I. The too lightly uttered vow.
There is a certain almost jaunty air of self-complacence about the man and his facile promise. What he promised was no more than what Christ requires from each of us, no more than what Christ was infinitely glad to have laid at His feet. And he promised it with absolute sincerity, meaning every word that he said, and believing that he could fulfil it all. What was the fault? There were three: taking counsel of a transitory feeling; making a vow with a very slight knowledge of what it meant; and relying with foolish confidence on his own strength.
Vows which rest on no firmer foundation than these are sure to sink and topple over into ruin. Discipleship which is the result of mere emotion must be evanescent, for all emotion is so. Effervescence cannot last, and when the cause ceases the effect ceases too. Discipleship which enlists in Christ's army, in ignorance of the hard marching and fighting which have to be gone through, will very soon be skulking in the rear or deserting the flag altogether. Discipleship which offers faithful following because it relies on its own fervour and force will, sooner or later, feel its unthinkingly undertaken obligations too heavy, and be glad to shake off the yoke which it was so eager to put on.
These three things, singly or combined, are the explanations, as they are the causes, of half the stagnant Christianity that chokes our churches. Men have vowed, and did not know what they were vowing, pledging themselves, in a moment of excitement, to what after years discover to them to be a hard and uncongenial course of life. They have been carried into the position of professed disciples on the top of a wave of emotion which has long since broken and retreated, leaving them stranded and motionless in a place where they have no business to be. Every community of professing Christians is weakened, and its vitality is lowered, by the presence and influence of members who have said, 'I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest,' but whose vow was but a flash in the pan, and never meant anything. They did not know what they were saying. They had not stopped to think why they were saying it, still less did they take the advice of the Master to count their forces before they went into the battle, and see whether their ten thousand could meet him that would come against them with twenty thousand.
I do not suppose that much of our modern religionism is in great danger from too fervid emotion. That, certainly, is not the side on which our average Christianity is defective. No feeling can be too fervid which has been kindled by profound contemplation and hearty acceptance of Christ's redeeming love. The facts to which sound religious emotion looks, warrant, and the work in the Christian life which it has to do, needs that it shall be at white-heat, if it is to be worthy of its object and equal to its tasks. But there very often is emotion which is too fervid for the convictions which are presumed to kindle it, and which burns itself out quickly because it neither comes from principle nor leads to action. No resolution to follow Christ can be too enthusiastic, nor any renunciation for His sake too absolute, to correspond to His supreme authority. But there may very easily be brave words much too great for the real determination which is in them. A half-empty bottle makes more noise, if you shake it, than a full one. We cannot estimate the hindrances of the Christian life too lightly; if we do so knowing them, and thinking little of them because we think so joyfully of Christ our helper. But there may very easily be a presumptuous contempt of these, which is only the result of ignorance and self-confidence, and will soon be abased into dread of them, and probably end in desertion of Him.
A sadly large number of professing Christians may see their own faces in this mirror. How many of us are exactly like this man? Long, long ago we vowed to follow Christ. Have we advanced a yard on the Christian course since then, or do we stand very much at the same point as on that far-off day? Some of us, who spent no breath in saying what we were going to do, but used it in the prayer, 'Draw me, and I will run after Thee,' have followed the Captain. Some of us have been like clumsy recruits, who have only been marking time all the while, one foot up and the other down, but always in the same place. That is the kind of advance that the lightly formed resolution—formed in ignorance of what it involved, and in foolish confidence in the resolver's strength—is too apt to lead to. Is it not so in all life? No caravan ever starts from a port on the coast to go up-country, but there is a percentage of deserters in the first week. There are always, in every good work, adherents, easily moved, pushing themselves into the front, full of resolves in the beginning, and then, when the tug comes, they drop out of the ranks and leave the quiet ones, that did not say, 'I am going to do it,' but thought to themselves, 'I should uncommonly like to try whether I can.' to bear the burden and heat of the march. A sad, wise, self-distrustful valour is the temper that wins.
