The Collected Works of Theodore Parker/Volume 03/Discourse 01

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THE RELATION OF JESUS TO HIS AGE AND THE AGES.

A SERMON PREACHED AT THE THURSDAY LECTURE, IN BOSTON, DECEMBER 26, 1844.


Have any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed on him?—John vii 48.

In all the world there is nothing so remarkable as a great man; nothing so rare; nothing which so well repays study. Human nature is loyal at its heart, and is, always and everywhere, looking for this its true earthly sovereign. We sometimes say that our institutions, here in America, do not require great men; that we get along better without than with such. But let a real, great man light on our quarter of the planet; let us understand him, and straightway these democratic hearts of ours burn with admiration and with love. We wave in his words, like corn in the harvest wind. We should rejoice to obey him, for he would speak what we need to hear. Men are always half expecting such a man. But when he comes, the real, great man that God has been preparing,—men are disappointed; they do not recognize him. He does not enter the city through the gates which expectants had crowded. He is a fresh fact, brand new; not exactly like any former fact. Therefore men do not recognize nor acknowledge him. His language is strange, and his form unusual. He looks revolutionary, and pulls down ancient walls to build his own temple, or, at least, splits old rocks asunder, and quarries anew fresh granite and marble.

There are two classes of great men. Now and then some arise whom all acknowledge to be great, soon as they appear. Such men have what is true in relation to the wants and expectations of to-day. They say, what many men wished but had not words for; they translate into thought what, as a dim sentiment, lay a burning in many a heart, but could not get entirely written out into consciousness. These men find a welcome. Nobody misunderstands them. The world follows at their chariot-wheels, and flings up its cap and shouts its huzzas,—for the world is loyal, and follows its king when it sees and knows him. The good part of the world follows the highest man it comprehends ; the bad, whoever serves its turn.

But there is another class of men so great, that all cannot see their greatness. They are in advance of men's conjectures, higher than their dreams; too good to be actual, think some. Therefore, say many, there must be some mistake; this man is not so great as he seems; nay, he is no great man at all, but an impostor. These men have what is true not merely in relation to the wants and expectations of men here and to-day ; but wliat is true in relation to the Universe, to Eternity, to God. They do not speak what you and I have been trying to say, and cannot ; but what we shall one day, years hence, wish to say, after we have improved and grown up to man's estate. Now it seems to me, the men of this latter class, when they come, can never meet the approbation of the censors and guides of public opinion. Such as wished for a new great man had a superstition of the last one in their minds. They expected the new to be just like the old, but he is altogether unlike. Nature is rich, but not rich enough to waste anything. So there are never two great men very strongly similar. Nay, this new great man, perhaps, begins by destroying much that the old one built up with tears and prayers. He shows, at first, the limitations and defects of the former great man; calls in question his authority. He refuses all masters; bows not to tradition; and with seeming irreverence, laughs in the face of the popular idols. How will the "respectable men," the men of a few good rules and those derived from their fathers, "the best of men and the wisest,"—how will they regard (this new great man? They will see nothing remarkable in him except that he is fluent and superficial, dangerous and revolutionary. He disturbs their notions of order; he shows that the institutions of society are not perfect; that their imperfections are not of granite or marble, but only of words written on soft wax, which may be erased and others written thereon anew. He shows that such imperfect institutions are less than one great man. The guides and censors of public opinion will not honour such a man, they will hate him. Why not? Some others not half so well bred, nor well furnished with precedents, welcome the new great man; welcome his ideas; welcome his person. They say, "Behold a Prophet."

