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THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT.
THE unexpected call to the Messianic office found Jesus unprepared with any definite policy. He therefore remained a passive spectator of events until informed of the imprisonment of John, when he adopted the prophetic formula, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand 'words expressive of nothing more than a popular cry of the day, sufficiently vague for divergent ideals of the phantom kingdom of the prophets.
At length, postponing Messianic responsibilities with the light-hearted philosophy which anticipates not evil, he assumed the rôle of a popular Rabbi, or more humble Meturgeman, and, dispensing with school or synagogue, preached the Sermon on the Mount, as his imaginative Targum on the law and the prophets.
The genius of Essene Buddhism inspires this famous discourse : Blessed are the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and suffer persecution for its sake, for great is their reward in heaven.’1 This language might well have been addressed to his disciples by an Essene sage, commending the virtues which they practised within the circle of an exclusive sect; but, when Jesus adds, “ Ye are the light of the world ; let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven,' he rises above Essene exclusiveness, and invites ascetic piety to go forth into the world, and instruct the multitude in righteousness through the force of example.
1 This form of exhortation was anticipated by the son of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus xiv. 1, 2, 20).
In harmony with the freedom of Haggadah, this illustrious Meturgeman of the Mount does not hesitate to denounce all which he finds most objectionable in Moses, even when uttered in the name of Jehovah, and thus sanctions our rejection of scriptural authority, when found conflicting with the reason and conscience of our age. He concurs with Shammai in condemning capricious divorce, replaces Mosaic licentiousness by Essene purity, and emphatically denounces the sanguinary violence of ancient priests and prophets by characterising unjust anger as constructive murder.
The moral genius of Jesus sympathised with the monogamous relationship of the sexes which flourished among Achaian Greeks and Egyptian citizens. He therefore announced that," from the beginning' marriage had been consecrated by Divine decree ;? but alas ! his
beginning' merely dated from the fabulous Eden, in absolute unconsciousness of prehistoric Humanity, and of the countless generations through which woman had not risen above the communal Hetairism, which prevailed before the moral evolution of higher forms of social relationship.
In rejecting oaths, Jesus follows in the footsteps of
1 Matt. xix.
the Essenes, who, according to Josephus, considered swearing worse than perjury, ‘for they say that he who cannot be believed without swearing by God is already condemned.'1
Disavowing the vindictive spirit of Mosaic legislation, in harmony with the principles and practice of Essene peace-makers, Jesus was betrayed by the feminine softness of his nature into unconditional acceptance of the doctrinaire illusion—Peace at any price, which, socially, encourages rogues and ruffians to prey upon the industry of honest and peaceable men, and, politically, invites the aggression of foreign enemies eager for the spoliation of states which see in force no remedy. Eminent apologists assure us that, in commanding us to turn our cheek to the smiter, and surrender our garments to the spoiler, Jesus merely gives forcible expression to the obligations of humanity through an impossible ideal. On the contrary, he personally sanctions the practice of the Essenes, who, according to Josephus, neither bought nor sold anything to each other, but every one of them gave what he had to him that needed it, and received from him in exchange what was convenient for himself; and although there may be no requital made, they are fully allowed to take what they want of whomsoever they please.'This form of socialism was, doubtless, possible in a limited community of pious ascetics, controlled by the laws and customs of the association, but is absolutely irreconcilable with the social and political existence of nations composed of ordinary Humanity. Jesus, however, fell into the serious error of preaching Essene communism to the multitude. And as he personally acted on the principle of non-resistance throughout the most important events of his career, we necessarily grant him the privilege of meaning what he says, in preference to accepting the unattested theories of apologetic theologians, piously attempting to prove that Jesus was infallible.
1 Wars of the Jews, ii. viii. 6.
2 Ibid. 4.
Those modern Essenes, the Society of Friends, however they may differ from their ancient prototypes in devotion to commerce, adopt the theory of non-resistance, but, with characteristic prudence, profess these principles as citizens of a powerful empire, which guarantees domestic security of life and property, and shields the Civis Britannicus in distant lands with the national prestige, won by the un-Essene heroism of generations, to whom the dream of non-resistance and the fiction of non-intervention would have been but empty sounds. The Society of Friends could, therefore, more effectually test the virtues of modern Essenism by emigrating in a body, with all their possessions, to Central Africa, and there founding a model colony on the principle of nonresistance; where, if exposed to the violence of savages,
, who still believe in force, they could at least enjoy the pleasing consciousness of proving, at their own expense, the sincerity of their convictions.
A time came when evangelical Essenism proved disastrous to Humanity, as primitive Christians beheld with apathy, or even satisfaction, the appalling calamity of Roman civilisation overwhelmed by savage barbarism. And when, in later generations, the military genius of Mahomedanism threatened Christianity with destruction, if its priests had not disavowed the teaching of Jesus in a policy as warlike as that of Joshua or David,
the crescent would now surmount the cathedrals of Europe, thronged by the disciples, not of Jesus, but of Mahomed.
The pernicious tendency of political Essenism, in modern times, receives lamentable illustration in the culpable leniency extended to the military insubordination of Arabi Bey, whose prompt deposition and enforced exile would have spared the civilised world the appalling spectacle of Alexandria in flames as the funeral pyre of massacred citizens.
Jesus again speaks as a true Essene in commendation of benevolence, but fails to attain the moral height of an Aurelius when he holds out the hope of rewards in heaven as the inducement for deeds of charity. Had he taught men to practise the ennobling duties of humanity without one thought of reward here or hereafter, Christianity might have escaped the mediæval scandal of sinners selfishly pauperising their neighbours for the salvation of their own souls.
Jesus followed the Pharisees in teaching the duty and efficacy of prayer, and concurred with the son of Sirach in condemning vain repetitions. The heathen might importune the gods with tedious volubility, but the worshippers of the true Deity must not trifle with Omnipotence by vainly seeking to participate in the providential government of the world. The Father · knows what is best for his children who should, therefore, wisely confide in the guardianship of divine wisdom. In illustration of his meaning, Jesus compiled from extant liturgies the brief formula known as his prayer, the simplicity of which should have for ever excluded ritualistic worship from the Christian Church.