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SECTION III. THE FIRST LAST, AND THE LAST FIRST
Having declared the rewards of self-sacrifice, Jesus proceeded to show the risk of forfeiture or partial loss arising out of the indulgence of unworthy feelings, whether as motives to self-denying acts, or as self-complacent reflections on such acts already performed. “But,” He said in a warning manner, as if with upraised finger, “many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Then, to explain the profound remark, He uttered the parable preserved in Matthew’s Gospel only, which follows immediately after.
The explanation is in some respects more difficult than the thing to be explained, and has given rise to much diverse interpretation. And yet the main drift of this parable seems clear enough. It is not, as some have supposed, designed to teach that all will share alike in the eternal kingdom, which is not only irrelevant to the connection of thought, but untrue. Neither is the parable intended to proclaim the great evangelic truth that salvation is of grace and not of merit, though it may be very proper in preaching to take occasion to discourse on that fundamental doctrine. The great outstanding thought set forth therein, as it seems to us, is this, that in estimating the value of work, the divine Lord whom all serve takes into account not merely quantity, but quality; that is, the spirit in which the work is done.
The correctness of this view is apparent when we take a comprehensive survey of the whole teaching of Jesus on the important subject of work and wages in the divine kingdom, from which it appears that the relation between the two things is fixed by righteous law, caprice being entirely excluded; so that if the first in work be last in wages in any instances, it is for very good reasons.
There are, in all, three parables in the Gospels on the subject referred to, each setting forth a distinct idea, and, in case our interpretation of the one at present to be specially considered is correct, all combined presenting an exhaustive view of the topic to which they relate. They are the parables of the Talents394394Matt. xxv. 14-30. and of the Pounds,395395Luke xix. 12-28. and the one before us, called by way of distinction “the Laborers in the Vineyard.”
In order to see how these parables are at once distinct and mutually complementary, it is necessary to keep in view the principles on which the value of work is to be determined. Three things must be taken into account in order to form a just estimate of men’s works, viz. the quantity of work done, the ability of the worker, and the motive. Leaving out of view meantime the motive: when the ability is equal, quantity determines relative merit; and when ability varies, then it is not the absolute amount, but the relation of the amount to the ability that ought to determine value.
The parables of the Pounds and of the Talents are designed to illustrate respectively these two propositions. In the former parable the ability is the same in all, each servant receiving one pound; but the quantity of work done varies, one servant with his pound gaining ten pounds, while another with the same amount gains only five. Now, by the above rule, the second should not be rewarded as the first, for he has not done what he might. Accordingly, in the parable a distinction is made, both in the rewards given to the two servants, and in the manner in which they are respectively addressed by their employer. The first gets ten cities to govern, and these words of commendation in addition: “Well, thou good servant; because thou host been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities.” The second, on the other hand, gets only five cities, and what is even more noticeable, no praise. His master says to him dryly, “Be thou also over five cities.” He had done somewhat, in comparison with idlers even something considerable, and therefore his service is acknowledged and proportionally rewarded. But he is not pronounced a good and faithful servant; and the eulogy is withheld, simply because it was not deserved: for he had not done what he could, but only half of what was possible, taking the first servant’s work as the measure of possibility.
In the parable of the Talents the conditions are different. There the amount of work done varies, as in the parable of the Pounds; but the ability varies in the same proportion, so that the ratio between the two is the same in the case of both servants who put their talents to use. One receives five, and gains five; the other receives two, and gains two According to our rule, these two should be equal in merit; and so they are represented in the parable. The same reward is assigned to each, and both are commended in the very same terms; the master’s words in either case being: “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou host been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”
Thus the case stands when we take into account only the two elements of ability to work and the amount of work done; or, to combine both into one, the element of zeal. But there is more than zeal to be considered, at least in the kingdom of God. In this world men are often commended for their diligence irrespective of their motives; and it is not always necessary even to be zealous in order to gain vulgar applause. If one do something that looks large and liberal, men will praise him without inquiring whether for him it was a great thing, a heroic act involving self-sacrifice, or only a respectable act, not necessarily indicative of earnestness or devotion. But in God’s sight many bulky things are very little, and many small things are very great. The reason is, that He Seth the heart, and the hidden springs of action there, and judges the stream by the fountain. Quantity is nothing to Him, unless there be zeal; and even zeal is nothing to Him, unless it be purged from all vain glory and self-seeking — a pure spring of good impulses; cleared of all smoke of carnal passion — a pure flame of heaven-born devotion. A base motive vitiates all.
