The Character of Jesus

The Prophet of Nazareth did not differ in temperament and character from the noble prophets of the ancient period. He preached, as they did, the religion of the heart; he attacked, as they did, the ceremonial laws; he offered, as they did, consolation to the poor; he poured forth, as they did, invectives against the rulers and the rich. But his predictions were entirely different from theirs, for he lived, theologically speaking, in another world. The old prophets could only urge men to do good that the Lord might make them prosperous on earth, or at the most that they might obtain an everlasting name. They could only promise to the people the restoration of Jerusalem and the good things of the Gentiles; the reconciliation of Judah and Ephraim, and the gathering of the dispersed. The morality which Jesus preached was also supported by promises and threats, but by promises and threats of a more exalted kind: it was also based upon self-interest, but upon self-interest applied to a future life. For this he was indebted to the age in which he lived. He was superior as a prophet to Isaiah, as Newton as an astronomer was superior to Kepler, Kepler to Copernicus, Copernicus to Ptolemy, Ptolemy to Hipparchus, and Hipparchus to the unknown Egyptian or Chaldean priest who first began to register eclipses and to catalogue the stars. Jesus was a carpenter by trade, and was urged by a prophetic call to leave his workshop and to go forth into the world, preaching the gospel which he had received. The current fancies respecting the approaching destruction of the world, the conquest of the Evil Power, and the reign of God had fermented in his mind, and had made him the subject of a remarkable hallucination. He believed that he was the promised Messiah or Son of Man, who would be sent to prepare the world for the kingdom of God, and who would be appointed to judge the souls of men and to reign over them on earth. He was a man of the people, a rustic and an artisan: he was also an imitator of the ancient prophets, whose works he studied and whose words were always on his lips. Thus he was led as man and prophet to take the part of the poor. He sympathised deeply with the outcasts, the afflicted, and the oppressed. To children and to women; to all who suffered and shed tears; to all from whom men turned with loathing and contempt; to the girl of evil life who bemoaned her shame; to the tax-gatherer who crouched before his God in humility and woe; to the sorrowful in spirit and the weak in heart; to the weary and the heavy laden, Jesus appeared as a shining angel with words sweet as the honeycomb and bright as the golden day. He laid his hands on the heads of the lowly; he bade the sorrowful be of good cheer, for the day of their deliverance and their glory was at hand.

If we regard Jesus only in his relations with those whose brief and bitter lives he purified from evil and illumined with ideal joys, we might believe him to have been the perfect type of a meek and suffering saint. But his character had two sides, and we must look at both. Such is the imperfection of human nature that extreme love is counterbalanced by extreme hate; every virtue has its attendant vice, which is excited by the same stimulants, which is nourished by the same food. Martyrs and persecutors resemble one another; their minds are composed of the same materials. The man who will suffer death for his religious faith will endeavour to enforce it even unto death. In fact, if Christianity were true religious persecution would become a pious and charitable duty: if God designs to punish men for their opinions it would be an act of mercy to mankind to extinguish such opinions. By burning the bodies of those who diffuse them many souls would be saved that would otherwise be lost, and so there would be an economy of torment in the long run. It is therefore not surprising that enthusiasts should be intolerant. Jesus was not able to display the spirit of a persecutor in his deeds, but he displayed it in his words. Believing that it was in his power to condemn his fellow-creatures to eternal torture, he did so condemn by anticipation all the rich and almost all the learned men among the Jews. It was his belief that God reigned in heaven but that Satan reigned on earth. In a few years God would invade and subdue the earth. It was therefore his prayer, "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." God´s will was not at that time done on earth, which was in the possession of the Prince of Darkness. It was evident, therefore, that all prosperous men were favourites of Satan, and that the unfortunate were favourites of God. Those would go with their master to eternal pain: these would be rewarded by their master with eternal joy.

He did not say that Dives was bad or that Lazarus was good, but merely that Dives had received his good things on earth and Lazarus his evil things on earth, that afterwards Lazarus was rewarded and Dives tormented. Dives might have been as virtuous as the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is also clothed in fine linen and who fares sumptuously every day; Lazarus might have been as vicious as the Lambeth pauper who prowls round the palace gates, and whose mind, like his body, is full of sores. Not only the inoffensive rich were doomed by Jesus to hell-fire, but also all those who did anything to merit the esteem of their fellow-men. Even those that were happy and enjoyed life--unless it was in his own company—were lost souls. "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. Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers of the false prophets." He also pronounced eternal punishment on all those who refused to join him. "He that believeth and is baptised," said he "shall be saved. He that believeth not shall be damned."

