We are accustomed to observe a connection, more or less intimate, between the parable and the history that precedes it. Generally, some recent event, or some question by friend or foe, suggests the similitude. In almost every case we are able to trace the natural history, as it were, of the parable, -- to determine what feature of the events or discourses preceding called up the image and gave it shape. Here the relation between the parable and the antecedent instruction is closer still: in this case there is not merely a connection, but an absolute union. The direct and the metaphorical are here successively employed to enforce one continuous lesson. The lesson is one: the first portion of it is delivered in simple didactic language, and the second in parabolic figure. Some instruments are made of two different kinds of metal, not mixed in the crucible, but each occupying its own separate place: one part consists of steel, and another of brass, soldered together, so as to constitute one rod. The nature of the work is such that steel suits best for one extremity of the tool, and brass for the other. It is in a similar way that two different forms of speech are employed here to impart one lesson: the discourse begins with literal expressions, and ends with a similitude.
The passage 1-10 as a whole, teaches the double truth, That God requires of men a complete obedience, and that even though a complete obedience were rendered, the master would not be laid under any obligation -- the servants would have no claim to praise or reward. While the rule towards the close is made universal, in the beginning the demand is particular and specific -- to bear meekly and forgive generously the injuries which neighbours may inflict in the multifarious intercourse of life. Besides the point which constitutes the main scope of the discourse, several matters of the very highest importance are incidentally involved, and must be noticed, each in its proper place.
First of all, in order to prepare his disciples for meeting the trials that lay before them, he warned them that offences will come, and pronounced a solemn woe on those who should cast them in their neighbour's way. Looking to his own -- alike those who were then in his sight, and those who should believe on him down to the end of the world -- he calls them, tenderly, little ones, and intimates that it would go ill with all who should dare to hurt them. This, however, appears to be laid down as a basis for the lesson which he intended at that time to teach, rather than the lesson itself. Speaking expressly for the benefit of his own followers, he was more concerned to teach them how to bear injuries than to command them to beware of inflicting injuries on others. The chief part of a Christian's duty consists in bearing well; and when that part of his duty is successfully performed, it is more effectual in serving God and convincing men than any kind or degree of active effort. The disciple is like his Lord in this, that he conquers by suffering.
Accordingly, the Teacher soon glides from the precept which forbids his people to inflict injuries, into the precept which teaches how they should bear injuries inflicted by others. "Take heed to yourselves:" this is his main design: towards this he was hastening; as a basis for this word, the previous injunction had been given. But, mark well, it is not after the manner of men that Jesus warns his disciples to take heed to themselves. He does not mean that they should be solicitous to protect themselves from receiving injury: he leaves that to the natural instincts of self-preservation, and warns them against danger on another side, where nature supplies no defence. He does not mean, Take heed lest you suffer by the stroke which an enemy may deal against you; he means, Take heed lest you sin in spirit and conduct when you suffer unjustly. You suffer one injury when a neighbour treats you unfairly: and another when you proudly, impatiently retaliate. The loss that you thus inflict on yourself is far heavier than the loss which has been inflicted by a neighbour: the little finger of the one damage is thicker than the loins of the other.
After the outpouring of the Spirit at the Pentecost, we find these scholars far advanced in this lesson, which their Master taught them while he remained at their head. The believers of those days had, especially in the persons of Peter and John, been cruelly persecuted by the Jewish authorities, and when they met after their suffering to pray, their petition ran: "And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word" (Acts iv.29). An injury had been inflicted: they innocently suffered; and observe what in these circumstances they feared: not more suffering, but lest by the suffering they should be tempted to be silent or wavering when called to be witnesses of Christ. Not the pain they endured, but the right state of their own spirits under the endurance, exercised their minds, and stimulated their prayers.
We must not suppose, however, that the Lord has commanded his disciples to bear injuries as a clod bears blows. Mere softness in yielding to the wicked is not a Christian grace; it is, on the contrary, a mischievous indolence: it suffers sin upon a brother: it deprives him of the benefit of reproof, and so encourages him to continue in his sin. "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him." This Teacher does not obliterate the lines which separate righteousness from unrighteousness. He enjoins tenderness: but much as he loves to see that feature in his disciples, he places it second to faithfulness. The order of precedence as regards these two has been determined by royal ordinance -- "first pure, then peaceable." "Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another," said the Lord at another time (Mark ix.), plainly giving faithfulness the first place, and requiring that gentleness should press hard up behind. Rebuke the brother who does a wrong to you; if under your reproof and the working of the truth on his conscience, he be led to repentance and confession, forgive him in your heart, and express your forgiveness, that he may be encouraged and relieved. The precept "forgive" must, from the nature of the case, refer to the articulate expression of forgiveness; for in his heart and before God, a Christian forgives his enemy, although that enemy continue obdurate.
