The Life of Jesus
by Ernest Renan


The Life of Jesus > Chapter XI



The Kingdom of God conceived as the ingeritance of the Poor
THESE maxims, good for a country where life is nourished by the air and the light, and this delicate communism of a band of children of God reposing in confidence on the bosom of their Father, might suit a simple sect constantly persuaded that its Utopia was about to be realized. But it is clear that they could not satisfy the whole of society. Jesus understood very soon, in fact, that the official world of his time would by no means adopt his kingdom. He took his resolution with extreme boldness. Leaving the world, with its hard heart and narrow prejudices on one side, he turned towards the simple. A vast substitution of classes would take place. The kingdom of God was made -- 1st, For children, and those who resemble them; 2nd, For the outcasts of this world, victims of that social arrogance which repulses the good but humble man; 3rd, For heretics and schismatics, publicans, Samaritans, and Pagans of Tyre and Sidon. An energetic parable explained this appeal to the people, and justified it. A king has prepared a wedding feast, and sends his servants to seek those invited. Each one excuses himself; some ill-treat the messengers. The king, therefore, takes a decided step. The great people have not accepted his invitation. Be it so. His guests shall be the first comers; the people collected from the highways and byeways, the poor, the beggars, and the lame; it matters not who, the room must be filled. "For I say unto you," said he, "that none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper."

Pure Ebionism -- that is, the doctrine that the poor (ebionim) alone shall be saved, that the reign of the poor is approaching -- was, therefore, the doctrine of Jesus. "Woe unto you that are rich," said he, "for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full, for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now, for ye shall mourn and weep." "Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors, lest they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee; for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just." It is perhaps in an analogous sense that he often repeated, Be good bankers -- that is to say, make good investments for the kingdom of God, in giving your wealth to the poor, conformably to the old proverb, "He that hath pity upon the poor, leadeth unto the Lord."

This, however, was not a new fact. The most exalted democratic movement of which humanity has preserved the remembrance (the only one, also, which has succeeded, for it alone has maintained itself in the domain of pure thought). had long disturbed the Jewish race. The thought that God is the avenger of the poor and the weak, against the rich and the powerful, is found in each page of the writings of the Old Testament. The history of Israel is of all histories that in which the popular spirit has most constantly predominated. The prophets, the true, and, in one sense, the boldest tribunes, had thundered incessantly against the great, and established a close relation, on the one hand, between the words "rich, impious, violent, wicked," and, on the other, between the words "poor, gentle, humble, pious." Under the Seleucidae, the aristocrats having almost all apostatized and gone over to Hellenism, these associations of ideas only became stronger. The Book of Enoch contains still more violent maledictions than those of the Gospel against the world, the rich, and the powerful. Luxury is there depicted as a crime. The "Son of man," in this strange Apocalypse, enthrones kings, tears them from their voluptuous life, and precipitates them into hell. The initiation of Judea into secular life, the recent introduction of an entirely worldly element of luxury and comfort, provoked a furious reaction in favor of patriarchal simplicity. "Woe unto you who despise the humble dwelling and inheritance of your fathers! Woe unto you who build your palaces with the sweat of others! Each stone, each brick of which it is built, is a sin." The name of "poor" (ebion) had become a synonym of "saint," of "friend of God." This was the name that Galilean disciples of Jesus loved to give themselves; it was for a long time the name of the Judaising Christians of Batanea and of the Hauran (Nazarenes, Hebrews) who remained faithful to the tongue, as well as to the primitive instructions of Jesus, and who boasted that they possessed among themselves the descendants of his family. At the end of the second century, these good sectaries, having remained beyond the reach of the great current which had carried away all the other Churches, were treated as heretics (Ebionites), and a pretended heretical leader (Ebion) was invented to explain their name.

