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TRUE HARVEST JOY.
TEXT: LUKE xii. 16-21.
TO-DAY the harvest thanksgiving is celebrated through out the land, and it is most fitting that it should be with all of us a day of great and joyful giving of thanks. Although there are but few among the masses of people crowded together in this as in other great cities, who have any direct share in this great business of agriculture, yet we are all aware that it is the prime source of our common prosperity; indeed, I may say, the first condition of the development of our mental powers. So well do we know this, that whatever may be a man’s special calling or business by which he seeks at once to advance the common good and to benefit himself, we speak of it in every-day language, and not inappropriately, or without good reason, as “his field and his plough.” And so it is. All the different occupations of men that have to do with our existence and ordinary life in the world form a great inseparable whole; each is supported by the rest; failure in one direction spreads its effects far around; while every success, and, still more, every improvement, causes universal joy and gratitude among intelligent people, even among those who have no direct share in it. In the words of our text we find, it is true, a harvest joy,—the joy of a man over a year’s rich and 440blessed produce of his fields; but it is joy of a kind that the Lord condemns as folly. Are we to suppose from this that He disapproved of and condemned joy altogether, and therefore wished also to repress the thanksgiving for any favour or blessing from God, thanksgiving that flows only from joy? We cannot admit such a thought. It was the kind and manner of this joy that He blamed. And we find the key to the whole in the closing words of our text: “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself”—who rejoices over earthly riches—“and is not rich towards God.” We find it also in the words that immediately precede these verses: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness.” We cannot, in deed, say of the man in our text, that he was covetous in the strictest sense of the word, for he not only wished to gather up goods, but to enjoy what he had gathered. But because he thought only of himself in connection with what God had given him; because his joy was entirely on his own account,—utterly selfish,—this is why the Saviour charged him with folly. And let us not omit also to notice that though the Lord tells us nothing more of what passed in this man’s mind, He brings clearly to light the folly of his soul, when He tells us that he was reminded by a voice from heaven (a voice which in these days is speaking so loudly to us)11Berlin was visited by the cholera at the time when this sermon was preached. of the uncertainty and transitoriness of earthly life: “This night thy soul shall be required of thee.” Let us try to see, then, how the Saviour makes use of this the remembrance of the transitory nature of earthly life to warn us against selfishness in our joy and gratitude for God’s earthly blessings, and to give to that joy and gratitude a higher direction.
I. The first point, then, that we have to consider in our text is the saying of this man to himself: “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, 441drink, be merry.” These words, if we take them just as they stand, suggest a very primitive and crude state of things as compared with our present ways. The man who had reaped so rich a harvest is described to us as if he only thought of using and consuming in his own household what he had gained; although, of course, that would take a long series of years; he regarded it as his own provision, intended directly for his own use. The growth and increasing strength of association among men has brought us far beyond such a state of things. That which each one gains or produces, in what ever way or by whatever business, does not remain shut up with himself—it goes out into the general circle of commerce. But it does so because there is and must be something that we want above everything else,—above that thing itself which we have, and it is to the acquisition of this something that those among us who are like-minded with this man direct all their efforts. What will this bring to me? each one asks himself; that is, how much will it bring of that which will procure for you everything else? And if that is plentiful and abundant, he says in the same way, “Soul, thou hast great store of this much-praised representative of all things; now consider how thou wilt use thy treasure; use it entirely according to the desire of thy heart; eat, drink and be merry!”
Now here we have the two great motive powers,—human covetousness and self-indulgence,—and we see the conflict there is between them in each individual. To acquire and to enjoy, to gather up and to use,—how clearly each one reveals his character by the way in which he balances these against each other, and how long the greater number remain undecided as to which way they shall take! Some choose the plan of spending the greater part of their lives in continually accumulating, continually acquiring; but this with the hope of being able at last to rest and enjoy in comfort what they have gained; they are content in the meantime 442with rejoicing in their increasing gains, that at last, when they have enough, they may give way to and gratify every bent and desire of their souls. Others again—and it looks as if this word of the Lord were directed somewhat more specially to them—who hear already, at least afar off, the voice from heaven, “This night thy soul shall be required of thee!”—these others set acquiring and enjoying closer together, gathering and acquiring- as much as they can according to the order of nature in the short space of a year, in order at once to take the good of it; the next year, they say, will bring new activity, and as its result, new enjoyment. But the one plan is no better than the other; for if it were said to those last, there is no question of the course of a year, this night thy soul shall be required of thee, their calculation would be as mistaken as the other.
