In much of our popular theology there is some danger that teachings about Jesus have somewhat overshadowed the teachings of Jesus, and that we are too often asked to accept certain statements concerning the Master, when our attention ought rather to be directed to Master’s words.
If we accept this thought, and determine to occupy ourselves first with the teachings of Jesus, rather than with teachings about Jesus, we shall find a fertile field immediately opened before us. We shall see that the teachings of Jesus have a distinct organic unity, so that, if they were given to us mingled with the words of others, let us say of Socrates and Krishna, we should presently be able to select the teaching of Jesus from the whole, by its inherent quality, its clearly distinctive note; just any one with a trained ear for verse could pick out separate lines of Shakespeare, Shelley or Burns from a general collection of poetry. This distinctive note is in every saying of Jesus recorded in the four Gospels, even though each of the evangelists gives a slightly different coloring to what he records, so that John has one shade, and Matthew another. The unity of the author shines out manifestly through the diversity of the reporters.
The recorded teachings of Jesus are unequally grouped. We have two long discourses, and a number of shorter sayings, some only a single sentence or a few words. The two long discourses are: the Sermon on the Mount, which stands at the very beginning of the mission, and the Discourse of the Last Supper, reported by John, which marks its close. The remaining discourses are comparatively brief. If we go through them all, we shall presently be struck by a very remarkable phrase, which runs like a golden thread through many of the discourses, binding them together in unity of thought. This phrase is: “the kingdom of heaven.” It would seem that this phrase was not originally created by Jesus, but at first the rallying cry of John the Baptist. John used it as the of his sermons: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus, coming to hear John the Baptist, and to receive from him the symbolic rite of baptism, was struck by this phrase, and adopted it. We find him using it himself in his earliest teachings, and then passing it on to his disciples when he sent them forth to preach and to teach. Finally the disciples used it also, and from them it passed to Paul.
In the teachings of Jesus, the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” presently gained a prominence surpassed, perhaps, by one other phrase only: “The Father in heaven.” So much is this so, that, of the thirty-five parables recorded in the Gospels, fifteen are explicitly recorded as “parables of the kingdom,” while several more evidently belong to the same class. This is the case with the parable of the pounds, for instance; it is simply told as a story in Luke’s gospel, while Matthew expressly numbers it among the teachings of “the kingdom of heaven.”
The “parables of the kingdom” thus form the most homogenous, indubitable, and distinctive element of the teachings of Jesus: that part of the record which has the clearest individual note, the most easily recognizable inherent unity. It is further characteristic of the teachings of Jesus that we should not find it easy to understand these parables if we took them by themselves and tried to learn their import in a superficial way. It is quite easy to study them somewhat closely and to miss their true message altogether. As was said of certain other records, they contain the mystery, but they do not reveal the mystery. Taking the matter superficially, it is difficult to conceive of anything which is at once like a pearl, a net, a king, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, wheat, and other equally diverse matters to which the “kingdom of heaven” is likened. Nor can it be said that the matter is completely settled in the few cases where the Teacher has himself given the interpretation of the parables, as for instance in the parable of the tares, or the parable of the sower. In the former, we are told that the time of reaping is “the end of the world,” and we may, perhaps, think that we know exactly what this means; but the more we ponder over it, the more we shall be convinced that the matter goes somewhat deeper; that there are many “ends of the world,” in varying senses, in different spheres.
And so with all the parables. Indeed we shall have made our first great step in advance when we have convinced ourselves that we are far from knowing exactly what they mean. Then we shall be able to set about seeking their meaning, with better hope of success. There is a passage in the gospel of Luke which may serve us as a clue. We are told that Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of heaven should come; the Teacher replied that the kingdom of heaven came not with observation, “for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Paul has a phrase which approaches this: “The kingdom of God is righteousness and peace.”
Let us take this clue for our guidance at the outset of our study. It has often been noted that the gospel of John contains no parables; the reason evidently being that this gospel is chiefly occupied with the more intimate teaching, the teaching to disciples, to whom the Master himself said: “To you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of heaven, but to them in parables.” The long discourse of the Last Supper is direct, is without parables; it contains the most complete revelation of the Teacher’s inmost thought. We may seek here, therefore, for the meaning of the parables, as here the mystery is more fully disclosed.
Compare, for instance, the words, “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” with the following: “If a man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” It is evident that we have the same thought differently expressed; for if the kingdom of heaven be within us, we may believe that we shall find the king within his kingdom.