We may see, in fact, without difficulty, that this exaggerated taste for poverty could not be very lasting. It was one of those Utopian elements which always mingle in the origin of great movements, and which time rectifies. Thrown into the center of human society, Christianity very easily consented to receive rich men into her bosom, just as Buddhism, exclusively monkish in its origin, soon began, as conversions multiplied, to admit the laity. But the mark of origin is ever preserved. Although it quickly passed away and became forgotten, Ebionism left a leaven in the whole history of Christian institutions which has not been lost. The collection of the Logia, or discourses of Jesus, was formed in the Ebionitish center of Batanea. "Poverty remained an ideal from which the true followers of Jesus were never after separated. To possess nothing was the truly evangelical state; mendicancy became a virtue, a holy condition. The great Umbrian movement of the thirteenth century, which, among all the attempts at religious construction, most resembles the Galilean movement, took place entirely in the name of poverty. Francis d'Assisi, the man who, more than any other, by his exquisite goodness, by his delicate, pure, and tender intercourse with universal life, most resembled Jesus, was a poor man. The mendicant orders, the innumerable communistic sects of the Middle Ages (Pauvres de Lyon, Begards, Bons-Hommes, Fratricelles, Humilies, Pauvres evangiliques, etc.) grouped under the banner of the "Everlasting Gospel," pretended to be, and in fact were, the true disciples of Jesus. But even in this case the most impracticable dreams of the new religion were fruitful in results. Pious mendacity, so impatiently born by our industrial and well-organized communities, was in its day, and in a suitable climate, full of charm. It offered to a multitude of mild and contemplative souls the only condition suited to them. To have made poverty an object of love and desire, to have raised the beggar to the altar, and to have sanctified the coat of the poor man, was a master-stroke which political economy may not appreciate, but in the presence of which the true moralist cannot remain indifferent. Humanity, in order to bear its burden, needs to believe that it is not paid entirely by wages. The greatest service which can be rendered to it is to repeat often that it lives not by bread alone.

Like all great men, Jesus loved the people and felt himself at home with them. The Gospel, in his idea, is made for the poor; it is to them he brings the glad tidings of salvation. All the despised ones of orthodox Judaism were his favorites. Love of the people, and pity for its weakness (the sentiment of the democratic chief, who feels the spirit of the multitude live in him, and recognize him as its natural interpreter), shine forth at each moment in his acts and discourses.

The chosen flock presented, in fact, a very mixed character, and one likely to astonish rigorous moralists. It counted in its fold men with whom a Jew respecting himself would not have associated. Perhaps Jesus found in this society, unrestrained by ordinary rules, more mind and heart than in a pedantic and formal middle-class, proud of its apparent morality. The Pharisees, exaggerating the Mosaic prescriptions, had come to believe themselves defiled by contact with men less strict than themselves; in their meals they almost rivalled the puerile distinctions of caste in India. Despising these miserable aberrations of the religious sentiment, Jesus loved to eat with those who suffered from them; by his side at table were seen persons said to lead wicked lives, perhaps only so called because they did not share the follies of the false devotees. The Pharisees and the doctors protested against the scandal. "See," said they, "with what men he eats!" Jesus returned subtle answers, which exasperated the hypocrites: "They that be whole need not a physician." Or again: "What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulder rejoicing." Or again: "The Son of man is come to save that which was lost." Or again: "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Lastly, that delightful parable of the prodigal son, in which he who is fallen is represented as having a kind of privilege of love above him who has always been righteous. Weak or guilty women, surprised at so much that was charming, and realizing for the first time the attractions of contact with virtue, approached him freely. People were astonished that he did not repulse them. "Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner." Jesus replied by the parable of a creditor who forgives his debtors' unequal debts, and he did not hesitate to prefer the lot of him to whom was remitted the greater debt. He appreciated conditions of soul only in proportion to the love mingled therein. Women, with tearful hearts, and disposed through their sins to feelings of humility, were nearer to his kingdom than ordinary natures, who often have little merit in not having fallen. We may conceive, on the other hand, that these tender souls, finding in their conversion to the sect an easy means of restoration, would passionately attach themselves to him.

Far from seeking to soothe the murmurs stirred up by his disdain for the social susceptibilities of the time, he seemed to take pleasure in exciting them. Never did anyone avow more loftily this contempt for the "world," which is the essential condition of great things and of great originality. He pardoned the rich man, but only when the rich man, in consequence of some prejudice, was disliked by society. He greatly preferred men of equivocal life and of small consideration in the eyes of the orthodox leaders. "The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him." We can understand how galling the reproach of not having followed the good example set by prostitutes must have been to men making a profession of seriousness and rigid morality.