Next comes the precept, given in similar terms already in another place (Matt. xviii.15-22), regarding the repetition of injuries. The duty of forgiving a repenting injurer is not modified by the frequency of his sin; the form of the expression "seven times in a day," is manifestly intended to intimate that there is on that side absolutely no limit. It is not the part of a Christian to count the number of the injuries he has received, and to refuse forgiveness after a certain point; it is his part to be of a forgiving spirit, and to give forth forgiveness to all like the sunlight. The example of the Lord is the pattern for his servants; "Love one another as I have loved you."
The conception of unlimited forgiving, which in Matthew's narrative is expressed by "seventy times seven," is here with equal emphasis expressed by "seven times in a day." When we understand the terms as a formula for an indefinite number, we exclude the minute question, How could we believe a man sincere, who should seven times in a day do us an injury, and as often come and express sorrow for his fault? The words should not be literally taken; and besides if any one should trifle with his neighbour by frequent and manifestly false professions of repentance, his meaning would and should be read, not by his words, but by his conduct; the rule would and should be understood in its spirit, and not in its letter merely.
Ver.5. "And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith." An interesting and instructive view emerges here, of the relation between faith and practice. When they heard the measure of the demand which their Master made upon them in the matter of bearing and forgiving injuries, the apostles felt instantly that the weight was heavier than they could bear. They had not in their hearts such an amount of patience and love, as would enable them to fulfil this commandment of the Lord. Having already learned that faith is the secret fountain whence the stream of obedience flows, they asked with equal simplicity and correctness that their faith might be increased. In this short prayer they assumed, first, that they already believed, asking for an addition to the faith which they already possessed; and second, that it is more faith that will produce more obedience; and third, that the faith which worketh by love is not of themselves, but is the gift of God through his Son. In all this, having been secretly taught of the Spirit, these apostles are deeply intelligent, and completely correct. The appetites are generally sure guides to living creatures for the sustenance of their life; and here the appetite of the new creature, points surely to the source of supply: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled."
Both in the request of the scholars (ver.5), and in the answer of the Master (ver.6), it is distinctly assumed as a fundamental truth in religion, that faith lies at the root of obedience. When a requisition is made upon them for an amount of meek endurance and forgiving love which their own stores cannot supply, they cry not directly for more power of enduring and forgiving, but for more faith which will strengthen them on this side, and on all other sides at the same time. It is as if you had a cistern meant to supply twelve streams, running in various directions, from whose lip twelve conduits were accordingly led: and when water from one of these was suddenly wanted, you opened it but found that little or none could be obtained. You cry out for a new supply to the cistern; that supply given will fill this channel which is for the the moment in requisition, and all the other channels at the same time. Endurance and forgiving -- more than we are able to bear and bestow -- are at this moment required of us; but if we had more faith, we should exhibit more of these graces, and more of all graces.
The Lord in his answer acknowledges that their inference is correct. By another form of expression, similar in character to the "seven times in a day," he intimates that faith possesses an unlimited power of production in the department of doing. To intensify the result he employs a double hyperbole, as engineers employ two pairs of wheels to generate extreme rapidity of motion; the smallest spark of faith will overcome the greatest obstacles that may lie across a Christian's path. Again, the same idea which appeared before in Matt. xvii.20, is expressed here by a different figure: in both cases the Lord intends to intimate that what without faith is impossible, may with faith be done. In Matthew the impossible is represented by the removal of a mountain; in Luke by the planting of a sycamore in the sea. By these forms our Teacher conveys his meaning with amazing distinctness. The letters of his lessons thus sharply, deeply cut, remain indeed dead letters to those who have not experienced the grace of God; as letters of a book, the largest and loveliest lie meaningless before the eyes of a savage or a little child; but in either case, as soon as the scholar becomes capable of understanding, the meaning shines forth like light. It would be a great transition from our present position of impotence, if we should become able to remove a mountain, or plant a sycamore in the sea; such and so great is the transition when a man passes from death in sin to life in Christ; such and so great the difference between what he could bear, and hope, and do while he was at enmity with God, and what he can bear, and hope, and do when he is reconciled to God through the death of his Son.