He supposed that when the kingdom of God was established on earth he would reign over it as viceroy. Those who wished to live under him in that kingdom must renounce all the pleasures of Satan´s world. They must sell their property and give the proceeds to the poor, discard all domestic ties, cultivate self-abasement, and do nothing which could possibly raise them in the esteem of other people. For they could not serve two masters: they could not be rewarded in the kingdom of this world, which was ruled by Satan, and also in the new kingdom, which would be ruled by God. If they gave a dinner they were not to ask their rich friends lest they should be asked back to dinner, and thus lose their reward. They must ask only the poor, and for that benevolent action they would be recompensed thereafter. They were not to give alms in public or to pray in public, and when they fasted, they were to pretend to feast; for if it was perceived that they were devout men and were praised for their devotion, they would lose their reward. Robbery and violence they were not to resist. If a man smote them on one cheek they were to offer him the other also; if he took their coat they were to give him their shirt; if he forced them to go with him one mile they were to go with him two. They were to love their enemies, to do good to them that did them evil. And why? Not because it was good so to do, but that they might be paid for the same with compound interest in a future state.

It might be supposed that as in the philosophy of Jesus poverty was equivalent to virtue and misery a passport to eternal bliss, sickness would be also a beatific state. But Jesus, like the other Jews, believed that disease proceeded from sin. In Palestine it was always held that a priest or a prophet was the best physician, and prayer, with the laying on of hands, the most efficacious of all medicines. Among the sins of Asa it is mentioned that, having sore feet, he went to a doctor instead of to the Lord. Jesus informed those on whom he laid his hands that their sins were forgiven them, and warned those he healed to sin no more lest a worse thing should come upon them. Such theological practitioners have always existed in the East, and exist there at the present day. A text from the Koran written on a board and washed off into a cup of water is considered God´s own physic; and as the patient believes in it, and as the mind can sometimes influence the body, the disease is occasionally healed upon the spot. The exploits of the miracle doctor are exaggerated in his lifetime, and after his death it is declared that he restored sight to men that were born blind, cleansed the lepers, made the lame to walk, cured the incurable, and raised the dead to life.

In Jerusalem the scribe had succeeded to the seer. The Jews had already a proverb, "A scholar is greater than a prophet." The supernatural gift was regarded with suspicion, and if successful with the vulgar excited envy and indignation. In the East at the present day there is a permanent hostility between the Mullah, or doctor of the law, and the dervish, or illiterate "man of God." Jesus was, in point of fact, a dervish, and the learned Pharisees were not inclined to admit the authority of one who spoke a rustic patois and misplaced the aspirate, and who was no doubt, like other prophets, uncouth in his appearance and uncleanly in his garb. At Jerusalem Jesus completely failed, and this failure appears to have stung him into bitter abuse of his successful rivals the missionary Pharisees, and into the wildest extravagance of speech. He called the learned doctors a generation of vipers, whited sepulchres, and serpents; he declared that they should not escape the damnation of hell. Because they had made the washing of hands before dinner a religious ablution, Jesus, with equal bigotry, would not wash his hands at all, though people eat with the hand in the East, and dip their hands in the same dish. He told his disciples that if a man called another a fool he would be in danger of hell-fire; and whoever spoke against the Holy Ghost, it would not be forgiven him "neither in this world nor in the world to come." He said that if a man had done anything wrong with his hand or his eye, it were better for him to cut off his guilty hand, or to pluck out his guilty eye, rather than to go with this whole body into hell. He cursed a fig tree because it bore no fruit, although it was not the season of fruit—an action as rational as that of Xerxes, who flogged the sea. He retorted to those who accused him of breaking the Sabbath that he was above the Sabbath.

It is evident that a man who talked in such a manner—who believed that it was in his power to abrogate the laws of the land, to forgive sins, to bestow eternal happiness upon his friends, and to send all those who differed from him to everlasting flames—would lay himself open to a charge of blasphemy, and it is also evident that the "generation of vipers" would not hesitate to take advantage of the circumstance. But whatever share personal enmity might have had in the charges that were made against him, he was lawfully condemned according to Bible law. He declared in open court that they would see him descending in the clouds at the right hand of the power of God. The High Priest tore his robes in horror; false prophecy and blasphemy had been uttered to his face.

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