The Training of the Twelve

15. THE SONS OF THUNDER

Luke 9:51-56.

     

     The delivery of the discourse on humility appears to have been the closing act of our Lord's ministry in Galilee; for immediately after finishing their accounts of the discourse, the two first evangelists proceed to speak of what we have reason to regard as His final departure from His native province for the south. "It came to pass," says Matthew, "that when Jesus had finished these sayings, He departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judea."[15.1 Of this journey neither Matthew nor Mark gives any details: they do not even mention Christ's visit to Jerusalem at the feast of dedication in winter, referred to by John,[15.2 from which we know that the farewell to Galilee took place at least some four months before the crucifixion. The journey, however, was not without its interesting incidents, as we know from Luke, who has preserved several of them in his Gospel.[15.3

     Of these incidents, that recorded in the passage above cited is one. For the words with which the evangelist introduces his narrative obviously allude to the same journey from Galilee to the south, of which Matthew and Mark speak in the passages already referred to. The journey through Samaria adverted to here by Luke occurred "when the time was come (or rather coming)[15.4 that He (Jesus) should be received up," that is, towards the close of His life. Then the peculiar expression, "He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem," hints not obscurely at a final transference of the scene of Christ's work from the north to the south. It refers not merely to the geographical direction in which He was going, but also, and chiefly, to the state of mind in which He journeyed. He went towards Jerusalem, feeling that His duty lay in and near it henceforth, as a victim self-consecrated to death, His countenance wearing a solemn, earnest, dignified aspect, expressive of the great lofty purpose by which His soul was animated.

     It was natural that Luke, the companion of Paul and evangelist to the Gentiles, should carefully preserve this anecdote from the last journey of Jesus to Judea through Samaria. It served admirably the purpose he kept in view throughout in compiling his Gospel--that, viz., of illustrating the catholicity of the Christian dispensation; and therefore he gathered it into his basket, that it might not be lost. He has brought it in at a very suitable place, just after the anecdote of the exorcist; for, not to speak of the link of association supplied in the name of John, the narrator in one case and an actor in the other, this incident, like the one recorded immediately before, exhibits a striking contrast between. the harsh spirit of the disciples and the gentle, benignant spirit of their Master. That contrast forms the moral interest of the story.

     The main fact in the story was this. The inhabitants of a certain Samaritan village at which Jesus and His traveling companions arrived at the close of a day's journey having declined, on being requested, to give them quarters for the night, James and John came to their Master, and proposed that the offending villagers should be destroyed by fire from heaven.

     It was a strange proposal to come from men who had been for years disciples of Jesus, and especially from one who, like John, had been in the Master's company at the time of that meeting with the woman by the well, and heard the rapturous words with which He spoke of the glorious new era that was dawning.[15.5 It shows how slow the best are to learn the heavenly doctrine and practice of charity. How startling, again, to think of this same John, a year or two after the date of this savage suggestion, going down from Jerusalem and preaching the gospel of Jesus the crucified in "many of the villages of the Samaritans,"[15.6 possibly in this very village which he desired to see destroyed!

     Such are the contrasts which growth in grace brings. In the green, crude stage of the divine life, whose characteristics are opinionativeness, censoriousness, scrupulosity, intolerance, blind passionate zeal, John would play the part of a mimic Elijah; in his spiritual maturity, after the summer sun of Pentecost had wrought its effects in his soul, and sweetened all its acid juices, he became an ardent apostle of salvation, and exhibited in his character the soft, luscious fruits of "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control." Such contrasts in the same character at different periods, however surprising, are perfectly natural. Amid all changes the elements of the moral being remain the same. The juice of the ripe apple is the same that was in the green fruit, plus sun-light and sun-heat. The zeal of the son of thunder did not disappear from John's nature after he became an apostle; it only became tempered by the light of wisdom, and softened by the heat of love. He did not even cease to hate, and become an indiscriminately amiable individual, whose charity made no distinction between good and evil. To the last, John was what he was at the first, an intense hater as well as an intense lover. But in his later years he knew better what to hate--the objects of his abhorrence being hypocrisy, apostasy, and Laodicean insincerity;[15.7 not, as of old, mere ignorant rudeness and clownish incivility. He could distinguish then between wickedness and weakness, malice and prejudice; and while cherishing strong antipathy towards the one, he felt only compassion towards the other.

