The exact locality in which Jesus uttered the words considered in the last chapter is not stated, and it matters little. It was somewhere in that journey among "the cities and village of Galilee" to which he departed after despatching the twelve on their first preaching tour in twos. During that same journey occurred a small recontre between Jesus and the rarely-absent Pharisees, which, though occupying but a minute or two of time, gave birth to one of the many utterances of wisdom which have been operative for all time ever since. It was on a Sabbath Day, in the open air, when many people would be out enjoying the blue sky, clear atmosphere and beautiful scenery of a Syrian climate, in the interval between the Synagogue attendances. Jesus also was out, and passing through a field of ripening corn (Matt. xii. 1) Some of the disciples were with him, though not the twelve. Some, also, of the Pharisees were near and observant. As they walked along, the disciples began to pluck ears of corn, as the law allowed (Deut. xxiii. 25), and rubbing them in their hands, to eat the same. The Pharisees, on the outlook for something to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people, seized on this as a breach of the Sabbath law: "Thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the Sabbath day." Well, the breaking of the Sabbath was unlawful, and it is a good thing to be opposed to "that which is not lawful;" but it is a different thing to show this opposition only when the object is to condemn another. This is a common and grievous form of wickedness. Righteous men are scrupulous round the whole circle of God's commandments, and not at one or two points only; and they show their scrupulosity in subjecting their own life to them on all points, rather than in hunting up the shortcomings of their neighbours. It is a suspicious thing when a man shows a great and unusual zeal on behalf of some one element of righteousness, to score a point against an adversary. Jesus has called such zeal "hypocrisy," and the most searching reflection will show that it is nothing else. Zeal of this sort is apt to be very shallow in its constructions, and it is always deaf to reason. The only way to deal with it effectually, next to passing it by on the other side (which Jesus sometimes did, and wisdom sometimes calls for), is to question it on its own premises. This is what Jesus did in this case.
Their zeal ostensibly was all on behalf of what had been written. Very well: "Have ye not read what David did when he was an hungered, and they that were with him? -- how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shew bread which was not lawful for him to eat?" If David did an unlawful thing, which the Pharisees palliated, why were they to condemn Jesus and his disciples if a similar palliation existed? The palliation in David's case was David's need and David's discretionary power as Yahweh's anointed servant, on whom the Spirit of the Lord rested. An identical palliation existed in the case of Jesus: his disciples were hungry, and he had a far higher measure of divine authority than David. -- Again, he said, "Have ye not read in the law how that on the Sabbath days, the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless." The priests, notwithstanding the command to do no work on the Sabbath day, were to offer up special sacrifices on that day, or to circumcise children whose eighth day might fall on the Sabbath, that God's will on other points might be done. In doing this, they were blameless, though technically guilty. The Pharisees were aware of this -- that the temple law suspended the Sabbath law where the law otherwise required it, without involving unrighteousness. Yet they were condemning disciples of Jesus for doing on the Sabbath day what the Sabbath law required -- viz.: the eating of food to supply nature's wants; and that, too, under the sanction of one present who was "greater than the temple!" It was a poor and paltry quibble,as the sanctimonious carpings of enmity generally are. But what a crime when directed against "the Son of Man who is Lord even of the Sabbath day." "If ye had known," said Jesus, "what this meaneth, 'I will have mercy and not sacrifice,' ye would not have condemned the guiltless." "If ye had known ": how much is involved in this. There is a knowledge, of which the Pharisees had their full share, which does not go deep enough for the true apprehension of the meaning of things. It is exact enough and apt enough so far as it goes, but it does not go below the outside appearance of things. It stops short at their external form -- their human bearings -- how they will affect this one and that -- what this one and that will say. The form of an institution is sharply discerned by this class of intellect, without any sense of its intent. Israel was never deficient in this microscopical and petty breadth of mind which they possess in wonderful density to this day. With a strong sense of what might be called the mechanical sancitities of the Mosaic law, they lacked the deep probing penetration that goes to the bottom of things, and the mental amplitude that can take in "the breadth and length and height" of