The particular requirement which on this occasion put the faith of the disciples under a strain greater than it was able to meet, was the endurance and the forgiving of injuries; but this Scripture must not be limited to a private interpretation; this is a specimen shown in illustration of a general rule. There are diversities of operation, under the providence of God our Father; now the faith of Christians is tested in one way, and then in another. At one time they are called actively to do a great work; and at another time passively to bear a great burden. The work required of one disciple is a mission to the dark places of the earth; and the work required of another is to bear patiently many years of pain and weariness, in his own home, it may be on his own bed. By both alike the kingdom of Christ may be advanced: from both equally when they are bruised, -- the one by great effort, and the other by a heavy weight, -- the odour of a holy temper may be diffused all around.
We are not masters; we are servants. The Lord appoints to each his place, and his work.
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The lesson now passes into the parable. When he had pointed out how great is God's claim, and how large faith's performance might become in the life of a disciple, Jesus warns them, on the other side, that the greatest possible, the greatest conceivable attainment in the direction of a believing obedience, implies absolutely no independent merit in man; obedience, although it reached the utmost point of perfection, would still leave God indebted to man for nothing, and man indebted to God for all.
"But which of you having a servant ploughing or feeding cattle." The state of society which supplies the ground-work of this parable is in many respects different from that which prevails in modern Europe. It is especially important here to notice the difference in these two features: --
1. It is a simple pastoral life that constitutes the basis of this picture. The principle of division of labour exists there in its lowest stages of development. It is assumed as a common and proper thing to employ a shepherd or a ploughman in serving his master at table -- a practice entirely unknown among us.2. The servitude in the instance supposed was not a voluntary limited engagement, but a species of slavery: the master's control was much more absolute and complete than it is among us. The servant's toil might be, and probably in many cases actually was, on the whole, not heavier than that to which our hired servants are subjected; but the measure of the labour, both as to its endurance and its severity, depended there on the master's will rather than on the servant's freedom. The master, under the species of relation which then largely prevailed, could demand of his servant on occasion an amount and continuity of service which now is not demanded on the one side, and would not be rendered on the other.
It should be noticed, however, that the service which is in the parable required and rendered, is both in character and quantity extreme. An ordinary example of a servant's work would not have suited the purpose of the Lord; he needed a line stretched to its utmost limits. His purpose is to teach that the utmost conceivable amount of obedience on man's part is not independently meritorious before God; and, in searching among temporal things for a suitable analogy, he selected a case in which the line stretched from one extremity to the other.
When the servant has finished his day's work on the pasture or in the field, at his return, and before he obtain either rest or food, he is compelled to wait upon his master at table. Even this extreme measure of work is required by the master and rendered by the servant as within the limits of their respective rights: the servant even in that case has done no more than was due.
"So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all these things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants."
God has given all, owns all, has a right to all. We are his by right of creation, and his by redemption, when we are in Christ. Christians are not their own; they are bought with a price. Themselves, and their faculties, and their capabilities belong to God, their Creator and Redeemer. When they have rendered all their powers, and all the product of these powers, absolutely up to God's will, they have done no more than rendered to him his own. "Will a man rob God? yet ye have robbed me" (Mal. iii.8). It is an aggravated sin to rob God of what is his; but it is no merit or ground of praise simply to refrain from robbing him; and this is all that the creature's obedience would amount to, although it were complete.
Our Master ordinarily makes our work easy; he is gentle, and easy to be entreated. "As a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him:" but at his pleasure, and doubtless in deep ways for their good, he sometimes lays extraordinary burdens on his own. He may permit offences to come, trying your temper; he may permit sickness to overtake you, trying your patience; he may permit temptations to assail you, trying your faith even at its foundations; he may require of you great and varied activity, trying your willingness to run at his call. These burdens seem heavy, as the master's demand of service in the house seemed heavy to the servant when he returned weary and hungry from field labour; but although we should bear them all with complete uncomplaining alacrity, we should acquire thereby no right to reward.
