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Nazareth Revisited


The Parables


The man with the barns. -- "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought within himself, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years: take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee; then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God" (Luke xii. 16).

This is not so much in the nature of a parable as an illustration. The object of its employment is manifest from its concluding sentence. It is to illustrate the ultimate folly of making self-provision the engrossing rule of life, as it is with the common run of men. The occasion of its introduction gives even greater piquancy to the lesson. We are informed that "One of the company" on a certain occasion, "said unto Jesus, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me." This was invoking Christ's authority in a case of disputed title to property. Such an appeal is generally considered important and respectable. In the present circumstances of human life (in which men to whom God has spoken are on probation as to the question of doing the will of God), Jesus could not look on questions of human property as men generally look upon them. First, he denied jurisdiction in such matters in the present state of affairs, though he will have jurisdiction enough when he comes to exercise judgment and justice. "Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?" Next, most men would reckon he goes out of his way to have a needless fling at covetousness which more or less animates most men in their dealings. "Take heed and beware of covetousness; for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth." The man who asked him to interfere must have felt this as an unkind rebuff, and the majority of people in our day would sympathise with him. He would feel he was only wanting "his own," and that if he asked Christ to help him, it was because the influence of a just man would be powerful. Yes, but there was another side to the question to which most men are blind. The lust of possession is a snare. It catches the heart and deadens it to other and higher considerations which ought to be supreme. Hence Jesus says "Beware," and speaks of "the deceitfulness of riches;" their tendency to cheat the heart out of wisdom. He, therefore, advises men to turn "the mammon of unrighteousness," when it comes their way, into a friend, by its use for God in a good stewardship of which He alone, and not man, is judge. Universal experience shows the necessity for his exhortation. Nothing is more common than for men of enlarging wealth to make use of it for still greater enlargement in self-provision and self-ministration to themselves and families. And nothing seems more ghastly and sterile in the day of death than munificent and skilful arrangements in this direction to the neglect of what God requires at a man's hand in the way of faithful stewardship. Nothing will emancipate a man so thoroughly and wholesomely from the bondage of riches as the use of them in the various duties which God has attached to this probationary state. This is what Jesus calls "being rich towards God" in contrast to a man "laying up treasure for himself." Being rich towards God may not seem much of an acquisition in the day of health and liberty, but the matter wears a different aspect when that day sets in clouds and darkness, as it inevitably does sooner or later. When the dead rise, and the Lord sets up His throne in judgment, the reality of treasure laid up in heaven will be manifest in the eyes of men and angels.

The barren fig-tree. -- A certain man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard, and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree and find none: cut it down. Why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering, said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it, and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that, thou shalt cut it down" (Luke xiii. 6).

The connection of this parable shows its meaning. The parable itself seems to carry its interpretation on its face. Some of the crowd attending Jesus on a certain occasion reported to him some recent occurrences of a tragical character -- the slaughtering of some Galileans to be offered with their own sacrifices: the crushing of some 18 people to death by the falling of a tower. Their report was apparently made in a tone that suggested the opinion that the said persons must have been more wicked than ordinary mortals for such things to happen to them. Jesus at once offered a comment unfavourable to this view, and made one of those man-lowering remarks that distinguished him from all human teachers: "Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you, nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Then he adds the parable which likens them all to barren fig trees spared at the request of a patient gardener, in the hope that a little further treatment may induce fecundity, but on the distinct understanding that a further failure is to be decisive as to their removal as useless pieces of herbage. The parable was, doubtless, uttered and recorded for general use afterwards. It invites men to regard the continuance of their privileges as a mark of divine patience, and not as an indication of their own merit. How naturally most men reason otherwise. When prosperity lasts, they complacently take it as a matter to which they are entitled. When adversity comes, they ask, "What have I done?" If they would realise that human life is altogether a matter of divine toleration, because of God's own purpose, and not because of human desert, they would most easily enter into this parable, and take the truly modest and perfectly reasonable attitude apostolically enjoined when we are commanded to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling," and to "pass the time of our sojourning here in fear."

