man possessing property. Abstinence from marriage and renunciation of earthly possessions came, in consequence, to be regarded as essential requisites for high Christian attainments. They were steps of the ladder by which Christians rose to higher grades of grace than were attainable by men involved in family cares and ties, and in the entanglements of worldly substance. They were not, indeed, necessary to salvation, — to obtain, that is, a simple admission into heaven, — but they were necessary to obtain an abundant entrance. They were trials of virtue appointed to be undergone by candidates for honors in the city of God. They were indispensable conditions of the higher degrees of spiritual fruitfulness. A married or rich Christian might produce thirty-fold, but only those who denied themselves the enjoyments of wealth and wedlock could bring forth sixty-fold or an hundred-fold. While, therefore, these virtues of abstinence were not to be demanded of all, they were to be commended as “counsels of perfection” to such as, not content to be commonplace Christians, would rise to the heroic pitch of excellence, and, despising a simple admission into the divine kingdom, wished to occupy first places there.
This style of thought is now so antiquated that it is hard to believe it ever prevailed. As a proof, however, that it is no invention of ours, take two brief extracts from a distinguished bishop and martyr of the third century, Cyprian of Carthage, which are samples of much of the same kind to be found in the early Fathers of the church. The one quotation proclaims the superior virtue of voluntary virginity in these terms: “Strait and narrow is the way which leads to life, hard and arduous is the path (limes, narrower still than the narrow way) which tends to glory. Along this path of the way go the martyrs, go virgins, go all the just. For the first (degree of fruitfulness), the hundred-fold, is that of the martyrs; the second, the sixty-fold, is yours (ye virgins).”376376De Disciplinâ et Habitu, sub finem (Clark’s Ante-Nicene Library, Cyprian, i. 333). The second extract, while ascribing, like the first, superior merit to virginity, indicates the optional character of that high-class virtue. Referring to the words of Christ, “There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” Cyprian says: “This the Lord commands not, but exhorts; He imposes not the yoke of necessity, that the free choice of the will might remain. But whereas he says (John xiv. 2), that there are many mansions with His Father, He here points out the lodging quarters of the better mansion (melioris habitaculi hospitia). Seek ye, O virgins, those better mansions. Crucifying (castrantes) the desires of the flesh, obtain for yourselves the reward of greater grace in the celestial abodes.”377377Ex eodem libro.
Similar views were entertained in those early ages respecting the meaning of Christ’s words to the young man. The inevitable results of such interpretations in due course were monastic institutions and the celibacy of the clergy. The direct connection between an ascetic interpretation of the counsel given by Jesus to the rich youth who inquired after eternal life, and the rise of monasticism, is apparent in the history of Antony, the father of the monastic system. It is related of him, that going into the church on one occasion when the Gospel concerning the rich young man was read before the assembly, he, then also young, took the words as addressed by Heaven to himself. Going out of the church, he forthwith proceeded to distribute to the inhabitants of his native village his large, fertile, and beautiful landed estates which he inherited from his fathers, reserving only a small portion of his property for the benefit of his sister. Not long after he gave away that also, and placed his sister to be educated with a society of pious virgins, and settling down near his paternal mansion, began a life of rigid asceticism.378378Vita S. Antonii (Athanasii). See also Neander, Church History, Clark’s edition, ii. 308.
The ascetic theory of Christian virtue, which so soon began to prevail in the church, has been fully tested by time, and proved to be a huge and mischievous mistake. The verdict of history is conclusive, and to return to an exploded error, as some seem disposed to do, is utter folly. At this time of day, the views of those who would find the beau-ideal of Christian life in a monk’s cell appear hardly worthy of serious refutation. It may, however, be useful briefly to indicate the leading errors of the monkish theory of morals; all the more that, in doing this, we shall at the same time be explaining the true meaning of our Lord’s words to His disciples.