When Jesus, the son of Mary, a poor woman, wife of Joseph the carpenter, in the little town of Nazareth, when he "began to be about thirty years old," and began also to open his mouth in the synagogues and the highways, nobody thought him a great man at all, as it seems. "Who are you?" said the guardians of public opinion. He found men expecting a great man. This, it seems, was the common opinion, that a great man was to arise, and save the Church, and save the State. They looked back to Moses, a divine man of antiquity, whose great life had passed into the world, and to whom men had done honour, in various ways; amongst others, by telling all sorts of wonders he wrought, and declaring that none could be so great again ; none get so near to God. They looked back also to the prophets, a long line of divine men, so they reckoned, but less than the awful Moses ; his stature was far above the nation, who hid themselves in his shadow. Now the well-instructed children of Abraham thought the next great man must be only a copy of the last, repeat his ideas, and work in the old fashion. Sick men like to be healed by the medicine which helped them the last time ; at least, by the customary drugs which are popular.

In Judea, there were then parties of men, distinctly marked. There were the Conservatives — they represented the Church, tradition, ecclesiastical or theocratical authority. They adhered to the words of the old books, the forms of the old rites, the tradition of the elders. "Nobody but a Jew can be saved," said they; "he only by circumcision, and the keeping of the old formal law; God likes that, He accepts nothing else." These were the Pharisees, with their servants the Scribes. Of this class were the Priests and the Levites in the main, the National party, the Native-Hebrew party of that time. They had tradition, Moses and the prophets; they believed in tradition, Moses and the prophets, at least in public; what they believed in private God knew, and so did they. I know nothing of that.

Then there was the indifferent party; the Sadducees, the State. They had wealth, and they believed in it, both in public and private too. They had a more generous and extensive cultivation than the Pharisees. They had intercourse with foreigners, and understood the writers of Ionia and Athens which the Pharisee held in abhorrence. These were sleek respectable men, who, in part, disbelieved the Jewish theology. It is no very great merit to disbelieve even in the devil, unless you have a positive faith in God to take up your affections. The Sadducee believed neither in angel nor resurrection — not at all in the immortality the soul. He believed in the State, in the laws, the constables, the prisons, and the axe. In religious matters it seems the Pharisee had a positive belief, only it was a positive belief in a great mistake. In religious matters the Sadducee had no positive belief at all; not even in an error: at least, some think so. His distinctive affirmation I was but a denial. He believed what he saw with his eyes, touched with his fingers, tasted with his tongue. He never saw, felt, nor tasted immortal life; he had no belief therein. There was once a heathen Sadducee who said, "My right arm is my God!"

There was likewise a party of Come-outers. They despaired of the State and the Church too, and turned off into the wilderness, "where the wild asses quench their thirst," building up their organizations free, as they hoped, from all ancient tyrannies. The Bible says nothing directly of these men in its canonical books. It is a curious omission; but two Jews, each acquainted with foreign writers, Josephus and Philo, give an account of these. These were the Essenes, an ascetic sect, hostile to marriage, at least, many of them, who lived in a sort of association by themselves, and had all things in common.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees had no great living and ruling ideas; none I mean which represented man, his hopes, wishes, affections, his aspirations, and power of progress. That is no very rare case, perhaps, you will say, for a party in the Church or the State to have no such ideas, but they had not even a plausible substitute for such ideas. They seemed to have no faith in man, in his divine nature, his power of improvement. The Essenes had ideas; had a positive belief; had faith in man, but it was weakened in a great measure by their machinery. They, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were imprisoned in their organization, and probably saw no good out of their own party lines.

It is a plain thing that no one of these three parties would accept, acknowledge, or even perceive the greatness of Jesus of Nazareth. His ideas were not their notions. He was not the man they were looking for; not at all the Messiah, the anointed one of God, which they wanted. The Sadducee expected no new great man unless it was a Roman quaestor or procurator; the Pharisees looked for a Pharisee stricter than Gamaliel; the Essenes for an Ascetic. It is so now. Some seem to think that if Jesus were to come back to the earth, he would preach Unitarian sermons, from a text out of the Bible, and prove his divine mission and the everlasting truths, the truths of necessity that he taught, in the Unitarian way, by telling of the miracles he wrought eighteen hundred years ago; that he would prove the immortality of the soul by the fact of his own corporeal resurrection. Others seem to think that he would deliver homilies of a severer character; would rate men roundly about total depravity, and tell of unconditional election, salvation without works, and imputed righteousness, and talk of hell till the women and children fainted, and the knees of men smote together for trembling. Perhaps both would be mistaken.

