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Having formed our ideal of Jesus as a great Teacher from the Sermon on the Mount, we participate in the surprise and disappointment of his disciples, as we see him forsaking the original form and substance of his teaching, to borrow Rabbinical parables from the educational system of men whom he had denounced as blind leaders of the blind. The multitude had found in his simple and straightforward discourses an impressive authority foreign to the style of merely conventional teachers, and yet he imperilled the moral power of direct and definite statement to imitate the enigmatical teaching of his hated rivals.
A vague impression exists in our time that Hebrew parables were judiciously adopted for the instruction of ignorant simpletons ; but this view is not sustained by contemporary opinion in the age of Jesus. The author of Ecclesiasticus,' writing B.C. 200, assures us that parables were not intended for labourers, agric ulturists, or mechanics, but for men of refined taste and learned leisure. Great Hebrew masters, preceding and contemporary with Jesus, addressed their parables, not to the ignorant multitude, but to the youthful pupils who—as Saul of Tarsus—sat at the feet of a Hillel, a
1 Chap. xxxviii.
Shammai, or a Gamaliel, not to listen to the eloquence of great convictions, but to the casuistical subtleties of men honestly endeavouring to reconcile the faith of Judah with the Rationalism of Greece.
This mode of teaching-examples of which abound in Mishnical and Talmudical literature—is obviously the very reverse of that adopted in the Sermon on the Mount. What, therefore, caused so mysterious and unsatisfactory a change in the policy of Jesus? A clear and definite reply is furnished by the Evangelist. He had fallen under the dominion of the national superstition.
On his disciples inquiring why he had addressed the multitude in parables, Jesus referred them to the following passage in Isaiah : 1 • And he [Jehovah] said, Go and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes ; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.' The Evangelist furthermore removes all doubt as to the subjection of Jesus to prophetic fatality, by informing us that he refused to instruct in any other form than parables, because the Psalmist had written, “I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter dark sayings of old.' 2
A beneficent Father and a free kingdom of heaven were, therefore, illusory dreams. The words of Isaiah, spoken without any reference to the age of Jesus, now fettered his judgment, controlled his actions, annulled the Sermon on the Mount, and involved the kingdom of
1. Chap. vi. 9, 10.
2 Matt. xiii. 35.
heaven in mysteries hidden from all but the chosen few, gifted with supernatural knowledge of the precious secrets. 1
We have seen from the parable of Lazarus and Dives that Jesus did not possess the critical acumen indispensable to the nice adjustment of analogous conditions disclosed in the fables of an Æsop. Rabbinical parables were, therefore, foreign to the genius of Jesus; and those recorded in the Gospels have only sustained a traditional character for wisdom through the reverential awe of divinity which has silenced the voice of rational criticism. Let us, therefore, consider some of the parables accepted for centuries as masterpieces of sagacity.
• Behold, a sower went forth to sow : and when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them ; some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth, and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth, and when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away ; and some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprung up and choked them; but others fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold '?
Although the disciples were supposed to possess intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus explained to them the esoteric meaning of the parable. The sower was the Son of Man, the seed was his teaching, and the various descriptions of ground represented the moral condition of his auditors. Now,
1 Matt. xiii. 16, 17.
? Matt. xiii. 3-9.
if land, virtually incapable of producing corn through the intrinsic defects of its actual condition, symbolises the hearts of men, the failure of the gospel, in their case, is as much a foregone conclusion as the failure of the seed in the ground ; and it follows that none but the naturally virtuous benefit by the preaching of Jesus. How, therefore, is it possible to reconcile this parable with the doctrine of repentance and forgiveness of sins? How marvellous that it did not occur to any one of the disciples to inquire in what sense the parable of the sower affected men, rendered incapable of understanding the teaching of Jesus by the decree of the prophets !
Again, Jesus declares that the kingdom of heaven resembles a man who has sown good seed in a field in which his enemy subsequently scatters tares, and all are permitted to grow together until the harvest. The disciples, apparently unconscious of their privileged possession of sacred mysteries, seek an explanation, and Jesus states that the sower is the Son of Man, the good seed the children of the kingdom, the tares the children of Satan, and the harvest the end of the world. Mankind are, therefore, predestined to salvation or perdition under circumstances admitting of no individual responsibility; and if the disciples had been capable of any rational appreciation of their master's meaning, they would naturally have remarked, “If all men are necessarily wheat or tares, sons of God or children of Satan, why preach repentance and forgiveness of sins, and teach the multitude that men shall be rewarded or punished according to their conduct on earth ?' But, un
Matt, xiii. 24-30.
happily for the future of Christianity, the simple-minded peasants whom Jesus had chosen as his companions and confidants were too deeply impressed by his personal superiority to question the infallibility of his teaching. As Jesus, however, habitually silenced all who differed from him in opinion, the sceptical suggestions of disciples would not probably have elicited any very definite reply. When Peter, the boldest of the apostles, presumed to criticise the statements of his master, he was reproved with a severity which practically suppressed inquiry, and thus deprived posterity of the enlightenment which might have resulted from freedom of discussion.
• Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net which was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind ; which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the
away. So shall it be at the end of the world ; the angels shall come forth and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’1 Now, what does analogy in this case affirm ? The fish are in their natural condition, which nothing can change when the great drag-net is cast, and in symbolising men, indicate that salvation or perdition is contingent on the natural character of individuals.
Eminent commentators assure us that this ‘parable perforce passes over the fact that in the actual work of the kingdom the very casting of the net may change, and is meant to change, the nature of the fish that are taken in its meshes; and, therefore, those that remain “bad ”
1 Matt. xiii. 47-50.