They struck east and crossed the Jordan, then made their way south down the left bank. Two days’ walking brought them into the district where John had preached and baptised three years earlier. Here Jesus proposed to remain in quiet seclusion for the two months before the Passover Season.
Nathaniel placed his house at the Master’s disposal; and here they lived in greater comfort than usual. Yet it was no time of leisure. Sometimes Jesus was teaching in Jericho, sometimes in other towns or villages near by. He seemed possessed by a feverish energy almost as if he were working against time. And looking back afterwards, his friends understood.
Three events stood out in startling clearness against a background of strenuous work, continuous teaching and kindly actions.
At the end of a long afternoon of healing and teaching in a neighbouring village, Jesus was sitting in a quiet corner of the little market-place, waiting for Matthew, young James and Thaddaeus, who had gone to visit an acquaintance at a farm a mile way. A small girl about five years old came shyly up to him, put her podgy little hands on his knees and stared solemnly up into his face. Deciding that he was a friend, she plucked up her courage.
“Tell me a story,” she demanded.
“What sort of a story?” he asked.
“You choose,” was the tactful answer.
“All right; climb up on my knee.”
Without hesitation the child clambered up and perched herself astride on his knee.
“Once upon a time,” he began.
Hearing the well-known formula, several other children looked up from the mud pies which they were busy making and scampered up to listen. Others hurried across the market-place to see what the excitement was, and in a minute Jesus was surrounded by a group of over twenty little people. Some climbed on to the stone bench on which he was sitting, some squatted in front of him in the mud which was their usual playground; one pegged out a claim to his other knee; and a cheeky little urchin swarmed up his back and mounted his shoulders, where he sat in triumph, with one bare leg hanging down on each side and drumming with his grubby little heels against Jesus’ chest. The story began.
Conscious of the sudden lull in the square, several mothers looked out of their doors to discover what new mischief their offspring were up to. Seeing the swarm of silent children, they too strolled up, most of them with babies in their arms, and they stopped to listen, as enthralled as the little people.
Half an hour later the thrilling story was drawing to its close when Jesus’ three friends entered the square. Thaddaeus turned to the others.
“Look at the Master,” he chuckled, “absolutely snowed under with kiddies. Looks as if he enjoyed it too.”
“That’s all very well,” protested James, “but we know he’s tired out.”
“These people ought to have more consideration and keep the children away,” said Matthew indignantly. And he strode across the market-place.
As he approached, a hubbub of shrill little voices burst forth. The story was finished.
“Tell us another,” they shouted.
Matthew’s voice broke through the treble chorus.
“You mothers ought to keep the children from annoying the Rabbi; you know he’s been teaching all the afternoon. He doesn’t want to be bothered with a pack of squealing kids!”
Jesus looked at him reproachfully.
“Let the little children come to me,” he said; “don’t stop them. I wish all who hear my teaching were such appreciative listeners. Then the Kingdom of God would be established more quickly.”
The children were staring with round, wondering eyes, now at the story-teller and now at the cross man who wanted to drive them away. His first little friend looked up in his face with a wheedling smile.
“Tell another story,” she begged.
Jesus burst out laughing. He laid his hand on her head and stroked her hair.
“No more stories today,” he said; “perhaps I’ll come another afternoon and tell you a new one.”
One of the mothers said shyly: “before you go, Rabbi, won’t you bless the kiddies?”
Jesus laid his hands on each of the grubby little heads in turn, asking the Father to protect the children and help them in their lives. The shrill chatter had ceased; an unwonted solemnity had descended upon the group; even the impertinent little ragamuffin on Jesus’ shoulder clambered down and stood with an expression of preternatural gravity in front of him for fear he should be forgotten. The babies were held out by their mothers to receive the blessing. The silence was charged with the presence of God.
When Jesus got up from the bench, the spell was broken; tongues began to clack again; the children escorted him to the edge of the village, and waved as he walked down the road with his three friends.
They were halfway back before Jesus spoke.
“You need never be afraid, Matthew,” he said suddenly, “that children are tiring me. It’s a real rest to be with them. Their joy in life and the freshness of their outlook do me good. If only grown up folk would listen to my teaching as readily as those children listened to-day, how easy it would be to extend the Kingdom of God. Unless a man accepts the good news of the Kingdom with the simple belief of a child, he cannot enter into it.”
A neighbour of Nathaniel’s had called to see him. He was a young man of about Nathaniel’s own age and was reputed to be immensely wealthy. He spoke quite naturally and without conscious conceit about his large house and extensive estates; but it was quite evident that they had become so much a part of his life that he could not imagine any other kind of existence.
Nathaniel asked him to stay to supper and they all found him a most delightful companion. He had great charm of manner and there was no snobbishness about him. He talked with the fishermen and gardeners as easily and naturally as with his old friends, Nathaniel and Philip. After the meal he engaged Jesus in conversation and listened not only with courtesy, but with evident interest, to his views on life and on man’s need for direct contact with God. When he rose to take his leave he turned to Nathaniel.
