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§ 137. Christ’s Conversation with the Pharisees in regard to the Mode of Life indulged by his Disciples.353353   Matt., ix., 11-17; Mark, ii., 15-22; Luke, v., 33-39.The Morality of Fasting.

It is not strange, therefore, that on a certain occasion the Pharisees came to Christ, and expressed their surprise at the free and social mode of life in which he indulged his disciples. They did not confine their appeal to the example of their own school, but intentionally added that of the Baptist’s disciples, believing that the latter would be the more to their purpose, as Christ had recognized John for an en lightened teacher.

It may be asked whether the Pharisees, in putting this question, sought only for instruction, and wished to obtain from Christ himself the principles on which a course so inexplicable to them was founded, or whether they meant to reproach him personally for sitting at the banquets of publicans and sinners, and only made use of their question about the disciples for a crafty blind to their attack? The gentle and instructive tone of Christ’s reply seems (although it certainly is not proof) to favour the first view.354354   The collocation of Luke, v., 33 and 34, if it be the original chronological order, opposes this view. In that case, after Christ had caused the question of the Pharisees to recoil upon themselves, they returned with it in a more concealed form. But it is probable [that different classes of Pharisees were concerned in the two cases], and that, this distinction being lost sight of, the occurrence in question was connected with one of the real machinations of that party in general against Christ. Would he have said so much to justify his conduct, without a word in reproof of their question, if he had to deal with crafty opponents utterly unsusceptible of instruction?355355   We follow Luke, v., 33; Mark, ii., 18, which have more internal probability than Matt., ix., 14. It is, indeed, possible that those disciples of John who adhered only one-sidedly to the views of their master may have taken offence, and expressed it, just as the Pharisees did. Probably, too, at a later period, there grew up a gradual opposition between the Christians and part of John’s disciples; and the Jewish sect of ἡμεραβαπτισταί may have been no other than these (Hegesipp. in Euseb., iv., 22. Cf. the Clementines, Hom., ii., 23, Ἰωάννης ἡμεραβαπτιστής.) But it is by no means as probable that they joined themselves with the Pharisees, their bitter enemies; they could have had no tendency to associate with men whom they could consider as having had a hand, at least, in the sacrifice of their master. The fact that the scribes had quoted the example of John’s disciples may easily have passed into the report that the latter had come to Christ with the same question. This view is adopted, also by Schleiermacher. De Wette’s objections are sufficiently refuted by what has been said.

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Be that as it may, some of them came to him with the question, “Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers,356356   De Wette considers the mention of “prayer” (Luke, v., 33) as out of place, and argues from it that Luke had departed from the original tradition. But certainly it was natural enough for the Pharisees thus to characterize the (to them) strikingly worldly life of the disciples; for the former made a show of sanctity, not only by fasting, but by repeated prayers; and, moreover, John had prescribed a form of prayer for his disciples (Luke, xi., 1), which Christ as yet had not done. As the words “eating and drinking” are used in the question to designate the profane and carnal life, so “fasting and prayer” denote its opposite—the strict spiritual life. Now, had the word “prayers” originally existed in the passage, and been afterward lost in transmission, we might easily account for it: because it might be thought that Christ’s reply does not allude to “prayer,” that such a depreciation of prayer (mistakenly imagined) would be a stumbling-block, and, besides, contradictory to Christ’s own teaching in other places. But to account for its interpolation is quite a different matter. As for Christ’s not alluding to prayer in his reply, he had no call to do it; it was the spirit of outward and ascetic piety, as a whole, that he rebukes.and likewise those of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?” Christ replies: “Can you make the companions of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is yet with them? Does fasting harmonize with the festal joy of a wedding? The time of fasting, indeed, will come of its own accord, when the bridegroom is gone, and the festal days are over.”

So privations, suited to the time of mourning, would have been out of keeping with the joyous life in common of the disciples and their Lord—with those happy days when the object of their desire was yet present in their midst. Fasting would have been as foreign to their state of mind—as outward and as forced—as to the guests at a wedding. But as the days of the feast are followed by others when fasting is in place; so, when the joy of happy intercourse with Christ shall give place to mourning at separation from Him who is their all in all, in those sad days, indeed, the disciples will need no outward bidding to fast. Their anode of life will naturally change with their state of feeling; fasting will then be but the spontaneous token of their souls’ grief.

Taken in this sense, it is clear that the words could not have been intended to apply to the whole life of the disciples after Christ should have been removed from them. The sad feelings here described were not intended to be permanent; the transitory pain of personal separation was to be followed by a more perfect joy in the consciousness of spiritual communion with Christ. Applying the passage, then, to this transition period of grief, we infer from it, as the rule of Christian ethics in regard to fasting, that it is neither enjoined nor recommended, 205but only justified, as the natural expression of certain states of feeling analogous to those of the disciples in the time of sadness referred to; e. g., the sense of separation from Christ, which may precede an experience of the most blissful communion with Him. In such states of the interior life, all outward signs of peace and joy, all participation in social intercourse and pleasure are unnatural and repugnant; although, when Christ is present in the soul, these social joys are sanctified and transfigured by the inward communion with Him. The interior life and the outward expression should be in entire harmony with each other. Another glance at this subject, however, after examining what follows, will afford us another view of it.


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