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Nazareth Revisited


Martha and Mary -- the Children -- How to Pray -- At Dinner with the Pharisees.

We next have a peep into Mary's house -- the Mary who lived with Martha and her brother Lazarus. The place, the time, the social status are immaterial particulars. The absorbing fact is that Christ was in the house as a guest. We are naturally alert to watch his deportment in that character, and to enter into his estimate of domestic matters so far as his recorded words allow. They are brief, but very pregnant. The picture is transient, but distinct. Jesus is seated (or more correctly, recumbent) in the reclining posture that is prevalent in the East to the present day. Mary is seated on the lounge, close to his feet. She is listening to "his word." Martha is bustling about, attending to household matters -- probably in preparation of the coming meal. She wants Mary's help, but Mary is intent on what Christ is saying, and shows no signs of moving. Martha tries to get her attention, but in vain. At last Martha makes bold to break in: "Lord dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her, therefore, that she help me." Christ's answer was a rebuff: "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part that shall not be taken away from her."

There have been many comments on this brief domestic incident, and various views indulged in. People have taken Martha's part or Mary's part according to their predispositions and affinities. Some have said that Martha's request was only reasonable, and that Mary should have chosen another time for listening to Christ than just the moment when her services were wanted for housework. Others have said that Martha was a worldly woman, and was guilty of sacrilege in obtruding household affairs upon the attention of one absorbed in the words of Christ. Those who sympathise with Martha as a practical, sensible serving woman, think she was severely dealt with. Or, if afraid to impute injustice to Christ, they explain away the force of his words by suggesting that what he meant was that Martha was getting ready too many dishes, and that only one dish was needful. Those who take strong sides with Mary consider that Martha's salvation was placed in doubt by the words of Christ, and that, in fact, Christ meant to discourage domestic industry, and to countenance even slovenliness and neglect in things pertaining to this life.

There seems no occasion for any of these extremes. Christ's life was a teaching life. It was his mission for three years and a half to manifest the mind of God on the various things that go to make up human life, and to use circumstances as they arose to that end. The domestic circumstance before us was not too insignificant to be employed in that way. It stood related to the most common form of slavery to which people subject themselves from want of enlightenment "Cumbered about much serving," is the peculiarity which the narrative notes about Martha; and this has always been the bane of whole classes of otherwise sensible people. It was, therefore, a matter which it was natural that Jesus should bring under his reprehension when a suitable opportunity arose. He seizes this opportunity.

He is a passing visitor. He is to be but a short time under the roof. Mary shows her appreciation of the occasion by giving her fixed attention to what Christ had to say, even to the neglect for the moment of the little ways of the household. This was reasonable in the circumstances. Martha does not show the same discernment. She is interested in the circumstance of Christ's presence, but it is not the same kind of interest. It is a social interest -- a ceremonial interest -- in which she, Martha, as hostess, will divide the honours with Christ, the guest, by a lavish display of hospitality, and a considerable fussiness of attention. Mary's interest was a spiritual interest -- an interest in what Christ had to say of the Father's work and purpose by Him, rather than an interest in his visit as reflecting honour upon their household. The latter was the character of Martha's interest. Had Martha let well alone, her service would have been accepted at what it was worth -- not so fragrant as Mary's, still acceptable as the best she could offer. But she challenged criticism by her interruption. And Jesus did not spare: "Thou art careful and troubled about many things" -- that is, needlessly careful, needlessly troubled: much less would do in that line of things.

And is it not so with the Martha class all over the world? Their lives are eaten up with attention to the mere trivialities of life, -- a little of which is good in its place, but much of which obstructs the action of the understanding and taste in higher directions. A woman whose house is her shrine is good for nothing in the higher relations of existence. Her mind is narrowed and lowered and deteriorated and rendered insipid by constant action upon petty objects. Cooking and dressmaking and music and etiquette are all very well as adjuncts: but without something else, the higher nature starves. If she would give herself time and occasion for the contemplation and application of the higher principles underlying life -- our relation to God and His law -- our relation to man and our duties -- her mind would have opportunity to expand to the beauty of her original type. A woman cannot be noble whose attention is confined to domesticities, though a due amount of attention to these is part of true nobility; and a woman who is not noble is no companion to the sons or daughters of God who will all be assorted on the principle of affinities around their living head by and bye.