To emphasize this truth, and to insist on the necessity of right motives and emotions in connection with work and sacrifices, is the design of the parable spoken by Jesus in Peraea. It teaches that a small quantity of work done in a right spirit is of greater value than a large quantity done in a wrong spirit, however zealously it may have been performed. One hour’s work done by men who make no bargain is of greater value than twelve hours’ work done by men who have borne the heat and burden of the day, but who regard their doings with self-complacency Put in receptive form, the lesson of the parable is: Work not as hirelings basely calculating, or as Pharisees arrogantly exacting, the wages to which you deem yourselves entitled; work humbly, as deeming yourselves unprofitable servants at best; generously, as men superior to selfish calculations of advantage; trustfully, as men who confide in the generosity of the great Employer, regarding Him as one from whom you need not to protect yourselves by making beforehand a firm and fast bargain.
In this interpretation, it is assumed that the spirit of the first and of the last to enter the vineyard was respectively such as has been indicated; and the assumption is justified by the manner in which the parties are described. In what spirit the last worked may be inferred from their making no bargain; and the temper of the first is manifest from their own words at the end of the day: “These last,” said they, “have wrought but one hour, and thou host made them equal to us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.” This is the language of envy, jealousy, and self-esteem, and it is in keeping with the conduct of these laborers at the commencement of the day’s work; for they entered the vineyard as hirelings, having made a bargain, agreeing to work for a stipulated amount of wages.
The first and last, then, represent two classes among the professed servants of God. The first are the calculating and self-complacent; the last are the humble, the self-forgetful, the generous, the trustful. The first are the Jacobs, plodding, conscientious, able to say for themselves, “Thus I was: in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and the sleep departed from mine eyes;.” yet ever studious of their own interest, taking care even in their religion to make a sure bargain for themselves, and trusting little to the free grace and unfettered generosity of the great Lord. The last are Abraham-like men, not in the lateness of their service, but in the magnanimity of their faith, entering the vineyard without bargaining, as Abraham left his father’s house, knowing not whither he was to go, but knowing only that God had said, “Go to a land that I shall show thee.” The first are the Simons, righteous, respectable, exemplary, but hard, prosaic, ungenial; the last are the women with alabaster boxes, who for long have been idle, aimless, vicious, wasteful of life, but at last, with bitter tears of sorrow over an unprofitable past, begin life in earnest, and endeavor to redeem lost time by the passionate devotion with which they serve their Lord and Savior. The first, once more, are the elder brothers who stay at home in their father’s house, and never transgress any of his commandments, and have no mercy on those who do; the last are the prodigals, who leave their father’s house and waste their substance on riotous living, but at length come to their senses, and say, “I will arise, and go to my father;.” and having met him, exclaim, “Father, I have sinned, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.”
The two classes differing thus in character are treated in the parable precisely as they ought to be. The last are made first, and the first are made last. The last are paid first, to signify the pleasure which the master has in rewarding them. They are also paid at a much higher rate; for, receiving the same sum for one hour’s work that the others receive for twelve, they are paid at the rate of twelve pence per diem. They are treated, in fact, as the prodigal was, for whom the father made a feast; while the “first” are treated as the elder brother, whose service was acknowledged, but who had to complain that his father never had given him a kid to make merry with his friends. Those who deem themselves unworthy to be any thing else than hired servants, and most unprofitable in that capacity, are dealt with as sons; and those who deem themselves most meritorious are treated coldly and distantly, as hired servants.
