The Life of Christ

Mgr. E Le Camus




WHEN they saw that the Savior's popularity was now on the wane, the Pharisees concluded that they could again assume the offensive, with some chance of success. They were returning from the celebration of the Paschal feast in Jerusalem, where they had again drunk in at its very source the most ardent zeal and the most extreme formalism. To surprise the disciples of Jesus in formal opposition to the prescriptions of the Rabbis was not difficult. The Master, by His example and by His counsel, had authorized them resolutely to suppress all those ridiculous observances which, like vile excrescences, disfigured the ancient tree of the Mosaic law. They did not hesitate to do so. Hence the Pharisees were filled with increasing anger and indignantly protested.

One Sabbathday,2 for instance, they had been seen violating the law of rest, and the scandal they gave was great. The circumstances were as follows:

In company with the Master, they were passing by a field of ripened grain. They were fasting. Except in case of sickness, a faithful Israelite took nothing on the Sabbathday before offering up his early devotions3 in the synagogue. Oppressed with hunger, the disciples began to gather some ears of corn4 which they ground between their hands in order to eat them.5 Certain Pharisees saw them and became indignant, not on account of the theft, which the law authorized6 but because of the violation of the Sabbath. Some of them directly attacked the disciples. "Why do ye do that," they said, "which is not lawful on the Sabbathday?" Others, in turn, addressed the Master, since it was for Him that they had the greatest hatred: "Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbathday!" Is not this plucking and crushing of the corn tantamount to harvesting and grinding it? Is it not doing servile work? This misdemeanor was provided for in the tradition of the ancients. It was included in one of the thirtynine cases marked out by the Rabbis on the subject of the Sabbatic repose.7

Jesus gave no time to the discussion either of the authority or of the reality of this prohibition. For. His masterful teaching other ground and broader horizons were necessary. "Have ye never read," said He, "what David did when he had need and was hungry, himself and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God8 under Abiathar, the HighPriest,9 and did eat the loaves of proposition, which was not lawful to eat but for the priests?" If David's act has always seemed to be pardonable in such circumstances, it is because natural law takes precedence over all positive laws. When that law speaks, all other laws must be silent. Is it not evident that God commands man to live, first, and then to observe ceremonial rites? David, the great prophet and great king, had not hesitated a moment between the Mosaic obligation of respecting the twelve loaves placed on the golden table in the Tabernacle and the peremptory demand of nature that neither he nor those who were with him should be let die of hunger. Abiathar had approved of his action, since he himself had given him the holy bread. Were all these illustrious believers of the past less capable casuists than the modern Rabbis? How, indeed, was the evil in breaking an ear of corn on the Sabbathday greater than in eating the loaves reserved for the priests?

Instances were abundant. According to St. Matthew, the Master cited another quite as topical as the first. "Or have ye not read," said He, "in the law that on the Sabbathday the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are without blame?" Their functions necessitated acts which, in themselves, are servile works. Thus on that day they immolate the two lambs of one year old claimed by the Lord; they prepare the wood of the altar and burn a portion of the victims they have killed. Why, then, notwithstanding the law of Sabbatic rest, do they think that none of these things is forbidden them? It is because they deem themselves fully dispensed by reasons of a superior order, the necessities of the Levitical ministry, just as the urgent need of food, long before, dispensed David and his followers.

"But I tell you," continued Jesus, "that there is here a greater than the temple." He meant, no doubt, the ministry of the preaching of the Gospel. To the end that they might progress more rapidly, and more certainly glorify God by the spreading of the GoodTidings, the Apostles might well pluck the corn and eat it, even on the Sabbathday. Was it not more agreeable to the Lord to see them laboring at His work than to behold them rendering themselves incapable of serving Him by restricting themselves to useless observances? If the Pharisees understood that utterance of which He had once before reminded them: "I will have mercy and not sacrifice," instead of incriminating the innocent, they would conclude that to preach is better than to fast or to respect the Sabbatic rest. God loves us more for an act of charity toward our neighbor than for an act of piety toward Himself. Finally, He clearly solves the difficulty by saying: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath also."

For the present the controversy ended there. But before long another grave question was to spring up, which would force the Master to give the final blow to the authoritative pretensions of Pharisaic ritualism.

