IN JERICHO AND AT BETHANY
A GUEST WITH ZACCHAEUS
THE HEALING OF BLIND BARTIMAEUS
THE PLOT AT JERUSALEM
AT BETHANY, AND IN THE HOUSE OF SIMON THE LEPER
Matthew 20:29-34 ; Matthew 26:6-13 ; Mark 10:46-52 ; Mark 14:3-9 ; Luke 18:35-43 ; Luke 19:1-10 ; John 11:55–12:11
ONCE more, and now for the last time, were the fords of Jordan passed, and Christ was on the soil of Judea proper. Behind Him were Perea and Galilee; behind Him the Ministry of the Gospel by Word and Deed; before Him the final Act of His Life, towards which all had consciously tended. Rejected as the Messiah of His people, not only in His Person but as regarded the Kingdom of God, which, in fulfilment of prophecy and of the merciful Counsel of God, He had come to establish, He was of set purpose going up to Jerusalem, there to accomplish His Decease, ‘to give His Life a Ransom for many.’ And He was coming, not, as at the Feast of Tabernacles, privately, but openly, at the head of His Apostles, and followed by many disciples – a festive band going up to the Paschal Feast, of which Himself was to be ‘the Lamb’ of sacrifice.
The first station reached was Jericho, the ‘City of Palms,’ a distance of only about six hours from Jerusalem. The ancient City occupied not the site of the present wretched hamlet, but lay about half an hour to the north-west of it, by the so-called Elisha-Spring. A second spring rose an hour further to the north-north-west. The water of these springs, distributed by aqueducts, gave, under a tropical sky, unsurpassed fertility to the rich soil along the ‘plain’ of Jericho, which is about twelve or fourteen miles wide. The Old Testament history of the ‘City of Palms’ is sufficiently known. It was here also that King Zedekiah had, on his flight, been seized by the Chaldeans, 1 and thither a company of 345 men returned under Zerubbabel. 2 In the war of liberation under the Maccabees the Syrians had attempted to fortify Jericho. 3 These forts were afterwards destroyed by Pompey in his campaign. Herod the Great had first plundered, and then partially rebuilt, fortified, and adorned Jericho. It was here that he died. 4 His son Archelaus also built there a palace. At the time of which we write, it was, of course, under Roman dominion. Long before, it had recovered its ancient fame for fertility and its prosperity. Josephus describes it as the richest part of the country, and calls it a little Paradise. Antony had bestowed the revenues of its balsam-plantations as an Imperial gift upon Cleopatra, who in turn sold them to Herod. Here grew palm-trees of various kinds, sycamores, the cypress-flower, 5 the myrobalsamum, which yielded precious oil, but especially the balsam-plant. If to these advantages of climate, soil, and productions we add, that it was, so to speak, the key of Judea towards the east, that it lay on the caravan-road from Damascus and Arabia, that it was a great commercial and military centre, and lastly, its nearness to Jerusalem, to which it formed the last ‘station’ on the road of the festive pilgrims from Galilee and Perea – it will not be difficult to understand either its importance or its prosperity.
