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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Mistakes about Jesus: His Reception and Influence
By Theodore Parker (1810–1860)
 
From ‘A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion’

WE often err in our estimate of this man. The image comes to us, not of that lowly one: the carpenter of Nazareth; the companion of the rudest men; hard-handed and poorly clad; not having where to lay his head; “who would gladly have stayed his morning appetite on wild figs, between Bethany and Jerusalem;” hunted by his enemies; stoned out of a city, and fleeing for his life. We take the fancy of poets and painters: a man clothed in purple and fine linen, obsequiously attended by polished disciples, who watched every movement of his lips, impatient for the oracle to speak. We conceive of a man who was never in doubt, nor fear; whose course was all marked out before him, so that he could not err. But such it was not, if the writers tell truly. Did he say, I came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and it is easier for Heaven and Earth to pass, than for one jot or tittle of the Law to fail? Then he must have doubted, and thought often and with a throbbing heart, before he could say, I am not come to bring peace, but a sword; to kindle a fire, and would God it were kindled!—many times before the fullness of peace dwelt in him, and he could say, The hour cometh and now is, when the true worshiper shall worship in spirit and in truth. We do not conceive of that sickness of soul which must have come at the coldness of the wise men, the heartlessness of the worldly, at the stupidity and selfishness of the disciples. We do not think how that heart, so great, so finely tuned and delicately touched, must have been pained to feel there was no other heart to give an answering beat. We know not the long and bitter agony that went before the triumph cry of faith, I am not alone, for the Father is with me; we do not heed that faintness of soul which comes of hope deferred, of aspirations all unshared by men,—a bitter mockery the only human reply, the oft-repeated echo, to his prayer of faith. We find it difficult to keep unstained our decent robe of goodness when we herd only with the good, and shun the kennel where sin and misery, parent and child, are huddled with their rags; we do not appreciate that strong and healthy pureness of soul which dwelt daily with iniquity, sat at meat with publicans and sinners, and yet with such cleanness of life as made even sin ashamed of its ugliness, but hopeful to amend. Rarely, almost never, do we see the vast divinity within that soul, which, new though it was in the flesh, at one step goes before the world whole thousands of years; judges the race; decides for us questions we dare not agitate as yet, and breathes the very breath of heavenly love. The Christian world, aghast at such awful beauty in the flesh, transfixed with wonder as such a spirit rises in his heavenly flight, veils its face and says, It is a God. Such thoughts are not for men. Such life betrays the God. And is it not the Divine which the flesh enshrouds? to speak in figures, the brightness of his glory; the express image of his person; the clear resemblance of the all-beautiful; the likeness of God in which man is made? But alas for us, we read our lesson backward: make a God of our brother, who should be our model. So the new-fledged eaglets may see the parent bird, slow rising at first with laborious efforts, then cleaving the air with sharp and steady wing, and soaring through the clouds, with eye undazzled, to meet the sun; they may say, We can only pray to the strong pinion. But anon their wings shall grow, and flutter impatient for congenial skies, and their parent’s example guide them on. But men are still so sunk in sloth, so blind and deaf with sensuality and sin, they will not see the greatness of man in him who, falling back on the inspiration God imparts, asks no aid of mortal men, but stands alone, serene in awful loveliness, not fearing the roar of the street, the hiss of the temple, the contempt of his townsmen, the coldness of this disciple, the treachery of that; who still bore up, had freest communion when all alone; was deserted, never forsaken; betrayed, but still safe; crucified, but all the more triumphant. This was the last victory of the soul; the highest type of man. Blessed be God that so much manliness has been lived out, and stands there yet, a lasting monument to mark how high the tides of Divine life have risen in the world of man. It bids us take courage, and be glad; for what man has done, he may do.
  Jesus, there is no dearer name than thine,
  Which Time has blazoned on his mighty scroll;
No wreaths nor garlands ever did entwine
  So fair a temple of so vast a soul.
There every virtue set his triumph seal;
  Wisdom conjoined with strength and radiant grace,
In a sweet copy heaven to reveal,
  And stamp Perfection on a mortal face.