which Paul speaks. They accepted and stickled for the washings, and the fastings, and the sacrifices, without seeing what was under it all -- righteousness, mercy, obedience, faith. God rebuked them more than once for the multitude of their sacrifices in the absence of the spiritual "salt" that made them acceptable -- not that the sacrifices were not enjoined, but that they were out of place when divorced from the sentiments of which God intended them to be the symbol and expression. Jesus is here directing them to one of those reproofs by Hosea (vi. 6). "I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." He says if they had understood this saying, they would not have condemned the disciples for eating corn on the Sabbath. Why not? What had the saying about mercy versus sacrifice to do with the Sabbath? Directly, nothing: but indirectly, everything, as Christ's remark shows. It showed that as in sacrifice, so in the Sabbath, they must obey and interpret the law of it in the spirit in which it was instituted -- which was a spirit of mercy and wisdom. The Sabbath was ordained for rest and refreshment -- not for penance and oppression. "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath," as he said on another occasion. As expounders of the law, they ought to have understood this, and not to have substituted a censorious legal exactness for the spirit of benevolent common sense in which the commandment originated. The disciples were "guiltless" -- for so he pronounced them -- though they ate corn in the fields on the Sabbath day: and the guilty ones were the Pharisees who condemned them -- ostensibly in a spirit of zeal for the divine law, but in reality in a spirit of hostility to him who was, by pre-eminence, the Servant of Righteousness, who had mortally hurt their dignity by championising its claims against their traditions.
Leaving them to rankle under the arrow of his righteous words buried in their hearts, he sped his way to the local synagogue. Here, there was a large company, and here also were Pharisees, and probably the very men who had attacked him on the Sabbath question in the cornfield. They were all alive on the question. There was a man in the synagogue who had a withered hand. The custom of Jesus was to heal. It became evident -- probably from the people calling Christ's attention to the man -- that such was Christ's purpose in this case. But it was the Sabbath. Should such a thing be done on such a day? This was the question the Pharisees immediately put. "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?" Christ's answer was an order to the man to "Stand forth." If a sincere and godly scruple -- a fear of violating the will of God -- had been the real inspiration of the question the Pharisees had put, it would have received some consideration at the hands of Christ, who was always patient with the contrite. But such was not at all the case, as shewn by their habitual disregard of the will of God in a hundred other things. He therefore dealt with their words in anger: "He looked round about upon them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts" (Mar. iii. 5). He asks, with flashing eye, as we may well imagine, as he glances round, -- "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days? to save life or to kill?" He waited a moment for an answer. There was none. He follows with another question in tones of righteous warmth: "What man is there among you, who, if he have a sheep fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will not lay hold and lift it out? How much, then, is a man better than a sheep?" There was a force in these argumentative questions, propounded before an audience, that was simply overwhelming. Away from the presence of the people, doubtless, answer would not have failed them; they would have quibbled and confused the issue with all the loquacious agility and finesse which distinguishes Jew and Gentile to the present day, when confronted with a dilemma they will not, or cannot, face. But the Pharisees desired, above all things, to keep their reputation with the people for common sense, and, therefore, their tongues were tied -- they could not utter a word. They could not appear to contend that it was wrong for a man to save imperilled property on the Sabbath day. They had, therefore, no answer but silence. Jesus gave words to the obvious verdict nem. con. "Wherefore, it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath day." To this verdict, he proceeds to give effect. Addressing the man who was standing in the centre of the assembly during this passage of arms, his helpless hand visible to all, and all the people looking on with eager interest, he said, "Stretch forth thy hand." Brief, emphatic words of command; no incantations; no mummery; nothing resembling the mystic ceremonies of Greek priestesses or Persian magicians, whose nonsense is reflected in the plays of Shakespeare and in the rites of performing wizards and necromancers. The word of God is powerful as lightning, and needs no mystery-mongering. The man obeyed: "He stretched forth his hand; and it was restored whole as the other." The audience broke up in a rapture of admiration.