We can picture to ourselves the scene, as our Lord on that afternoon in early spring beheld it. There it was, indeed, already summer, for, as Josephus tells us, 6 even in winter the inhabitants could only bear the lightest clothing of linen. We are approaching it from the Jordan. It is protected by walls, flanked by four forts. These walls, the theatre, and the amphitheatre, have been built by Herod; the new palace and its splendid gardens are the work of Archelaus. All around wave groves of feathery palms, rising in stately beauty; stretch gardens of roses, and especially sweet-scented balsam-plantations, the largest behind the royal gardens, of which the perfume is carried by the wind almost out to sea, and which may have given to the city its name (Jericho, ‘the perfumed’). It is the Eden of Palestine, the very fairyland of the old world. And how strangely is this gem set! Deep down in that hollowed valley, through which tortuous Jordan winds, to lose his waters in the slimy mass of the Sea of Judgment. The river and the Dead Sea are nearly equidistant from the town, about six miles. Far across the river rise the mountains of Moab, on which lies the purple and violet colouring. Towards Jerusalem and northwards stretch those bare limestone hills, the hiding-place of robbers along the desolate road towards the City. There, and in the neighbouring wilderness of Judea, are also the lonely dwellings of anchorites, while over all this strangely varied scene has been flung the many-coloured mantle of a perpetual summer. And in the streets of Jericho a motley throng meets: pilgrims from Galilee and Perea, priests who have a ‘station’ here, traders from all lands, who have come to purchase or to sell, or are on the great caravan-road from Arabia and Damascus – robbers and anchorites, wild fanatics, soldiers, courtiers, and busy publicans – for Jericho was the central station for the collection of tax and custom, both on native produce and on that brought from across Jordan. And yet it was a place for dreaming also, under that glorious summer-sky, in those scented groves – when these many figures from far-off lands and that crowd of priests, numbering, according to tradition, half those in Jerusalem, 7 seemed fleeting as in a vision, and (as Jewish legend had it) the sound of Temple-music came from Moriah, borne in faint echoes on the breeze, like the distant sound of many waters. 8
It was through Jericho that Jesus, ‘having entered,’ was passing. 9 10 Tidings of the approach of the festive band, consisting of His disciples and Apostles, and headed by the Master Himself, must have preceded Him, these six miles from the fords of Jordan. His Name, His Works, His Teaching – perhaps Himself, must have been known to the people of Jericho, just as they must have been aware of the feelings of the leaders of the people, perhaps of the approaching great contest between them and the Prophet of Nazareth. Was He a good man; had He wrought those great miracles in the power of God or by Satanic influence – was He the Messiah or the Antichrist; would He bring salvation to the world, or entail ruin on His own nation? Conquer or be destroyed? Was it only one more in the long list of delusions and illusions, or was the long-promised morning of heaven’s own day at last to break? Close by was Bethany, whence tidings had come; most incredible yet unquestioned and unquestionable, of the raising of Lazarus, so well known to all in that neighbourhood. And yet the Sanhedrin – it was well known – had resolved on His death! At any rate there was no concealment about Him; and here, in face of all, and accompanied by His followers – humble and unlettered, it must be admitted, but thoroughly convinced of His superhuman claims, and deeply attached – Jesus was going up to Jerusalem to meet His enemies!
It was the custom, when a festive band passed through a place, that the inhabitants gathered in the streets to bid their brethren welcome. And on that afternoon, surely, scarce any one in Jericho but would go forth to see this pilgrim-band. Men – curious, angry, half-convinced; women, holding up their babes, it may be for a passing blessing, or pushing forward their children that in after years they might say they had seen the Prophet of Nazareth; traders, soldiers, a solid wall of onlookers before their gardens was this ‘crowd’ along the road by which Jesus ‘was to pass.’ Would He only pass through the place, or be the guest of some of the leading priests in Jericho; would He teach, or work any miracle, or silently go on His way to Bethany? Only one in all that crowd seemed unwelcome; alone, and out of place. It was the ‘chief of the Publicans’ – the head of the tax and customs department. As his name shows, he was a Jew; but yet that very name Zacchaeus, ‘Zakkai,’ ‘the just,’ or ‘pure,’ sounded like mockery. We know in what repute Publicans were held, and what opportunities of wrong-doing and oppression they possessed. And from his after-confession it is only too evident, that Zacchaeus had to the full used them for evil. And he had got that for which he had given up alike his nation and his soul: ‘he was rich.’ If, as Christ had taught, it was harder for any rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, what of him who had gotten his riches by such means?