He had no external affectation or show of austerity. He did not fly from pleasure; he went willingly to marriage feasts. One of his miracles was performed to enliven a wedding at a small town. Weddings in the East take place in the evening. Each one carries a lamp; and the lights coming and going produce a very agreeable effect. Jesus liked this gay and animated aspect, and drew parables from it. Such conduct, compared with that of John the Baptist, gave offence. One day, when the disciples of John and the Pharisees were observing the fast, it was asked, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast in those days." His gentle gaiety found expression in lively ideas and amiable pleasantries. "But whereunto," said he, "shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have, not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But Wisdom is justified of her children."

He thus traversed Galilee in the midst of a continual feast. He rode on a mule. In the East this is a good and safe mode of travelling; the large black eyes of the animal, shaded by long eyelashes, give it an expression of gentleness. His disciples sometimes surrounded him with a kind of rustic pomp, at the expense of their garments, which they used as carpets. They placed them on the mule which carried him, or extended them on the earth in his path. His entering a house was considered a joy and a blessing. He stopped in the villages and the large farms, where he received an eager hospitality. In the East, the house into which a stranger enters becomes at once a public place. All the village assembles there, the children invade it, and, though dispersed by the servants, always return. Jesus could not permit these simple auditors to be treated harshly; he caused them to be brought to him and embraced them. The mothers, encouraged by such a reception, brought him their children in order that he might touch them. Women came to pour oil upon his head and perfume on his feet His disciples sometimes repulsed them as troublesome; but Jesus, who loved the ancient usages, and all that indicated simplicity of heart, repaired the ill done by his too zealous friends. He protected those who wished to honor him. Thus children and women adored him. The reproach of alienating from their families these gentle creatures, always easily misled, was one of the most frequent charges of his enemies.

The new religion was thus in many respects a movement of women and children. The latter were like a young guard around Jesus for the inauguration of his innocent royalty, and gave him little ovations which much pleased him, calling him "son of David," crying Hosanna, and bearing palms around him. Jesus, like Savonarola, perhaps made them serve as instruments for pious missions; he was very glad to see these young apostles, who did not compromise him, rush into the front and give him titles which he dared not take himself. He let them speak, and, when he was asked if he heard, he replied in an evasive manner that the praise which comes from young lips is the most agreeable to God.

He lost no opportunity of repeating that the little ones are sacred beings, that the kingdom of God belongs to children, that we must become children to enter there, that we ought to receive it as a child, that the heavenly Father hides his secrets from the wise, and reveals them to the little ones. The idea of disciples is, in his mind, almost synonymous with that of children. On one occasion, when they had one of those quarrels for precedence which were not uncommon, Jesus took a little child, placed him in their midst, and said unto them: "Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

It was infancy, in fact, in its divine spontaneity, in its simple bewilderments of joy, which took possession of the earth. Everyone believed at each moment that the kingdom so much desired was about to appear. Each one already saw himself seated on a throne beside the Master. They divided among themselves the positions of honor in the new kingdom, and strove to reckon the precise date of its advent. This new doctrine was called the "Good Tidings"; it had no other name. An old word, "paradise," which the Hebrew, like all the languages of the East, had borrowed from the Persian, and which at first designated the parks of the Achaemenidae, summed up the general dream; a delightful garden, where the charming life which was led here below would be continued forever. How long this intoxication lasted we know not. No one, during the course of this magical apparition, measured time any more than we measure a dream. Duration was suspended; a week was an age. But, whether it filled years or months, the dream was so beautiful that humanity has lived upon it ever since, and it is still our consolation to gather its weakened perfume. Never did so much joy fill the breast of man. For a moment Humanity, in this the most vigorous effort she ever made to rise above the world, forgot the leaden weight which binds her to earth and the sorrows of the life below. Happy he who has been able to behold this divine unfolding, and to share, were it but for one day, this unexampled illusion! But still more happy, Jesus would say to us, is he who, freed from all illusion, shall reproduce in himself the celestial vision, and, with no millenarnan dream, no chimerical paradise, no signs in the heavens, but, by the uprightness of his will and the poetry of his soul, shall be able to create anew in his heart the true kingdom of God!

-> next chapter

-> original version (in French) & notes

-> The Life of Jesus : contents

-> Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English translation