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CHAPTER XI.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD CONCEIVED AS THE INHERITANCE OF THE POOR.

These maxims—good for a country in which life is nurtured by the air and the light, and that delicate communism of a band of children of God, leaning with confidence on the bosom of their Father—might suit a simple sect which was firmly of the belief that its dreams were about to be realised. But it is evident that such principles did not satisfy the whole of the society. Jesus, in fact, soon perceived that the official world would on no account tolerate his kingdom. He therefore took his resolution with extreme boldness. Putting the world, with its unfeeling heart and its narrow prejudices, on one side, he turned towards the common people. A great substitution of one class for another must take place. The kingdom of God is made: first, for children and for those who resemble them; second, for the outcast of this world, victims of that social arrogance which repels the good though humble man; third, for heretics and schismatics, publicans, Samaritans, and Pagans of Tyre and Sidon. A forcible parable explained and justified that appeal to the people. A king prepares a wedding feast, and sends his servants to seek out those that are invited. Each one of the invited excuses himself; some even maltreat the messengers. The king thereupon takes firm measures. The fashionable people have rejected his invitation. Be it so; he will have the first comers instead, the people collected from the highways and byeways, the poor, the beggars, the lame; it matters not; the room 105must be filled. “I say unto you,” said the king, “that none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.”

Pure Ebionism, that is to say, the doctrine that the poor (ebionim) alone shall be saved, that the kingdom of the poor is at hand, was, hence, the doctrine of Jesus. “Woe unto you that are rich,” said he, “for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full, for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep” (Luke vi. 24, 25). “Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just” (Luke xiv. 12-14). It is, in an analogous sense, perhaps, that he often repeated, “Be good bankers”—that is to say, make good investments for the kingdom of God, in giving your wealth to the poor, conformably to the old proverb, “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord” (Prov. xix. 17).

But this was no new fact. The most exalted democratic movement, the memory of which has been preserved by mankind (the only one, also, that has succeeded, for it alone has maintained itself in the domain of pure thought) had agitated for a long time the Jewish race. The idea that God is the avenger of the poor and of the weak against the rich and powerful is found in every page of the books of the Old Testament. The history of Israel is, of all histories, that in which the popular notions have most certainly predominated. The prophets, the truest, and in a sense the boldest tribunes, had 106thundered incessantly against the great, and had established a close relation between the terms “rich, impious, violent, wicked,” on the one hand, and between “poor, gentle, humble, pious,” on the other. Under the Seleucidæ, the aristocracy having almost all apostatised and gone over to Hellenism, these associations of ideas were but strengthened. The Book of Enoch contains even fiercer maledictions against the world, the rich, and the powerful than those of the Gospels. In this book luxury is held up as a crime. “The Son of Man,” in that fantastic apocalypse, dethrones kings, tears them away from their voluptuous life and plunges them into hell. The initiation of Judæa into profane life, the recent introduction of an exclusively worldly element of luxury and of comfort, provoked a violent reaction in favour of patriarchal simplicity. “Woe unto you who despise the humble dwelling and inheritance of your fathers? Woe unto you who build your palaces with the sweat of others! Each stone, each brick of which it is built is a sin.” The word “poor” (ebion) had become a synonym of “saint,” of “friend of God.” This was the appellation the Galilean disciples of Jesus loved to give one another: it was for a long time the designation of the Judaising Christians of Batanea, and of the Hauran (Nazarenes, Hebrews) who remained faithful to the language as well as to the earlier teachings of Jesus, and who boasted of having amongst them the descendants of his family. At the end of the second century, these devout sectaries, who had lived outside the path of the great current that had carried away the other churches, were treated as heretics (Ebionites), and in order to explain their name a pretended heresiarch, Ebion, was invented.