And yet Zacchaeus was in the crowd that had come to see Jesus. What had brought him? Certainly, not curiosity only. Was it the long working of conscience; or a dim, scarcely self-avowed hope of something better; or had he heard Him before; or of Him, that He was so unlike those harsh leaders and teachers of Israel, who refused all hope on earth and in heaven to such as him, that Jesus received – nay, called to Him the publicans and sinners? Or was it only the nameless, deep, irresistible inward drawing of the Holy Ghost, which may perhaps have brought us, as it has brought many, we know not why or how, to the place and hour of eternal decision for God, and of infinite grace to our souls? Certain it is, that, as so often in such circumstances, Zacchaeus encountered only hindrances which seemed to render his purpose almost impossible. The narrative is singularly detailed and pictorial. Zacchaeus, trying to push his way through ‘the press,’ and repulsed; Zacchaeus, ‘little of stature,’ and unable to look over the shoulders of others: it reads almost like a symbolical story of one who is seeking ‘to see Jesus,’ but cannot push his way because of the crowd – whether of the self-righteous, or of his own conscious sins, that seem to stand between him and the Saviour, and which will not make room for him, while he is unable to look over them because he is, so to speak, ‘little of stature.’
Needless questions have been asked as to the import of Zacchaeus’ wish ‘to see who Jesus was.’ It is just this vagueness of desire, which Zacchaeus himself does not understand, which is characteristic. And, since he cannot otherwise succeed, he climbs up one of those wide-spreading sycamores in a garden, perhaps close to his own house, along the only road by which Jesus can pass – ‘to see Him.’ Now the band is approaching, through that double living wall: first, the Saviour, viewing that crowd, with, ah! how different thoughts from theirs – surrounded by His Apostles, the face of each expressive of such feelings as were uppermost; conspicuous among them, he who ‘carried the bag,’ with furtive, uncertain, wild glance here and there, as one who seeks to gather himself up to a terrible deed. Behind them are the disciples, men and women, who are going up with Him to the Feast. Of all persons in that crowd the least noted, the most hindered in coming – and yet the one most concerned, was the Chief Publican. It is always so – it is ever the order of the Gospel, that the last shall be first. Yet never more self-unconscious was Zacchaeus than at the moment when Jesus was entering that garden-road, and passing under the overhanging branches of that sycamore, the crowd closing up behind, and following as He went along. Only one thought – without ulterior conscious object, temporal or spiritual – filled his whole being. The present absolutely held him – when those wondrous Eyes, out of which heaven itself seemed to look upon earth, were upturned, and that Face of infinite grace, never to be forgotten, beamed upon him the welcome of recognition, and He uttered the self-spoken invitation in which the invited was the real Inviter, the guest the true Host. Did Jesus know Zacchaeus before – or was it only all open to His Divine gaze as ‘He looked up and saw him?’ This latter seems, indeed, indicated by the ‘must’ of His abiding in the house of Zacchaeus – as if His Father had so appointed it, and Jesus come for that very purpose. And herein, also, seems this story spiritually symbolical.
As bidden by Christ, Zacchaeus ‘made haste and came down.’ Under the gracious influence of the Holy Ghost he ‘received Him rejoicing.’ Nothing was as yet clear to him, and yet all was joyous within his soul. In that dim twilight of the new day, and at this new creation, the Angels sang and the Sons of God shouted together, and all was melody and harmony in his heart. But a few steps farther, and they were at the house of the Chief Publican. Strange hostelry this for the Lord; yet not stranger in that Life of absolute contrasts than that first hostelry, the same, even as regards its designation in the Gospel, as when the manager had been His cradle; not so strange, as at the Sabbath-feast of the Pharisee Rulers of the Synagogue. But now the murmur of disappointment and anger ran through the accompanying crowd – which perhaps had not before heard what had passed between Jesus and the Publican, certainly, had not understood, or else not believed its import – because He was gone to be guest with a man that was a sinner. Oh, terribly fatal misunderstanding of all that was characteristic of the Mission of the Christ! oh, terribly fatal blindness and jealousy! But it was this sudden shock of opposition which awoke Zacchaeus to full consciousness. The hands so rudely and profanely thrust forward only served to rend the veil. It often needs some such sudden shock of opposition, some sudden sharp contest, to waken the new convert to full consciousness, to bring before him, in clear outline, alike the past and the present. In that moment Zacchaeus saw it all: what his past had been, what his present was, what his future must be. Standing forth, not so much before the crowd as before the Lord, and not ashamed, nay, scarcely conscious of the confession it implied – so much is the sorrow of the past in true repentance swallowed up by the joy of the present – Zacchaeus vowed fourfold restoration, as by a thief, 12 of what had become his through false accusation, 13 as well as the half of all his goods to the poor. And so the whole current of his life had been turned, in those few moments, through his joyous reception of Christ, the Saviour of sinners; and Zacchaeus the public robber, the rich Chief of the Publicans, had become an almsgiver.