So it was then. All these three classes of men, imprisoned in their prejudices and superstitions, were hostile. The Pharisees said, "We know that God spake unto Moses; but as for this fellow, we know not whence he is. He blasphemeth Moses and the prophets; yea, he hath a devil, and is mad, why hear him?" The Sadducees complained that "he stirred up the people;" so he did. The Essenes, no doubt, would have it that he was "a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners." Tried by these three standards, the judgment was true; what could he do to please these three parties Nothing! nothing that he would do. So they hated him; all hated him, and sought to destroy him. The cause is plain. He was so deep they could not see his profoundness; too high for their comprehension; too far before them for their sympathy. He was not the great man of the day. He found all organizations against him; Church and State. Even John the Baptist, a real prophet, but not the prophet, doubted if Jesus was the one to be followed. If Jesus had spoken for the Pharisees, they would have accepted his speech and the speaker too. Had he favoured the Sadducees, he had been a great man in their camp, and Herod would gladly have poured wine for the eloquent Galilean, and have satisfied the carpenter's son with purple and fine linen. Had he praised the Essenes, uttering their Shibboleth, they also would have paid him his price, have made him the head of their association perhaps, at least, have honoured him in their way. He spoke for none of these. Why should they honour or even tolerate him? It were strange had they done so. Was it through any fault or deficiency of Jesus that these men refused him? quite the reverse. The rain falls and the sun shines on the evil and the good; the work of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness is before all men, revealing the invisible things, yet the fool hath said, ay, said in his heart, "There is no God!"

Jesus spoke not for the prejudices of such, and therefore they rejected him. But as he spoke truths for man, truths from God, truths adapted to man's condition there, to man's condition everywhere and always, when the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes went away, their lips curling with scorn, when they gnashed on one an- other with their teeth, there were noble men and humble women who had long awaited the consolation of Israel, and they heard him, heard him gladly. Yes, they left all to follow him. Him ! no, it was not him they followed; it was God in him they obeyed, the God of truth, the God of love.

There were men not counted in the organized sects; men weary of absurdities ; thirsting for the truth; sick, they knew not why nor of what, yet none the less sick, and waiting for the angel who should heal them, though by troubled waters and remedies unknown. These men had not the prejudices of a straitly organized and narrow sect. Perhaps they had not its knowledge, or its good manners. They were "unlearned and ignorant men those early followers of Christ. Nay, Jesus himself had no extraordinary culture, as the world judges of such things. His townsmen wondered, on a famous occasion, how he" had learned to read. He knew little of theologies, it would seem ; the better for him, perhaps. No doubt; the better for us that he insisted on none. He knew they were not religion. The men of Galilee did not need theology. The youngest scribe in the humblest theological school at Jerusalem, if such a thing were in those days, could have furnished theology enough * to believe in a life-time. They did need religion ; they did see it as Jesus unfolded its loveliness; they did welcome it when they saw; welcome it in their hearts.

If I were a poet as some are born, and skilled to paint with words what shall stand out as real, to live before the eye, and then dwell in the affectionate memory for ever, I would tell of the audience which heard the Sermon on the mount, which listened to the parables, the rebukes, the beautiful beatitudes. They were plain men, and humble women; many of them foolish like you and me ; some of them sinners. But they all had hearts ; had souls, all of them—hearts made to love, souls expectant of truth. When he spoke, some said, no doubt, "That is a new thing, that The true worshipper shall worship in spirit and in truth, as well here as in Jerusalem, now as well a any time; that also is a hard saying, Love your enemies forgive them, though seventy times seven they smite and offend you; that notion that the law and the prophets are contained, all that is essentially religious thereof, in one precept, Love men as yourself, and God with all your might. This differs a good deal from the Pharisaic orthodoxy of the synagogue. That is a bold thing, presumptuous and revolutionary, to say, I am greater than, the temple, wiser than Solomon, a better symbol of God I than both." But there was something deeper than Jewish orthodoxy in their heart; something that Jewish orthodoxy could not satisfy, and what was yet more troublesome to ecclesiastical guides, something that Jewish ortho doxy could not keep down, nor even cover up. Sinners were converted at his reproof. They felt he rebuked whom he loved. Yet his pictures of sin, and sinners too, were anything but flattering. There was small comfort in them. Still it was not the publicans and harlots who laid their hands on the place where their hearts should be, saying, "You hurt our feelings," and "we can't bear you!" Nay, they pondered his words, repenting in tears. He showed them their sin; its cause, its consequence, its cure. To them he came as a Saviour, and they said, "Thou art well-come," those penitent Magdalenes weeping at his feet.

