It is worth while to dwell for a moment on the reason that led the mother and brethren of Jesus to seek for him at the time mentioned in the last chapter. This reason is stated by Mark (iii. 21): He says, "They went out to lay hold on him, saying, He is beside himself." "Beside himself!" Mad! What a view to entertain of Christ! It was the only conclusion which the very sane and proper mediocrities of Christ's family friends could arrive at in the contemplation of a man and his performances so altogether above them. Had that man been a stranger, they might have thought better of him, but "Jesus, the carpenter," their own brother, whom they had known from his boyhood, and who had come out and in among them in a quiet familiar way -- it was intolerable to their small self-loves that such an one should set up as a teacher come from God; and it was easy for them in that temper, to discover madness in his continuous application to public work, and in the crowding of the people to hear him in such numbers that it was with difficulty that Jesus and his disciples could so much as eat bread. For as yet, "neither did his brethren believe on him" (Jno. vii. 5). They afterwards yielded to the overpowering evidence of facts, and identified themselves with the company of his disciples (Acts i. 14). But at this stage, they contributed an ingredient to the bitterness of the Lord's humiliation in openly proclaiming their conviction that he was "beside himself." It may be that they borrowed the idea from the Pharisees who publicly declared him to be in league with "Beelzebub." But whatever the cause, it completed the dishonour cast upon Christ in the days of his flesh, that while the public men of the nation said, "He hath a demon and is mad: why hear ye him?" his own private friends, who ought to have been the first to shield him from such an imputation, actually sought to interrupt him in the act of his public labours, and to take him under their restraint on the plea that he was "beside himself."
At first sight, it seems unaccountable that perfect wisdom and goodness should have been mistaken for insanity. The difficulty softens when we realise to ourselves the process of reasoning by which such a conclusion is arrived at. The people who thought Christ insane naturally judged by their own views and feelings. Their inner consciousness supplied them with no principle or recognisable motive which could lead to the course Jesus pursued. They could not conceive themselves to act in the way in which Jesus acted. They felt they must be mad before they could do what he did; and therefore they concluded it must be so with him. The popular criteria of madness are usually correct enough; but there is a possibility of their being out of application altogether through the presence of an element which it is beyond the capacity of the people to understand. Such was the case with machinery and the electric telegraph when first heard of by the ignorant. They were set down to witchcraft, because ignorant people had no knowledge of how they could be soberly true. So the power by which Jesus worked and the objects for which he worked being beyond the understanding of the people, they came to the only conclusion that was in harmony with their theory of things. Their rough and ready conclusion seemed to them an explanation, but was in reality the highest form of blasphemy man can utter.
In some measure, all Christ's brethren have to suffer from the same ignorance and illogic. They show a bias and pursue a course which are inexplicable on the principles of worldly people, and therefore worldly people, who are nearly all the people, suppose they must be quietly insane. It is a great trial to be the subject of such a misconception. But it is a trial for which Christ expressly prepared his disciples: "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household" (Matt. x. 24). There are, of course, mad folks, who are proveably such on every principle: but this is not the character of those in any degree whose only symptom of madness is the intellectual reception of Bible history from Moses to Christ, on grounds which they can formulate and establish; and a life in logical harmony with that conviction.
"The same day," Jesus "sat by the sea side," that is by the shore of the sea of Galilee or lake of Gennesareth -- a lake of quiet beauty, surrounded by hills. Bro. Collyerrecently visited the honoured water, and found it much quieter than it was in the days of Jesus, but much busier than it was 50 years ago. With Jesus were the people, crowding in inconvenient numbers round him. To avoid the pressure and be enabled easily to speak to them, he entered one of the fishing-boats with his disciples, sat down and directed the guardian of the craft to push out a little and cast anchor. This done, retaining his sitting posture, he began to address himself to the people who crowded the beach to the water's edge for a considerable distance along each way. His address on this occasion consisted of a number of parables delivered in a desultory way; that is, he did not "make a speech" in which the parables were strung together without interval, but spoke one, then paused: conversed with those round about him about it: then spoke again, and again receiving the attention of the people intermittently, according as he addressed himself to them, or subsided in conversation with those near him. It was an extremely interesting and picturesque occasion. Not unlikely, other boats drew near from behind the boat containing Christ and his disciples, and contributed a floating audience in addition to those who stood on the shore. We are told that "He spake many things to them" on this occasion. Only a portion of them is recorded. First is
The parable of the sower. -- In this, a man is introduced in the act of sowing seed in a field, containing various kinds of soil. The difficulty with us Westerns as regards the mechanism of the parable is to understand how there could be in one field such a variety of conditions of ground as is here depicted. This difficulty disappears when we learn from travellers, that Oriental agriculture differs in nothing more from agriculture in the west than this, that the fields put under seed are not really enclosed patches of land, all of a sort, but he scattered over a hill side containing all the varieties mentioned in the parable. The feature of the parable is the difference of the yield in differently conditioned soil: "Some seed fell by the wayside (that is on a trodden path), and the fowls came and devoured them up. 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 sprang up and choked them. But others fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit -- some a hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, and some thirty-fold."