Mary is the type of the right class. Christ's description of her gives the cue: "She hath chosen that good thing that shall not be taken away." Discernment and decision are implied in this: an eye to see what is good, and a will to choose it. The eye is the deficient part with most people -- both man and woman. They see only that which is proximately visible. The others see beyond the appearances of the day: As Paul expresses it, "We look not at the things which are seen," which are but for a moment. They look beyond to things which, though for the moment not seen, are the coming realities and not phantoms -- not imaginations -- but facts as substantial as anything we now stand related to, but much more glorious, and destined to abide when they once arrive. God has promised them, and, therefore, men and women of the Mary class "choose them," at his invitation, and are characterised by a strong and irrepressible interest in them now while they are matters of promise. They form "that good thing, that shall not be taken away." All other things are destined to be taken away: the fashion, the social prestige, the fine establishments, possessions of every description. The Marthas, therefore, make a mistake in being troubled so much about them. A little less attention and care would do.

"One thing is (absolutely) needful" -- indispensable; and this is the one thing that almost everyone in every house, in Christ's day and ever since, agrees to consider not quite urgent, a thing that may be left alone a bit, that at least need not be a matter of great prominence or pressing arrangement. This was the one thing that transfixed Mary's attention as "she sat at Jesus' feet and heard his words," and it is the one thing that is supreme with the same class in every age and country -- the good part that will not be taken away when all human things will vanish like a dream. This class will always be considered extreme by those who do not see with open eyes as they see; but time will justify the former. Jesus meant to emphasize this in his commendation of Mary; and it is far from a needless lesson. At the same time "he loved Martha" and appreciated her service, and has doubtless a cordial place for her in the everlasting household that will shortly be manifested in the earth. He was not anxious to condemn her. At the same time, he did not shrink to teach at her expense a lesson for all time, affecting every day and every house where there are those who desire to abide in the love of Christ.

Another incident occurred about this time -- equally notable and suggestive (the exact time and place equally immaterial), namely, the blessing of the children: "Then were brought unto him little children that he should put his hands on them and pray." Who brought them we are not told -- probably fond mothers; nor how many -- perhaps a dozen or so, Jesus appears to have been conversing in the midst of a crowd at the time. The children were first presented to the disciples on the outside -- the mothers fearing to approach Christ direct. The mothers made known their wish that Christ should bless their children. The disciples scouted the idea as out of place altogether. Christ's work had to do with matters that only grown people could understand. What had children to do with it? So the disciples rebuffed them decisively, and were driving them away when Jesus interfered -- "much displeased" at the action of the disciples. "Suffer the little children," said he, "to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of God ... and he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them."

There is reason to be glad at the record of this incident. It helps to check the tendency to sternness which some aspects of the truth by themselves would generate. It helps to preserve the spirit of loving sympathy which is at the root of the gospel. It makes a place for the young and the helpless in the hearts of all who take after Christ. But, like everything else, it can be misinterpreted to the destruction of other parts of divine truth. Such a misinterpretation is that which, in almost all systems of theology, deduces from it the idea that children are saved because they are children, in defiance of the truth most plainly enunciated in all the Scriptures, that salvation is by faith and obedience alone. When Christ said, "Of such is the kingdom of God," he immediately explained the sense in which he uttered the words. He added: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." It was evident that it was mental attitude in relation to the kingdom that he had in view when he said, "Of such is the kingdom." This is in harmony with all he taught either by his own mouth or through the apostles.

The popular view is in contradiction to all he taught; for it would make children heirs of the kingdom irrespective of "receiving" it, and it would make the kingdom of God an institution in which there would be no place for grown men and women. It is the child-like disposition that Jesus sought to enforce. He enforced it still more plainly on other occasions: "Except a man humble himself as a little child, he shall in no case enter the Kingdom of God." There was need for the enforcement of this. It is a feature that distinguishes divine principles in their application from human. In human life it is the proud and the unbelieving and the self-assertive that carry influence and obtain position and find favour. The ascendency of this type of character spreads blight in the world. It propagates itself in all classes, interferes with the development of innocence and kindness in those who would be disposed in those directions.

We have all known the pain of discovering how unkind and faithless the world is when we emerged in youth from the atmosphere of truth and sincerity and love that prevails more or less at most firesides. We have all perceived the beautiful faith and honest simplicity of childhood checked and perverted by contact with the ugly ways of grown life. In this, we get a momentary glimpse of the type of character that Christ would generate in men. He would not have them abdicate their reason: on the contrary, he would have them "wise as serpents;" he would not have them ignorant of truth and fact: on the contrary, he would have them "filled with all wisdom, able also to admonish one another." At the same time, with their knowledge, he would have love to dwell: with their discernment and skill, he would have the simplicity and faith that can trust implicitly where the eye perceives; and with the firmness and boldness of confident knowledge, he would have them combine that humility of self estimate which is according to self-powerlessness; that reverence for greatness and worth which is the noblest attitude of a created being; and that docility of faith and obedience which is the highest result of enlightened reason.