Reverting now from the parable to the apophthegm it was designed to illustrate, we observe that the degradation of such as are first in ability, zeal, and length of service, to the last place as regards the reward, is represented as a thing likely to happen often. “Many that are first shall be last.” This statement implies that self-esteem is a sin which easily besets men situated as the twelve, i. e. men who have made sacrifices for the kingdom of God. Now, that this is a fact observation proves; and it further teaches us that there are certain circumstances in which the laborious and self-denying are specially liable to fall into the vice of self-righteousness. It will serve to illustrate the deep and, to most minds on first view, obscure saying of Jesus, if we indicate here what these circumstances are.
1. Those who make sacrifices for Christ’s sake are in danger of falling into a self-righteous mood of mind, when the spirit of self-denial manifests itself in rare occasional acts, rather than in the form of a habit. In this case Christians rise at certain emergencies to an elevation of spirit far above the usual level of their moral feelings; and therefore, though at the time when the sacrifice was made they may have behaved heroically, they are apt afterwards to revert self-complacently to their noble deeds, as an old soldier goes back on his battles, and with Peter to ask, with a proud consciousness of merit for having forsaken all, What shall we have therefore? Verily, a state of mind greatly to be feared. A society in which spiritual pride and self-complacency prevails is in a bad way. One possessed of prophetic insight into the moral laws of the universe can foretell what will happen. The religious community which deems itself first will gradually fall behind in gifts and graces, and some other religious community which it despises will gradually advance onward, till the two have at length, in a way manifest to all men, changed places.
2. There is great danger of degeneracy in the spirit of those who make sacrifices for the kingdom of God, when any particular species of service has come to be much in demand, and therefore to be held in very high esteem. Take, as an example, the endurance of physical tortures and of death in times of persecution. It is well known with what a furor of admiration martyrs and confessors were regarded in the suffering church of the early centuries. Those who suffered martyrdom were almost deified by popular enthusiasm: the anniversaries of their death — of their birthdays,396396The festival of a martyr was called his natalitia. as they were called, into the eternal world — were observed with religious solemnity, when their doings and sufferings in this world were rehearsed with ardent admiration in strains of extravagant eulogy. Even the confessors, who had suffered, but not died for Christ, were looked up to as a superior order of beings, separated by a wide gulf from the common herd of untried Christians. They were saints, they had a halo of glory round their heads; they had power with God, and could, it was believed, bind or loose with even more authority than the regular ecclesiastical authorities. Absolution was eagerly sought for from them by the lapsed; admission to their communion was regarded as an open door by which sinners might return into the fellowship of the church. They had only to say to the erring, ego in peace,” and even bishops must receive them. Bishops joined with the populace in this idolatrous homage to the men who suffered for Christ’s sake. They petted and flattered the confessors, partly from honest admiration, but party also from policy, to Induce others to imitate their example, and to foster the virtue of hardihood, so much needed in suffering times.
This state of feeling in the church was obviously fraught with great danger to the souls of those who endured hardship for the truth, as tempting them to fanaticism, vanity, spiritual pride, all presumption. Nor were they all by any means temptation-proof. Many took all the praise thou received as their due, all deemed themselves persons of great consequence. The soldiers, who had been flattered by their generals to make them brave, began to act as if they were the masters, and could write, for example, to one who had been a special offender in the extravagance of his eulogies, such a letter as this: “All the confessors to Cyprian the bishop: Know that we have granted peace to all those of whom you have had an account what they have done: how they have behaved since the commission of their crimes; and we would that these presents should be by you imparted to the rest of the bishops. We wish you to maintain peace with the holy martyrs.”397397Cave, Primitive Christianity, Part iii. cap. v. For the original, vide Cypriani Opera [Clark’s Ante-Nicene Library, Cyprian, i. 54]. Thus was fulfilled in those confessors the saying, “Many that are first shall be last.” First in suffering for the truth and in reputation for sanctity, they became last in the judgment of the great Searcher of hearts. They gave their bodies to be scourged, maimed, burned, and it profited them little or nothing.398398The virtue now in request is that of giving liberally to missions and to philanthropic enterprises of all sorts. The same degeneracy of motive may take place in connection with giving as in connection with suffering in early times, and the first in our subscription-lists may be last in the book of life.