Exactly the same thought is expressed in slightly different words in other part of the same discourse: “He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” Here is a restatement of the same direct kind: if we do certain things, we shall find certain results follow. If we wish to learn the meaning of the message, the path is pointed out to us with simplicity unmistakable clearness. By doing certain things, we shall be in a position to learn the meaning of the kingdom, the meaning of the words: “the Father in heaven.” Our knowledge will be the result, not of dialectics, but of experiment, in the last degree scientific and trustworthy.
The lines of our search are laid down in the words: “He that hath commandments,” and then, not he that assents to them, or approves hem, or believes them; but he that “keepeth them” will find certain results. It is, therefore, a question of finding what these commandments are, and then of keeping them, of carrying them out.
Many variations in the details of the commandments are recorded in the four Gospels; yet we shall find that they all fall into two groups, clearly marked and distinguished from each other. The first group may be indicated by the words: “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” The thought is differently expressed thus: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”
The meaning is sufficiently clear. To serve mammon, to love one’s life, means, evidently, to devote oneself to wordly success, to the pursuit of riches, to ambition; in a word, to seek the goal which the vast majority of people see before them. If we were to ask a thousand young men, in our day and generation, what was their aim in life, we should probably be told a thousand times that the goal was “success,” and it would be assumed that we were sufficiently answered; that success was a thing so generally understood that no further explanation could possibly be needed. To love one’s life, to gain success; this is unquestionably the gospel of the day: yet at the very outset of our inquiry, we find Jesus pointing us in exactly the oposite direction. We cannot serve God and mammon; he that loves his life shall lose it.
Those who hold the gospel of success, the vast majority of our day and generation, try to attain success by following certain lines, by relying on certain principles. They believe in studying natural laws in order take advantage of them, in pushing forward in the struggle with nature and with their competitors, in shrewdness, in zealous self-seeking, in having an eye to the main chance, in looking out for number one, as the phrase goes. It is easy enough to see that these are so many translations of the phrase: “to serve mammon;” and that their professors are doing exactly what Jesus tells us is incompatible with the service of God; are in fact, turning their backs on the path which Jesus came to point out. For those who wish to learn his doctrine by keeping his commandments, it will be necessary to go in exactly the opposite direction They must cease to force themselves forward in the struggle for life, the struggle against nature and other men; they must cease to rely on shrewdness, on mastery of natural law, on material skill; they must begin to rely on divine law, on the law which springs from within; and they must rely on divine law to the point of staking their lives on it, as against the natural law of the struggle for life.
It is very much as in the case of young men choosing a profession. At first, all paths are equally open; they may think of themselves as soldiers, lawyers or bankers, merchants or artists, or whatever they choose, from the wide range of human activities. But the time comes when they must make up their minds to one course and stick to it; they must elect to follow one road, and leave the others untrodden. They must make their choice. So with the kingdom. A time of choice will come, unsought very often, when it will be manifest that two ways are open; the one may either follow the lower path, of reliance on shrewdness, natural law and the struggle for life; or choose divine law, inspiration and sacrifice. This will mean that we are to trust to divine law for the future well-being of our lives, for our future fortune, so to speak; that we must have the courage to believe that our fate comes from above, and that we shall be provided for. And we must have the courage to see that what is provided for us may well be unceasing sacrifice, privation, want; that this may be the divine law in our case; and that, being the divine law, it is infinitely better for us than wealth and success, as these are reckoned among men.
One always feels, great unwillingness to write of this time of choice, lest perchance the matter should thus be brought to the minds of some who are not yet ready to choose well; and that thus they may see the alternatives and fail to take the better way, through weakness making the great betrayal. Nevertheless, it is better to state the matter clearly.
All that usually passes for wordly wisdom must be taken into account; “the triumphs of modern science,” and such great matters. These all belong to the lower way, the way of success through obedience to natural law and the struggle for life. He who relies on these has not yet found the beginning of the way.
But let us suppose that the right choice is made; that faith in divine law outweighs calculation on natural law; that the seeker boldly launches his boat upon the waves. He determines that his life, whatever may be given to him to live, shall be devoted to divine law, to obedience to divine commands; that this is his purpose, this his success; and that he will trust to this higher law for his well-being and his reward, knowing well that that reward may be sacrifice, that well-being unending privation.
If the choice be thus made, certain results will immediately follow. Faith will make way for knowledge; instead of believing that there is a divine law, which will support the conduct of his life, he knows this law; he rests in a power which touches him from above, and on which he can lean spiritually, as he leans physically on this material earth. He is backed up, as it were, by spiritual power, he has found his resting place, a resting place not for slumber but for work. He has entered the kingdom and passed through the “birth from above,” without which, the Teacher affirms, it is impossible to enter the kingdom. For him, it is matter, not of theory, but of experience.