Once on the earth wert thou, before men’s eyes
  That did not half thy beauteous brightness see;
E’en as the emmet does not read the skies,
  Nor our weak orbs look through immensity. 1
  1
  The doctrine he taught was the Father’s, not his; the personal will did not mingle its motes with the pure religious light of Truth; it fell through him as through void space, not colored, not bent aside. Here was the greatest soul of all the sons of men; one before whom the majestic mind of Grecian sages and of Hebrew seers must veil its face. His perfect obedience made him free. So complete was it that but a single will dwelt in him and God, and he could say, I and the Father are one. For this reason his teaching was absolute. God’s word was in him. Try him as we try other teachers. They deliver their word, find a few waiting for the consolation, who accept the new tidings, follow the new method, and soon go beyond their teacher, though less mighty minds than he. Such is the case with each founder of a school in philosophy, each sect in religion. Though humble men, we see what Socrates and Luther never saw. But eighteen centuries have passed since the sun of humanity rose so high in Jesus: what man, what sect, what church has mastered his thought, comprehended his method, and so fully applied it to life? Let the world answer in its cry of anguish. Men have parted his raiment among them; cast lots for his seamless coat: but that spirit which toiled so manfully in a world of sin and death, which did and suffered, and overcame the world,—is that found, possessed, understood? Nay, is it sought for and recommended by any of our churches?  2
  But no excellence of aim, no sublimity of achievement, could screen him from distress and suffering. The fate of all Saviors was his,—despised and rejected of men. His father’s children “did not believe in him”; his townsmen “were offended at him,” and said “Whence hath he this wisdom? Is not this the son of Joseph the carpenter?” Those learned scribes who came all the way from Jerusalem to entangle him in his talk could see only this, “He hath Beelzebub.” “Art thou greater than our father Jacob?” asked a conservative. Some said, “He is a good man.” “Ay,” said others, “but he speaketh against the Temple.” The sharp-eyed Pharisees saw nothing marvelous in the case. Why not? They were looking for signs and wonders in the heavens; not Sermons on the Mount, and a “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees”: they looked for the Son of David, a king, to rule over men’s bodies; not the son of a peasant-girl, born in a stable; the companion of fishermen; the friend of publicans and sinners, who spoke to the outcast, brought in the lost sheep; and so ruled in the soul, his kingdom not of this world. They said, “He is a Galilean, and of course no prophet.” If he called men away from the senses to the soul, they said, “He is beside himself.” “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed on him?” asked some one who thought that settled the matter. When he said, if a man live by God’s law, “he shall never see death,” they exclaimed, those precious shepherds of the people, “Now we know thou hast a devil, and art mad. Abraham is dead, and the prophets! Art thou greater than our father Abraham? Who are you, sir?” What a faithful report would Scribes and Pharisees and Doctors of the Law have made of the Sermon on the Mount; what omissions and redundancies would they not have found in it; what blasphemy against Moses and the Law, and the Ark of the Covenant, and the Urim and the Thummim, and the Meat-offering and the New-moons; what neglect to mention the phylacteries and the shew-bread, and the Levite and the priest, and the tithes, and the other great essentials of religion; what “infidelity” must these pious souls have detected! How must they have classed him with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, the mythological Tom Paines of old time; with the men of Sodom and Gomorrah! The popular praise of the young Nazarene, with his divine life and lip of fire; the popular shout, “Hosannah to the Son of David!” was no doubt “a stench in the nostrils of the righteous.” “When the Son of Man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” Find faith? He comes to bring it. It is only by crucified redeemers that the world is saved. Prophets are doomed to be stoned; apostles to be sawn asunder. The world knoweth its own, and loveth them. Even so let it be; the stoned prophet is not without his reward. The balance of God is even.  3
  Yet there were men who heard the new word. Truth never yet fell dead in the streets; it has such affinity with the soul of man, the seed however broadcast will catch somewhere, and produce its hundredfold. Some kept his sayings and pondered them in their heart. Others heard them gladly. Did priests and Levites stop their ears? Publicans and harlots went into the kingdom of God before them. Those blessed women whose hearts God has sown deepest with the Orient pearl of faith; they who ministered to him in his wants, washed his feet with tears of penitence, and wiped them with the hairs of their head,—was it in vain he spoke to them? Alas for the anointed priest, the child of Levi, the son of Aaron,—men who shut up inspiration in old books, and believed God was asleep,—they stumbled in darkness, and fell into the ditch. But doubtless there was many a tear-stained face that brightened like fires new stirred as Truth spoke out of Jesus’s lips. His word swayed the multitude as pendent vines swing in the summer wind; as the Spirit of God moved on the waters of chaos, and said, Let there be light, and there was light. No doubt many a rude fisherman of Gennesareth heard his words with a heart bounding and scarce able to keep in his bosom, went home a new man with a legion of angels in his breast, and from that day lived a life divine and beautiful.  4