This theory, then, is in the first place based on an erroneous assumption — viz., that abstinence from things lawful is intrinsically a higher sort of virtue than temperance in the use of them. This is not true. Abstinence is the virtue of the weak, temperance is the virtue of the strong. Abstinence is certainly the safer way for those who are prone to inordinate affection, but it purchases safety at the expense of moral culture; for it removes us from those temptations connected with family relationships and earthly possessions, through which character, while it may be imperilled, is at the same time developed and strengthened. Abstinence is also inferior to temperance in healthiness of tone. It tends inevitably to morbidity, distortion, exaggeration. The ascetic virtues were wont to be called by their admirers angelic. They are certainly angelic in the negative sense of being unnatural and inhuman. Ascetic abstinence is the ghost or disembodied spirit of morality, while temperance is its soul, embodied in a genuine human life transacted amid earthly relations, occupations, and enjoyments. Abstinence is even inferior to temperance in respect to what seems its strong point — self-sacrifice. There is something morally sublime, doubtless, in the spectacle of a man of wealth, birth, high office, and happy domestic condition, leaving rank, riches, office, wife, children, behind, and going away to the deserts of Sinai and Egypt to spend his days as a monk or anchoret.379379We have in view here Nilus of Constantinople. See Isaac Taylor’s Logic in Theology, p. 130. The stern resolution, the absolute mastery of the will over the natural affections, exhibited in such conduct, is very imposing. Yet how poor, after all, is such a character compared with Abraham, the father of the faithful, and model of temperance and singleness of mind; who could use the world, of which he had a large portion, without abusing it; who kept his wealth and state, and yet never became their slave, and was ready at God’s command to part with his friends and his native land, and even with an only son! So to live, serving ourselves heir to all things, yet maintaining unimpaired our spiritual freedom; enjoying life, yet ready at the call of duty to sacrifice life’s dearest enjoyments: this is true Christian virtue, the higher Christian life for those who would be perfect. Let us have many Abrahams so living among our men of wealth, and there is no fear of the church going back to the Middle Ages. Only when the rich, as a class, are luxurious, vain, selfish, and proud, is there a danger of the tenet gaining credence among the serious, that there is no possibility of living a truly Christian life except by parting with property altogether.
The ascetic theory is also founded on an error in the interpretation of Christ’s sayings. These do not assert or necessarily imply any intrinsic superiority of celibacy and voluntary poverty over the conditions to which they are opposed. They only imply, that in certain circumstances the unmarried dispossessed state affords peculiar facilities for attending without distraction to the interests of the divine kingdom. This is certainly true. It is less easy sometimes to be single-minded in the service of Christ as a married person than as an unmarried, as a rich man than as a poor man. This is especially true in times of hardship and danger, when men must either not be on Christ’s side at all, or be prepared to sacrifice all for His sake. The less one has to sacrifice in such a case, the easier it is for him to bear his cross and play the hero; and he may be pronounced happy at such a crisis who has no family to forsake and no worldly concerns to distract him. Personal character may suffer from such isolation: it may lose geniality, tenderness, and grace, and contract something of inhuman sternness; but the particular tasks required will be more likely to be thoroughly done. On this account, it may be said with truth that “the forlorn hope in battle, as well as in the cause of Christianity, must consist of men who have no domestic relations to divide their devotion, who will leave no wife nor children to mourn over their loss.”380380Robertson of Brighton. Sermons, series iii.: On Marriage and Celibacy. Yet this statement cannot be taken without qualification. For it is not impossible for married and wealthy Christians to take their place in the forlorn hope: many have done so, and those who do are the greatest heroes of all. The advantage is not necessarily and invariably on the side of those who are disengaged from all embarrassing relationships, even in time of war; and in times of peace it is all on the other side. Monks, like soldiers, are liable to frightful degeneracy and corruption when there are no great tasks for them to do. Men who in emergencies are capable, in consequence of their freedom from all domestic and secular embarrassments, of rising to an almost superhuman pitch of self-denial, may at other seasons sink to a depth of self-indulgence in sloth and sensuality which is rarely seen in those who enjoy the protecting influence of family ties and business engagements.381381For a dark picture of the corruption prevalent among the monastics in early ages, see Isaac Taylor’s Ancient Christianity.
