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TRANSITION PERIODS ;
WHEN PEOPLE ARE NEITHER ONE THING NOR
Y subject is Transition Periods. It is illus
trated by the little parable of Jesus about the children in the market-place, which we have given to us in Matthew xi. and Luke vii. In the latter place it reads thus: “Whereunto, then, shall I liken the children of this generation; and to what are they like? They are like unto children sitting in the market-place, and calling one to another, and saying: We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not wept. For John the Baptist came neither eating bread, nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of Man is come eating and drinking; and ye say: Behold, a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of all her children." This little picture which Jesus gives
us of children's plays is an illustration of many things, to some of which we may give attention.
It shows us how uniform are the tendencies of human nature in all ages and times. Jesus, passing through the market of Nazareth, or Cana, saw the children playing their games, just as they do now. The little Syrian boys and girls belonging to the great Semitic race, living eighteen hundred years ago, amid Asiatic customs and scenery, were just such little children as you and I saw on the Common yesterday. They played the same kind of games, imitating the customs of grown people; and as little children now play soldier, play horse and driver, so they then played weddings and funerals. Jewish weddings and funerals were conducted with much ceremony, with processions and pomp, and so caught the eyes of the children who stood watching the nuptial cortège or solemn burial march, and, as soon as it went by, began to say to each other,
Come, let us play wedding,” and then they pretended to make the music to which the others were to dance; or, “Let us play funeral,” and then they went gravely through all the customs of mourning. But little children were sometimes cross in those days, as they are now, and so refused to play either one or the other game, and their companions could not please them, do what they would. This little trait of childlike nature, breaking out of the solemn distant past, out of another civilization, race, continent, age, affects us like a song heard in youth, like the
fragrance of a flower that grew in the garden where we roamed in infancy. I once was walking along the ruined passages of an old Norman castle, and while thinking of the fierce race that manned those walls six hundred years before, I came suddenly upon a child's plaything lying on the gray stone. Goethe has a lovely poem, in which he represents a traveller who visits the ruins of a Greek temple, and finds a mother and infant sitting there
Her hut was made of the carved fragments of the architrave or frieze, and while the stranger was admiring the elaborate stones, broken columns, and fragments of art, the mother was talking a mothe foolish, loving talk to her sleeping boy. So this little allusion to the children of the day of Jesus, and their plays and quarrels (coming in the midst of that greatest event of time), shows us how the life of nature renews itself evermore amid all the changes of human history.
This passage also shows the habit of Christ of taking illustrations from common things — from every-day life! If a minister, to-day, should illustrate a religious truth by a boy's game at foot-ball, it would be thought singular, if not undignified. But Christ saw nothing undignified in human nature or human life. In his teachings there is nothing conventional, nothing formal. No fact in God's world is to him common or unclean.
This saying of Jesus, moreover, shows how much easier it is for good men, though differing in ideas, tastes, and methods, to agree in a mutual respect and sympathy, than for self-willed men to form any permanent union. How unlike in character were Jesus and John the Baptist; but they had a common aim.
It was to do God's will; to make the world better. So they felt a mutual respect for each other. John was an ascetic; he neither ate nor drank, like other men; he practised abstinence; he lived in the wilderness; an austere prophet, he denounced war against tyrants and all evil-doers. Jesus was not abstinent from human pleasures; he came eating and drinking like other men; not retiring into a desert, but going to weddings, to the suppers of rich men or poor, to the houses of his friends or those of strangers. He preached the gospel, not the law; he preached faith, hope, love, courage. He set forth God as a Father, not as a judge. So he seemed to be very different from John. If he increased, John must decrease. Their methods of work were not alike; their spirit was different; their missions did not harmonize. But yet, because their deepest purpose was the same, John honored Jesus, and Jesus honored John. John had the nobleness to recognize a superior greatness in Jesus, though he did not comprehend it. There was a real union between them. John said of Jesus, “ Behold! the Lamb of God. I am not worthy to untie his shoe strings. He must increase, I must decrease.” Jesus said of John, “ Of all men born of women" — that is, prophets by nature, in the order of natural genius and endowment " there is none greater than John.”
He was the last of the prophets of that great race who kept alive the spirit and power of Judaism amid the formalism of the ritualists and dogmatists. He was the transition from the Law to the Gospel; the culminating point, and also the vanishing point, of the old covenant.
An obscure text makes Jesus say that "from the days of John the Baptist, until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John." This passage probably means that John made the turning-point from the Law to the Gospel. For Law lives by force; the Gospel, by love. The Law compels; the Gospel attracts. The principle of the Old Testament was command, - authority resting on the sanctions of reward and punishment. The motive of the Gospel is the love of God taking the initiative, - blessing us, that we, in return, may bless one another.
There are three great periods in religion :
1. The period of Law; in which the motive is hope and fear, — hope of reward and fear of punishment.
2. The period of the Gospel; in which the motive is the love of what is good without regard to personal results.
3. The transition period; which is that of John the Baptist; when there is the sight of the Gospel,