But further, if a man has once taken measures for deciding this question, and laid down a rule for himself in the matter, then he will be deaf to all demands that interfere with his calculations. He has gathered and toiled, he has laboured and put forth all his powers for himself and for a circle that he has clearly defined to himself; and is he to be asked to turn his attention elsewhere? is he to have demands made on him for help to those who do not belong to this circle? is he to miss something of the enjoyment that he has set before him as the whole aim of his work? Rather he will try to turn away everything of this kind, that he may go on undisturbed in the course of life that he has laid out for himself. But if there comes to him the voice, “This night thy soul shall be required of thee,” how little then has his hardness of heart availed him I how delusive will every thing then prove that he has promised himself for this life! how vain everything that he has done for it alone! And so the Saviour rebukes the man who is not seeking after the kingdom of God, whose whole mind is set on the cheerful enjoyment of this short span of earthly life. He rebukes him, 443while He warns him of the end. He who knows and recognises nothing beyond this alternation between gaining and enjoying, however honourable his gains may be, however select and refined his pleasures, is still doing all only for himself,—for himself in this his earthly life, with his tastes for the enjoyment of earthly things, with his clinging to perishing possessions! And yet he cannot conceal from himself that even for him there is something better within reach; and so every thought of the end of this life reproaches him with his folly.
II. But we have not yet seen all that was in the mind of the man whom the Saviour sets before us. He had said to himself, What wilt thou do? thou hast no place where to lay up thy fruits! Well, thought he, I will pull down my barns and build greater, and in them will I bestow all my fruits and my goods; and not till then was to begin his easy life of enjoyment. But,—it would certainly have been a folly to pull down his barns and build greater for a single abundant harvest; therefore he must have been counting on similar ones to come. So we may conclude that he was one of those who thoroughly understand their business. He had improved his property, and applied all his faculties to his work; and now the fruit of all this painstaking began to be seen; now he could count with some probability on the continuance of this prosperity, and therefore wished to make arrangements for adapting his whole manner of life to his enlarged possessions. But as a man seldom attains to seeing such returns from his long-continued toils before he has reached middle age, and therefore whatever he builds then will in the natural order of things outlast him, he thinks, in his building, not only of himself, but of those who will after wards live in his house and lay up in his barns; he thinks of the generations that may descend from him, and includes the life of his posterity in his own. Consider then how these words remind us of the great histories of human life 444that have taken place in our own land. Since the days of the remotest ancestors of whom we have any knowledge, how far have the operations of man on his mother earth extended, by the ever-renewed labours of successive generations! to what perfection have they reached almost before our own eyes! But how much has intervened from time to time which must have made manifest the folly of those who limited the aim of their life’s work in the way we have spoken of! In the history of our own neighbourhood, without touching on the state of things before that dreadful war that desolated these lands two hundred years ago, we know how after its close all the labours of men on the soil were almost to begin anew. Then villages and towns rose again, but others remained lying in ruins, because there were not enough of men to rebuild them with profit. And after that time of terror was got over, how much was built, just as hopefully as by the man in our text, for future generations! how clearly do the monuments of that period proclaim the hope that where the builder lived and gathered treasure, his latest descendants should also live and amass in undiminished prosperity. But by-and-by times of war came again; for long years hostile armies swarmed over the land, and again many of the works of the elder generations perished in the storm. How little has history preserved to us of those who, between those two fateful times, lived and laboured, gathered and built! The names of those who in that interval shared the land and enjoyed the fruits of it are almost all unknown; and even when it is known here and there by whom a noble and stately mansion was built, it is very seldom the descendants of the founder who inhabit it. But after the devastation of the seven years war, a splendid time of cultivation began once more; then tracts of land that had never before yielded anything to man were subdued by the plough, and began to bear crops; then the ancients forests were felled, that a yearly harvest might be 445drawn from the soil; marshes were drained, and regions that until then had only given forth noxious vapours became fertile and blooming; foreigners who had no room in their own country were attracted here, and we made them welcome, that our common prosperity might be increased by their help.
