"And when they had crossed over, they came to the land unto Gennesaret, and moored to the shore. . . . Making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do." MARK 6:53-7:13 (R.V.)
THERE is a condition of mind which readily accepts the temporal blessings of religion, and yet neglects, and perhaps despises, the spiritual truths which they ratify and seal. When Jesus landed on Gennesaret, He was straightway known, and as He passed through the district, there was hasty bearing of all the sick to meet Him, laying them in public places, and beseeching Him that they might touch, if no more, the border of His garment. By the faith which believed in so easy a cure, a timid woman had recently won signal commendation. But the very fact that her cure had become public, while it accounts for the action of these crowds, deprives it of any special merit. We only read that as many as touched Him were made whole. And we know that just now He was forsaken by many even of His disciples, and had to ask His very apostles, Will ye also go away?
Thus we find these two conflicting movements: among the sick and their friends a profound persuasion that He can heal them; and among those whom He would fain teach, resentment and revolt against His doctrine. The combination is strange, but we dare not call it unfamiliar. We see the opposing tendencies even in the same man, for sorrow and pain drive to his knees many a one who will not take upon his neck the easy yoke. Yet how absurd it is to believe in Christ's goodness and His power, and still to dare to sin against Him, still to reject the inevitable inference that His teaching must bring bliss. Men ought to ask themselves what is involved when they pray to Christ and yet refuse to serve Him.
As Jesus moved thus around the district, and responded so amply to their supplication that His very raiment was charged with health as if with electricity, which leaps out at a touch, what an effect He must have produced, even upon the ceremonial purity of the district. Sickness meant defilement, not for the sufferer alone, but for his friends, his nurse, and the bearers of his little pallet. By the recovery of one sick man, a fountain of Levitical pollution was dried up. And the harsh and rigid legalist ought to have perceived that from his own point of view the pilgrimage of Jesus was like the breath of spring upon a garden, to restore its freshness and bloom.
It was therefore an act of portentous waywardness when, at this juncture, a complaint was made of His indifference to ceremonial cleanness. For of course a charge against His disciples was really a complaint against the influence which guided them so ill.
It was not a disinterested complaint. Jerusalem was alarmed at the new movement resulting from the mission of the Twelve, their miracles, and the mighty works which He Himself had lately wrought. And a deputation of Pharisees and scribes came from this center of ecclesiastical prejudice, to bring Him to account. They do not assail His doctrine, nor charge Him with violating the law itself, for He had put to shame their querulous complaints about the sabbath day. But tradition was altogether upon their side: it was a weapon ready sharpened for their use against one so free, unconventional and fearless.
The law had imposed certain restrictions upon the chosen race, restrictions which were admirably sanitary in their nature, while aiming also at preserving the isolation of Israel from the corrupt and foul nations which lay around. All such restrictions were now about to pass away, because religion was to become aggressive, it was henceforth to invade the nations from whose inroads it had heretofore sought a covert. But the Pharisees had not been content even with the severe restrictions of the law. They had not regarded these as a fence for themselves against spiritual impurity, but as an elaborate and artificial substitute for love and trust. And therefore, as love and spiritual religion faded out of their hearts they were the more jealous and sensitive about the letter of the law. They "fenced" it with elaborate rules, and precautions against accidental transgressions, superstitiously dreading an involuntary infraction of its minutest details. Certain substances were unclean food. But who could tell whether some atom of such substance, blown about in the dust of summer, might adhere to the hand with which he ate, or the cups and pots whence his food was drawn? Moreover, the Gentile nations were unclean, and it was not possible to avoid all contact with them in the market-places, returning whence, therefore, every devout Jew was careful to wash himself, which washing, though certainly not an immersion, is here plainly called a baptism. Thus an elaborate system of ceremonial washing, not for cleansing, but as a religious precaution, had grown up among the Jews.
But the disciples of Jesus had begun to learn their emancipation. Deeper and more spiritual conceptions of God and man and duty had grown up in them. And the Pharisees saw that they ate their bread with unwashen hands. It availed nothing that half a population owed purity and health to their Divine benevolence, if in the process the letter of a tradition were infringed. It was necessary to expostulate with Jesus, because they walked not according to the tradition of the elders, that dried skin of an old orthodoxy in which prescription and routine would ever fain shut up the seething enthusiasms and insights of the present time.
With such attempts to restrict and cramp the free life of the soul, Jesus could have no sympathy. He knew well that an exaggerated trust in any form, any routine or ritual whatever, was due to the need of some stay and support for hearts which have ceased to trust in a Father of souls. But He chose to leave them without excuse by showing their transgression of actual precepts which real reverence for God would have respected. Like books of etiquette for people who have not the instincts of gentlemen; so do ceremonial religions spring up where the instinct of respect for the will of God is dull or dead. Accordingly Jesus quotes against these Pharisees a distinct precept, a word not of their fathers, but of God, which their tradition had caused them to trample upon. If any genuine reverence for His commandment had survived, it would have been outraged by such a collision between the text and the gloss, the precept and the precautionary supplement. But they had never felt the incongruity, never been jealous enough for the commandment of God to revolt against the encroaching tradition which insulted it. The case which Jesus gave, only as one of "many such like things," was an abuse of the system of vows, and of dedicated property. It would seem that from the custom of "devoting" a man's property, and thus putting it beyond his further control, had grown up the abuse of consecrating it with such limitations, that it should still be available for the owner, but out of his power to give to others. And thus, by a spell as abject as the taboo of the South Sea islanders, a man glorified God by refusing help to his father and mother, without being at all the poorer for the so-called consecration of his means. And even if he awoke up to the shameful nature of his deed, it was too late, for "ye no longer suffer him to do ought for his father or his mother." And yet Moses had made it a capital offense to "speak evil of father or mother." Did they then allow such slanders? Not at all, and so they would have refused to confess any aptness in the quotation. But Jesus was not thinking of the letter of a precept, but of the spirit and tendency of a religion, to which they were blind. With what scorn He regarded their miserable subterfuges, is seen by His vigorous word, "full well do ye make void the commandment of God that ye may keep your traditions."
Now the root of all this evil was unreality. It was not merely because their heart was far from God that they invented hollow formalisms; indifference leads to neglect, not to a perverted and fastidious earnestness. But while their hearts were earthly, they had learned to honor God with their lips. The judgments which had sent their fathers into exile, the pride of their unique position among the nations, and the self-interest of privileged classes, all forbade them to neglect the worship in which they had no joy, and which, therefore, they were unable to follow as it reached out into infinity, panting after God, a living God. There was no principle of life, growth, aspiration, in their dull obedience. And what could it turn into but a routine, a ritual, a verbal homage, and the honor of the lips only? And how could such a worship fail to shelter itself in evasions from the heart-searching earnestness of a law which was spiritual, while the worshipper was carnal and sold under sin?
It was inevitable that collisions should arise. And the same results will always follow the same causes. Wherever men bow the knee for the sake of respectability, or because they dare not absent themselves from the outward haunts of piety, yet fail to love God and their neighbor, there will the form outrage the spirit, and in vain will they worship, teaching as their doctrines the traditions of men.
Very completely indeed was the relative position of Jesus and His critics reversed, since they had expressed pain at the fruitless effort of His mother to speak with Him, and He had seemed to set the meanest disciple upon a level with her. But He never really denied the voice of nature, and they never really heard it. An affectation of respect would have satisfied their heartless formality: He thought it the highest reward of discipleship to share the warmth of His love. And therefore, in due time, it was seen that His critics were all unconscious of the wickedness of filial neglect which set His heart on fire.