Let us see to it, dear brethren, not that our fervour be less—I do not know how the fervour of some of you could be less and keep alive at all—but that our principle be more; not that our resolutions be less noble, but that they be more deeply engrained. You can light a fire of the chips and paper in an instant, and the flimsier the material the more quickly it will crackle; it takes a longer time to get coals in a blaze, and they will last longer. Be your resolves slow to begin and never-ending,' especially when you say, as we are all bound to say, 'Lord! I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest.'
II. Note our Lord's treatment of this too lightly uttered vow.
It is wonderfully gentle and lenient. He speaks no rebuke. He does not reject the proffered devotion. He does not even say that there was anything defective in it, but simply answers by a quiet statement of what the vow was pledging the rash utterer to do. Christ's words are a douche of cold water to condense the steam which was so noisily escaping, to turn the vaporous enthusiasm into something more solid, with the particles nearer each other. His object was not to repel, but to turn an ignorant, somewhat bragging vow into a calm, humble determination, with a silent 'God helping me' for its foundation. To repel is sometimes the way to attract. Jesus Christ would not have any one coming after Him on a misunderstanding of where he is going, or what he will have to do. It shall be all fair and above board, and the difficulties and sacrifices and necessary restrictions and inconveniences shall all be stated. He does not need to hide from His recruits the black side of the war for which He seeks to enlist them, but He tells it all to them to begin with, and then waits—and He only knows how longingly He waits—for their repeating, with full knowledge and humble determination, the vow that sprang so lightly to their lips when they did not understand what they were saying. Of course our Lord's words had literal truth, and their original intention was to bring clearly before this man the hard fact that following Jesus meant homelessness. It is as if He had said, 'You are ready to follow Me wherever I go—are you? You will have to go far, and to be always going. Creatures have their burrows and their roosting-places, but I, the Lord of creatures, the Son of Man, whose kingdom prophets proclaimed, am houseless in My own realm, and My followers must share My wandering life. Are you ready for that?' Jesus was homeless. He was born in a hired stable, cradled in a manger, owed shelter to faithful friends, was buried in a borrowed grave; He had 'not where to lay His head,' living or dying. And His servants, in literal truth, had to tramp after Him, through the length and breadth of the land. And if this man was meaning to follow Him whithersoever He went, he had not before him a little pleasure-journey across the lake, to come back again in a day or two, but he was enlisting for a term of service, that extended over a life.
But then, beyond that, there is a deeper lesson here. 'The Son of Man' on our Lord's lips not only expressed His dignity as Messiah, but His relation to the whole race of men; and declared that He was what we nowadays call ideal manhood. And that is the point, as I take it, of the contrast between the restful lives of the lower creatures, who all have a place fitted to them, where they curl themselves up, and go to sleep, and are comfortable, and the higher life of men, which is homeless in the deepest sense. 'The Son of Man,' He in whom the whole essence of humanity is, as it were, concentrated; and who, in His own person, presents the very type and perfection of manhood, cannot but be homeless.
Ah, yes I man's prerogative is unrest, and he should recognise it as a blessing. It is the condition of all noble life; it is the condition of all growth. 'The foxes have holes,' and the fox's hole fits it, and therefore the hole of the fox to-day is what it was in the beginning, and ever shall be. Man has no such abode, therefore he grows. Man is blessed with that great 'discourse that looks before and after,' and his thoughts wander through eternity, and therefore he is capable of endless advance, and if he is in the path where his Maker has meant him to be, sure of endless growth. The more a man gets like a beast, the more has he of the beast's lot of happy contentment in this world. And the more he gets like a man, like the 'Son of Man,' the more has he to realise that he is a pilgrim and a sojourner, as all his fathers were.
And so, dear friends, because disciples must follow the Son of Man who is the King, and whose life is the perfect mirror of manhood, restless homelessness is our lot, if we are His disciples. Ay! and it is our blessing. It is better to sleep beneath the stars than beneath golden canopies, and to lay the head upon a stone than upon a lace pillow, if the ladder is at our side and the face of God above it. Better be out in the fields, a homeless stranger with the Lord, than huddling together and perfectly comfortable in houses of clay that perish before the moth.