It was known and seen that the disciples of Jesus had no scruples in eating without having previously washed their hands. The Pharisees, on the other hand, had made the custom of these ablutions almost universal. They determined their number and manner10 with the greatest care. Not only before and after meals, but on returning from a public place, whether the market or a popular assembly, they had to wash their hands, and, according to circumstances, to hold them, while being purified, at times down, and at other times elevated.11 There was not an object, even among the most necessary to the uses of life, that was not subjected to regular lustrations. The cups used at table, the vases of wood and of brass, the couches on which the guests reclined, if not cleansed in accordance with the strictest rules, might become a cause of impurity. The Pharisees thought that the supposed stain communicated to these various objects by profane contact was transmitted to the body, and through the body reached even to the soul. In this way, by simple neglect, the most just and most virtuous Jew could, unawares, be covered with stain and become wholly unworthy of communion with Jehovah. "He that sitteth at table," said the moralists of the Pharisees, "without washing his hands, is as culpable as the man who gives himself to a harlot."12

Such being their principles, we may judge how angry they must have been at the independent attitude of the disciples who publicly transgressed these extraordinary prescriptions. They exclaimed that it was scandalous, impious, and, after having publicly reprehended them, they turned to the Master, convinced that, now at least, He would not dare to countenance so flagrant a transgression of the law. "Why," said they in a tone of importance, "do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the ancients? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread." By thus citing tradition they thought they said all that was needed; they knew not, or feigned not to know, that this unlawful tradition, an invention wholly human imposed upon a superstitious and credulous people, came not from God,13 but solely from the caprice and the hypocrisy of a few men. To their questions Jesus, at first, opposes another: "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God for your traditions? For God" — thus He proves His accusation — "said through Moses: Honor thy father and thy mother; and he that shall curse father or mother, dying let him die. But ye say:14 If a man shall say to his father or his mother: Let that wherewith I might have been able to assist thee be corban (that is to say, consecrated to God), he is no longer suffered to do aught for his parents. The tradition that ye have invented maketh void, therefore, the commandment of God.15 And many other such like things you do." "Well did Isaias prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me, teaching doctrines and precepts of men.16 For leaving the commandment of God you hold the tradition of men, the washings of pots and of cups." How strange this wandering away! The divine legislation, so great, so beautiful, and so essential for the governing of our moral life, is basely sacrificed at the Rabbinical command to cleanse a dish or a kettle; such is the religion of the Pharisees! With one word, Jesus has reduced it to its lowest and most contemptible terms.

Then turning to the multitude who were more capable of understanding the truth and of profiting by it, He exclaims: "Hear Me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man that entering into him can defile him. But the things which come out from a man, those are they that defile him. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear."17 Thus, in a statement full of originality of form and very positive in its meaning, He upset the theories of a detestable formalism. To make all religion consist in the multiplication of exterior practices, as the Pharisees did, was to displace the very seat of true piety, which is in the sanctuary of the soul, and to deface its character, which is wholly spiritual. Not, indeed, that true religion has no sensible forms and exterior rites; for the soul frequently feels the need of manifesting its deepest emotions exteriorly, and even of being aroused, incited, drawn by sensible signs. Moreover, the body cannot be dispensed from its obligation of giving its worship, also, to the Creator. Still the accessory must not become the principal, and the essential must not be stifled by that which should remain the less important. In permitting the Mosaic rites to stand, until they should be replaced by others, Jesus in great measure retained all that was necessary as exterior observances in the religious life; but in rejecting the senseless ceremonies of Pharisaism, He freed true religion from those puerile superfluities that had deformed and dishonoured it. He who wishes to know if he is pure, must look not at his hands, but into his heart. It is there alone that true morality is to be found.

The Pharisees had not looked for so brave a response. The young Master, without any ado, struck at their very hearts. For Him, their observances were as nothing. All that ancient traditional scaffolding was to crumble beneath the spiritual influence of the new kingdom. Their amazement gradually turned to anger. The disciples were worried at this, and they said to Jesus: "Dost thou know that the Pharisees, when, they heard this word, were scandalized?" Unmoved by their anxiety, the Master replied: "Every plant which my Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted up." And, indeed, the teachings that are not from God, the arbitrary dogmas of the human mind, are not more durable than man himself. Of the innumerable precepts of Pharisaism there shall be soon nothing left, and the sect itself shall have lived its life. "Let them alone," added Jesus sadly; "they are blind and leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit." Under their interminable explanations and their capricious innovations, as beneath an impenetrable veil, these false teachers have ended by concealing the bright light of divine revelation, and, like incapable guides, wandering about in the darkness which their malice has imprudently brought on, they lead their ignorant followers to death.