Nothing more thoroughly illustrates the difference between ecclesiastical theology and the teaching of Christ than this parable: and nothing, at the same time, more strikingly shows the harmony between that teaching and the simple unsophisticated facts of nature. The theology of the pulpit, in all sects and denominations, is based on the metaphysical speculations of pagan philosophers. All their ideas are based on the assumption that men are immortal in their inner constitution, and owe their intelligence to the possession of a spark of the divine nature. On this supposition, men are tacitly assumed to possess similar moral powers and mental capacities, and are practically held to be amenable to similar rules and conditions. The practical differences among men are set down partly to will, and partly to the influence of antagonistic spiritual beings. Such an idea as comparing human hearts to different classes of soil would never occur to such a philosopher. Such a comparison is inconsistent with the first principles of theological "science," and would be extinguished at its inception by the doctrine that men are fundamentally alike in their powers and capacities, through all of them having in common what are popularly called "immortal souls." But here is Jesus making the comparison. Here is Jesus proclaiming a truth which has been thoroughly discerned in modern times, and which has been embodied in the practically true though professionally spurned-system of "phrenology" -- viz., that men are by no means the same in their moral and intellectual natures: that there is just as much diversity in their mental constitution as there is variety of earth and stone in the constitution of the crust of the earth: that some are as impenetrable to all fructifying influences as the road side: some as irresponsive as ground in which there are more stones than soil: some as cumbered and obstructed as a thistly patch: and some like the generous garden mould, ready to yield to every effort of tillage. These are Christ's own comparisons, and they are true to nature.
The seed, he afterwards explained, is "the word" -- the word ministered by himself and co-labourers. "The word," it is perhaps needless to say, is a synonym for the class of ideas comprehended in the gospel, called "the word" because it has been divinely spoken (1 Thess. ii. 13), and "the truth," because it is pre-eminently that form of truth without which men cannot live in the ultimate sense (Jno. viii. 32). The comparison of this spoken word of God to seed is a very happy comparison. Viewing the mind of man as soil, there is a strict analogy between the one and the other. Just as soil -- the very best -- has no power to yield garden flowers without seed or its equivalent, so the human brain has no power to evolve knowledge or wisdom without the impartation of ideas from without. Ideas are not innate in the human mind. The mind of a new-born babe is an absolute blank: and the mind of a grown man would be the same, if from his babyhood he were kept away from all contact with idea-acquiring agencies and sources. The kind of ideas he forms depends upon the class of ideas implanted by these external agencies. His mind will develop according to the influences acting upon it from without. No more baneful philosophy is taught under the sun than that which teaches man to look into himself for light. There is no "light within" unless it has been put in, and it is "light" not because it is "in," but because it is "light" before it is put in, quite irrespective of the vessel into which it has been put. Ideas having such a power to form the mind are most naturally compared in this parable to seed. They germinate according to their nature. False ideas if bad ideas, taken in and nurtured and assimilated, will bring forth false results -- bad results -- first in thought and then in action -- both being comprehended in the term "fruit." The seed in the parable is "good seed," because it represents good ideas -- ideas that have come from God -- "the seed is the word of God" (Luke viii. 11). Admitted to the mind and nourished, the good seed will bring forth good fruit.
But the extent of the result depends upon the state of the soil and the nature of the husbandry. The good seed falling into unfit minds will prove abortive, notwithstanding its goodness, because the soil is bad: so Christ teaches, and so experience shows. The good seed falling into good soil will bring forth good fruit if the soil is not pre-occupied with other growths which absorb the power of the soil. Thorns and weeds of all kinds will thrive in good soil, of course. If they are allowed to do so, the plant shot up by the good seed will have little chance of "bringing forth fruit to perfection." The weeds require keeping down. What they are, Jesus tells. "The care of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things." These, he says, "choke the word, and he (the man) becometh unfruitful" It is not enough, therefore, to have good soil, or a mind capable of understanding and appreciating the truth revealed in the gospel. There must be a care to protect the mind from those influences that are calculated to undermine the power of the gospel. There are many things competing for human affection; and for most of them, the mind possesses a natural affinity. The danger therefore is great: the need for wise and energetic horticulture very pressing. Happy are they who practically recognise this and act accordingly. As for the seed that fell into good ground, Christ's explanation is very clear and simple: "The good ground are they who in an honest and good heart, having heard the word and understood it (Matt. xiii. 23) keep it, bring forth fruit with patience" (Luke vii. 15).