The Pharisees retired discomfited and stung to the quick. They convened a hurried meeting among themselves to see what was to be done. The conclusions they came to was that Jesus must be got rid of in some way. How to compass it, they did not exactly see; but that he must be destroyed, they were resolved. What a perfectly melancholy picture; a conclave of shallow egotisms -- (egotisms are necessarily shallow, for with any depth, self-consciousness becomes a merely steadying power, as intended) -- a league of pious mediocrities, whose piety consisted of long-faced and holy-toned superstition; a band of petty respectabilities, whose respectability consisted of carefully doing nothing that would hurt a human sensibility or shock human propriety; and most carefully and industriously doing, or appearing to do, what everybody was agreed to consider the right and the meritorious thing; a company of ornamental, self-satisfied parasites and monopolists, trading in the name of Moses while outraging his wisdom and righteousness, professing to serve God while most skilfully and decisively serving the craft only; simulating mercy and righteousness, while systematically practicing the vilest oppression and wickedness in secret. Such a set of human contemptibles sitting in solemn judgment on the Son of God -- the glorious Son of God, who, with power to hurl them all to destruction in a moment, patiently accommodated himself to a worthless population, while exhibiting in their midst the grandeur of God's character in his own compassion, and wisdom and dignity; and His power in the undeserved healing of all their diseases -- such a picture is the saddest the sun ever looked down upon. Its sadness is unutterable if we look at it by itself. But enlightenment cannot look at it by itself. It must be looked at in connection with the whole work of which it forms but a momentary phase. The completion of that work will show Christ enthroned in the scene of his humiliation, under circumstances that will owe their principal satisfaction to the bitter humiliations of the day of probation in which Christ preceded all his brethren.
Jesus heard that the Pharisees were plotting against him. The time to fall into their hands had not come. He therefore made arrangements to depart to another neighbourhood, in which for the time he would be beyond their reach. The people heard he was going and followed him in great multitudes. He submitted to their company in sorrow for their hapless state. They toiled along the road in a straggling mass. Among them were numerous sick and ailing people who hoped to share the benefit of his healing power. Arrived at the end of the journey, "he healed them all." In their jubilant feelings, they avowed their belief that he was the Messiah. "Is not this the son of David?" He gave their enthusiasm no encouragement. He knew it was of the superficial and transient character of the feelings of any crowd in the immediate receipt of some benefaction. He further knew that his rejection and death were at hand, and that popular feeling in his favour would only be an embarrassment. "He charged them that they should not make him known." Matthew says (xii. 17), that thus was fulfilled what had been written in Isaiah xlii. I: "He shall not strive nor cry, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break: a smoking flax shall he not quench till he send forth judgment unto victory."
The fulfilment of this will be seen in all its force if we compare the attitude of Christ during his ministry with the course usually observed by aspirants to popular fame and leadership. He did not get up a political agitation. He did not head a party, or get up a sedition. He made no suggestion of revolt against the authorities. He made no appeal to the suffrages of the people on his own behalf. He delivered no harangues intended to inflame them against their rulers, and to draw them away from their allegiance and gather them around himself. He quietly went about from place to place doing good in the healing of disease without partiality, announcing the purpose of God, and explaining what was acceptable to God and what was not, comforting the poor, and encouraging the lovers of righteousness. He counselled no resort to violence; on the contrary, he preached submission. He resorted to none of the artifices of strife; on the contrary, he retired before personal opposition. His occasional ardours and polemical thrusts were all employed in the enforcement of truth, and never in the promotion of personal or political aims. He never strove nor cried in the public sense of those terms. He abstained so entirely from coercive, or constraining measures, that he could not be said to break even a bruised reed, though that required no force; or to extinguish a smoking flax, though that was easy of accomplishment. The time will come when "he will bring forth judgment unto victory," but till that time should arrive, his part was (and his part is continued in all his disciples) to observe a passive attitude with regard to the institutions and movements of the present evil world. Knowing this, he forbade the healed and gratified people to make him known.