This peremptory argument relieved the anxiety of the Apostles and changed their worry into visible triumph. But they had only partially understood the apothegm which Jesus had used to confound His enemies. When, therefore, the Master had dismissed the multitude and had reentered the house, Peter, in behalf of all, approached Him and said: "Expound to us this parable." It would have been more correct to say: "these words" or "this saying"; for Jesus had not spoken a parable. "Are ye also yet without understanding?" cried the Master. "Know ye not that everything from without entering into a man cannot defile him, because it entereth not into his heart, but goeth into his belly and thence takes its natural course,18 purging all meats? But the things which proceed out of the mouth, come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man. For from within out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, false testimonies, envy, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man. But to eat with unwashed hands doth not defile a man."

The moral stain of sin, the only stain that should trouble man, is received in the soul alone, and can result only from a moral act. A physical stain may in itself be disagreeable or unbecoming, but it does not constitute a sin. From the heart only, the real center of man, does sin come forth, and there, too, it dwells. The food that one eats, the ablutions that he practices, touch, in truth, only the body. None of these can interest the soul, except by the intervention of an authorized law. But that law so loudly proclaimed by the Pharisees was not such, and Jesus, in His charity, legitimately demolished the imaginary yoke imposed through false devotion upon a people already unable to bear the lawful yoke of the law of Moses.

But religious fanaticism can never be attacked without danger, especially when it is intensified by human interests and by criminal hypocrisy.

This excitement was the harbinger of a renewed outburst in the near future. In fact, on the following Sabbath, Jesus was to appear as usual and preach in the synagogue. The Pharisees resolved to await Him there in the hope of stirring up another controversy. The slightest thing would serve them as a pretext for an attack on this bold reformer. In the assembly was a man whose right hand was withered, that is, deprived of its vitality, by paralysis. The Gospel of the Nazarenes, in its account of this scene, has placed the following prayer upon the sick man's lips: "I was a poor mason, winning my bread by the labor of my hands; I pray Thee, Jesus, give me back my health to withdraw me from the shame of begging my living." However authentic this detail may be, the wretched man attracted Our Lord's attention. The Pharisees wondered whether Jesus would push His daring so far as to heal the paralytic on the Sabbathday, in the synagogue itself, at the very moment of public prayer. In reality, the cure might be postponed until the following day. No true son of the Law, in their opinion, would hesitate in following this wise determination; but Jesus of Nazareth seemed to them to be audacious enough to act otherwise.

They were not mistaken. The Master read their whole thought in their eyes, and, determining to give them the lesson they deserved, He said to the paralytic: "Arise, and stand forth in the midst." It was a theological demonstration that was to be for the benefit of all. Then He turned to His adversaries, and said: "I ask you, if it be lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do evil, to save life, or to destroy?" For Him, Who has all power in His hands, to omit to do good is to do wrong, not to save, when one can, is to kill. This alternative is avoided only when one is free from responsibility with regard to him who is perishing or in pain. But this is not the case with Jesus, Who has been sent with supreme power and with the duty of employing it for the good of mankind. To hesitate to do good is to become responsible for evil. Would they dare to pretend that He would be guilty of a smaller violation of the law of the Sabbath by permitting the evil to exist? He awaits the reply of His accusers. Malice causes them to hold their peace. Then turning upon them a long and indignant look, He added: "What man shall there be among you" — and this personal argument confounds them — "that hath one sheep; and if the same fall into a pit on the Sabbathday, will he not take hold on it and lift it up? How much better is a man than a sheep?" These words, from the depths of the Master's loving heart, throw an awful light on the egoism of the Pharisees. A sheep is in danger, and because it is their sheep, they are dispensed from the law of the Sabbath; but a man, their neighbor, is suffering and there is no dispensation! Is there, then, in their souls no room but for the love of themselves, and have they no love for humanity? For Jesus, the sick man is of much more account than a sheep; he is a friend, a brother. "Stretch forth thy hand," the Master says to him, and the man, certain that He Who bade him do so, gave him at the same time the strength to do it, stretched forth his hand as he was accustomed to do before his illness, and his hand became perfectly sound.