Do not let us repine; let us be thankful that we cannot, if we are Christ's, but be strangers here; for all the bitterness and pain of unrest and homelessness pass away, and all sweetness and gladness is breathed into them, when we can say, 'I am a sojourner and a stranger with Thee,' and when in our unrest we are 'following the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.'
CHRIST STIMULATING SLUGGISH DISCIPLESHIP
'And another of His disciples said unto Him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. 22. But Jesus said unto him, Follow Me; and let the dead bury their dead.'—MATT. viii. 21-22.
The very first words of these verses, 'And another of His disciples,' show us that the incident recorded in them is only half of a whole. We have already considered the other half, and supplement our former remarks by a glance at the remaining portion now. The two men, whose treatment by Christ is narrated, are the antipodes of each other. The former is a type of well-meaning, lightly formed, and so, probably, swiftly abandoned purposes. This man is one of the people who always see something else to be done first, when any plain duty comes before them. Sluggish, hesitating, keenly conscious of other possibilities and demands, he needs precisely the opposite treatment from his light-hearted and light-purposed brother. Some plants want putting into a cold house to be checked, some into a greenhouse to be forwarded. Diversity of treatment, even when it amounts to opposition of treatment, comes from the same single purpose. And so here the spur is applied, whilst in the former incident it was the rein that was needed.
I. Note, then, first of all, this apparently most laudable and reasonable request.
'Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.' Nature says 'Go,' and religion enjoins it, and everything seems to say that it is the right thing for a man to do. The man was perfectly sincere in his petition, and perfectly sincere in the implied promise that, as soon as the funeral was over, he would come back. He meant it, out and out. If he had not, he would have received different treatment; and if he had not, he would have ceased to be the valuable example and lesson that he is to us. So we have here a disciple quite sincere, who believes himself to have already obeyed in spirit and only to be hindered from obeying in outward act by an imperative duty that even a barbarian would know to be imperative.
And yet Jesus Christ read him better than he read himself; and by His answer lets us see that the tone of mind into which we are all tempted to drop, and which is the characteristic natural tendency of some of us, that of being hindered from doing the plain thing that lies before us, because something else crops up, which we also think is imperative upon us, is full of danger, and may be the cover of a great deal of self-deception; and, at any rate, is not in consonance with Christ's supreme and pressing and immediate claims.
The temper which says, 'Suffer me first to go and bury my father,' is full of danger. One never knows but that, after he has got his father buried, there will be something else turning up equally important. There was the will to be read afterwards, and if he was, as probably he was, the eldest son, he would most likely be the executor. There would be all sorts of affairs to settle up before he might feel that it was his duty to leave everything and follow the Master.
And so it always is. 'Suffer me first, and when we get to the top of that hill, there is another one beyond. And so we go on from step to step, getting ready to do the duties that we know are most imperative upon us, by sweeping preliminaries out of the way, and so we go on until our dying day, when somebody else buries us. Like some backwoodsman in the American forests who should say to himself, 'Now, I will not sow a grain of wheat until I have cleared all the land that belongs to me. I will do that first and then begin to reap,' he would be a great deal wiser if he cleared and sowed a little bit first, and lived upon it, and then cleared a little bit more. Mark the plain lesson that comes out of this incident, that the habit, for it is a habit with some of us, of putting other pressing duties forward, before we attend to the highest claims of Christ, is full of danger, because there will be no end to them if we once admit the principle. And this is true not only in regard to Christianity, but in regard to everything that is worth doing in this world. Whenever some great and noble task presents itself with its solemn call for consecration, some dwarf of an apparent duty thrusts itself in between and perks up in our faces with its demand, 'Attend to me first, and then I will let you go on to that other.'