“I have never enjoyed an evening more,” he said without the least trace of condescension. “I do hope you will all give me the pleasure of a return visit. What about the midday meal on Thursday?”
“Will that suit you, Master?” asked Nathaniel.
“Yes,” was the ready answer; “I have no particular engagement for that day.”
“I must have a few days,” said the visitor with a smile, “to think over all you have said this evening. You have given me so much food for thought. I shall have a lot of questions to fire at you on Thursday.”
When he had left there was a general chorus of approval. Philip voiced the opinion of the rest.
“I wish we could get Lamech to join us!” he burst out enthusiastically. “With his money and influence he could be such an enormous help. Don’t you think so, Master?”
“He’s a very attractive young man, undoubtedly,” was the guarded reply. “At present I have not seen enough of him to form a more definite opinion.”
It was a cheerful party which walked up to Lamech’s big country house on the following Thursday. Their host saw them approaching and strolled down to meet them. His greeting was warm without being too effusive.
The exquisite meal was served by soft footed servants in the spacious dining room. Rare dishes and choice vintage wines were placed before the guests, some of whom were at first a little awkward in the face of such unwonted splendour. But the tact and geniality of their host quickly put them at their ease.
After the meal Lamech proposed a walk in the grounds. They visited his stables, where he showed them his beautifully groomed horses. On one of his farms he had a herd of pedigree cattle which was famous throughout the country; the gardens, with their well tended lawns and artificial lake, sloped down to green parkland dotted with magnificent trees. Everywhere there was evidence of careful management, artistic planning and the pride of ownership.
Lamech showed no desire to boast of his possessions; but it was evident to Jesus that they were so necessary to him, that without them he would be lost, like a man suddenly deprived of his eyesight, or the use of a limb.
Till late in the afternoon they sat on one of the lawns and by tactful questions their host drew Jesus on to talk. That he was deeply interested was obvious to all.
Jesus spoke of “eternal life;” and he explained that by this he did not mean merely a reward after death, for the next life is really a continuation of this, and “eternal life” must begin here in this world by making the fullest use of our human existence. He made it clear, too, that no two people are expected to order their lives in exactly the same way, that what would be the best course for one is not necessarily the best for another; but that each has his own problems to solve, his own faults to master, his own powers to develop, his own opportunities for using his life most profitably in the service of God and his fellow-men.
“Every individual,” he concluded, “must make his own decision as to how he can best make use of his own personality and so develop his soul, and advance along the first stage of the road towards eternal life. He must ruthlessly cast aside anything which hinders him from this progress, so that he may travel free and unencumbered towards God.”
On the following day Jesus had been over to see his friends, the village children, and tell them another story.
The road back to Nathaniel’s house led past Lamech’s park gates. As he approached them, he noticed his host of yesterday talking to his bailiff, about fifty yards away. He waved a greeting.
Lamech saw him, left his companion and ran down to the gates.
“Good Master,” he began impetuously, “I can’t get out of my head what you were saying yesterday, about everyone having to qualify in a different way for eternal life, I mean. What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” was the unexpected reply. “No one except God is really good. But don’t let’s worry about that. You ask what you must do to inherit eternal life; well, you know the commandments. ‘Do not kill: do not commit adultery: do not steal: do not bear false witness: do not defraud: honour thy father and thy mother.’”
For a moment Lamech did not reply; Jesus had spoken so casually that he half suspected that he was chaffing him.
“Master,” he said at last with a puzzled frown, “I’ve kept all those commandments from boyhood. There must be something else I can do, some big thing.”
Jesus looked searchingly into the eager face. What possibilities there were in this young man! How extraordinarily attractive was his whole personality! What a force for good he might become, if only—but could he stand the test?
“There is one thing which is holding you up from realising your highest self,” Jesus said quietly.
“What is it?” the question came immediately. “Only show me what to do and I’ll try to do it.”
“Are you sure you want me to tell you?” Jesus pressed him: “it’s a difficult thing—perhaps too difficult.”
“Try me,” Lamech said confidently.
“Very well,” was the answer, “Go, sell everything you possess and give the proceeds to the poor. And come and join us.”
The young man’s face fell. The proposal was so totally unexpected, so shattering! His whole world seemed to be crumbling. He turned away and gazed up the slope of green sward to the lordly mansion standing among the cypress trees. He looked to right and to left over the broad acres which he loved and owned. And suddenly he knew Jesus was right. This was his world, the only world in which he could live. He cared more for his lands and beautiful home than for any abstract idea of starting along the hard road to eternal life.
Then he stared fixedly at the ground, prodding it miserably with his ebony walking stick. He despised himself: he had asked for a hard test and had failed.
“Is there no other way to life?” he asked at last.