Three defeats, each more humiliating than the other, in so short a space of time and at the very moment that seemed the most propitious for victory, "filled the Pharisees," according to St. Luke's expression, "with madness." They quitted the assembly and took counsel to see what was to be done. The thought came to them to end it all with one violent stroke; but, as they were in Herod's territory, they could not undertake so important a step unless in connivance with the tetrarch. From that time on they considered without any hesitation the plan of having a secret understanding with some of his partisans and admirers. Since the Pharisees had permitted John the Baptist to fall into Herod's hands, Herod might well give Jesus up to the power of the Pharisees.

In order to defeat these frankly murderous designs, Jesus made ready to flee. He might have withstood these dangerous plotters with a group of faithful followers; but He preferred to recommend silence about Himself and His works. St. Matthew says that thus He was to fulfil the words of Isaias:19 "Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul hath been well pleased.

I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall show judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not contend, nor cry out, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. The bruised reed he shall not break, and the smoking flax he shall not extinguish, till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name the Gentiles shall hope." From this moment He ceased to have His domicile at Capharnaum, in order that He might henceforth lead a wandering life like the Apostle who goes before Him, seeking souls desirous of receiving the GoodTidings, watching the plots of His enemies, undoing their plans, and often reaching the close of a wearisome day without finding a shelter beneath which to rest His head. The evil days have begun.


1 We have placed here the incident of the ears of corn cut on the second-first Sabbath, because chronologically we are not far from the date on which it must have occurred. The corn was ripe, and the particular Sabbath indicated by St. Luke was at this epoch. The cure of the man with the withered hand took place a short time afterward. The violent resolution which the Pharisees take and their alliance with the Herodians are here in their proper place.

2 St. Luke names this day the secondfirst Sabbath. The question is, what does this word signify, and explanations are as numerous as they are uncertain. Some say that the secondfirst Sabbath was the first Sabbath of the second month of the year; others that it was the first of the seven Sabbaths extending from the second day of the Paschal week (16th of Nisan) to Pentecost. Others, again, understand it to be the first Sabbath of the second year of the Sabbatic cycle. Quite recently it has been thought that the Jews had two first Sabbaths, one beginning the civil year in the month of Tisri (SeptemberOctober), and the other ecclesiastical year in the month of Nisan (MarchApril). The latter Sabbath would be called the secondfirst, while the former would be called the firstfirst. In any case, it is a question of a date shortly after the Passover.

3 Berac., i, 4.

4 From this account, found in all the Synoptics, it is clearly seen that Jesus had passed one spring and, consequently, one feast of the Passover in Galilee, before that on which He was put to death. The Synoptics quite unexpectedly agree in this with St. John vi 4.

5 In our journeys in Palestine we have often seen this done. Our guides, With little or no respect for the property of others, gathered the almost ripe corn and ate it.

6 According to Deut. xxiii, 25, one might, when hungry, gather ears of corn with his hands, but not with the sickle.

7 Maimonides, Schabba, ch. viii.

8 This expression refers here to the Ark of the Covenant, which was then at Nobe. (I Kings xxi, 1.)

9 St. Mark mentions only Abiathar, and even this name is suppressed in some copies, the copyists being too much taken up with an apparent historical inaccuracy. In fact, it is Achimelech, father of Abiathar, who gives the loaves of proposition to David, who is fleeing from the wrath of Saul. He pays for his kindness with his life. Yet we read (II Kings viii, 17, and I Paralipomenon xviii, 16) that Abiathar was father to Achimelech. It is not impossible that the father and the son were both called by the two names of Abiathar-Achimelech. This would be nothing new in the history of the Jewish people, and in this way an apparent error which is found in the Old Testament, before occurring in St. Mark, would be easily explained. Some exegetes do away with the difficulty by translating Jesus' words as a literary reference: "Have ye never read … in the section of Abiathar, the High-Priest?" The account He thus referred to was the liturgical fragment that contained the history of the priest of David.