There is no type of manhood so beautiful as that in which these qualities combine. A child-like strong man is the beau ideal of humanity. Christ himself was the highest example of this, and he seeks to generate his own image in all who believe in him. It was fitting, therefore, that he should seize the incident of children being brought for blessing, to rebuke the harshness of the disciples, and to exhibit the children as the type of the men and women who will at last find acceptance with him.

Another lesson, at another time, we learn thus: -- Jesus was praying. The disciples were in attendance. As they listened, it they heard what he said; or as they ruminated on the fact of his being so engaged, if they did not hear, they felt within themselves how deficient they were in the aptitude of approaching God. When he ceased, they spoke to him on the subject. They asked him to teach them to pray, as it seems, John had made a point of teaching his disciples (Luke xi. 1). In response to their request, he recited to them the form of prayer known as The Lord's Prayer, which he had publicly recommended in his "Sermon on the Mount," and advised them to use it. This prescribing of a form of words, in answer to a request to be taught, how to pray, suggests that a right form of words has something to do with acceptable prayer. It is of advantage to note the fact in an age like our's, when the metaphysical treatment of such subjects for ages has either reduced the language of prayer to a degrading effeminacy, or banished words as a superfluity. It is part of the function of reason to embody its thoughts in suitable words, whether in addressing God or man. Unsuitable words, or words of unreasonable or insulting implication, even if the implications are not intended, are unacceptable to God and man.

The Bible furnishes many examples of acceptable prayer. Its models will reward study. They excel all prayer books as much as divine thought excels human thought. They express in a majestic manner the relations subsisting between God and man, and the aspirations and desires which God regards as acceptable in man. They deal with facts and needs, and not with metaphysical processes. The use of a right form of words is an important part of acceptable prayer. Right words give pleasure to God; and right words re-act on the man who utters them, tending to generate right thoughts. But right words are only a part. Without right thoughts, right words are a mere jingle. It was one of God's complaints against Isaiah that while they drew near with their mouth, their heart was far from him (Isaiah xxix. 13). The "preparation of the heart" is the principal thing. And this is not the work of a day. It is the result of habitual meditation on what may be called the facts of existence -- present and past. The universe speaks of God to reason's ear; and the authentic history of mankind exhibits the revelation of His will in Israel's record. The study of all will make God a fact to the understanding and the heart, and fit a man to pray with sincerity and to receive with liberality the blessing He requests.

Jesus laid stress on this last thought before leaving the subject on the occasion in question. "Which of you," said he, "shall have a friend and shall go unto him at midnight and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine in his journey is come to me and I have nothing to set before him. And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity, he will rise and give him as many as he needeth." The words immediately following show that Jesus intended to teach by this that our own receivings at the hands of the Father depend to some extent upon the perseverance of our supplications. The words are: "And I say unto you, Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened." That Jesus meant that these aphorisms governed men's experience in prayer, as well as being true as between man and man, is evident from his next remark: "If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask him for a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? or if he shall ask of him an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then being evil know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?"

Here is a doctrine of which we should take the fullest advantage. Our mere impressions as natural men are liable to withhold us from it. We are in danger of thinking either that prayer is an ineffective formality, or that, at the least, its efficacy is independent of importunity. The fact is, that as natural men, we know nothing about it, and therefore ought to distrust our feelings on the subject. Jesus knew. As he said, "We speak that we do know." It is for us to accept the teaching of one who knew the Father's mind in all things. What if some have tried and found nothing for their pains? Are there no conditions? Is there not such a thing as "asking amiss?" (Jas. iv. 3). Has not God said, "To such and such a man will I look?" Is it not written, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me?" Do we not read, "The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous. His ears are open to their cry. But the face of the Lord is set against them that do evil?" We should reason illogically if we were to conclude there is nothing in importunate prayer because others, or even we ourselves, may have found no result. Let us look into ourselves for the cause: "Cleanse your hands ye sinners; cleanse your hearts ye double-minded." "Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you" (Jas. iv. 8). "Seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."

It is according to experience in natural life that the importunate receive attention. The universe is framed upon such a principle that all things tend to quiesence if left to themselves. The best of men grow passive if there is no call upon their services. It may be contrary to some ideas of God that He should come in the least within this rule; but it is what he has revealed. "Call upon me, and I will answer." "I will for this be enquired of by the house of Israel." "The prayer of the righteous is His delight." It is true that "He knoweth what things we have need of before we ask Him," and that He does not need the "much speaking" of superstitious practice to move Him; but it is also true that the putting forth of His power is affected by the importunity of His children and that the measure of their experience of His goodness depends largely upon that "seeking" and "knocking" which Christ recommended on the occasion under consideration. It requires not many words, but that those words be frequently and earnestly spoken. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."