We may see, at a glance, that this exaggerated taste for poverty could not be very durable. It 107was one of those Utopian elements which always mingle in the origin of great movements, and which time rectifies. Thrown into the centre of human society, Christianity very easily consented to receive rich men into her bosom, just as Buddhism, exclusively monastical in its origin, soon began, as conversions multiplied, to admit the laity. But the mark of origin is ever preserved. Although it quickly passed away and was forgotten, Ebionism left a leaven in the whole history of Christian institutions which has not been lost. The collection of the principal Logia, or discourses, of Jesus was made in the Ebionitish centre of Batanea. “Poverty” remained an ideal from which the true followers of Jesus were never after separated. To possess nothing was the truly evangelical state; mendicancy became a virtue, a holy condition. The great Umbrian movement of the thirteenth century, which is, among all the attempts at religious construction, that which most resembles the Galilean movement, took place entirely in the name of poverty. Francis d'Assisi, the man who, more than any other, by his exquisite goodness, by his delicate, pure, and tender communion with universal life, most resembled Jesus, was a poor man. The mendicant orders, the innumerable communistic sects of the middle ages (Pauvres de Lyon, Bégards, Bons-Hommes, Fratricelles, Humiliés, Pauvres évangéliques, &c.) grouped under the banner of the “Everlasting Gospel,” pretended to be, and in fact were, the true disciples of Jesus. But even in this instance the most impracticable dreams of the new religion were fruitful in results. Pious mendicity, so impatiently borne by our industrial and well-organised communities, was in its day, and in a suitable climate, full of charm. It offered to a multitude of mild and contemplative souls the only condition suited to them. To have made poverty 108an object of love and desire, to have raised the beggar to the altar, and to have sanctified the coat of the poor man, was a master-stroke which political economy may not appreciate, but in the presence of which the true moralist cannot remain indifferent. Humanity, in order to bear its burden, needs to believe that it is not paid entirely by wages. The greatest service which can be rendered to it is to repeat often that it lives not by bread alone.

Like all great men, Jesus loved the people, and felt himself at home with them. The Gospel, in his idea, is made for the poor; it is to them he brings the glad tidings of salvation. All the despised ones of orthodox Judaism were his favourites. Love of the people and pity for its weakness (the sentiment of the democratic chief, who feels the spirit of the multitude live in him, and recognises him as its natural interpreter) shine forth at each moment in his acts and discourses.

The chosen flock presented, in fact, a very mixed character, and one likely to astonish rigorous moralists. It counted in its fold men with whom a Jew, respecting himself, would not have associated. Perhaps Jesus found in this society, unrestrained by ordinary rules, more mind and heart than in a pedantic and formal middle-class, proud of its apparent morality. The Pharisees, exaggerating the Mosaic prescriptions, had come to believe themselves defiled by contact with men less strict than themselves; in their meals they almost rivalled the senseless distinctions of caste in India. Jesus, despising these miserable aberrations of the religious sentiment, loved to eat with those who suffered on account of them; by his side at table were to be found persons said to lead wicked lives, perhaps solely from the fact that they did not share the follies of the false devotees. The Pharisees and 109the doctors cried out against the scandal. “See,” said they, “with what men he eats!” Jesus returned apt answers, which exasperated the hypocrites: “They that be whole need not a physician.” Or again: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it? And when he hath found it he layeth it on his shoulders rejoicing.” Or again, “The Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” Or, once more: “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Lastly, that delightful parable of the prodigal son, in which he who has fallen is represented as having a sort of privilege of love over him who has always been just. Weak or guilty women, surprised at so much that was charming, and perceiving, for the first time, the great attractions of contact with virtue, approached him freely. People were astonished that he did not repulse them. “Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” Jesus rejoined with the parable of a creditor who forgives his debtors' unequal debts, and he did not hesitate to prefer the lot of him to whom was remitted the greater debt. He appreciated conditions of soul only in proportion to the love contained therein. Women, with sorrowful hearts, and disposed on account of their sins to feelings of humility, were nearer to his kingdom than ordinary natures, who often are deserving of little credit for not having fallen. On the other hand, we can conceive that these tender souls, finding in their conversion to the sect an easy means of rehabilitation, would passionately attach themselves to him.

Far from seeking to allay the murmurs raised 110by his disdain for the social susceptibilities of the time, he seemed to take pleasure in exciting them. Never did any one avow more loftily this contempt for the “world,” which is the first condition of great things and of great originality. He pardoned the rich man only when the rich man, because of some prejudice, was disliked by society. He much preferred people of questionable lives and who had little consideration in the eyes of the orthodox leaders. “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him.” We can understand how galling the reproach of not having followed the good example set by prostitutes would be to men making a profession of seriousness and of rigid morality.