“There are many other ways,” answered Jesus sadly, “but this is the only way for you.”
“I can do so much good with my money,” protested the young man.
“And I have no doubt you do much good,” was the reply. “But only without it can you be your true self. These great possessions, which are now such a graceful accompaniment of your youth, will twine themselves closer and closer about your affections, crushing out all nobler aims and aspirations, as ivy crushes the life slowly but surely out of the noblest forest tree.”
“What you say may be true,” Lamech said dejectedly; “but I’m not equal to the sacrifice. Don’t think too hardly of me.”
He turned abruptly and walked moodily up the slope of close shaven turf.
Depressed beyond measure Jesus made his way back to Nathaniel’s house. Most of the Twelve were already there, for it was nearing the time of the evening meal. They sensed his mood, and efforts at conversation were constrained and artificial; throughout supper he maintained a gloomy silence at Nathaniel’s side, a fact surprising enough in itself, for he was generally the life and soul of the party.
When the meal was over, they moved into the next room where a cheerful fire of logs burned on the low hearth. And sitting in the firelight, the Master suddenly spoke.
“How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!”
The Twelve looked at one another in astonishment. Did this mean that the Master had sounded young Lamech and been snubbed for his pains?
“The gateway of God’s Kingdom is so terribly narrow,” he went on. “Why, it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to find his way into the Kingdom of God.”
“But, Master,” protested young Simon, “surely the rich have far better opportunities than the poor? They’ve not got any anxieties for the future or worries about the present; it must be easier for them to live good lives, because they have more leisure to choose and do the right thing. If they can’t get into the Kingdom, what chance is there for anyone else?”
“Humanly speaking the rich have no chance at all,” replied Jesus; “their minds are too much occupied with their possessions and pleasures. It’s only through the infinite goodness of the Father that a wealthy man can see the highest course and act upon it. What is impossible with man is possible with God.” He paused for a moment, gazing into the flickering glow of the fire. Then he added: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
For several minutes no one spoke. Everyone was busy with his own thoughts. It was clear to them all that Jesus was referring to Lamech, that he had made him a proposal which he had turned down.
It was Philip who reopened the conversation.
“So Lamech is unwilling to join us?”
“Are you surprised?” Jesus asked.
“Well, quite honestly, I am,” replied Philip. “He seemed so keen.”
“He didn’t know then what it involved,” answered Jesus. “Everything has been easy for him in this life. He imagined that eternal life could be had as easily. I told him the only way in which he could really make the best use of himself. I suggested that he should sell everything he possessed, give the money to the poor, and join us.”
There was a gasp of amazement.
“It’s hardly surprising he turned that down,” remarked Judas cynically.
“No, I’m not surprised,” agreed Jesus; “but I can’t help being disappointed all the same.”
“But, Master,” put in Nathaniel in a puzzled tone, “I don’t quite understand. You didn’t ask me to sell my belongings when I joined you.”
“Because you were obviously ready to leave them,” was the immediate reply. “I did ask James and Thaddaeus to give up their garden; and I did ask Matthew to give up his profession, his home and his comfort.”
“The two cases are hardly parallel, Master,” he said cheerfully. “Think of my modest little villa, compared with Lamech’s enormous property.”
“Your villa meant as much to you, Matthew,” his Master replied, “as Lamech’s estates mean to him. You gave it up.”
“Only after a month or more of shilly-shallying,” was the candid answer. “And when I think what I should have missed, if I had chosen differently.” He relapsed into silence, without completing the sentence.
Peter spoke for the first time.
“Master, I suppose all of us had to give up some thing to join you,” he said reflectively; “home or prospects or the chance of marrying and having children. We didn’t do that with any idea of getting anything in return. But it seems to me we have got a lot; don’t you all agree?”
There was a general murmur of assent.
“Yes,” agreed Jesus at once, “you have got a lot. Everyone, who leaves his home or his family or his belongings for my sake and to help me to spread the truth among our fellow-men, does gain far more than he gives up. All those whom he helps become his friends and brothers; in their homes he finds many homes in place of one; the whole world becomes his heritage, all its countries his estates, for which he loves to work and plan. But it is not only happiness which awaits you; if you are true citizens of God’s Kingdom, you must be ready to face trials and dangers, persecution and unpopularity. This mingling of happiness and difficulties marks the first stage of the journey we were talking about yesterday—the journey towards eternal life.”
Again silence reigned in the room, a silence unbroken save by the crackling of the fire or the slipping of a half burnt log. All were thinking of the gifted young man who had missed the true purpose and happiness of life.
It was not until the flames had died down into a heap of glowing ash that Jesus got up to say goodnight. The spell was broken.
“Master.” It was the optimist Andrew who spoke; “you must have given Lamech a lot to think about. It’s quite likely he may change his mind and join us later.”
“Nothing is impossible with God,” Jesus replied; “but many that are first shall be last, and the last first.”
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