"A certain Pharisee," who listened to these things, was struck with the piquancy and originality of Christ's discourse; and, though not surrendering to him, he desired a closer acquaintance. He therefore asked him to come and dine with him. Jesus consented, and accompanied the Pharisee to his house. The Pharisee naturally watched Christ's deportment attentively. He observed that he did not first wash before dinner," but "sat down to meat" without that customary ceremony. The Pharisee said nothing, but thought very unfavourably of the circumstance, and, no doubt, looked a little disgusted. However he may have looked, Jesus knew what was passing in his mind, and, looking at him, said, "Now, do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness." We may be sure that this did not mollify the feelings that were hurt by the omission to wash hands. Why was Jesus so apparently rude in remark? Why did he omit the innocent hand-washing before dinner? If we realise the work which Christ had been sent to do, and the state of the community in which the work had to be done, we may see the answer.

The community was in a state of spiritual mummification, having much correctness of outward manners, according to the standard prescribed by "tradition," combined with much self-satisfaction, and real destitution of those qualities of "judgment, mercy, and faith," which are the true salt of acceptable deportment in the sight of God. It was Christ's work to either bring them to repentance or "give a testimony against them." He could not do this without fitting occasion, and it was for him to create occasion as circumstances might call. To violate social etiquette was to create occasion. In the state of wonderment caused, it gave him the opportunity to inveigh against the mere outside proprieties that were unaccompanied with the interior graciousness from which they derive all their meaning. And as to the roughness of speech, it was his part to "cry aloud and spare not: show Israel their transgressions, and the house of Jacob their sins." It was therefore the language of faithfulness in the mouth of authority, when he proceeded to say: "Ye fools, did not He that made that which is without make that which is within also? But rather give alms of such things as ye have, and behold all things are clean unto you. But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets. Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them."

The Pharisees were a religious sect; the Scribes, a class having a religious sanctity in the eyes of the people from their occupation as copyists of the sacred scrolls. Members of both orders were probably present at the dinner at which Jesus so discourteously spoke (as it would be thought by them), and Jesus appears to have directed his discourse to both. Some lawyers were present also. These were also a semi-sacred class, having, however, more to do with the administration of the law in its secular bearings. They appear to have felt that Christ's remarks reflected upon them, as well as upon the Scribes and Pharisees, probably because of their close identification with both. One of them said: "Master, thus saying thou reproachest us also." The response of Christ left them in no doubt of his opinion of them: "Woe unto you also, ye lawyers; for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers." This outspoken and commanding reprobation of things and men who were in high repute among the people, and who are always respectfully dealt with by ordinary writers and teachers, is one of the things that distinguished Christ from all who ever went before him. Anything of the same kind that has been exhibited by those who came after is but a faint imitation, and sits with none of the grace and majesty appertaining to him "who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth."

Here is a god-like penetration and independence and righteous anger never shown by the best of the sons of men. This is enough of itself to mark the origin and nature of the speaker. It was not in mere mortal man to evince such uniform towering majesty and moral grandeur. "God in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself," is the only sufficient explanation of this brightest and strangest of all historic phenomena. The effect of such a style of discourse, addressed to such men was natural. "The scribes and Pharisees began to urge him vehemently, to provoke him to speak of many things, laying wait for him, and seeking to catch something out of his mouth that they might accuse him." They were bent on destroying him, but situated as they were under the Romans, they could only destroy him with their consent, and this they could only obtain by proving some kind of treason against either Roman law or the law of the Jewish province. Their aim was to prove this out of his own mouth, but he was able to confound their tactics, and went from their heated presence to a multitude who had assembled in the neighbourhood of the house outside, to whom he denounced them in terms of warning: "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy."

It is most important as a matter of instruction to note in Christ's remarks his total condemnation of any scrupulosity as to external decorums that is not accompanied by a complete subjection of heart and mind to mercy, truthfulness, justice, and the fear of God; and further, his utter reprobation of that habit of indifference to the woes and burdens of others which was characteristic of the lawyers of his age, and the lawyers of every age since, and more or less of all classes of men. It may not be considered prudent, it may be considered quixotic and erratic to the point of aberration for a man to be governed in his transactions by some regard to how they may bear on others. But it is according to Christ that we bear one another's burdens, and that we do not to others what we should not wish done to ourselves. And the law of Christ will shape the destinies of men, and will yet rule the world, however unanimously a hundred generations may consider it impracticable and visionary.

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