The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XIV

Intercourse of Jesus with the Pagans and the Samaritans
FOLLOWING out these principles, Jesus despised all religion which was not of the heart. The vain practices of the devotees, the exterior strictness which trusted to formality for salvation, had in him a mortal enemy. He cared little for fasting. He preferred forgiveness to sacrifice. The love of God, charity, and mutual forgiveness were his whole law. Nothing could be less priestly. The priest, by his office, ever advocates public sacrifice, of which he is the appointed minister; he discourages private prayer, which has a tendency to dispense with his office.

We should seek in vain in the Gospel for one religious rite recommended by Jesus. Baptism to him was only of secondary importance; and with respect to prayer he prescribes nothing, except that it should proceed from the heart. As is always the case, many thought to substitute mere goodwill for genuine love of goodness, and imagined they could win the kingdom of heaven by saying to him, "Rabbi, Rabbi." He rebuked them, and proclaimed that his religion consisted in doing good. He often quoted the passage in Isaiah which says: "This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."

The observance of the Sabbath was the principal point upon which was raised the whole edifice of Pharisaic scruples and subtleties. This ancient and excellent institution had become a pretext for the miserable disputes of casuists, and a source of superstitious beliefs. It was believed that nature observed it; all intermittent springs were accounted "Sabbatical." This was the point upon which Jesus loved best to defy his adversaries. He openly violated the Sabbath, and only replied by subtle raillery to the reproaches that were heaped upon him. He despised still more a multitude of modern observances, which tradition had added to the Law, and which were dearer than any other to the devotees on that very account. Ablutions, and the too subtle distinctions between pure and impure things, found in him a pitiless opponent. "There is nothing from without a man," said he. "that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man." The Pharisees, who were the propagators of these mummeries, were unceasingly denounced by him. He accused them of exceeding the Law, of inventing impossible precepts, in order to create occasions of sin. "Blind leaders of the blind," said he, "take care lest ye also fall into the ditch." "O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."

He did not know the Gentiles sufficiently to think of founding anything lasting upon their conversion. Galilee contained a great number of pagans, but, as it appears, no public and organized worship of false gods. Jesus could see this worship displayed in all its splendor in the country of Tyre and Sidon, at Caesarea Philippi and in the Decapolis, but he paid little attention to it. We never find in him the wearisome pedantry of the Jews of his time, those declamations against idolatry, so familiar to his co- religionists from the time of Alexander, and which fill, for instance, the book of "Wisdom." That which struck him in the pagans was not their idolatry, but their servility. The young Jewish democrat, agreeing on this point with Judas the Gaulonite, and admitting no master but God, was hurt at the honors with which they surrounded the persons of sovereigns, and the frequently mendacious titles given to them. With this exception, in the greater number of instances in which he comes in contact with pagans, he shows great indulgence to them; sometimes he professes to conceive more hope of them than of the Jews. The kingdom of God would be transferred to them. "When the lord, therefore, of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto these husbandmen? He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons." Jesus adhered so much the more to this idea as the conversion of the Genfiles was, according to Jewish ideas, one of the surest signs of the advent of the Messiah. In his kingdom of God he represents as seated at a feast by the side of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, men come from the four winds of heaven, while the lawful heirs of the kingdom are rejected. Sometimes, it is true, there seems to be an entirely contrary tendency in the commands he gives to his disciples: he seems to recommend them only to preach salvation to the orthodox Jews; he speaks of pagans in a manner conformable to the prejudices of the Jews. But we must remember that the disciples, whose narrow minds did not share in this supreme indifference for the privileges of the sons of Abraham, may have given the instruction of their Master the bent of their own ideas. Besides, it is very possible that Jesus may have varied on this point, just as Mohammed speaks of the Jews in the Koran, sometimes in the most honorable manner, sometimes with extreme harshness, as he had hope of winning their favor or otherwise. Tradition, in fact, attributes to Jesus two entirely opposite rules of proselytism, which he may have practiced in turn: "He that is not against us is on our part." "He that is not with me is against me." Impassioned conflict involves almost necessarily this kind of contradictions.