There is absolutely no such thing as a surplus of merit in man. The imagination of it has ever been rife in man-made religions, as weeds spring thick and spontaneous from the ground; but never and nowhere is there any substantial foundation for this human conceit. It springs in the deepest ignorance, and it withers when the light of knowledge begins to shine. It rests on an entire misapprehension of the relations between God and man. If a man on ship-board, thinking that the ship was about to sink, on account of being too heavily loaded, should grasp the shrouds, and hang on them with all his weight, by way of lightening the ship, the bystanders would count him fatuous; and yet such is the folly of him who, getting all from God, imagines that he has conferred on God a favour by a surplus of goodness. I have seen grown people, in possession of all their faculties, able to read, if not further educated, when, in crossing a river by a ferry, they apprehended danger, applying both their hands to the side of the boat in which they stood, and, pushing with all their might, in order to push it towards a place of safety. This implies the grossest ignorance, or at least the total forgetfulness for the time of the most obvious and ordinary of the natural laws; and yet I have found that these persons had quite enough of wit to manage all their ordinary affairs, and to get along respectably in society. I think there is some analogy between this case and the case of those who, intelligent on other points, yet blindly imagine that they merit praise for not squandering God's gifts that have been placed under their care.
"When ye have done all, say, We are unprofitable servants" -- servants whom the master did not need, and who contribute nothing to him. The question whether the Lord conceded that in point of fact any man ever does perfectly perform all his duty is out of place here; The Lord's meaning is, even although a man should do all, he would still be destitute of merit before God; much more are those destitute of merit who come far short of perfection, and to this class belong all, even the best of the children of men.
Means and opportunities of bearing evil and doing good are in providence conceded to every one of us; and the law announced in another parable holds good here; If we improve aright the talents which we possess, more will forthwith be entrusted to us.
There is room for advancement; and, when grace is begun, it is sweet to grow in grace. If we had power to add cubit by cubit to our stature, we should have far to grow ere our head should strike the heavens; and in bearing meekly, and acting righteously, and living purely, we have room enough to expand: it will be long ere we have done all, and so our progress be stopped by striking the boundary. Forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth to those that are before, we may press on and ever on; yet there is room.
Nor let any one think that bearing and doing God's will must be less blessed when we learn that God did not need this at our hand, and that we do not thereby lay him under obligation to us. When one is truly taught of the Spirit, it will increase and not diminish the pleasure which he enjoys in obedience, to learn that all he is, and has, and does, comes from God. A dependent is happier than an independent position for human beings, if he on whom they hang is great and good. The life of a child is happiest during the period when he has no possession of his own, and desires none, -- when he gets all as he needs from his father; on this side, as well as on others, we must receive the kingdom as a little child.
Here is a little stream trickling down the mountain side. As it proceeds, other streams join it in succession from the right and left until it becomes a river. Ever flowing, and ever increasing as it flows, it thinks it will make a great contribution to the ocean when it shall reach the shore at length. No, river, you are an unprofitable servant; the ocean does not need you; could do as well and be as full without you; is not in any measure made up by you. True, rejoins the river, the ocean is so great that all my volume poured into it makes no sensible difference; but still I contribute so much, and this, as far as it goes, increases the amount of the ocean's supply. No: this indeed is the seeming to the ignorant observer on the spot; but whoever obtains deeper knowledge and a wider range, will discover and confess that the river is an unprofitable servant to the sea -- that it contributes absolutely nothing to the sea's store. From the ocean came every drop of water that rolls down in that river's bed, alike those that fell into it in rain from the sky, and those that flowed into it from tributary rivers, and those that sprang from hidden veins in the earth. Even although it should restore all, it gives only what it received. It could not flow, it could not be, without the free gift of all from the sea. To the sea it owes its existence and power. The sea owes it nothing; would be as broad and deep although this river had never been. But all this natural process goes on, sweetly and beneficently, notwithstanding: the river gets and gives; the ocean gives and gets. Thus the circle goes round, beneficent to creation, glorious to God.
Thus, in the spiritual sphere, -- in the world that God has created by the Spirit of his Son, circulations beautiful and beneficent continually play. From him, and by him, and to him are all things. To the saved man through whom God's mercy flows, the activity is unspeakably precious: to him the profit, but to God the praise.