It would be curious could we know the mingled emotions that swayed the crowd which rolled up around Jesus, following him, as the tides obey the moon, wherever he went; curious to see how faces looked doubtful at first as he began" to speak at Tabor or Gennesareth, Capernaum or Gischala, then how the countenance of some lowered and grew black with thunder suppressed but cherished, while the face of others shone as a branch of stars seen through some disparted cloud in a night of fitful storms, a moment seen and then withdrawn. It were curious to see how gradually many discordant feelings, passion, prejudice, and pride, were hushed before the tide of melodious religion he poured out around him, baptizing anew saint and sinner, and old and young, into one brotherhood of a common soul, into one immortal service of the universal God; to see how this young Hebrew maid, deep-hearted, sensitive, enthusiastic, self-renouncing, intuitive of heavenly truth, rich as a young vine, with clustering affections just purpling into ripeness,—how she seized, first and all at once, the fair ideal, and with generous bosom confidingly embraced it too; how that old man, gray- bearded, with baldness on his head, full of precepts and precedents, the lore of his fathers, the experience of a hard life, logical, slow, calculating, distrustful, remembering much and fearing much, but hoping a little, confiding only in the fixed, his reverence for the old deepening as he himself became of less use,—to see how he received the glad inspirations of the joiner's son, and wondering felt his youth steal slowly back upon his heart, reviving aspirations long ago forgot, and then the crimson tide of early hope come gush ing, tingling on through every limb; to see how the young man halting between principle and passion, not yet petrified into worldliness, but struggling, uncertain, half reluctant, with those two serpents, Custom and Desire, that; beautifully twined about his arms and breast and neck their wormy folds, concealing underneath their burnished scales the dragon's awful strength, the viper's poison fang, the poor youth caressing their snaky crests, and toying with their tongues of flame—to see how he slowly, reluctantly, amid great questionings of heart, drank in the words of truth, and then, obedient to the angel in his heart, shook off, as ropes of sand, that hideous coil, and trod the serpents underneath his feet. All this, it were curious, ay, instructive too, could we but see.

They heard him with welcome various as their life. The old men said, "It is Moses or Elias; it is Jeremiah, one of the old prophets arisen from the dead, for God makes none such, now-a-days, in the sterile dotage of mankind." The young men and maidens doubtless it was that said, u This is the Christ; the desire of the nations; the hope of the world, the great new prophet; the Son of David; the Son of man; yes, the Son of God. He shall be our king." Human nature is loyal, and follows its king soon as it knows him. Poor lost sheep ! the children of men look always for their guide, though so often they look in vain.

How he spoke, words deep and piercing ; rebukes for the wicked, doubly rebuking, because felt to have come out from a great, deep, loving heart. His first word was, perhaps, "Repent," but with the assurance that the kingdom of God was here and now, within reach of all. How his doctrines, those great truths of nature, commended themselves to the heart of each, of all simple-souled men looking for the truth! He spoke out of his experience; of bourse into theirs. He spoke great doctrines, truths vast as the soul, eternal as God, winged with beauty from the loveliness of his own life. Had he spoken for the Jews alone, his words had perished with that people; for that time barely, the echo of his name had died away in his native hamlet; for the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, you and I had heard of him but as a Rabbi; nay, had never been blest by him at all. Words for a nation, an age, a sect, are of use in their place, yet they soon come to nought. But as he spoke for eternity, his truths ride on the Wings of time; as he spoke for man, they are welcome, beautiful and blessing, wherever man is found, and so must be till man and time shall cease.