Those who are accustomed to the indiscriminatinggush of "Evangelical" Christianity may revolt at this view. That may feel it to be a harsh and repulsive doctrine which teaches that men can only be influenced by the gospel to the extent of their capacity to receive it. But it is a true doctrine, even if it is "harsh," as many true things in the universe are. It is impossible for intelligence to ignore the fact that it is the doctrine of Christ and the lesson of painful experience. It is not alone this parable. The whole of Christ's practical teaching is tinged with it, as when he says: "To him that hath shall be given" (Luke xix, 26), "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matt. xix, 12), "Ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep" (John x. 26), "No man can come unto me except the Father who hath sent me draw him" (John vi. 44). And every man who has any extensive contact with his kind in this present evil world, is bound to learn that the men are more rare than precious stones who have capacity to discern or taste to relish the good things of the Spirit of God. The patches of good soil are few and far between: and more often than not, they are too covered over with vigorous thistle growth of all kinds to make it possible for the good seed to have an opportunity. As to why the matter should be so, that is another and not a very practical question. God is the worker out of his own plans. There are no other plans with stability in them. The revolutions of time kill them all off the surface of the earth. God having his plans, and having adopted his own means of working them out, it is ours simply to learn what they are, and what demands of conformity they may have for us which it may be in our power to render.
It was part of the seeming obscurity of this plan and its method that Jesus should speak in parables to the multitudes. When he had uttered this parable of the sower and the seed, "The disciples came and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?" The answer seemed abrupt and unsympathetic -- "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given." Why not? "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath" (Matt. xiii. 11, 12). A certain class would turn the logic of these sayings just the other way. They would say if a man have not, it is a reason why something should be given to him, and not taken away; and if a man have, it is superfluous to give him "more abundance." There is a certain common-sense smartness, no doubt, about this kind of criticism, but it has no application to the subject in hand. It might apply to food or clothes or money; but it does not apply to those spiritually-enlightened moral and intellectual attainments which commend a man to God. If a man lack these, there is nothing to work on to lift him higher. But if he have them, the tendency is for him to increase in attainment and in acceptability with God and man. When, in addition to this, we take into account the judicial element underlying the case, any remaining mist entirely disappears. A man or a nation's poverty in the matter in question is largely the result of neglect and misuse of opportunities given. God gives these, and asks men to seek him. If they turn away, or remain supine in the presence of proffered mercy, God may choose to withdraw the privileges, as it is written in Isaiah: "Forasmuch as this people ... have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precepts of men, therefore behold I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people -- the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, &c." (xxix, 13, 14); and as it is also written concerning the Gentiles: "They received not the love of the truth that they might be saved: and for this cause, God sent them strong delusion that they should believe a lie" (2 Thess. ii, 10, 11).
"Therefore speak I to them in parables," said Jesus, "because they seeing, see not: and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand, and in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah." Here again it might be said "Surely, if they are deficient in sight and hearing, that is a reason for speaking very plainly, and not for cloaking meanings in parabolic forms of speech." Yes, to a merely human view of the case, that might seem sound reasoning. But it is impossible for a merely human view to be a right view of the ways of God. How can mortal man conceive what is right and fitting from God to man? It is God's view that is all-governing. The judgment of God would never be congenial to human views. The population in Noah's day would, no doubt, have voted unanimously against the flood. But the views of God prevailed vailed, and the population was drowned with a strong and decided hand that faltered not in the doing of what was right, as God saw things. So in this matter: God is a dreadful majesty, and will be held in reverence, and when men are blind and deaf to Him through their habitual and presumptuous negligences for a long season, it is not unreasonable at all that God should hide his wisdom from them. God requires to be approached with the humility and docility of little children. When men do this, they will experience the truth of what is written, "I love them that love me, and they that seek me early shall find me."
"Blessed are your eyes," said Jesus, "for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them, and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them." None of us can have any difficulty in understanding this blessedness. It was a privilege and an honour confined to that generation, and to the few lowly men in it whom God saw fit to admit to it -- the privilege of witnessing the glory of God manifested in Christ. It is a privilege to be renewed in a more impressive form when God's work on earth has reached a riper stage: "for God shall send Jesus Christ ... (in) the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began." But how few in our generation do themselves the advantage, and God the honour, of looking forward with any interest, or even faith, to this prospect. Jesus speaks of "the prophets and righteous men" of ancient times. He says they "desired to see those things" which the apostles were admitted to witness. Herein we may discern a divinely-approved characteristic which is of very little value in the eyes of the common run of people: this characteristic of "desiring" the day and the things that God has promised to bring. The "prophets and righteous men" spoken of by Christ had this "desire," and we read that they will hold a prominent place in the day when the things promised become realities (Luke xiii. 28: Rev. xi. 18). Do we imagine that God will estimate men by a different rule in our day? Do we imagine that He can find any pleasure in those who treat his promises as doubtful matters of opinion, or in those who cannot find even so much diversion from earthly things as to think even that mild thought on the subject, but who are wholly regardless and unbelieving? Is it not revealed that it is to those "who look for Christ," and who "love his appearing" (Heb. ix. 28; 2 Tim. iv. 8), with the same earnest desire that the prophets and righteous men had who are spoken of by Jesus, that Jesus will award the crown of life -- so joyfully to be worn by the faithful -- so vainly to be desired and lamented by the rejected in that day?
"Another parable put he forth unto them," and another, and another. In all, over thirty parables are recorded as having been spoken by the Lord on this and other occasions. Having commenced to notice them, it would perhaps be well to notice them all seriatim at this stage, rather than wait for them to come up one by one in the course of the narrative. This we will do, if God permit, beginning the next chapter with the parable of the tares, and taking them mainly in the order in which they occur.