He had no outward affectation or any show of austerity. He did not eschew pleasure; he went willingly to marriage feasts. One of his miracles was performed to enliven a wedding feast at a small town. In the East, weddings take place in the evening. Each person carries a lamp; and the lights coming and going produce a very agreeable effect. Jesus liked these gay and animated scenes and drew parables from them. Such levity, compared with that of John the Baptist, gave offence. One day, when the disciples of John and the Pharisees were observing the fast, it was asked, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast in those days.” His sweet gaiety found expression in lively reflections and amiable pleasantries 111“But whereunto,” said he, “shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But Wisdom is justified of her children.”

He thus traversed Galilee in the midst of a continual feast. He rode on a mule (which in the East is a good and safe mode of travelling), whose large black eyes, shaded by long eye-lashes, give it an expression of gentleness. His disciples sometimes disposed themselves around him with a kind of rustic pomp, at the expense of their garments, which they used as carpets. They placed them on the mule which carried him, or spread them on the earth in his path. When he entered a house it was considered a joy and a blessing. He halted in the villages and at the large farms, where he received open hospitality. In the East, when a stranger enters a house it becomes at once a public place. All the village assembles there; the children invade it; they are put out by the servants, but always return. Jesus could not suffer these innocent auditors to be treated harshly; he caused them to be brought to him and embraced them. The mothers, encouraged by such treatment, brought him their children in order that he might touch them. Women came to pour oil upon his head, and perfumes on his feet. His disciples sometimes repulsed them as importunates; but Jesus, who loved ancient usages, and everything that indicated simplicity of heart, rectified the ill done by his too zealous friends. 112He protected those who wished to honour him. In this way children and women came to adore him. The reproach of alienating from their families these gentle creatures, always ready to be led astray, was one of the most frequent charges of his enemies.

The nascent religion was thus in many respects confined to women and children. The latter were like a young guard around Jesus for the inauguration of his innocent royalty, and made him little ovations which much pleased him, calling him “son of David,” crying Hosanna, and bearing palms around him. Jesus, like Savonarola, perhaps made them serve as instruments for pious missions; he was very glad to see these young apostles, who did not compromise him, rush to the front and give him titles which he dared not take himself. He let them speak, and when he was asked if he heard, he replied evasively that the praise which fell from young lips was the most agreeable to God.

He lost no opportunity of repeating that the little ones are sacred beings, that the kingdom of God belongs to children, that we must become children to enter there, that we ought to receive it as a child, that the heavenly Father hides his secrets from the wise, and reveals them to babes. The notion of disciples in his mind is almost synonymous with that of children. Once, when they had one of those quarrels for precedence which were not uncommon, Jesus took a little child, placed him in their midst, and said to them, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

It was infancy, in fact, in its divine freshness, in its simple bewilderments of joy, which took possession of the earth. Every one believed that the 113kingdom so much desired might appear at any moment. Each one already saw himself seated on a throne beside the master. They divided the places amongst themselves; they strove to reckon the precise date of its advent. The latter was called the “Glad Tidings;” the doctrine had no other name. An old word, “paradise,” which the Hebrew, like all the languages of the East, had borrowed from the Persian, and which at first designated the parks of the Achæmenidæ kings, summed up the general dream; a delightful garden, in which the charming life led here below would be continued for ever. How long did this intoxication last? We do not know. No one, during the course of this magical apparition, measured time any more than we measure a dream. Duration was suspended; a week was as an age. But, whether it filled years or months, the dream was so beautiful that humanity has lived upon it ever since, and it is still our consolation to gather its weakened perfume. Never did so much joy fill the bosom of man. For one moment humanity, in the most vigorous effort she ever made to rise above the world, forgot the leaden weight which pressed her to earth and the sorrows of the life below. Happy the one who has been able to behold this divine unfolding, and to enjoy, though but for one day, this unexampled illusion! But more happy still, Jesus would say to us, is he who, freed from all illusion, shall reproduce in himself the celestial vision, and, with no millenarian dream, no chimerical paradise, no signs in the heavens, but by the uprightness of his motives and the poetry of his soul, shall be able to create anew in his heart the true kingdom of God!

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