It was then, when it had been all done in silence, as mostly all God’s great works, that Jesus spake it to him, for his endless comfort, and in the hearing of all, for their and our teaching: ‘This day became – arose – there salvation to this house,’ ‘forasmuch as,’ truly and spiritually, ‘this one also is a son of Abraham.’ And, as regards this man, and all men, so long as time endureth: ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.’
The Evangelistic record passes with significant silence over that night in the house of Zacchaeus. It forms not part of the public history of the Kingdom of God, but of that joy with which a stranger intermeddleth not. It was in the morning, when the journey in company with His disciples was resumed, that the next public incident occurred in the healing of the blind by the wayside. 14 The small divergences in the narratives of the three Evangelists are well known. It may have been that, as St. Matthew relates, there were two blind men sitting by the wayside, and that St. Luke and St. Mark mention only one – the latter by name as ‘Bar Timaeus’ – because he was the spokesman. But, in regard to the other divergence, trifling as it is, that St. Luke places the incident at the arrival, the other two Evangelists at the departure of Jesus from Jericho, it is better to admit our inability to conciliate these differing notes of time, than to make clumsy attempts at harmonising them. We can readily believe that there may have been circumstances unknown to us, which might show these statements to be not really diverging. And, if it were otherwise, it would in no way affect the narrative itself. Historical information could only have been derived from local sources; and we have already seen reason to infer that St. Luke had gathered his from personal inquiry on the spot. And it may have been, either that the time was not noted, or wrongly noted, or that this miracle, as the only one in Jericho, may have been reported to him before mention was made of the reception by Christ of Zacchaeus. In any case, it shows the independence of the account of St. Luke from that of the other two Evangelists.
Little need be said of the incident itself: it is so like the other Deeds of His Life. So to speak – it was left in Jericho as the practical commentary, and the seal on what Christ had said and done the previous evening in regard to Zacchaeus. Once more the crowd was following
Jesus, as in the morning He resumed the journey with His disciples. And, there by the wayside, begging, sat the blind men – there, where Jesus was passing. As they heard the tramp of many feet and the sound of many voices, they learned that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. It is all deeply touching, and deeply symbolical. But what must their faith have been, when there, in Jericho, they not only owned Him as the true Messiah, but cried – in the deep significance of that special mode of address, as coming from Jewish lips: ‘Jesus, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me!’ It was quite in accordance with what one might almost have expected – certainly with the temper of Jericho, as we learned it on the previous evening, when ‘many,’ the ‘multitude,’ ‘they which went before,’ would have bidden that cry for help be silent as an unwarrantable intrusion and interruption, if not a needless and meaningless application. But only all the louder and more earnest rose the cry, as the blind felt that they might for ever be robbed of the opportunity that was slipping past. And He, Who listens to every cry of distress, heard this. He stood still, and commanded the blind to be called. Then it was that the sympathy of sudden hope seized the ‘multitude’ the wonder about to be wrought fell, so to speak, in its heavenly influences upon them, as they comforted the blind in the agony of rising despair with the words, ‘He calleth thee.’ As so often, we are indebted to St. Mark for the vivid sketch of what passed. We can almost see Bartimaeus as, on receiving Christ’s summons, he casts aside his upper garment and hastily comes. That question: what he would that Jesus should do unto him, must have been meant for those around more than for the blind. The cry to the son of David had been only for mercy. It might have been for alms – though, as the address, so the gift bestowed in answer, would be right royal – ‘after the order of David.’ But our general cry for mercy must ever become detailed when we come into the Presence of the Christ. And the faith of the blind rose to the full height of the Divine possibilities opened before them. Their inward eyes had received capacity for The Light, before that of earth lit up their long darkness. In the language of St. Matthew, ‘Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.’ This is one aspect of it. The other is that given by St. Mark and St. Luke, in recording the words with which He accompanied the healing: ‘Thy faith has saved thee.’