Considered thus, it is no longer so hard to understand the sentence: “He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world, shall keep it unto life eternal.” To adhere to natural law and the struggle for life, to take the way of nature, is to take the way of death; for everything in nature dies. To adhere to divine law, to cast in our lot with the spiritual side of life and trust to that, is to take the way of life, of a life which is deep and enduring, a life not subject to the death of the body, but extending upward and onward illimitably.
If we are fond of speculation, we may, at this point, raise numerous doubts and questionings concerning the Way, and the laws which rule there. But we shall be wise if we postpone our questionings until after we have made the first steps on the Way itself; then, living the life, we shall be ready to know of the doctrine, whether in truth it be divine. If given to casuistry, one may spend ages at this point, debating and discussing; raising endless questions which the mind can never solve, but which, at the first step on the Way, will solve themselves.
We have thus to some extent made clear the first element of those commandments, the keeping of which is the condition of wisdom and of the indwelling of the divine. Let us pass to the second. This second element is of the most vital import; and, in a certain sense, it is much more intelligible than the first, in that it deals with things of common observation, and strongly appeals to the best side of the emotional nature. For this reason, perhaps, it tends to become the more conspicuous of the two, and to obscure the first in the general understanding.
This second principle is embodied by Jesus in certain stories or parables, so clear and direct that it is wholly impossible to mistake their meaning. There can be no doubt about the import of this: “I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I sick and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” There is nothing vague here, nothing “metaphysical” or remote, nothing speculative or abstract; nothing that the simplest heart of man can fail to understand. Though easy to understand, this command is not easy to keep; yet the Teacher declared that “he that hath my commandments and keepeth them,” and he only, is sure of his reward. It is sometimes suggested that these are symbolic commands; that we are expected to grasp a principle, to practice charitable thought. This also is true, yet I am most firmly convinced that each act enumerated here is to be taken literally, and literally fulfilled. After such fulfillment, another and a deeper significance will be found in the words of the Master; it will be seen that there is another nakedness than that of the body; another hunger, the hunger for human love, the yet greater hunger for spiritual life. These too must be ministered to, and in due time all effort will be given to these. Yet I can conceive nothing that would so surely bring the Teacher’s disapproval as the pretense that one has no need to obey the literal commands, but may pass on at once to the abstract principles.
The second condition of the Way is thus seen to be unselfishness, a genuine devotion to the interests of another. It would seem that Jesus held egotism to be the chief sin, the greatest impediment to spiritual life, to the entry into the kingdom. It is significant that two of the most distinctive and most widely known passages in his teachings are directed against egotism in the field of religion. There is, first, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, which is, besides its other merits, one of the finest and most compact pieces of dramatic characterization in all literature. Then there is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is of such superb literary quality that it has perpetuated the name of an obscure and long vanished tribe, raising that name into a universal symbol, and giving it currency in all western tongues. In exactly the same way, the parable of the “talents” has changed the name of a coin into the symbol of moral or intellectual gift.
The persons against whom these two matchless parables are directed are neither Dives nor Cæsar; neither the man of boundless wealth nor the man of worldly power; they are aimed at the separatist in religion, at the vice of spiritual egotism and self-righteousness, the quality of bigotry which has been such a fruitful source of evil and pain.
In yet another passage does Jesus attack the same fault, a passage seldom quoted, yet worthy of perpetual quotation. The third evangelist narrates that Jesus was invited to dine at the house of Simon the Pharisee. While host and guest were seated at table a certain woman of city “which was a sinner,” entered the house, bringing a costly box of ointment, and that as she stood behind the couch on which Jesus reclined, she wept, and washed his feet with her tears; then, kissing his feet, anointed them with ointment. The host wondered that she was not instantly rebuked and dismissed; he even thought that his guest could be no true seer, since he permitted a sinner thus to approach him. The Master at once read the unuttered thought, and thus replied to it:
“Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee;” and then he told the story of the two debtors, to one of whom a debt of five hundred pence was forgiven, and to the other, of fifty. Then he turned to Simon, with these words: “Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, same loveth little.”
Here are the two principles, the two “commandments” which we are called on to keep. There must come the death of self-seeking, of reliance on natural shrewdness and natural law; there must come the death of self-righteousness, of the sense of spiritual separation. Instead arises faith, reliance on divine law, a reliance even to the death; and with faith comes devotion to the interests of others, even to the point of entire self-sacrifice. These open the portal of the Way, the door of the “kingdom of heaven.” The new spiritual life which then springs up in the heart within, the luminous consciousness of divine law and power, Jesus calls “the kingdom of heaven;” and to further instruction in the secrets of this new life, the “parables of the kingdom” are directed. Experience must come, rather than criticism; and with experience will come understanding, and the fulfillment of the promise.