10 In the treatise, Schulchan Aruch, twentysix prescriptions are given concerning the morning ablution of the hands.

11 St. Mark's expression, ean mh pugmh niywntai tas ceiras has been variously translated by interpreters. According to some, the Pharisees' principle was to wash one hand closed in the palm of the other; in the opinion of others, they dipped their hands in the water up to the wrist. The Vulgate rightly adopts the reading pugmh and translates it by crebro, often.

12 See Schoettgen, Hor. Hebr., in h 1.

13 They wrongly based this pretension on these passages of Deut. iv, 14, and xvii, 10; and on Levit. xv, 11.

14 The Rheims version, from which we have ventured to depart in this passage, is rendered obscure by a too literal adherence to the Vulgate. The author, it will be observed, has adhered to the Greek text, and we have thought it wiser to follow him. — Translator's note.

15 As explained in St. Mark vii, 11, and supposed in St. Matt. xv, 5, the Hebrew and Aramean word qorbân signifies "gift, offering." This passage has been variously interpreted by exegetes. The conciseness of the text supposes that Jesus cited a saying that was familiar to the Jews and quite intelligible to everyone. Documents are, at present, lacking for the elucidation of its precise meaning. Studying the words korban (o esti dwron) o ean ex emou wfelhqhs, Origen, who could more easily derive help from the ancients, had declared that he could not have understood it without the following explanation from a Jew: "It sometimes happens," says this latter, "that a creditor cleverly forces an untrustworthy debtor to pay his debt by giving it to the Temple; this is done by declaring to him that the debt is corban, or consecrated to God. Corban, quod mihi debes." Since no one could keep or take what was consecrated to the Lord, children made use of it to dispense themselves from giving anything to their parents. Other interpreters have been inspired by information found among the Rabbis concerning the oath of the corban. (See Lightfoot and Schoettgen on this passage.) This oath is mentioned by Josephus, who (c. Appion., i, 22) says that Theophrastus is wrong in ascribing it to the Tyrians, for it belongs exclusively to the Jews. (See Antiq., I, iv, §4); and the treatise Nedarim or Vows, (v, 6; ix, I et seq.) According to these texts, it would have to be translated as follows: "Whoever has said to his parents: `Corban to me are all the services that I might render to you,' can no longer do anything for them." Philo, De Special. Leg., c. i, p. 771, speaks of certain Jews who bound themselves by oath to do no good to certain persons whom they detested. In the Mischna we find that by the oath of the corban, however unjust it might be, the father definitively disinherited his children, the husband was freed from all obligation of supporting his wife, and he who was thus frustrated could exact nothing when the vow was known to him. Others translate it: "All my goods are consecrated to God, but I grant you a share of merit in my offering." Whatever we may say as to these diverse interpretations, each one bears a Pharisaical mark which accords well with the Savior's argument. In the first case, it is the ingratitude of the son taking shelter under a false piety toward Jehovah, and finding protection for his avarice behind the Pharisaical tradition which approved of gifts to the Temple to the injury of parents. In the second, it is an exaggerated respect for an oath even though unjust, and human formalism preferred to the most evident natural and divine law. In the third, it is hypocrisy giving merit or spiritual goods even when the body exposes its material needs and asks for sensible goods. See the explanations of these texts of the Mischna in Edersheim, Life and Time of Jesus, c. xxxi.

16 Isa. xxix, 13, quoted with variants of the Hebrew and the Septuagint.

17 Protestantism is wholly wrong In making these words of the Savior the foundation of its attacks upon the law of abstinence enforced by the Church. Even in spite of this declaration on the Master's part, it remains true that a man can be defiled by the nourishment he takes. Yet it is not that which enters into him that defiles him, but that which comes from his heart, namely, the sentiment he experiences while he eats. If one takes food that is forbidden by proper authority, he is defiled by an act of rebellion; if it be an article of food bought at great expense, he sins against the Christian spirit; if he takes it to excess, he sins against the first elements of morality. Without this reservation, we should be forced to admit that Jesus here condemns all the prescriptions of Moses, approves of luxury, and does not discountenance intemperance.

18 In the text there is a cruder expression, eis afedrwna ekballetai, to which Modern languages hardly lend themselves. The Orientals are less fastidious.

19 Isa. xl et seq. The citation follows the Hebrew very freely, together with some traces of the Septuagint. This prophecy, according to the Rabbis (see the Chaldean Paraphrases), was well known as being Messianic.

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