And these two results came of it: ‘all the people, when they saw it gave praise unto God;’ and, as for Bartimaeus, though Jesus had bidden him ‘go thy way,’ yet, ‘immediately he received his sight,’ he ‘followed Jesus in the way,’ glorifying God. And this is Divine disobedience, or rather the obedience of the spirit as against the observance of the letter.
The arrival of the Paschal band from Galilee and Perea was not in advance of many others. In truth, most pilgrims from a distance would probably come to the Holy City some days before the Feast, for the sake of purification in the Temple, since those who for any reason needed such – and there would be few families that did not require it – generally deferred it till the festive season brought them to Jerusalem. We owe this notice, and that which follows, to St. John, and in this again recognise the Jewish writer of the Fourth Gospel. It was only natural that these pilgrims should have sought for Jesus, and, when they did not find Him, discuss among themselves the probability of His coming to the Feast. His absence would, after the work which He had done these three years, the claim which He made, and the defiant denial of it by the priesthood and the Sanhedrin, have been regarded as a virtual surrender to the enemy. There was a time when He need not have appeared at the Feast – when, as we see it, it was better He should not come. But that time was past. The chief priests and the Pharisees also knew it, and they ‘had given commandment that, if any one knew where He was, he would show it, that they might take Him.’ It would be better to ascertain where He lodged, and to seize Him before He appeared in public, in the Temple.
But it was not as they had imagined. Without concealment Christ came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom He had raised from the dead. He came there six days before the Passover – and yet His coming was such that they could not ‘take Him.’ 21 They might as well take Him in the Temple; nay, more easily. For, the moment His stay in Bethany became known, ‘much people 22 of the Jews’ came out, not only for His sake, but to see that Lazarus whom He had raised from the dead. And, of those who so came, many went away believing. And how, indeed, could it be otherwise? Thus one of their plans was frustrated, and the evil seemed only to grow worse. The Sanhedrin could perhaps not be moved to such flagrant outrage of all Jewish Law, but ‘the chief priests,’ who had no such scruples, consulted how they might put Lazarus also to death.
Yet, not until His hour had come could man do aught against Christ or His disciples. And, in contrast to such scheming, haste and search, we mark the majestic calm and quiet of Him Who knew what was before Him. Jesus had arrived at Bethany six days before the Passover – that is, on a Friday. 24 The day after was the Sabbath, and
‘they made Him a supper.’ 25 It was the special festive meal of the Sabbath. The words of St. John seem to indicate that the meal was a public one, as if the people of Bethany had combined to do Him this honour, and so share the privilege of attending the feast. In point of fact, we know from St. Matthew and St. Mark that it took place ‘in the house of Simon the Leper’ – not, of course, an actual leper – but one who had been such. Perhaps his guest-chamber was the largest in Bethany; perhaps the house was nearest to the Synagogue; or there may have been other reasons for it, unknown to us – least likely is the suggestion that Simon was the husband of Martha, or else her father. But all is in character. Among the guests is Lazarus: and, prominent in service, Martha; and Mary (the unnamed woman of the other two Gospels, which do not mention that household by name), is also true to her character. She had ‘an alabaster’ of ‘spikenard genuine,’ which was very precious. It held ‘a litra’ which was a ‘Roman pound,’ and its value could not have been less than nearly 9l. Remembering the price of Nard, as given by Pliny, and that the Syrian was only next in value to the Indian, which Pliny regarded as the best ointment of ‘genuine’ Nard – unadulterated and unmixed with any other balsam (as the less expensive kinds were), such a price (300 dinars = nearly 9l.) would be by no means excessive; indeed, much lower than at Rome. But, viewed in another light, the sum spent was very large, remembering that 200 dinars (about 6l.) nearly sufficed to provide bread for 5,000 men with their families, and that the ordinary wages of a labourer amounted to only one dinar a day.