But morally, this plea, however sincerely urged, is more or less unconscious self-deception. The person who says 'Suffer me first' is usually hoodwinking conscience, and covering over, if not a determination not to do, at least a reluctance to determine to do, the postponed duty. And although we may think ourselves quite resolved in spirit, and only needing the fitting vacant space to show that we are ready to act, in the majority of cases the man who says 'Suffer me first' means, though he often does not know it, 'I do not think I will do it, after all, even then.' Now there are a great many good people who, when urged to some of the plain duties of discipleship—such as Christian work, Christian beneficence, the consecration of themselves to the service of their Master—have always something else very important, and of immediate, pressing urgency, that has to be done first. And then and then, ay? and then,—something else, and then—something else. And so some of you go on, and will go on, unless by God's grace you shake off the evil habit, to the end of your days, fancying yourselves disciples, and yet all the while delaying really to follow the Master until the close. And 'all your yesterdays will be but lighting you, with unfulfilled purposes, to dusty death.'
II. Now look at the apparently harsh and unreasonable refusal of this reasonable request.
It is extremely unlike Jesus Christ in substance and in tone. It is unlike Him to put any barrier in the way of a son's yielding to the impulses of his heart and attending to the last duties to his father. It is extremely unlike Him to couch His refusal in words that sound, at first hearing, so harsh and contemptuous, and that seem to say, 'Let the dead world go as it will; never you mind it, do you not go after it at all or care about it.'
But if we remember that it is Jesus Christ, who came to bring life into the dead world, who says this, then, I think, we shall understand better what He means. I do not need to explain, I suppose, that by the one 'dead' here is meant the physical and natural 'dead,' and by the other the morally and religiously 'dead'; and that what Christ says, in the picturesque way that He so often affected in order to bring great truths home in concrete form to sluggish understandings, is in effect, 'Nay! For the men in the world that are separated from God, and so are dead in their selfhood and their sin, burying other dead people is appropriate work. But your business, as living by Me, is to carry life, and let the burying alone, to be done by the dead people that can do nothing else.'
Now the spirit of our Lord's answer may be put thus:—It must always be Christ first, and every one else second; and it must therefore sometimes be Christ only, and no one else. 'Let me bury my father and then I will come.' 'No,' says Christ; 'first your duty to Me': first in order and time, because first in order of importance. And this is His habitual tone, 'He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.'
Did you ever think of what a strange claim that is for a man to make upon others? This Jesus Christ comes to you and me, and to every man, and says, 'I demand, and I have a right to demand, thy supreme affection and thy first obedience. All other relations are subordinate to thy relation to Me. All other persons ought to be less dear to thee than I am. No other duty can be so imperative as the duty of following Me.' What right has He to speak thus to us? On what does such a tremendous claim rest? Who is it that fronts humanity and says, 'He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me'? He had a right to say it, because He is more than they, and has done more than they, because He is the Son of God manifest in the flesh, and because on the Cross He has died for all men. Therefore all other claims dwindle and sink into nothingness before His. Therefore His will is supreme, and our relation to Him is the dominant fact in our whole moral and religious character. He must be first, whoever comes second, and between the first and the second there is a great gulf fixed.
Remember that this postponing of all other duties, relationships, and claims to Christ's claims and relationships, and to our duties to Him, lifts them up, and does not lower them; exalts, and does not degrade, the earthly affections. They are nobler and loftier, being second, than when perversely, and, in the literal sense, preposterously, they assume to be first. The little hills in the foreground are never so green and fair as when they are looked at in connection with the great white Alps that tower behind them; and all earthly loves and relationships catch a tinge of more ethereal beauty, and are lifted into a loftier region, when they are rigidly subordinated to our love to Him. Being second, they are more than when they bragged that they were first.