This, then, is cultivating in order to reaping: and how continuously has man been perfecting his dominion over his mother earth! how much more skilfully and successfully is this great business carried on among us! And though a far greater number of people than before now live in the same space, there has also been a constantly increasing development of mental powers, and life has altogether taken a fuller and nobler form. How well for those, then and now, who, in taking any active part in this progress, have rejoiced more in the ennobling of mankind than in the growing promise of wealth for their descendants; who have valued an improved state of worldly circumstances less for its own sake than because it leaves men more free and open to receive the kingdom of God. But if our case is only such as the Saviour represents in our text; if every one works only for himself and his successors, and wishes only himself and his family to reap the fruits of his industry, I have already sufficiently indicated how the folly of such a course punishes itself. How many a one in those past times, while labouring for himself and his descendants, may have looked far into the future and said to his soul, Take thine ease, and be merry; the name of thy race will never perish: he may have assured himself that what he had already made would suffice to maintain them in splendour and honour; that in the dwelling which he had built his children and his children’s children would dwell, and that the fame of a race sprung from such an ancestor would be ever more widely spread; that the rights which he had acquired over others, and which placed him in so favourable a position for employing, not only his own 446powers, but far more those of others, to serve his ends, would be equally serviceable to those who came after him; that all would be an inviolable possession, and continue as it had been! But man is like a falling leaf, “as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth; the wind passeth over it, and it is gone”; and this is true, not only of individuals it is true of races of men, it is true of all human plans. The most famous names pass away, and the scenes of their glory are no more. Poverty overtakes the richest families; and needy descendants, stripped of all the distinctions and prerogatives that adorned their ancestors, and far from their palaces, are often compelled to seek their bread of sorrow among strangers!
III. Thus we only now come to the full meaning of the question put to the man in the text by the heavenly voice: Whose shall the things be which thou hast prepared? Yes, whose shall they be? That is the question that always brings out the vanity of mere human wisdom; for there is none who can give the answer. If we look at the question in the sense that first of all occurs to every one, and in immediate connection with that stern sentence, This night thy soul shall be required of thee, it reminds us how so many, though perfectly aware that they have only a short and uncertain term of earthly life, and that what a man has worked for must go to those who come after him, yet neglect to arrange who shall have what they leave behind them, and that even when they have ample reason and motive for doing so. A most foolish fear of death makes many a man banish every thought of this kind from his mind; and if he brings himself to the point of setting about such an arrangement, he thinks he already hears the nails being driven into his coffin, and death whetting the scythe that is to cut him down. Foolish man! when there is really nothing—no agitation or satisfaction of mind, no feeling of hunger or thirst, of comfort or refreshment,—nothing that does not remind us how fleeting 447is our earthly life! Therefore let every one for himself get the mastery over this idea!
But this is not all: the question has a wider and deeper meaning. Whose shall these things be that thou hast gathered? These words remind us, further, of the various relations of human order and human law which protect our property and our possessions in the widest sense of the word. On these finally depend the things we have been considering to-day: they are, as it were, the hinges on which all work and business move. Most of those who have worked for their successors, who have wished to be able to count on their enjoying life in comfort, and on being honoured by them as faithful and considerate parents, have done so in the confidence that these social relations would remain unchanged. But how utterly mistaken they were! How even in our own district does the fleeting nature of all earthly things take hold of us! nay, how manifest it is here on the largest scale! We need only look back over a short period of history; for how short are a few hundred years, not only in the history of mankind in general, but in that of individual nations; and in that time what great changes have taken place in the legal relations of almost all the nations in this part of the world! There is no doubt of it—it is impossible that things should always remain as they have been.