This feature presents itself several times in the course of his life. It is a remarkable and a significant one, well deserving the attention of uncertain believers. If they think it out, it must bring conviction. It is not a usual thing for a public teacher, or leader of any kind, to try to stop his own fame, or to limit or interfere with his own recognition. Jesus did so regularly. There must have been a reason. What was it? Every suggestion fails but one. It cannot be put down to weakness, for he showed himself strong and independent as teacher never was before. It cannot be put down to policy, for he had none, but voluntarily walked into the jaws of death. It cannot be attributed to insensibility to the people: for he evinced such compassion towards them as no one ever showed before or since. Why then did he systematically seek to set bounds to his recognition at the hands of the people? He alleges a reason: that he was about to suffer death (Matt. xvi. 20, 21). He did suffer death, we know. If this was the reason (and there could be no other), it proves him a prophet, and it proves him divine: for he said he had come to lay down his life for the world, and that it was a commandment he had received from the Father (Jno. x. 18). The more this is thought about, the weightier it will be felt in its proof that Jesus was the Son of God.
Certain of the Scribes and Pharisees had joined the crowd that followed him in his departure to another place. Though they saw the marvels of healing he performed, they pooh-poohed them as the mere tricks of necromancy, and attributed them to his league with Beelzebub, as on a previous occasion. How he dealt with this we have seen in a former chapter. We may now realize the irrational and aggravating character of their demand at this time for a sign. "Master, we would see a sign from thee." See a sign! What sign could be availing to those who saw no sign in the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, the restoring sight to the blind? If men could seriously attribute such things to "Beelzebub," how could they be expected to see anything divine in anything that could be done? And if they make such a suggestion, not seriously, but in the flippancy of a scornful animosity, how could they be worthy of any sign at all? Jesus answered in the spirit of these questions, in doing which Mark informs us that "he sighed deeply in his spirit." No wonder. His answer was: "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign: and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas." What sign was that? "As Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." That is, the great sign of Christ's divinity would be Christ's resurrection. He would be crucified, and killed, and buried, but Would only he in the grave for three days. He would come to life again and leave the grave on the morning of the third day. This certainly would be the sign of signs. The prodigies performed by a living man were always open to the suggestion that they were his own performances by some occult natural law peculiar to himself: but how could a dead man raise himself? This sign would be given, and none else. Were his wonders of healing, then, no sign? Certainly they were, as Peter afterwards said, "Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles, wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you." (Acts ii, 22). But they were not signs in the sense of the request made by the Scribes and Pharisees. They said "show a sign from heaven." They wanted something showy, something spectacular, something impressive. Jesus could have shewn them such. He could have shewn them "twelve legions of angels" marshalled in shining phalanx around him. He could have shewn them Mount Ebal or Mount Gerizim plucked from its base and hurled into the Mediterranean. He could have shewn the country filled with horses and chariots of fire such as surrounded Elisha. But there would have been no object in such a display. It would not have wrought conviction. It would merely have gratified an idle curiosity, which would have found excuse for disbelief in some reservation, or theory of the Beelzebub order. The minds that could not see the hand of God in the healing of multitudes by a word, and the raising of the dead, would not have seen it in anything.