Again, if it must be Christ first, and everybody and everything besides second, then to carry that out, it will often have to be Christ only, and no one else. There will come in every man's life the need for a sharp decision between conflicting allegiances. Life is full of harsh alternatives, and it is of no use to kick against the pricks. The divine order is Jesus first and all things second. But we sometimes break that order, and then it comes to be, 'Very well, then, if you cannot keep the lower in their right places, you must learn to do without them altogether; and if you will not have Him first and them second, you must not have them at all.' 'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,' it would be far better for thee to keep it without offence. 'If thine hand offend thee,' put it down on the block, and take the cleaver in the other hand, and off with it, it would be better for thee to go into life whole than maimed, but it is better to go into life maimed, than to go into destruction whole. The abandonment of the father's bier is second best; but it is sometimes imperative. When you find a taste, a pursuit, a study, an occupation, a recreation coming between you and Jesus Christ—when you do not know how it is, but, somehow or other, the sky that was blue a minute or two ago has a doleful veil of grey creeping all over it, be sure that something or other which ought to be under has got topmost, and you will have to get rid of it in order to come right again. If this man would certainly have come back had Jesus let him go, he would have been let go; but because Jesus knew that he would not come back, therefore He said, 'You must deny your natural affection, because it is coming between you and Me.'
So, dear brethren, when we find that earthly duties, pursuits, occupations of any kind, affections, pure and beautiful as in themselves they may be, are hindering our following the Master, then, if they are things of which we can denude ourselves, though it be at a distinct sacrifice, we are bound to do so; or else we are not loving the Master more than all besides.
Let me remind you in closing of the variation in this story which the evangelist Luke gives us. He interprets Christ's commandment, 'Follow Me,' and expands it into 'preach the Gospel,' which was involved in it. There are many of you who are busily engaged in legitimate occupations, and devoting yourselves in various degrees to various forms of beneficence touching the secular condition of the people around us. May I hint to such, 'Let the dead bury their dead; preach thou the gospel?' A Christian man's first business is to witness for Jesus Christ, and no amount of diligence in legitimate occupations or in work for the good of others will absolve him from the charge of having turned duties upside down, if he says, 'I cannot witness for Jesus Christ, for I am so busy about these other things.' This command has a special application to us ministers. There are hosts of admirable things that we are tempted to engage in nowadays, with the enlarged opportunities that we have of influencing men, socially, politically, intellectually, and it wants rigid concentration for us to keep out of the paths which might hinder our usefulness, or, at all events, dissipate our strength. Let us hear that ringing voice ringing always in our ears, 'Preach thou the gospel of the kingdom.'
THE PEACE-BRINGER IN THE NATURAL WORLD
'And when He was entered into a ship, His disciples followed Him. 24. And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves; but He was asleep. 25. And His disciples came to Him, and awoke Him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. 26. And He saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27. But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man la this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!'—MATT. viii. 23-27.
The second group of miracles in these chapters shows us Christ as the Prince of Peace, and that in three regions—the material, the superhuman, and the moral. He stills the tempest, casts out demons, and forgives sins, thus quieting nature, spirit, and conscience.
Mountain-girdled lakes are exposed to sudden storms from the wind sweeping down the glens. Such a one comes roaring down as the little boat, probably belonging to James and John, is labouring across the six or seven miles to the eastern side. Matthew describes the boat as it would appear from shore, as being 'covered' and lost to sight by the breaking waves. Mark, who is Peter's mouthpiece, describes the desperate plight as one on board knew it, and says the boat was 'filling.' It must have been a serious gale which frightened a crew who had spent all their lives on the lake.
Note Christ's sleep in the storm. His calm slumber is contrasted with the hurly-burly of the tempest and the alarm of the crew. It was the sleep of physical exhaustion after a hard day's work. He was too tired to keep awake, or to be disturbed by the tumult. His fatigue is a sign of His true manhood, of His toil up to the very edge of His strength; a characteristic of His life of service, which we do not make as prominent in our thoughts as we should. It is also a sign of His calm conscience and pure heart. Jonah slept through the storm because his conscience was stupefied; but Christ, as a tired child laying its head on its mother's lap.
That sleep may have a symbolical meaning for us. Though Christ is present, the storm comes, and He sleeps through it. Lazarus dies, and He makes no sign of sympathy. Peter lies in prison, and not till the hammers of the carpenters putting up the gibbet for to-morrow are heard, does deliverance come. He delays His help, that He may try our faith and quicken our prayers. The boat may be covered with the waves, and He sleeps on, but He will wake before it sinks. He sleeps, but He never over-sleeps, and there are no too-lates with Him.