  No doubt, on the other hand, Rabbi Kozeb Ben Shatan, when he heard of this eloquent Nazarene and his Sermon on the Mount, said to his disciples in private at Jerusalem:—This new doctrine will not injure us, prudent and educated men: we know that men may worship as well out of the Temple as in it; a burnt-offering is nothing; the ritual of no value; the Sabbath like any other day; the Law faulty in many things, offensive in some, and no more from God than other laws equally good. We know that the priesthood is a human affair, originated and managed like other human affairs. We may confess all this to ourselves, but what is the use of telling it? The people wish to be deceived: let them. The Pharisee will conduct wisely like a Pharisee—for he sees the eternal fitness of things—even if these doctrines should be proclaimed. But this people who know not the law, what will become of them? Simon Peter, James, and John, those poor unlettered fishermen on the lake of Galilee, to whom we gave a farthing and a priestly blessing in our summer excursion,—what will become of them when told that every word of the Law did not come straight out of the mouth of Jehovah, and the ritual is nothing! They will go over to the flesh and the Devil, and be lost. It is true that the Law and the Prophets are well summed up in one word, Love God and man. But never let us sanction the saying: it would ruin the seed of Abraham, keep back the kingdom of God, and “destroy our usefulness.” Thus went it at Jerusalem. The new word was “blasphemy,” the new prophet an “infidel,” “beside himself,” “had a devil.” But at Galilee things took a shape somewhat different; one which blind guides could not foresee. The common people, not knowing the Law, counted him a prophet come up from the dead, and heard him gladly. Yes, thousands of men, and women also, with hearts in their bosoms, gathered in the field and pressed about him in the city and the desert place, forgetful of hunger and thirst, and were fed to the full with his words, so deep a child could understand them; James and John leave all to follow him who had the word of eternal life; and when that young carpenter asks Peter, Whom sayest thou that I am? it has been revealed to that poor unlettered fisherman, not by flesh and blood, but by the word of the Lord; and he can say, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Pharisee went his way, and preached a doctrine that he knew was false; the fisherman also went his way, but which to the flesh and the Devil?  5
  We cannot tell, no man can tell, the feelings which the large free doctrines of absolute religion awakened when heard for the first time. There must have been many a Simeon waiting for the consolation; many a Mary longing for the better part; many a soul in cabins and cottages and stately dwellings, that caught glimpses of the same truth, as God’s light shone through some crevice which Piety made in that wall Prejudice and Superstition had built up betwixt man and God; men who scarce dared to trust that revelation,—“too good to be true,”—such was their awe of Moses, their reverence for the priest. To them the word of Jesus must have sounded divine; like the music of their home sung out in the sky, and heard in a distant land: beguiling toil of its weariness, pain of its sting, affliction of despair. There must have been men sick of forms which had lost their meaning, pained with the open secret of sacerdotal hypocrisy, hungering and thirsting after the truth, yet whom error and prejudice and priestcraft had blinded so that they dared not think as men, nor look on the sunlight God shed upon the mind.  6
  But see what a work it has wrought. Men could not hold the word in their bosoms; it would not be still. No doubt they sought,—those rude disciples,—after their teacher’s death, to quiet the matter and say nothing about it: they had nerves that quivered at the touch of steel; wives and children whom it was hard to leave behind to the world’s uncertain sympathy; respectable friends it may be, who said the old Law did very well. Let well enough alone. The people must be deceived a little. The world can never be much mended. No doubt Truth stood on one side, and Ease on the other; it has often been so. Perhaps the disciples went to the old synagogue more sedulous than before; paid tithes; kept the new-moons; were sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice; made low bows to the Levite, sought his savory conversation, and kept the rules a priest gave George Fox. But it would not do. There was too much truth to be hid. Even selfish Simon Peter has a cloven tongue of fire in his mouth, and he and the disciples go to their work, the new word swelling in their laboring heart.  7
  Then came the strangest contest the world ever saw. On the one side is all the strength of the world,—the Jews with their records from the hand of Moses, David, and Esaias; supernatural records that go back to the birth of time; their Law derived from Jehovah, attested by miracles, upheld by prophets, defended by priests, children of Levi, sons of Aaron, the Law which was to last forever; the Temple, forty and seven years in being built, its splendid ceremonies, its beautiful gate and golden porch; there was the wealth of the powerful; the pride, the self-interest, the prejudice of the priestly class; the indifference of the worldly; the hatred of the wicked; the scorn of the learned; the contempt of the great. On the same side were the Greeks, with their chaos of religion, full of mingled beauty and ugliness, virtue and vice, piety and lust, still more confounded by the deep mysteries of the priest, the cunning speculations of the sophist, the awful sublimity of the sage, by the sweet music of the philosopher and moralist and poet, who spoke and sung of man and God in strains so sweet and touching; there were rites in public; solemn and pompous ceremonies, processions, festivals, temples, games to captivate that wondrous people; there were secret mysteries, to charm the curious and attract the thoughtful; Greece, with her arts, her science, her heroes and her gods, her Muse voluptuous and sweet. There too was Rome, the queen of nations, and conqueror of the world, who sat on her seven-hilled throne, and cast her net eastward and southward and northward and westward, over tower and city and realm and empire, and drew them to herself,—a giant’s spoil; with a religion haughty and insolent, that looked down on the divinities of Greece and Egypt, of “Ormus and the Ind,” and gave them a shelter in her capacious robe; Rome, with her practiced skill; Rome, with her eloquence; Rome, with her pride; Rome, with her arms, hot from the conquest of a thousand kings. On the same side are all the institutions of all the world: its fables, wealth, armies, pride, its folly and its sin.  8