     To some it may seem a matter of wonder how a man capable of entertaining so revolting a purpose as is here ascribed to James and John could ever be the disciple whom Jesus loved. To understand this, it must be remembered that Jesus, unlike most men, could love a disciple not merely for what he was, but for what he should become. He could regard with complacency even sour grapes in their season for the sake of the goodly fruit into which they should ripen. Then, further, we must not forget that John, even when possessed by the devil of resentment, was animated by a purer and holier spirit. Along with the smoke of carnal passion there was some divine fire in his heart. He loved Jesus as intensely as he hated the Samaritans; it was his devoted attachment to his Master that made him resent their incivility so keenly. In his tender love for the Bridegroom of his soul, he was beautiful as a mother overflowing with affection in the bosom of her family; though in his hatred he was terrible as the same mother can be in her enmity against her family's foes. John's nature, in fact, was feminine both in its virtues and in its faults, and, like all feminine natures, could be both exquisitely sweet and exquisitely bitter.[15.8

     Passing now from personal remarks on John himself to the truculent proposal emanating from him and his brother, we must beware of regarding it in the light of a mere extravagant ebullition of temper consequent upon a refusal of hospitality. No doubt the two brethren and all their fellow-disciples were annoyed by the unexpected incivility, nor can one wonder if it put them out of humor. Weary men are easily irritated, and it was not pleasant to be obliged to trudge on to another village after the fatigues of a day's journey. But we have too good an opinion of the twelve to fancy any of them capable of revenging rudeness by murder.

     The savage mood of James and John is not even thoroughly explained by the recollection that the churlish villagers were Samaritans, and that they were Jews. The chronic ill-will between the two races had unquestionably its own influence in producing ill-feeling on both sides. The nationality of the travellers was one, if not the sole reason, why the villagers refused them quarters. They were Galilean Jews going southwards to Jerusalem, and that was enough. Then the twelve, as Jews, were just as ready to take offence as the Samaritan villagers were to give it. The powder of national enmity was stored up in their breasts; and a spark, one rude word or insolent gesture, was enough to cause an explosion. Though they had been for years with Jesus, there was still much more of the old Jewish man than of the new Christian man in them. If they had been left to the freedom of their own will, they would probably have avoided the Samaritan territory altogether, and, like the rest of their countrymen, taken a roundabout way to Jerusalem by crossing to the eastward of the Jordan. Between persons so affected towards each other offences are sure to arise. When Guelph and Ghibeline, Orangemen and Ribbonmen, Cavalier and Roundhead meet, it does not take much to make a quarrel.

     But there was something more at work in the minds of the two disciples than party passion. There was conscience in their quarrel as well as temper and hereditary enmities. This is evident, both from the deliberate manner in which they made their proposal to Jesus, and from the reason by which they sought to justify it. They came to their Master, and said, "Wilt Thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?" entertaining no doubt apparently of obtaining His approval, and of procuring forthwith the requisite fire from heaven for the execution of their dire intent. Then they quoted the precedent of Elijah, who, refusing to have any dealings with the idolatrous king of Samaria, called down fire from heaven to consume his messengers, as a signal mark of divine displeasure.[15.9 The conscious motive by which they were actuated was evidently sincere, though ill-informed, jealousy for the honor of their Lord. As the prophet of fire was indignant at the conduct of King Ahaziah in sending messengers to the god of Ekron, Baalzebub by name, to inquire whether he should recover from the disease with which he was afflicted;[15.10 so the sons of thunder were indignant because inhabitants of the same godless territory over which Ahaziah ruled had presumed to insult their revered Master by refusing a favor which they ought to have been only too proud to have an opportunity of granting.

     The two brothers thought they did well to be angry; and, if they had been minded to defend their conduct after it was condemned by Jesus, which they do not seem to have been, they might have made a defense by no means destitute of plausibility. For consider who these Samaritans were. They belonged to a mongrel race, sprung from heathen Assyrians, whose presence in the land was a humiliation, and from base, degenerate Israelites unworthy of the name. Their forefathers had been the bitter enemies of Judah in the days of Nehemiah, spitefully obstructing the building of Zion's walls, instead of helping the exiles in their hour of need, as neighbors ought to have done. Then, if it was unfair to hold the present generation responsible for the sins of past generations, what was the character of the Samaritans then living? Were they not blasphemous heretics, who rejected all the Old Testament Scriptures save the five books of Moses? Did they not worship at the site of the rival temple on Gerizim,[15.11 which their fathers had with impious effrontery erected in contempt of the true temple of God in the holy city? And finally, had not these villagers expressed their sympathy with all the iniquities of their people, and repeated them all in one act by doing dishonor to Him who was greater than even the true temple, and worthy not only to receive common civility, but even divine worship?
     Ruthless persecutors and furious zealots, furnished with such plausible pleas, have always been confident, like the two disciples, that they did God service. It is of the very nature of zealotry to make the man of whom it has taken possession believe that the Almighty not only approves, but shares his fierce passions, and fancy himself in trusted with a carte blanche to launch the thunders of the Most High against all in whom his small, peering, inhuman eye can discern aught not approved by his tyrannic conscience. What a world were this if the fact were so indeed!

     

     "Every pelting, petty officer

     Would use God's heaven for thunder; nothing but thunder."

     

     Thank God the fact is not so! The Almighty does thunder sometimes, but not in the way His petty officers would wish.

     

     "Merciful Heaven!

      Thou rather, with Thy sharp and sulphurous bolt,

      Splitt'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak

      Than the soft myrtle."