Note next the awaking cry of fear. The broken abruptness of their appeal reveals the urgency of the case in the experienced eyes of these fishermen. Their summons is a curious mixture of fear and faith. 'Save us' is the language of faith; 'we perish' is that of fear. That strange blending of opposites is often repeated by us. The office of faith is to suppress fear. But the origin of faith is often in fear, and we are driven to trust just because we are so much afraid. A faith which does not wholly suppress fear may still be most real; and the highest faith has ever the consciousness that unless Christ help, and that speedily, we perish.
So note next the gentle remonstrance. There is something very majestic in the tranquillity of our Lord's awaking, and, if we follow Matthew's order, in His addressing Himself first to the disciples' weakness, and letting the storm rage on. It can do no harm, and for the present may blow as it listeth, while He gives the trembling disciples a lesson. Observe how lovingly our Lord meets an imperfect faith. He has no rebuke for their rude awaking of Him. He does not find fault with them for being 'fearful,' but for being 'so fearful' as to let fear cover faith, just as the waves were doing the boat. He pityingly recognises the struggle in their souls, and their possession of some spark of faith which He would fain blow into a flame. He shows them and us the reason for overwhelming fear as being a deficiency in faith. And He casts all into the form of a question, thus softening rebuke, and calming their terrors by the appeal to their common sense. Fear is irrational if we can exercise faith. It is mere bravado to say 'I will not be afraid,' for this awful universe is full of occasions for just terror; but it is the voice of sober reason which says 'I will trust, and not be afraid.' Christ answers His own question in the act of putting it,—ye are of little faith, that is why ye are so fearful.
Note, next, the word that calms the storm. Christ yields to the cry of an imperfect faith, and so strengthens it. If He did not, what would become of any of us? He does not quench the dimly burning wick, but tends it and feeds it with oil—by His inward gifts and by His answers to prayer—till it burns up clear and smokeless, a faith without fear. Even smoke needs but a higher temperature to flame; and fear which is mingled with faith needs but a little more heat to be converted into radiance of trust. That is precisely what Christ does by this miracle. His royal word is all-powerful. We see Him rising in the stern of the fishing-boat, and sending His voice into the howling darkness, and wind and waves cower at His feet like dogs that know their master. As in the healing of the centurion's servant, we have the token of divinity in that His bare word is able to produce effects in the natural realm. As He lay asleep He showed the weakness of manhood; but He woke to manifest the power of indwelling divinity. So it is always in His life, where, side by side with the signs of humiliation and participation in man's weakness, we ever have tokens of His divinity breaking through the veil. All this power is put forth at the cry of timid men. The storm was meant to move to terror; terror was meant to evoke the miracle—the result was complete and immediate. No after-swell disturbed the placid waters when the wind dropped. There had been 'a great tempest,' and now there was 'a great calm,' as the fishermen floated peacefully to their landing-place beneath the shadow of the hills. The wilder the tempest, the profounder the subsequent repose.
All this is a true symbol of our individual lives, as well as of the history of the Church. Storms will come, and He may seem to be heedless. He is ever awakened by our cry, which needs not to be pure faith in order to bring the answer, but may be strangely intertwined of faith and fear. 'The Lord will help ... and that right early,' and the peace that He brings is peace indeed. So it may be with us amid the struggles of life. So may it be with us when the voyage on this storm-tossed sea of time is done! 'They cry unto the Lord in their trouble. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so He bringeth them unto their desired haven.'
THE PEACE-BRINGER IN THE SPIRITUAL WORLD
'And when He was come to the other side into the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two possessed with devils, coming out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way. 29. And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art Thou come hither to torment us before the time? 30. And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding. 31. So the devils besought Him, saying, If Thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. 32. And He said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters. 33. And they that kept them fled, and went their ways into the city, and told every thing, and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils. 34. And, behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus: and when they saw Him, they besought Him that He would depart out of their coasts.'—MATT. viii. 28-34.