We can here offer only conjectures, But it is, at least, not unreasonable to suppose – remembering the fondness of Jewish women for such perfumes 35 – that Mary may have had that ‘alabaster’ of very costly ointment from olden days, before she had learned to serve Christ. Then, when she came to know Him, and must have learned how constantly that Decease, of which He ever spoke, was before His Mind, she may have put it aside, ‘kept it,’ ‘against the day of His burying.’ And now the decisive hour had come. Jesus may have told her, as He had told the disciples, what was before Him in Jerusalem at the Feast, and she would be far more quick to understand, even as she must have known far better than they, how great was the danger from the Sanhedrin. And it is this believing apprehension of the mystery of His Death on her part, and this preparation of deepest love for it – this mixture of sorrow, faith, and devotion – which made her deed so precious, that, wherever in the future the Gospel would be preached, this also that she had done would be recorded for a memorial of her. 36 And the more we think of it, the better can we understand, how at that last feast of fellowship, when all the other guests realised not – no, not even His disciples – how near the end was, she would ‘come aforehand to anoint His Body for the burying.’ 37 38 Her faith made it a twofold anointing: that of the best Guest at the last feast, and that of preparation for that Burial which, of all others, she apprehended as so terribly near. And deepest humility now offered, what most earnest love had provided, and intense faith, in view of what was coming, applied. And so she poured the precious ointment over His Head, over His Feet 39 – then, stooping over them, wiped them with her hair, as if, not only in evidence of service and love, but in fellowship of His Death. 40 ‘And the house was filled’- and to all time His House, the Church, is filled – ‘with the odour of the ointment.’
It is ever the light which throws the shadows of objects – and this deed of faith and love now cast the features of Judas in gigantic dark outlines against the scene. He knew the nearness of Christ’s Betrayal, and hated the more; she knew of the nearness of His precious Death, and loved the more. It was not that he cared for the poor, when, taking the mask of charity, he simulated anger that such costly ointment had not been sold, and the price given to the poor. For he was essentially dishonest, ‘a thief,’ and covetousness was the underlying master-passion of his soul. The money, claimed for the poor, would only have been used by himself. Yet such was his pretence of righteousness, such his influence as ‘a man of prudence’ among the disciples, and such their sad weakness, that they, or at least ‘some,’ 41 expressed indignation among themselves and against her who had done the deed of love, which, when viewed in the sublimeness of a faith, that accepted and prepared for the death of a Saviour Whom she so loved, and to Whom this last, the best service she could, was to be devoted, would for ever cause her to be though of as an example of loving. There is something inexpressibly sad, yet so patient, gentle, and tender in Christ’s ‘Let her alone.’ Surely, never could there be waste in ministry of love to Him! Nay, there is unspeakable pathos in what He says of His near Burying, as if He would still their souls in view of it. That He, Who was ever of the poor and with them, Who for our sakes became poor, that through His poverty we might be made rich, should have to plead for a last service of love to Himself, and for Mary, and as against a Judas, seems indeed, the depth of self-abasement. Yet, even so, has this falsely-spoken plea for the poor become a real plea, since He has left us this, as it were, as His last charge, and that by His own Death, that we have the poor always with us. And so do even the words of covetous dishonesty become, when passing across Him, transformed into the command of charity, and the breath of hell is changed into the summer-warmth of the Church’s constant service to Christ in the ministry to His poor.