The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter X

The preaching on the lake
Such was the group which, on the borders of the lake of Tiberias, gathered around Jesus. The aristocracy was represented there by a customs officer and by the wife of one of Herod's stewards. The rest were fishermen and common people. Their ignorance was extreme; their intelligence was feeble; they believed in apparitions and spirits. Not one element of Greek culture had penetrated this first assembly of the saints. They had very little Jewish instruction; but heart and goodwill overflowed. The beautiful climate of Galilee made the life of these honest fishermen a perpetual delight. They truly preluded the kingdom of God -- simple, good, and happy -- rocked gently on their delightful little sea, or at night sleeping on its shores. We do not realize to ourselves the intoxication of a life which thus glides away in the face of heaven -- the sweet yet strong love which this perpetual contact with nature gives, and the dreams of these nights passed in the brightness of the stars, under in azure dome of infinite expanse. It was daring such a night that Jacob, with his head resting upon a stone, saw in the stars the promise of an innumerable posterity, and the mysterious ladder by which the angels of God came and went from heaven to earth. At the time of Jesus the heavens were not closed, nor the earth grown cold. The cloud still opened above the Son of man; the angels ascended and descended upon his head; the visions of the kingdom of God were everywhere, for man carried them in his heart. The clear and mild eyes of these simple souls contemplated the universe in its ideal source. The world unveiled perhaps its secret to the divinely enlightened conscience of these happy children, whose purity of heart deserved one day to behold God.

Jesus lived with his disciples almost always in the open air. Sometimes he got into a boat, and instructed his hearers, who were crowded upon the shore. Sometimes he sat upon the mountains which bordered the lake, where the air is so pure and the horizon so luminous. The faithful band led thus a joyous and wandering life, gathering the inspirations of the Master in their first bloom. An innocent doubt was sometimes raised, a question slightly skeptical; but Jesus, with a smile or a look, silenced the objection. At each step -- in the passing cloud, the germinating seed, the ripening corn -- they saw the sign of the Kingdom drawing nigh, they believed themselves on the eve of seeing God, of being masters of the world; tears were turned into joy; it was the advant upon earth of universal consolation.

"Blessed," said the Master, "are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be Comforted.

"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

"Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

His preaching was gentle and pleasing, breathing nature and the perfume of the fields. He loved the flowers, and took from them his most charming lessons. The birds of heaven, the sea, the mountains, and the games of children furnished in turn the subject of his instructions. His style had nothing of the Grecian in it, but approached much more to that of the Hebrew parabolists, and especially of sentences from the Jewish doctors, his contemporaries, such as we read them in the "Pirke Aboth." His teachings were not very, extended, and formed a species of sorites in the style of the Koran, which, joined together, afterwards composed those long discourses which were written by Matthew. No transition united these diverse pieces; generally, however, the same inspiration penetrated them and made them one. It was, above all, in parable that the Master excelled. Nothing in Judaism had given him the model of this delightful style. He created it. It is true that we find in the Buddhist books parables of exactly the same tone and the same character as the Gospel parables; but it is difficult to admit that a Buddhist influence has been exercised in these. The spirit of gentleness and the depth of feeling which equally animate infant Christianity and Buddhism suffice perhaps to explain these analogies.

A total indifference to exterior life and the vain appanage of the "comfortable," which our drearier countries make necessary to us, was the consequence of the sweet and simple life lived in Galilee. Cold climates, by compelling man to a perpetual contest with external nature, cause too much value to be attached to researches after comfort and luxury. On the other hand, the countries which awaken few desires are the countries of idealism and of poesy. The accessories of life are there insignificant compared with the pleasure of living. The embellishment of the house is superfluous, for it is frequented as little as possible. The strong and regular food of less generous climates would be considered heavy and disagreeable. And as to the luxury of garments, what can rival that which God has given to the earth and the birds of heaven? Labor in climates of this kind appears useless: what it gives is not equal to what it costs. The animals of the field are better clothed than the most opulent man, and they do nothing. This contempt, which, when it is not caused by idleness, contributes greatly to the elevation of the soul, inspired Jesus with some charming apologues: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth," said he, "where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor dust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 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. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought of the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