There was, of course, a special applicability in the parable to the generation contemporary with Jesus. The divine displeasure had been gathering over the land of Israel for generations. The iniquity of the people was coming to a head, and the long gathering storm was about to burst, which would sweep Israel from their place among the nations, if reformation did not avert it. "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish," had special point as addressed to those who were to be engulphed in the flood of destruction that came with the overflowing of Roman victory 40 years later. We of the nineteenth century stand related to a similar situation. A dispensation is culminating, and judgment impends that will sweep away vast multitudes for the same reason -- divine patience long misunderstood and abused. God is gracious and long-suffering. The parable illustrates this, and though the fact will remain absolutely without influence as regards the population at large, it is a source of comfort and encouragement in personal cases where there is a disposition to turn from evil.

The Parable of the Lowest Place. -- "He put forth a parable to those who were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms. When thou art hidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room, lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him. And he that bade thee and him, come and say to thee, Give this man place, and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room, that when He that bade thee cometh, He may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher; then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee" (Luke xiv. 7).

This, like the last, seems not so much what is technically understood by a parable, as a piece of preceptive counsel. Yet it is a parable in so far as it selects one sort of occasion, and one form of humility to inculcate a lesson that applies to all occasions and any form. Invitation to partake in wedding festivities is a casual occurrence, and it would be a poor modesty that was to be confined to such occasions. It is, therefore, a parable in teaching a general lesson by a special instance. The need of the lesson may not be very apparent in modern educated circles where it has become embalmed in the forms of their etiquette: but a different feeling is created in the contemplation of either the harsh and undisguised emulations of Greek and Roman life, or Jewish life either, 1,800 years ago: or the barbarous self-assertiveness still prevalent in the vast mass of human population on the earth. To the end of Gentile times, Christ's parable will remain the unmistakeable indication and inculcation of the kind of behaviour that is acceptable with him. He emphasized the lesson with the immediate remark: "Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." The lesson may have no power with the mass of men, but it will to the last prevail with those who conform to the mind of Christ with the docility and zeal of true disciples. A modest and retiring disposition everywhere is more or less the indirect result of the commandment which took shape in this parable.

The Vineyard Labourers. -- Jesus had declared that the salvation of the rich would be a difficult thing. Peter drew attention to the fact that they (the disciples) were not rich but poor, and that this poverty was in a large measure voluntary: upon which he invited Jesus to state to them the advantages of their sacrifice. In this, there was a mixture of child-like simplicity with just a trace of complacency verging on vain glory. This accounts for the double nature of Christ's answer, which deals with both aspects of Peter's attitude. First, Jesus deals with the sincere aspect. He tells the disciples frankly that the counterpart of their fellowship with him in the day of his contempt would be a participation in his power and glory, when he should sit upon his throne in the day of restitution. He further says that "everyone" who had sacrificed for His sake would be recompensed a hundredfold and inherit everlasting life. But He adds a statement that suggests a qualification: "But many that are first shall be last, and the last first." The mere giving up of worldly advantage for His sake would not ensure final acceptance with God unless the act were performed and accompanied with an acceptable spirit of modesty and self-abasement: "For" -- and he proceeds to employ a parable which can only be rightly understood in view of these attendant circumstances.

It is a parable of hired labourers. The owner of a vineyard goes out early in the morning and employs all that accept service at a penny a day (about 8d). About nine o'clock (to adopt modern time) he goes out again, and finds other hands loitering unemployed in the market place. He sends them to his vineyard with the general assurance that he will make their wages right. He did the same at twelve o'clock, and three. Again, at five, when the day is nearly done, he pays another visit to the market place, and finding another batch of men idle, he sends them to work in his vineyard. At the close of the day, the whole of the labourers were mustered for payment of wages. Payment began with those who had come last. The early comers, looking on, imagined that as they had worked all day, they would get more than those who had worked only a part, although the contract was for one day's pay. When their turn came, they received what they had agreed for: but because the others had received a greater amount, they grumbled. Hearing their grumbling, the owner of the vineyard reasoned with one of them on behalf of the rest: "Friend, I do thee no wrong. Did'st thou not agree with me for a penny?.... Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?"

It is customary to understand this parable as teaching that every one of the accepted will be alike in their status in glory; that those who have just believed and taken on them the name of Christ and passed away without the opportunity of faithful stewardship, will rank equally with those who through long years of trial have "borne the burden and heat of the day." Another favourite idea with some is that it teaches that every one who believes will be saved without reference to their "walk and conversation." Those who take this view speak of "the penny of eternal life." They suppose the penny to teach that every one called to the vineyard will receive eternal life, and that the difference between acceptable and unacceptable labouring will be in the position assigned to them in the state to which eternal life will introduce them.