He looked not back, as the Pharisee, save for illustrations and examples. He looked forward for his direction. He looked around for his work. There it lay, the harvest plenteous, the labourers few. It is always so. He looked not to men for his idea, his word to speak; as little for their applause. He looked in to God, for guidance, wisdom, strength, and as water in the wilderness, at the stroke of Moses, in the Hebrew legend, so inspiration came at his all, a mighty stream of truth for the nation, faint, feeble, afraid, and wandering for the promised land; drink for the thirsty, and cleansing for the unclean.

But he met opposition; 0, yes, enough of it. How could it be otherwise ? It must be so. The very soul of peace, he brought a sword. His word was a consuming fire. The Pharisees wanted to be applauded, commended; to have their sect, their plans, their traditions praised and flattered. His word to them was "Repent;" of them, to the people, "Such righteousness admits no man to the kingdom of heaven; they are a deceitful prophecy, blind guides, hypocrites; not sons of Abraham, but children of the devil." They could not bear him; no wonder at it. He was the aggressor; had carried the war into the very heart of their system. They turned out of their company a man whose blindness he healed, because he confessed that fact. They made a law that all who believed on him, should also be cast out. Well they might hate him, those old Pharisees. His existence was their reproach; his preaching their trial ; his life with its outward goodness, his piety within, was their condemnation. The man was their ruin, and they knew it. The cunning can see their own danger, but it is only men wise in mind, or men simple of heart, that can see their real, permanent safety and defence; never the cunning, neither then, neither now.

Jesus looked to God for his truth, his great doctrines not his own,—private, personal, depending on his idiosynacies, and therefore only subjectively true, — but God's, universal, everlasting, the absolute religion. I do not know that he did not teach some errors also, along with it. I care not if he did. It is by his truths that I know him, the absolute religion he taught and lived; by his highest sentiments that he is to be appreciated. He had faith in God and obeyed God; hence his inspiration, great, in proportion to the greater endowment, moral and religious, which God gave him, great likewise in proportion to his perfect obedience. He had faith in man none the less. Who ever yet had faith in God that had none in man? I know not. Surely no inspired prophet. As Jesus had faith in man, so he spoke to men. Never yet, in the wide world, did a prophet arise, appealing with a noble heart and a noble life to the soul of goodness in man, but that soul answered to the call. It was so most eminently with Jesus. The Scribes and' Pharisees could not understand by what authority he taught. Poor Pharisees! how could they? His phylacteries were no broader than those of another man; nay, perhaps he had no phlylacteries at all, nor even a broad-bordered garment. Men did not salute him in the market-place, sandals inl hand, with their "Rabbi! Babbi!" Could such men understand by what authority he taught? no more than they dared answer his questions. They that knew him, felt he had authority quite other than that claimed by the Scribes; the authority of true words, the authority of a noble life; yes, authority which God gives a great moral and religious man. God delegates authority to men just in proportion to their power of truth, and their power of goodness; to their being and their life. So God spoke in Jesus, as he taught the perfect religion, anticipated, developed, but never yet transcended.