This essentially Galilean sentiment had a decisive influence on the destiny of the infant sect. The happy flock, relying on the heavenly Father for the satisfaction of its wants, had for its first principle the regarding of the cares of life as an evil which choked the germ of all good in man. Each day they asked of God the bread for the morrow. Why lay up treasure? The kingdom of God is at hand. "Sell that ye have and give alms," said the Master. "Provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not." What more foolish than to heap up treasures for heirs whom thou wilt never behold? As an example of human folly, Jesus loved to cite the case of a man who, after having enlarged his barns and amassed wealth for long years, died before having enjoyed it! The brigandage which was deeply rooted in Galilee gave much force to these views. The poor, who did not suffer from it, would regard themselves as the favored of God; while the rich, having a less sure possession, were the truly disinherited. In our societies, established upon a very rigorous idea of property, the position of the poor is horrible; they have literally no place under the sun. There are no flowers, no grass, no shade, except for him who possesses the earth. In the East these are gifts of God which belong to no one. The proprietor has but a slender privilege; nature is the patrimony of all.

The infant Christianity, moreover, in this only followed the footsteps of the Essenes, or Therapeutoe, and of the Jewish sects founded on the monastic life. A communistic element entered into all these sects, which were equally disliked by Pharisees and Sadducees. The Messianic doctrine, which was entirely political among the orthodox Jews, was entirely social among them. By means of a gentle, regulated, contemplative existence, leaving its share to the liberty of the individual, these little Churches thought to inaugurate the heavenly kingdom upon earth. Utopias of a blessed life, founded on the brotherhood of men and the worship of the true God, occupied elevated souls, and produced from all sides bold and sincere, but short-lived, attempts to realize these doctrines.

Jesus, whose relations with the Essenes are difficult to determine (resemblances in history not always implying relations), was on this point certainly their brother. The community of goods was for some time the rule in the new society. Covetousness was the cardinal sin. Now, it must be remarked that the sin of covetousness, against which Christian morality has been so severe, was then the simple attachment to property. The first condition of becoming a disciple of Jesus was to sell one's property and to give the price of it to the poor, Those who recoiled from this extremity were not admitted into the community. Jesus often repeated that he who has found the kingdom of God ought to buy it at the price of all his goods, and that in so doing he makes an advantageous bargain. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchantman seeking goodly pearls; who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it." Alas! the inconveniences of this plan were not long in making themselves felt. A treasurer was wanted. They chose for that office Judas of Kerioth. Rightly or wrongly, they accused him of stealing from the common purse; it is certain that he came to a bad end.

Sometimes the Master, more versed in things of heaven than those of earth, taught a still more singular political economy. In a strange parable, a steward is praised for having made himself friends among the poor at the expense of his master, in order that the poor might in their turn introduce him into the kingdom of heaven. The poor, in fact, becoming the dispensers of this kingdom, will only receive those who have given to them. A prudent man, thinking of the future, ought therefore to seek to gain their favor. "And the Pharisees also," says the evangelist, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him." Did they also hear the formidable parable which follows? "There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angles into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things; and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted and thou art tormented." What more just? Afterwards this parable was called that of the "wicked rich man." But it is purely and simply the parable of the "rich man." He is in hell because he is rich, because he does not give his wealth to the poor, because he dines well, while others at his door dine badly. Lastly, in a less extravagant moment, Jesus does not make it obligatory to sell one's goods, and give them to the poor except as a suggestion towards greater perfection. But he still makes this terrible declaration: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

An admirable idea governed Jesus in all this, as well as the band of joyous children who accompanied him and made him for eternity the true creator of the peace of the soul, the great consoler of life. In disengaging man from what he called "the cares of this world," Jesus might go to excess and injure the essential conditions of human society; but he founded that high spiritualism which for centuries has filled souls with joy in the midst of this vale of tears. He saw with perfect clearness that man's inattention, his want of philosophy and morality, come mostly from the distractions which he permits himself, the cares which besiege him, and which civilization multiplies beyond measure. The Gospel, in this manner, has been the most efficient remedy for the weariness of ordinary life, a perpetual sursum corda, a powerful diversion from the miserable cares of earth, a gentle appeal like that of Jesus in the ear of Martha -- "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful." Thanks to Jesus, the dullest existence, that most absorbed by sad or humiliating duties, has had its glimpse of heaven. In our busy civilizations the remembrance of the free life of Galilee has been like perfume from another world, like the "dew of Hermon," which has prevented drought and barrenness from entirely invading the field of God.

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