3. The first are in danger of becoming the last when self-denial is reduced to a System, and practiced ascetically, not for Christ’s sake, but for one’s own sake. That in respect of the amount of self-denial the austere ascetic is entitled to rank first, nobody will deny. But his right to rank first in intrinsic spiritual worth, and therefore in the divine kingdom, is more open to dispute. Even in respect to the fundamental matter of getting rid of self, he may be, not first, but last. The self-denial of the ascetic is in a subtle way intense self-assertion. True Christian self-sacrifice signifies hardship, loss undergone, not for its own sake, but for Christ’s sake, and for truth’s sake, at a time when truth cannot be maintained without sacrifice. But the self-sacrifice of the ascetic is not of this kind. It is all endured for his own sake, for his own spiritual benefit and credit. He practices self-denial after the fashion of a miser, who is a total abstainer from all luxuries, and even grudges himself the necessaries of life because he has a passion for hoarding. Like the miser, he deems himself rich; yet both he and the miser are alike poor: the miser, because with all his wealth he cannot part with his coin in exchange for enjoyable commodities; the ascetic, because his coins, “good works,” so called, painful acts of abstinence, are counterfeit, and will not pass current m the kingdom of heaven. All his labors to save his soul will turn out to be just so much rubbish to be burned up; and if he be saved at all, it will be as by fire.
Recalling now for a moment the three classes of cases in which the first are in danger of becoming last, we perceive that the word “many” is not an exaggeration. For consider how much of the work done by professing Christians belongs to one or other of these categories: occasional spasmodic efforts; good works of liberality and philanthropy, which are in fashion and in high esteem in the religious world; and good works done, not so much from interest in the work, as from their reflex bearing on the doer’s own religious interests. Many are called to work in God’s vineyard, and many are actually at work. But few are chosen; few are choice workers; few work for God in the spirit of the precepts taught by Jesus.
But though there be few such workers, there are some. Jesus does not say all who are first shall be last, and all who are last shall be first: His word is many. There are numerous exceptions to the rule in both its parts. Not all who bear the heat and burden of the day are mercenary and self-righteous. No; the Lord has always had in His spiritual vineyard a noble band of workers, who, if there were room for boasting in any case, might have boasted on account of the length, the arduousness, and the efficiency of their service, yet cherished no self-complacent thoughts, nor indulged in any calculations how much more they should receive than others. Think of devoted missionaries to heathen lands; of heroic reformers like Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Latimer; of eminent men of our own day, recently taken from amongst us. Can you fancy such men talking like the early laborers in the vineyard? Nay, verily! all through life their thoughts of themselves and their service were very humble indeed; and at the close of life’s day their day’s work seemed to them a very sorry matter, utterly undeserving of the great reward of eternal life. Such first ones shall not be last.
If there be some first who shall not be last, there are doubtless also some last who shall not be first. If it were otherwise; if to be last in length of service, in zeal and devotion, gave a man an advantage, it would be ruinous to the interests of the kingdom of God. It would, in fact, be in effect putting a premium on indolence, and encouraging men to stand all the day idle, or to serve the devil till the eleventh hour; and then in old age to enter the vineyard, and give the Lord the poor hour’s work, when their limbs were stiff and their frames feeble and tottering. No such demoralizing law obtains in the divine kingdom. Other things being equal, the longer and the more earnestly a man serves God, the sooner he begins, and the harder he works, the better for himself hereafter. If those who begin late in the day are graciously treated, it is in spite, not in consequence, of their tardiness. That they have been so long idle is not a commendation, but a sin; not a subject of self-congratulation, but of deep humiliation. If it be wrong for those who have served the Lord much to glory in the greatness of their service, it is surely still more unbecoming, even ridiculous, for any one to pride himself in the littleness of his. If the first has no cause for boasting and self-righteousness, still less has the last.
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