WHENEVER a miracle produced a deep and special impression, the Pharisees strove to spoil its effect by some counter-demonstration. By so doing, and at least appearing to hold the field, since Jesus always yielded this to them, they encouraged their own faction, and shook the confidence of the feeble and hesitating multitude. At almost every crisis they might have been crushed by an appeal to the stormy passions of those whom the Lord had blessed. Once He might have been made a king. Again and again His enemies were conscious that an imprudent word would suffice to make the people stone them. But that would have spoiled the real work of Jesus more than to retreat before them, now across the lake, or, just before, into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. Doubtless it was this constant avoidance of physical conflict, this habitual repression of the carnal zeal of His supporters, this refusal to form a party instead of founding a Church, which renewed incessantly the courage of His often-baffled foes, and led Him, by the path of steady ceaseless self-depression, to the cross which He foresaw, even while maintaining His unearthly calm, amid the contradiction of sinners against Himself.
Upon the feeding of the four thousand, they demand of Him a sign from heaven. He had wrought for the public no miracle of this peculiar kind. And yet Moses had gone up, in the sight of all Israel, to commune with God in the mount that burned; Samuel had been answered by thunder and rain in the wheat harvest; and Elijah had called down fire both upon his sacrifice and also upon two captains and their bands of fifty. Such a miracle was now declared to be the regular authentication of a messenger from God, and the only sign which evil spirits could not counterfeit.
Moreover the demand would specially embarrass Jesus, because He alone was not accustomed to invoke heaven: His miracles were wrought by the exertion of His own will. And perhaps the challenge implied some understanding of what this peculiarity involved, such as Jesus charged them with, when putting into their mouth the words, This is the heir, come, let us kill Him. Certainly the demand ignored much. Conceding the fact of certain miracles, and yet imposing new conditions of belief, they shut their eyes to the unique nature of the works already wrought, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father which they displayed. They held that thunder and lightning revealed God more certainly than supernatural victories of compassion, tenderness and love. What could be done for moral blindness such as this? How could any sign be devised which unwilling hearts would not evade? No wonder that hearing this demand, Jesus signed deeply in His spirit. It revealed their utter hardness; it was a snare by which others would be entangled; and for Himself it foretold the cross.
St. Mark simply tells us that He refused to give them any sign. In St. Matthew He justifies this decision by rebuking the moral blindness which demanded it. They had material enough for judgment. The face of the sky foretold storm and fair weather, and the process of nature could be anticipated without miracles to coerce belief. And thus they should have discerned the import of the prophecies, the course of history, the signs of the times in which they lived, so plainly radiant with Messianic promise, so menacing with storm-clouds of vengeance upon sin. The sign was refused moreover to an evil and adulterous generation, as God, in the Old Testament, would not be inquired of at all by such a people as these. This indignant rejoinder St. Mark has compressed into the words, "There shall no sign be given unto this generation" -- this which has proof enough, and which deserves none. Men there were to whom a sign from heaven was not refused. At His baptism, on the Mount of Transfiguration, and when the Voice answered His appeal, "Father, glorify Thy name," while the multitude said only that it thundered -- at these times His chosen ones received a sign from heaven. But from those who had not was taken away even that which they seemed to have; and the sign of Jonah availed them not.
Once more Jesus "left them" and crossed the lake. The disciples found themselves with but one loaf, approaching a wilder district, where the ceremonial purity of food could not easily be ascertained. But they had already acted on the principle which Jesus had formally proclaimed, that all meats were clean. And therefore it was not too much to expect them to penetrate below the letter of the words, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and the leaven of Herod." In giving them this enigma to discover, He acted according to His usage, wrapping the spiritual truth in earthly phrases, picturesque and impressive; and He treated them as life treats every one of us, which keeps our responsibility still upon the strain, by presenting new moral problems, fresh questions and trials of insight, for every added attainment which lays our old tasks aside. But they understood Him not. Some new ceremonial appeared to them to be designed, in which everything would be reversed, and the unclean should be those hypocrites, the strictest observers of the old code. Such a mistake, however blameworthy, reveals the profound sense of an ever-widening chasm, and an expectation of a final and hopeless rupture with the chiefs of their religion. It prepares us for what is soon to come, the contrast between the popular belief and theirs, and the selection of a rock on which a new Church is to be built. In the meantime the dire practical inconvenience of this announcement led to hot discussion, because they had no bread. And Jesus, perceiving this, remonstrated in a series of indignant questions. Personal want should not have disturbed their judgment, remembering that twice over He had fed hungry multitudes, and loaded them with the surplus of His gift. Their eyes and ears should have taught them that He was indifferent to such distinctions, and His doctrine could never result in a new Judaism. How was it that they did not understand?
Thereupon they perceived that His warning was figurative. He had spoken to them, after feeding the five thousand, of spiritual bread which He would give, even His flesh to be their food. What then could He have meant by the leaven of the Pharisees but the imparting of their religious tendencies, their teaching, and their insincerity?
Was there any real danger that these, His chosen ones, should be shaken by the demand for a sign from heaven? Did not Philip presently, when Christ spoke of seeing the Father, eagerly cry out that this, if it were granted, would suffice them? In these words he confessed the misgiving which haunted their minds, and the longing for a heavenly sign. And yet the essence of the vision of God was in the life and the love which they had failed to know. If they could not see Him in these, He must forever remain invisible to them.
We too require the same caution. When we long for miracles, neglecting those standing miracles of our faith, the gospel and the Church: when our reason is satisfied of a doctrine or a duty, and yet we remain irresolute, sighing for the impulse of some rare spiritual enlightenment or excitement, for a revival, or a mission, or an oration to lift us above ourselves, we are virtually asking to be shown what we already confess, to behold a sign, while we possess the evidence.
And the only wisdom of the languid, irresolute will, which postpones action in hope that feeling may be deepened, is to pray. It is by the effort of communion with the unfelt, but confessed Reality above us, that healthy feeling is to be recovered.