Perhaps those relations originated in some great and undeniable inequality between one man and another; then, of course, where that inequality no longer exists, they can no longer serve the same purpose; and what was once justice may, in different circumstances, be the bitterest injustice. But if one party insists on defending such a change, while another opposes it, then what sad variance arises between forces that should work together! what endless quarrels between those who yet cannot get on with out each other! And why? For this sole reason, that each 448one thinks only of himself and those belonging to him. The one knows that his predecessors have laboured for him, and he wishes at least to lay up something for those who come after him. But if he is to transmit gratefully what his fathers have made; if his own toil and trouble are not to be fruitless; his successors must have the same rights in regard to others which he has himself enjoyed; otherwise all his good beginnings are mistaken, and he is out in his reckoning. The other, on the contrary, knows that the adverse conditions under which his fathers groaned exist no longer; he notices in the affairs of men a tendency to change in his favour, and finds in this an inducement to work his way up to a better position. And so the two parties oppose each other, and strife and dissension break out. Those on the one side wish to keep what they have always had; those on the other struggle to win what they have not. But if the former are only actuated by the belief that they are called on to represent a special class in society and to defend its property, while the latter think that their work is to oppose this exclusiveness and to set up a new special class; what can there be but bitter strife and foolish disputes? What is this but that very selfishness which the Lord condemns when He says, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God”? For where there is debate and contention—a different kind of debate from that by which we seek in the spirit of love to find out the truth—there is also covetousness and selfishness; and there, too, is the folly of which the Lord says, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; and the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be?” For mark well, even in the course of a single night, changes may take place in human things without your being consulted which entirely alter your position; and each one who, instead of concerning himself with the common good, and regarding himself as a part of the great whole, has 449limited his interest to some narrow circle, perhaps opposed to the private interest of some one else; every one has a soul which, with all its desires and joys, its treasures and possessions, may in a night be required of him! And the more keenly the strife has been carried on, the less sure can human wisdom be of any firm ground or of any certain issue; the more foolish would it be to undertake to answer the question, Whose shall those things be which thou hast provided, or hast wished to provide? But where instead of strife and wrangling, instead of self-seeking and covetousness, that rule of life and feeling guides men which makes them rich in God; in that God who makes His sun shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust; in that God before whom all are equal, His fatherly love going forth to all; whose wise decrees are indeed hidden from us, so that we can never for one short moment lift the veil that conceals them, but whose laws and will are clearly revealed and should be written on the hearts of those who confess the name of His Son;—among such people there is an end of this folly; each of them is willing that his soul should be called away at any moment; and such men know whose the things shall be which they have provided.
And now, my dear friends, after all this—with all this work and business which goes on, one day and one year like another; with that wider view of human things that extends from one generation to another; with the loving wisdom which seeks to answer without covetousness, according to the mind of God, the question whose the things shall be which we have provided; and so to preserve or establish anew all legal relations, that mutual love may rule over all, and that each may be able to rejoice in the common welfare without wranglings or disputes; after all, we are nothing more than stewards of God’s earthly gifts. What are we as Christians? Stewards of His mysteries. But the 450Saviour, in the words of our text, teaches us not to separate these two things. As stewards of God’s earthly gifts we gather and are meant to gather treasure; but each of us not for himself, nor for those who are to come after him; not for that circle of society to which he specially belongs; but each for all, each for the whole, each regarding himself as belonging to the great family of man, which is to become one flock under one Shepherd. And we can only be faithful stewards of God’s earthly gifts by being at the same time stewards of His mysteries; who, because we have risen from death to life by a living faith, seek, even in the work and toil of temporal things, only that which is eternal. And thus a pure joy in God’s earthly blessings, undisturbed by any fear of death, is the portion of those alone who walk in that love which makes all men friendly with each other, and who are therefore each one ready to let his own interests stand aside for the greatest good of all. And thus only shall we be in a position to give in our account as to how we have helped for ward the development of men’s powers in our own neighbour hood, and how each of us has used his own powers only for the common good. But who can feel this, except he who looks beyond this earthly life, and keeps eternal things steadily in view? Thus, and thus only can he begin and continue such a life. Everything is foolishness, apart from that simple heavenly wisdom which He has taught us who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. He does not teach us to despise earthly things; He does not teach us to with draw from the business of the world; for God has placed us in the world to make Him known. Thousands of worlds are rolling around us; but we do not know, though we may conjecture, that there is active, intelligent life there; but man is set in this world to make God ever more gloriously known—to glorify, by his life and his love, Him for whom and by whom he was created. Everything that we do on this earth is meant to subserve that end; and he who has this 451end in view does all not for himself—not for this one or that one: he does it from the eternal motive of love, and for eternity. May every new gift of God, then, which we receive from the hand of nature remind us afresh that the earthly exists only for the sake of the eternal, in order that the Divine Being may manifest Himself ever more clearly in men who are His offspring; and that the glory of His only-begotten Son and the gladsome life of His Spirit may shine ever more brightly out of all the works of men. If we do not use His gifts for this, we abuse them; if we are not setting this aim before us, we are with all our worldly wisdom only fools—fools who must be continually anxious about whose the things they have prepared shall be; who are ever clinging, as if it were to have no end, to that of which the end is coming so soon. May He be pleased to lead us all to this wisdom; and may every warning from history, every thing that goes on before our eyes and close around us—all danger of death, as well as every glad sense of life, ever more powerfully impress us, that we may more and more under stand this heavenly voice; that it may not need to reproach us as fools, but that in respect to this also His Spirit may bear witness with our spirits that we are His children.
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