Matthew keeps to chronological order in the first and second miracles of the second triplet, but probably His reason for bringing them together was rather similarity in their contents than proximity in their time. For one cannot but feel that the stilling of the storm, which manifested Jesus as the Peace-bringer in the realm of the Natural, is fitly followed by the casting out of demons, which showed Him as the Lord of still wider and darker realms, and the Peace-bringer to spirits tortured and torn by a mysterious tyranny. His meek power sways all creatures; His 'word runneth very swiftly.' Winds and seas and demons hearken and obey. Cheap ridicule has been plentifully flung at this miracle, and some defenders of the Gospels have tried to explain it away, and have almost apologised for it, but, while it raises difficult problems in its details, the total effect of it is to present a sublime conception of Jesus and of His absolute, universal authority. The conception is heightened in sublimity when the two adjacent miracles are contemplated in connection.
There is singular variation in the readings of the name of the scene of the miracle in the three evangelists. According to the reading of the Authorised Version, Matthew locates it in the 'country of the Gergesenes'; Mark and Luke, in the 'country of the Gadarenes'; whereas the Revised Version, following the general consensus of textual critics, reads 'Gadarenes' in Matthew and 'Gerasenes' in Mark and Luke. Now, Gadara is over six miles from the lake, and the deep gorge of a river lies between, so that it is out of the question as the scene of the miracle. But the only Gerasa known, till lately, is even more impossible, for it is far to the east of the lake. But some years since, Thomson found ruins bearing the name of Khersa or Gersa, 'at the only portion of that coast on which the steep hills come down to the shore' (Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land, p. 459). This is probably the site of the miracle, and may have been included in the territory dependent on Gadara, and so have been rightly described as in 'the country of the Gadarenes.'
Matthew again abbreviates, omitting many of the most striking and solemn features of the narrative as given by the other two evangelists, and he also diverges from them in mentioning two demoniacs instead of one. That is not contradiction, for if there were two, there was one, but it is divergence, due to more accurate information. Whether they were meant so or no, the abbreviations have the striking result that Jesus speaks but one word, the permissive 'Go,' and that thus His simple presence is the potent spell before which the demons cower and flee. They know Him as 'the Son of God'; a name which, on their lips, must be taken in its full significance. If demoniacal possession is a fact, there is no difficulty in accounting for the name here given to Jesus, nor for the sudden change from the fierce purpose of barring an intruder's path to abject submission. If it is not a fact, to make a plausible explanation of either circumstance will be a task needing many contortions, as is seen by the attempts to achieve it. For example, we are told that the demoniacs were afraid of Jesus, because He 'was not afraid of them,' and they knew Him, because 'men with shattered reason also felt the spell, while the wise and the strong-minded often used their intellect, under the force of passion or prejudice, to resist the force of truth.' Possibly the last clause goes as far to explain some critics' non-recognition of demoniacal possession as the first does to explain the demoniacs' recognition of Jesus!
To the demonic nature Christ's coming brought torture, as the sunbeam, which gives life to many, also gives death to ugly creatures that crawl and swarm in the dark. Turn up a stone, and the creeping things hurry out of the penetrating glare so unwelcome. 'What maketh heaven, that maketh hell,' and the same presence is life or death, joy or agony. The dear perception of divine purity and the shuddering recoil of impotent hatred from it are surely of the very essence of the demonic nature, and every man, who looks into the depths of his own spirit, knows that the possibilities of such a state are in him.
Our Lord discriminated between healing the sick and casting out demons. He distinguished between forms of disease due to possession and the same diseases when dissociated from it, as, for example, cases of dumbness. His whole attitude, both in His actual dealing with the possessed and in His referring to the subject, gave His complete adhesion to the reality of the awful thing. It is vain to say that He humoured the delusions of insanity in order to cure them. That theory does not adequately explain any of the facts and does not touch some of them. It is perilous to try to weaken the force of the narrative by saying that the evangelists were under the influence of popular notions (which are quietly assumed to have been wrong), and hence that their prepossessions coloured their representations. If the mirror was so distorted, what reliance can be placed on any part of its reflection of Jesus? There can be no doubt that the Gospel narrative asserts and assumes the reality of demoniacal possession, and if the representation that Jesus also assumed it is due to the evangelists, what trust can be reposed in authorities which misrepresent Him in such a matter? On the other hand, if they do not misrepresent Him, and He blundered, confounding mere insanity with possession by a demon, what reliance can be reposed in Him as our Teacher of the Unseen World? The issues involved are very grave and far-reaching, and raillery or sarcasm is out of place.