This then was the relation of Jesus to his age: the sectarians cursed him; cursed him by their gods; rejected him, abused him, persecuted him; sought his life. Yes, they condemned him in the name of God. All evil, says the proverb, begins in that name; much continues to claim it. The religionists, the sects, the sectarian leaders, rejected him, condemned and slew him at the last, hanging his body on a tree. Poor priests of the people, they hoped thereby to stifle that awful soul ! they only stilled the body; that soul spoke with a thousand tongues. So in the times of old when the Saturnian day began to dawn, it might be fabled that the old Titanic race, lovers of darkness and haters of the light, essayed to bar the rising morning from the world, and so heaped Pelion upon Ossa, and Olympus on Pelion; but first the day sent up his crimson flush upon the cloud, and then his saffron tinge, and next the sun came peering o'er the loftiest height, magnificently fair—and down the mountain's slanting ridge poured the intolerable day; meanwhile those triple hills, laboriously piled, came toppling, tumbling down, with lumbering crush, and underneath their ruin hid the helpless giants' grave. So was it with men who sat in Moses' seat. But this people, that " knew not the law," and were counted therefore accursed, they welcomed Jesus as they never welcomed the Pharisee, the Sadducee, or the Scribe. Ay, hence were their tears. The hierarchical fire burnt not so bright contrasted with the sun. That people had a Simon Peter, a James, and a John, men not free from faults, no doubt, the record shows it, but with hearts in their bosoms, which could be kindled, and then could light other hearts. Better still, there were Marthas and Marys among that people who "knew not the law" and were cursed. They were the mothers of many a church.

The character of Jesus has not changed; his doctrines are still the same; but what a change in his relation to the age, nay to the ages. The stone that the builders rejected is indeed become the head of the corner, and its foundation too. He is worshipped as a God. That is the rank assigned him by all but a fraction of the Christian world. It is no wonder. Good men worship the best thing they know, and call it God. What was taught to the mass of men, in those days, better than the character of Christ? Should they rather worship the Grecian Jove, or the Jehovah of the Jews? To me it seems the moral attainment of Jesus was above the hierarchical conception of God, as taught at Athens, Rome, Jerusalem. Jesus was the prince of peace, the king of truth, praying for his enemies—"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" The Jehovah of the Old Testament was awful and stern, a man of war, hating the wicked. The sacerdotal conception of God at Rome and Athens was lower yet. No wonder, then, that men soon learned to honour Jesus as a God, and then as God himself. Apostolical and other legends tell of his divine birth, his wondrous power that healed the sick, palsied and crippled, deaf and dumb and blind, created bread, turned water into wine, and bid obedient devils come and go; a power that raise the dead. They tell that nature felt with him, and at his death the strongly sympathizing sun paused at high noon, and for three hours withheld the day; that rocks were rent, and opening graves gave up their sainted dead, who trod once more the streets of Zion, the first-fruits of them that slept; they tell too how disappointed Death gave back his prey, and spirit-like, Jesus restored, in flesh and shape the same, passed through the doors shut up, and in a bodily form was taken up to heaven before the face of men! Believe men of these things as they will. To me they are not truth and fact, but mythic symbols and poetry; the psalm of praise with which the world's rude heart extols and magnifies its King. It is for his truth and his life, his wisdom, goodness, piety, that he is honoured in my heart; yes, in the world's heart. It is for this that in his name churches are built, and prayers are prayed; for this that the best things we know, we honour; with his name.

He is the greatest person of the ages; the proudest achievement of the human race. He taught the absolute religion, love to God and man. That God has yet greater men in store I doubt not; to say this is not to detract from the majestic character of Christ, but to affirm the omnipotence of God. When they come, the old contest will be renewed, the living prophet stoned; the dead one worshipped. Be that as it may, there are duties he teaches us far different from those most commonly taught. He was the greatest fact in the whole history of man. Had he conformed to what was told him of men; had he counselled only with flesh and blood; he had been nothing but a poor Jew—the world had lost that rich endowment of religious genius, that richest treasure of religious life, the glad tidings of the one religion, absolute and true. What if he had said, as others, "None can be greater than Moses, none so great?" He had been a dwarf; the spirit of God had faded from his soul! But he conferred with God, not men; took counsel of his hopes, not his fears. Working for men, with men, by men, trusting in God, and pure as truth, he was not scared at the little din of Church or State, and trembled not, though Pilate and Herod were made friends only to crucify him that was a born King of the world. Methinks I hear that lofty spirit I say to you or me, Poor brother, fear not, nor despair. The goodness actual in me is possible for all. God is near thee now as then to me ; rich as ever in truth, as able to create, as willing to inspire. Daily and nightly He showers down his infinitude of light. Open thine eyes to see, thy heart to live. Lo, God is here.