  On the other hand are a few Jewish fishermen, untaught, rude, and vulgar; not free from gross errors; despised at home, and not known abroad; collected together in the name of a young carpenter, who died on the gallows, and whom they declared to be risen from the dead; men with no ritual, no learning, no books, no brass in their purse, no philosophy in their mind, no eloquence on their tongue. A Roman skeptic might tell how soon these fanatics would fall out and destroy themselves, after serving as a terror to the maids and sport to the boys of a Jewish hamlet; and so that “detestable superstition” come to an end! A priest of Jerusalem, with his oracular gossip, could tell how long the Sanhedrim would suffer them to go at large, in the name of “that deceiver,” whose body “they stole away by night”! Alas for what man calls great; the pride of prejudice; the boast of power! These fishermen of Galilee have a truth the world has not, so they are stronger than the world. Ten weak men may chain down a giant: but no combination of errors can make a truth or put it down; no army of the ignorant equal one man that has the Word of Life. Besides, all the truth in Judea, Greece, Rome, was an auxiliary to favor the new doctrine.  9
  The first preachers of Christianity had false notions on many points; they were full of Jewish fables and technicalities; thought the world would soon end, and Jesus come back “with power and great glory.” Peter would now and then lie to serve his turn; Paul was passionate, often one-sided; Barnabas and Mark could not agree. There was something of furious enthusiasm in all these come-outers. James roars like a fanatic radical at the rich man. But spite of the follies or limitations of these earnest and manly Jews, a religious fire burned in their hearts; the Word of God grew and prevailed. The new doctrine passes from its low beginnings on the Galilean lake, step by step, through Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Rome, till it ascends the throne of the world, and kings and empires lie prostrate at its feet. But alas, as it spreads, it is corrupted also. Judaism, paganism, idolatry, mingle their feculent scum with the living stream, and trouble the water of life.  10
  Christianity came to the world in the darkness of the nations; they had outgrown their old form, and looked for a new. They stood in the shadow of darkness, fearing to look back nor daring to look forward; they groped after God. Christianity came to the nations as a beam of light shot into chaos; a strain of sweet music—so silvery and soft we know not we are listening—to him who wanders on amid the uncertain gloom, and charms him to the light, to the River of God and Tree of Life. It was the fulfillment of the prophecy of holy hearts. It is human religion, human morality, and above all things reveals the greatness of man.  11
  It is sometimes feared that Christianity is in danger; that its days are numbered. Of the Christianity of the church, no doubt it is true. That child of many fathers cannot die too soon. It cumbers the ground. But the Christianity of Christ, absolute religion, absolute morality, cannot perish: never till love, goodness, devotion, faith, reason, fail from the heart of man; never till God melts away and vanishes, and nothing takes the place of the All-in-All. Religion can no more be separated from the race than thought and feeling; nor absolute religion die out more than wisdom perish from among men. Man’s words, thoughts, churches, fail and pass off like clouds from the sky that leave no track behind. But God’s word can never change. It shines perennial like the stars. Its testimony is in man’s heart. None can outgrow it; none destroy. For eighteen hundred years the Christianity of Christ has been in the world to warn and encourage. Violence and cunning, allies of sin, have opposed it. Every weapon learning could snatch from the arsenals of the past, or science devise anew, or pride and cruelty and wit invent, has been used by mistaken man to destroy this fabric. Not a stone has fallen from the heavenly arch of real religion; not a loop-hole been found where a shot could enter. But alas, vain doctrines, follies, absurdities without count, have been plied against the temple of God, marring its beauteous shape. That Christianity continues to live—spite of the traditions, fables, doctrines wrapped about it—is proof enough of its truth. Reason never warred against love of God and man, never with the Christianity of Christ, but always with that of the church. There is much destructive work still to be done, which scoffers will attempt.  12
  Can man destroy absolute religion? He cannot with all the arts and armies of the world destroy the pigment that colors an emmet’s eye. He may obscure the truth to his own mind. But it shines forever unchanged. So boys of a summer’s day throw dust above their heads to blind the sun; they only hide it from their blinded eyes.  13
 
Note 1. This poem is by Parker. [back]
 
 
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