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But however, before we explain the subject matter herein contained, I think we should do right to touch upon the beginning of this chapter; which St. Luke gives as a kind of introduction; shewing, what it was that occasioned these words to be spoken by our Saviour. He says, " Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him." By which words he plainly shews, with what kind of men Christ was then conversing; namely, with those who lived openly as they ought not, and were publicly called sinners and ungodly. Hence, as it would appear, the pharisees had a very weighty reason for murmuring against Christ; who, while he wished to be considered a holy man, familiarly joined himself to such as these.
At that time, those were called "publicans" to whom the Romans let out a certain city, or revenue, or other charge, for a stated sum of money. In the same manner as the Turks or Venetians now commit any such district or charge to a certain person, from which so many pounds of revenue are to be paid annually; and whatever such officer can, by unjust levies, extort over and above that sum, he has for himself. In this manner it was that the above-mentioned publicans proceeded; who so exacted that revenue and stated sum, as to get out of it an immense gain for themselves. And when the sum of money which was to be paid out of that district or charge was great, the publicans, who were unwilling to lose their profit out of it, practised every kind of injustice in every form, and extorted from every one every where, and in every way. For their employers were so avaricious, and so sharp upon them, that they could not have gotten much profit for themselves, had they acted with equity and justice, and pressed no one by unjust exactions. Hence they were held in ill-fame by all parties, as being most unjust extortioners, and persons of very little honesty and integrity of life.
In like manner the others, who were called " sinners" in general, were such as lived shameless and abandoned lives, and were sunk into every species of sin,—covetousness, debauchery, surfeiting, drunkenness, and such like.
Such were the characters that "drew near" unto Christ, and came on purpose to hear him, having before heard the fame of him,—that he was, both for his words and his works, wonderful and of great report.
Now it is very evident, that there was in these men, though desperate characters, "some good thing/' and a certain spark of honesty, that they should have a desire after Christ, wish to hear his doctrine, and try to get a sight of the works which he did; because they were fully persuaded beforehand that he was a good man, and that they could not hear any ill-report concerning either his doctrine or his works; so that, their life differed very widely indeed from his. And yet, they are so honest, that they feel no enmity against him, nor do they hate and shun his society, but they run to him; not with any evil design, but desiring to hear and see something good from him, whereby they might amend their lives.
On the contrary, the scribes and pharisees, who were considered to be most righteous and holy persons, proved to be such virulent beasts, that they were not only enraged against Christ, and could not bear either to hear or see him, but could not endure with patience that even miserable sinners should come unto him and hear him, in order that, being converted, they might repent. Nay farther, they even murmured and accused Christ for harbouring and receiving sinners: saying, Behold! this is that holy and wonderful man! Who will now say that he was sent of God, who thus associates himself with abandoned and vile wretches! Nay he is "a winc-bibber and a glutton, (as they said upon another occasion,) a friend of publicans and sinners!"
Such a name is he compelled to bear by the holy pharisees; not because, being given to gluttony and surfeiting, he was accustomed both to feasting and riotous pleasure with them; but only, because he admitted such into his familiarity, and did not contemptuously spurn them from him. For, according to their opinion, he ought to have been of a miserable appearance and clad in vile raiment, to have remained secluded from the society of men, and to have shunned all intercourse with them, lest he should be contaminated by their presence; as they themselves, after the manner of holy men, always lived. Concerning whom Isaiah saith, that they studied purity so much, that they dreaded the touch of a sinner, and always said, " stand by." The same also is clearly seen in the pharisee, Luke vii. who murmured against Christ, because he openly allowed himself to be touched by a woman who was a sinner. And these were they who always wished to be his instructors, and to prescribe to him rules for living and conducting himself holily in this life. And therefore, they murmur upon this occasion also, because he did not join himself unto them; and did not, after their example, keep himself aloof from intercourse and conversation with such sinners.