Jesus went further than this on another occasion. He said, "If they believe not Moses and the prophets, neither would they be persuaded though one rose from the dead." The truth of this was shewn in the case of his own resurrection. The "sign of the prophet Jonas" produced no effect. The Scribes and Pharisees, when this great sign from heaven was granted, shut their eyes and ears, and sought to destroy the witnesses, and to suppress the miraculous confirmation of their testimony. God did not raise Christ in the presence of the assembled inhabitants of Jerusalem. He could have arranged to have it so, but His object precluded such a plan of operation. It is evident that God intends men to exercise their senses, and only grants so much evidence as is sufficient to afford a basis for intelligent faith. From what Jesus says about Moses and the prophets, it is evident that the class of mind that cannot be convinced by the evidence contained in the Scriptures, and the confirmation which it receives in various ways from the history and condition of mankind, is too far below the elementary endowments of intelligence to possess the faith that pleases God, and without which it is testified "it is impossible, to please Him" (Heb. xi. 6). How much more must this have been true of those who, like the Scribes and Pharisees, could listen to Christ's wonderful teaching and behold his wonderful works without perceiving, with Nicodemus, that he was "a teacher come from God." We may therefore understand why he proceeded to give his contemporary generation a poor place in comparison with some of the ancients: "The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and behold a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it, for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold a greater than Solomon is here." The Ninevites showed some susceptibility to the claims of righteousness at the mouth of an erring prophet. The Queen of Sheba showed some reverent appreciation of excellence coming to her merely as a matter of report. But here was a generation who could set up their opposition to him to whom all the prophets gave witness, and who could cry down the impersonation of all wisdom and worth though exhibited in their very midst. Is it a wonder that he spoke of them as "this wicked generation," whom he likened to a cured madman, who relapses and allies himself at the last with seven others, more mad than himself, and makes with them a pandemonium of his house, which had been put into an orderly state when he was cured. "Even so," says he, "shall it be also unto this wicked generation." The history of the case shows the application. At the first the nation submitted to the preaching of John the Baptist, followed by that of Jesus, and became morally sane, but afterwards they returned to the leadership of the Scribes and Pharisees, and sank into a worse state than they were in before, and were given over to destruction at the hands of the Romans.
While Jesus was uttering these things, he was surrounded by a crowd who naturally listened with great eagerness to what passed between Jesus and their own clergy (for such the Scribes and Pharisees were). It requires no great exercise of fancy to imagine the dense silent packing of the people and their, eager outstretched heads straining to catch the words of the speakers. What a privilege to be there, though they did not know it. It generally is the case that people "know not the day of their visitation."
At this point, the silent attention was broken into. A message came from the skirts of the crowd, and was passed over the heads of the people, and delivered to Christ by one close to him. "Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee." Jesus did not receive the intimation with any great manifestation of respect for his relations according to the flesh, thus conspicuously introduced to notice. He said (probably with an air of quiet dignity) "Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?" He did not own to the claim implied in the assertion of blood relationship. In the world, then as now, blood relation was everything: with Jesus, it was nothing outside the special relation he had come to create -- the relation of men to God in reconciliation, love, and obedience. If mothers and brothers were inside the circle of this relation, well and good; if not, he was not theirs, nor they his. He did not know any man after the flesh. His mother and his brothers were to be found among those who did the will of God. To this doctrine, he gave emphatic enunciation at this time. "He stretched forth his hands towards his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren: for whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother." Did Jesus mean then to ignore the command of God by Moses that father and mother should be honoured, and that near of kin were to be regarded? Nothing could be further from the purpose of him who came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil. He did not mean to undermine the force of any divine law, but rather to enforce the foundation of all law -- viz., the doing of the will of God. He meant to say that where this foundation was absent, no law and no relation had any efficacy. The Jews were very zealous for human custom and tradition, and for divine enactment only in so far as it was in harmony with these. They were zealous for their distinction as the chosen nation, for circumcision as the token of it: for their laws and customs as its fence and protection, but not zealous of God Himself or His will as such. And, therefore, it came to pass that even the part of their service that was according to the law, was unacceptable: the offering of sacrifices and the holding of feasts, which, as God said by Isaiah, had become intolerable (Isa. i. 11-14). On the same principle, Jesus taught that natural relationship was of no force if there were not engrafted upon it the affectionate recognition of God, the loving submission to His will in all things -- of which he himself was the highest example.