But not to insist further on this, and conceding frankly all that can be said in favor of the unmarried and dispossessed state in connection with the service of the kingdom in certain circumstances, what we are concerned to maintain is, that nowhere in the Gospel do we find the doctrine taught that such a state is in itself and essentially virtuous. It is absurd to say, as Renan does,382382Vie de Jésus, p. 328. that the monk is in a sense the only true Christian. The natural type of the Christian is not the monk, but the soldier, both of whom are often placed in the same position in relation to marriage and property ties, but for altogether different reasons. The watchword of Christian ethics is not devoteeism, but devotion. Consuming devotion to the kingdom is the one cardinal virtue required of all citizens, and every stern word enjoining self-sacrifice is to be interpreted in relation thereto. “Let the dead bury their dead;.” “No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God;.” “If any man hate not father and mother, he cannot be my disciple;.” “Sell all that thou hast, and come follow me” — these and many other sayings of kindred import all mean one thing: the kingdom first, every thing else second, and when the interest of the holy state demands it, military promptitude in leaving all and repairing to the standards. Essentially the same idea is the key to the meaning of a difficult parable spoken to “the apostles,” and recorded in Luke’s Gospel, which we may call the parable of extra service.383383Luke xvii. 7-10. The thought intended is that the service of the kingdom is very exacting, involving not only hard toil in the field through the day, but extra duties in the evening when the weary laborer would gladly rest, having no fixed hours of labor, eight, ten, or twelve, but claiming the right to summon to work at any hour of all the twenty-four, as in the case of soldiers in time of war, or of farm-laborers in time of harvest. And the extra service, or overtime duty, is not monkish asceticism, but extraordinary demands in unusual emergencies, calling men weary from age or from over-exertion to still further efforts and sacrifices.
The theory under consideration is guilty, in the third place, of an error in logic. On the assumption that abstinence is necessarily and intrinsically a higher virtue than temperance, it is illogical to speak of it as optional. In that case, our Lord should have given not counsels, but commands. For no man is at liberty to choose whether he shall be a good Christian or an indifferent one, or is excused from practicing certain virtues merely because they are difficult. It is absolutely incumbent on all to press on towards perfection; and if celibacy and poverty be necessary to perfection, then all who profess godliness should renounce wedlock and property. The church of Rome, consistently with her theory of morals, forbids her priests to marry. But why stop there? Surely what is good for priests is good for people as well.
The reason why the prohibition is not carried further, is of course that the laws of nature and the requirements of society render it impracticable. And this brings us to the last objection to the ascetic theory, viz. that, consistently carried out, it lands in absurdity, by involving the destruction of society and the human race. A theory which involves such consequences cannot be true. For the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of nature are not mutually destructive. One God is the sovereign of both; and all things belonging to the lower kingdom — every relation of life, every faculty, passion, and appetite of our nature, all material possessions — are capable of being made subservient to the interests of the higher kingdom, and of contributing to our growth in grace and holiness.
The grand practical difficulty is to give the kingdom of God and His righteousness their due place of supremacy, and to keep all other things in strict subordination. The object of those hard sayings uttered by Jesus in Persia was to fix the attention of the disciples and of all on that difficulty. He spoke so strongly, that men compassed by the cares of family and the comforts of wealth might duly lay to heart their danger; and, conscious of their own helplessness, might seek grace from God, to do that which, though difficult, is not impossible, viz. while married, to be as if unmarried, caring for the things of the Lord; and while rich, to be humble in mind, free in spirit, and devoted in heart to the service of Christ.
One word may here aptly be said on the beautiful incident of the little children brought to Jesus to get His blessing. Who can believe that it was His intention to teach a monkish theory of morals after reading that story? How opportunely those mothers came to Him seeking a blessing for their little ones, just after He had uttered words which might be interpreted, and were actually interpreted in after ages, as a disparagement of family relations. Their visit gave Him an opportunity of entering His protest by anticipation against such a misconstruction of His teaching. And the officious interference of the twelve to keep away the mothers and their offspring from their Master’s person only made that protest all the more emphatic. The disciples seem to have taken from the words Jesus had just spoken concerning abstaining from marriage for the sake of the kingdom, the very impression out of which monasticism sprang. “What does He care,” thought they, “for you mothers and your children? His whole thoughts are of the kingdom of heaven, where they neither marry nor are given in marriage: go away, and don't trouble Him at this time.” The Lord did not thank His disciples for thus guarding His person from intrusion like a band of over-zealous policemen. “He was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”384384Mark x. 14. For an admirable defence of the anti-ascetic interpretation of Christ’s words to the young rich man, see the tract of Clement of Alexandria, Quis dives salvetur.
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