But here Christ is also a little pertinacious, and by no means obscurely declares, that he can suffer the mastery of none, but is altogether free and exempt from all laws whatever. So we see every where in the Gospels, he always does every thing at his own will and pleasure: and yet, nevertheless, is the most mild, most gentle, and the most ready to serve of all men. But whenever they wished to interfere with him concerning laws, and to become his teachers, then all this kind friendship is at an end; he starts back like a diamond applied to, or struck against a whetstone; and says and does nothing, but the directly contrary to that which they require of him; even though they may speak well and rightly, and produce, in confirmation of what they say, the very word of God. As they do here: where they come to him and say, 'Thou oughtest to do thus and thus. Thou oughtest to seek the society of holy men. Thou oughtest to nee the company of sinners,' This indeed is a doctrine of some weight, and confirmed by the testimony of scripture. For Moses himself commanded the Jews that they should avoid the ungodly, and put away evil from among them. With this text they corroborate what they say, and come forward with their Moses; wishing to make even Christ himself subject to their laws, and to rule him by them.
But whether human or divine laws be brought forward, he will stand in his own liberty. And he is not altogether unlike the unicorn; which beast, as they say, can never be taken alive, in what way soever he be hunted. He will suffer himself to be pierced through, to be wounded with darts, and to be killed, but will never submit to be taken. Just in the same way does Christ act; who, although he be attacked with laws, yet will not suffer them, but bursts through them as through a spider's web, and most severely rebukes his opposers. So also, Matt. xii. where they made it to be a great crime in his disciples that they plucked the ears of corn on the sabbath-day, citing the divine command, that the sabbath was to be kept holy, &c. he asserts the directly contrary, does away the commandment, and affirms that which is the opposite to the scriptures and their examples. So also, Matt. xvi. when he tells his disciples that he shall suffer and be crucified, and when Peter with a good intention admonishes him and sets before him the commandment of love, saying, "that be far from thee, Lord, this shall not be unto thee," he, in reply, sharply and severely reproves and rebukes his adviser; and says, "Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men."
In a word: He is most impatient of all laws concerning which they treat with him, and will be entirely free from all precepts, and be accounted the Lord of them all. He always answers in a manner that cuts them off at once, and will not hold any law as being compelled to keep it. But on the other hand, when he does any thing freely, then, there is no law so small or so trifling, that he will not obey willingly and do much more than it requires. Therefore, there is no one to be found more kind or ready to serve than he, if he be bound by no mastery or compulsion. Nay, he humbles himself so low as even to wash and kiss the feet of Judas his betrayer, and himself covers his disciples for the night; (as his history witnesses, and which is very probable, and agreeable to the manner in which he speaks of himself, " I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister," &c.) Unto this indeed the works of the law are necessary, but not such as are extorted by the law, or by means of the law. This is manifest to all who behold his life every where, as he went about in Judea, in Samaria, and in Galilee, sleeping at night on the ground, fasting forty days, enjoying no quiet whatever, and enduring so many labours, that they feared lest he should destroy his mental faculties, or utterly wear out his body. He does all he can, but refuses to be compelled, and will not suffer laws to be prescribed to him; and if any one set them before him, he recoils and opposes them most determinately. Thus he is of a spirit the most obstinate, yet the most meek: no one is more pertinacious or more devoted to serve than he: he will not endure the doing of any of those things which are exacted of him, and yet he does an abundance of all things, and, as it were, runs over with a flood of good works, and waters all things, while no one exacts or demands any thing of him by commandment or control, but he is permitted to do all willingly and of his own accord.
These things were done for examples unto us, that we might learn what a true Christian man, according to the Spirit is: and that we might not judge of him according to the law, nor deal with him according to the rule of our own prudence. For Christ is so our Lord, as that he makes of us men such as he is himself. And even as he cannot bear to be fettered and bound by any laws, but will be Lord over all laws, and so of all things; so also, a Christian ought not to bear in his conscience any such thing. For we are, through Christ and his baptism, brought into such liberty, that our conscience knows nothing of any law, so as to suffer itself to be under its government and control. Nor are we to have any other feeling, as to the experience of our inward conscience, than as if there never were any law either given or made; nay, as if there were neither Ten Commandments nor One Commandment; finally, as if there were no law whatever either of God, of the Pope, or of