     

     Jesus too, all gentle as He was, had His thunderbolts; but He reserved them for other objects than poor, benighted, prejudiced Samaritans. His zeal was directed against great sins, and powerful, privileged, presumptuous sinners; not against little sins, or poor, obscure, vulgar sinners. He burst into indignation at the sight of His Father's house turned into a den of thieves by those who ought to have known, and did know better; He only felt compassion for those who, like the woman by the well, knew not what they worshipped, and groped after God in semi-heathen darkness. His spirit was kindled within Him at the spectacle of ostentatious orthodoxy and piety allied to the grossest worldliness; He did not, like the Pharisee, blaze up in sanctimonious wrath against irreligious publicans, who might do no worship at all, or who, like the heretical Samaritans, did not worship in the right place. Would that zeal like that of Jesus, aiming its bolts at the proud oak and sparing the humble shrub, were more common! But such zeal is dangerous, and therefore it will always be rare.

     The Master, in whose vindication the two disciples wished to call down heaven's destroying fire, lost no time in making known His utter want of sympathy with the monstrous proposal. He turned and rebuked them. According to the old English version, He said, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of."[15.12 It is a doubtful reading, and as such is omitted in our Revised Version, but it is a true saying.

     The saying was true in more senses than one. The spirit of James and John was, in the first place, not such as they fancied. They thought themselves actuated by zeal for the glory of their Lord, and so they were in part. But the flame of their zeal was not pure: it was mixed up with the bitter smoke of carnal passions, anger, pride, self-will. Then, again, their spirit was not such as became the apostles of the gospel, the heralds of a new era of grace. They were chosen to preach a message of mercy to every creature, even to the chief of sinners; to tell of a love that suffered not itself to be overcome of evil, but sought to overcome evil with good; to found a kingdom composed of citizens from every nation, wherein should be neither Jew nor Samaritan, but Christ all and in all. What a work to be achieved by men filled with the fire-breathing spirit of the "sons of thunder"! Obviously a great change must be wrought within them to fit them for the high vocation wherewith they have been called. Yet again, the spirit of James and John was, of course, not that of their Master. He "came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them."[15.13 To see the difference between the mind of the disciples and that of Jesus, put this scene side by side with that other which happened on Samaritan ground--the meeting by the well. We know what we have seen here: what see we there? The Son of man, as a Jew, speaking to and having dealings with a Samaritan, so seeking to abolish inveterate and deep-seated enmities between man and man; as the Friend of sinners seeking to restore a poor, erring, guilty creature to God and holiness; as the Christ announcing the close of an old time, in which the worship even of the true God was ritualistic, exclusive, and local, and the advent of a new religious era characterized by the attributes of spirituality, universality, and catholicity. And we see Jesus rejoicing, enthusiastic in His work; deeming it His very meat and drink to reveal to men one God and Father, one Saviour, one life, for all without distinction; to regenerate individual character, society, and religion; to break down all barriers separating man from God and from his fellow-men, and so to become the great Reconciler and Peacemaker. Thinking of this work as exhibited by sample in the conversion of the woman by the well, He speaks to His surprised and unsympathetic disciples as one who perceives on the eastern horizon the first faint streaks of light heralding the advent of a new glorious day, and all around, in the field of the world, yellow crops of grain ripe for the sickle. "It is coming on apace," He says in effect, "the blessed, long expected era, after a long night of spiritual darkness; the new world is about to begin: lift up your eyes and look on the fields of Gentile lands, and see how they be white already for the harvest!"

     At the time of the meeting by the well, the disciples who were with Jesus neither understood nor sympathized with His high thoughts and hopes. The bright prospect on which His eyes were riveted was not within their horizon. For them, as for children, the world was still small, a narrow valley bounded by hills on either side; while their Master, up on the mountain-top, saw many valleys beyond, in which He was interested, and out of which He believed many souls would find their way into the eternal kingdom.[15.14 For the disciples God was yet the God of the Jews only; salvation was for the Jews as well as of them: they knew of only one channel of grace--Jewish ordinances; only one way to heaven--that which lay through Jerusalem.

     At the later date to which the present scene belongs, the disciples, instead of progressing, seem to have retrograded. Old bad feelings seem to be intensified, instead of being replaced by new and better ones. They are now not merely out of sympathy with, but in direct antagonism to, their Lord's mind; not merely apathetic or skeptical about the salvation of Samaritans, but bent on their destruction. Aversion and prejudice have grown into a paroxysm of enmity.

     Yes, even so; things must get to the worst before they begin to mend. There will be no improvement till the Lamb shall have been slain to take away sin, to abolish enmities, and to make of twain one new man. It is the knowledge of that which makes Jesus set His face so steadfastly towards Jerusalem. He is eager to drink the cup of suffering, and to be baptized with the baptism of blood, because He knows that only thereby can He finish the work whereof He spoke in such glowing language on the earlier occasion to His disciples. The very wrath of His devoted followers against the Samaritan villagers makes Him quicken His pace on His crossward way, saying to Himself sadly as He advances, "Let me hasten on, for not till I am lifted up can these things end."


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