But the question is pertinent: By what right do we allege that demoniacal possession is an exploded figment and an impossibility? Do we know ourselves or our fellows so thoroughly as to be warranted in denying that deep down in the mysterious 'subliminal consciousness' there is a gate through which spiritual beings may come into contact with human personalities? He would be bold, to the verge of presumption or somewhat further, who should take up such a position. And have we any better right to assume that we know so much of the universe as to be sure that there are no evil spirits there, who can come into contact with human spirits and wield an alien tyranny over them? The Christian attitude is not that of such far-reaching denial which outruns our knowledge, but that of calm belief that Jesus is the head of all principality and power, and that to Him all are subject. It is taken for granted that the supposed possession is insanity. But may it not rather be that to-day some of the supposed insanity is possession? Be that as it may—and perhaps those who have the widest experience of 'lunatics' would be the least ready to dismiss the possibility,—Jesus recognised the reality that there were souls oppressed by a real personality, which had settled itself in the house of life, and none of us has wide and deep enough knowledge to contradict Him. Might it not be better to accept His witness in this, as in other matters beyond our ken, as true, and to ponder it?
The demons' petition, according to the Received Text, takes the form, 'Suffer us to go,' while the reading adopted by most modern editors is 'Send us.' The former reading seems to be taken from Luke (viii. 32), while Mark has 'Send' (not the same word as now read in Matthew). But Mark goes on to say, not that Jesus sent them, but that He 'suffered them' or 'gave them leave' (the same word as in Matthew, according to the Received Text). Thus, Jesus' part in the transaction is simply permissive, and the one word which He speaks is authoritative indeed in its curtness, and means simply 'away,' or 'begone.' It casts them out but does not send them in. He did not send them into the herd, but out of the men, and did not prevent their entrance into the swine. It should further be noted that nothing in the narrative suggests that the destruction of the herd was designed even by the demons, much less by Jesus. The maddened brutes rushed straight before them, not knowing why or where; the steep slope was in front, and the sea was at its foot, and their terrified, short gallop ended there. The last thing the demons would have done would have been to banish themselves, as the death of the swine did banish them, from their new shelter. There is no need, then, to invent justifications for Christ's destroying the herd, for He did not destroy it. No doubt, keeping swine was a breach of Jewish law; no doubt the two demoniacs and the bystanders would be more convinced of the reality of the exorcism by the fate of the swine, but these apologies are needless.
The narrative suggests some affinity between the demoniac and the animal nature, and though it is easy to ridicule, it is impossible to disprove, the suggestion. We know too little about either to do that, and what we cannot disprove it is somewhat venturesome hardily to deny. There are depths in the one nature, which we cannot fathom though its possessors are close to us; the other is removed from our investigation altogether. Where we are so utterly ignorant we had better neither affirm nor deny. But we may take a homiletical use out of that apparent affinity, and recognise that a spirit in rebellion against God necessarily gravitates downwards, and becomes more or less bestialised.
No wonder that the swineherds fled, but, surely, it is a wonder that eagerness to be rid of Jesus was the sole result of the miracle. Perhaps the reason was the loss of the swine, which would bulk largest in their keepers' excited story; perhaps the reason was a fear that He would find out and rebuke other instances of breach of strict Jewish propriety, perhaps it was simply the shrinking from any close contact with the heavenly, or apparently supernatural, which is so instinctive in us, and witnesses to a dormant consciousness of discord with Heaven. 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man,' is the cry of the roused conscience. And, alas! it has power to send away Him whom we need, and who comes to us, just because we are sinful, and just that He may deliver us from our sin.
END OF VOL. I