It is certain that he counted among his disciples many men whom the Jews called "Hellenes." This word had in Palestine divers meanings. Sometimes it designated in the Jews, speaking Greek, and dwelling among the pagans; sometimes men of pagan origin converted to Judaism. It was probably in the last named category of Hellene, that Jesus found sympathy. The affiliation with Judaism had many degrees; but the proselytes always remained in a state of inferiority in regard to the Jew by birth. Those in question were called "proselytes of the gate," or "men fearing God," and were subject to the precepts of Noah, and not to those of Moses. This very inferiority was doubtless the cause which drew them to Jesus, and gained them his favor.

He treated the Samaritans in the same manner. Shut in, like a small island, between the two great provinces of Judaism (Judea and Galilee), Samaria formed in Palestine a kind of enclosure in which was preserved the ancient worship of Gerizim, closely resembling and rivalling that of Jerusalem. This poor sect, which had neither the genius nor the learned organization of Judaism, properly so- called, was treated by the Hierosolymites with extreme harshness. They placed them in the same rank as pagans, but hated them more. Jesus, from a feeling of opposition, was well disposed towards Samaria, and often preferred the Samaritans to the orthodox Jews. If, at other times, he seems to forbid his disciples preaching to them, confining his Gospel to the Israelites proper, this was no doubt a precept arising from special circumstances, to which the apostles have given too absolute a meaning. Sometimes, in fact, the Samaritans received him badly, because they thought him imbued with the prejudices of his co-religionists -- in the same manner as in our days the European freethinker is regarded as an enemy by the Mussulman, who always believes him to be a fanatical Christian. Jesus raised himself above these misunderstandings. He had many disciples at Shechem, and he passed at least two days there. On one occasion he meets with gratitude and true piety from a Samaritan only. One of his most beautiful parables is that of the man wounded on the way to Jericho. A priest passes by and sees him, but goes on his way; a Levite also passes, but does not stop; a Samaritan takes pity on him, approaches him, and pours oil into his wounds, and bandages them. Jesus argues from this that true brotherhood is established among men by charity, and not by creeds. The "neighbor" who in Judaism was specially the co-religionist, was in his estimation the man who has pity on his kind without distinction of sect. Human brotherhood in its widest sense overflows in all his teaching.

These thoughts, which beset Jesus on his leaving Jerusalem, found their vivid expression in an anecdote which has been preserved respecting his return. The road from Jerusalem into Galilee passes at the distance of half-an-hour's journey from Shechem, in front of the opening of the valley commanded by mounts Ebal and Gerizim, This route was in general avoided by the Jewish pilgrims, who preferred making in their journeys the long detour through Perea, rather than expose themselves to the insults of the Samaritans, or ask anything of them. It was forbidden to eat and drink with them. It was an axiom of certain casuists that "a piece of Samaritan bread is the flesh of swine." When they followed this route, provisions were always laid up beforehand; yet they rarely avoided conflict and ill-treatment. Jesus shared neither these scruples nor these fears. Having come to the point where the valley of Shechem opens on the left, he felt fatigued, and stopped near a well. The Samaritans were then as now accustomed to give to all the localities of their valley names drawn from patriarchal reminiscences. They regarded this well as having been given by Jacob to Joseph; it was probably the same which is now called Birlakoub. The disciples entered the valley and went to the city to buy provisions. Jesus seated himself at the side of the well, having Gerizim before him.

It was about noon. A woman of Shechem came to draw water. Jesus asked her to let him drink, which excited great astonishment in the woman, the Jews generally forbidding all intercourse with the Samaritans, won by the conversation of Jesus, the woman recognized in him a prophet, and, expecting some reproaches about her worship, she anticipated him. "Sir," said she, "our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth."

The day on which he uttered this saying he was truly Son of God. He pronounced for the first time the sentence upon which will repose the edifice of eternal religion. He founded the pure worship of all ages, of all lands, that which all elevated souls will practice until the end of time. Not only was his religion on this day the best religion of humanity, it was the absolute religion; and if other planets have inhabitants gifted with reason and morality, their religion cannot be different from that which Jesus proclaimed near the well of Jacob. Man has not been able to maintain this position; for the ideal is realized but transitorily. This sentence of Jesus has been a brilliant light amid gross darkness; it has required eighteen hundred years for the eyes of mankind (what do I say! for an infinitely small portion of mankind) to become accustomed to it. But the light will become the full day, and, after having run through all the cycles of error, mankind will return to this sentence as the immortal expression of its faith and its hope.

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