There are reasons for rejecting both views. The first reason lies in the interpretation which Jesus himself gives of the general drift of the parable. He concludes it with this remark: "So the last shall be first and the first last: for many be called but few chosen." As the labourers represent the "called," this makes it certain that they are not intended to stand indiscriminately for the saved. They stand for the called -- not for the chosen, though they include the chosen. The parable is employed expressly to teach that it is not everyone casually employed that is selected as a permanent servant by the owner of the vineyard. This reason is of itself decisive. There are others. It is not fitting that any class of the saved should be represented by those who "murmur against the good man of the house," or who have an "evil eye." The idea that all are to be equal would conflict with the plainly enunciated doctrine of the New Testament that the standing of men with Christ in the day of account will be determined by the account they have to render. This doctrine is rejected by the Christianity of the day, as a great many other true doctrines are. It has been nullified by the mis-application of that other true doctrine, that salvation is "by grace" "not of works, lest any man should boast."

There is no conflict between these doctrines, when it is seen that the doctrine of salvation by grace applies to the foundation and initiation of the plan. If salvation primarily depended on "works" no man could be saved: for "all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death." One sin is quite enough to ensure death, as shown in the case of Adam in Eden. Salvation, to be possible at all, has to be "by grace," by favour. This favour takes the form of the forgiveness of sins, by which a man becomes justified in the sight of God, and an heir of life eternal. But forgiveness is on conditions. The preaching of the Gospel is a proclamation of the conditions. The conditions not only determine the question of forgiveness or no forgiveness, but they also affect the question of how high in glory those who are forgiven will rise, for there are degrees of attainment in Christ: and it is here where the element of "account" comes in. It is here where "works" will determine a man's position. The man who in this connection exclaims "Not of works" does not "rightly divide the word of truth," but wrests it to his own destruction. Nothing is more plainly or more frequently indicated than that the called will be judged with reference to their works, and that their position will depend upon their account. Let these examples suffice: -- "Behold I come quickly, and my reward is with me to give every man according as his work shall be" (Rev. xxii. 12); "The Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he shall reward every man according to his works" (Matt. xvi. 27); "Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour" (1 Cor. iii. 8); "He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly, and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" (2 Cor. ix. 6); "Have thou authority over ten cities ... be thou over five cities" (Luke xix. 17-19).

What then is the teaching of the parable? That not every one who labours in the vineyard will receive the Lord's favour at the last; that not even the forsaking of houses and lands and relations, or the bearing of the burden and heat of the day, will commend to God a man who is a murmurer, or has an evil eye, or who is great in his own eyes: that it is a necessity that a man recognise the absolute sovereignty of the Lord of the vineyard, both as to possession and the right to do as he wills, uncontrolled by any will, or wish or whim, on the part of those whom he favours with employment: in a word, that "except a man humble himself as a little child, he shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven." The paying of the penny is a mere part of the drapery of the parable, but if a specific counterpart to it is insisted on, it is found in the fact that the Lord is just, and will give all that the holders of the covenant can justly claim to receive -- which is merely resurrection. Everything beyond this is favour-grace: and the Lord bestows this of His own bounty, and only where men find favour in His eyes.

The lost Sheep. -- Jesus said, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house oaf Israel." "The son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." The religious and well-to-do classes of the nation generally had too good an opinion of themselves to regard themselves as the lost: and Jesus took them at their own valuation. They considered themselves the Lord's saved elect, like thousands in the present day. Therefore he did not go after them, but after those whom they despised. "I came not," said he, "to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." To the publicans and sinners he addressed himself: and this class paid attention to him. At this the Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying, "This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them." This gives the key to the parable he spoke: "What man of you having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness and go after that which was lost until he find it? And when he hath found it he layeth it on his shoulders rejoicing, and when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost" (Luke xv. 4-6). He spoke this parable in answer to their cavils. Therefore, it applies to those to whose association on the part of Christ the Pharisees were objecting -- the sinners. They are the lost sheep -- (all were, in fact, for all had sinned, but all did not recognise the fact) -- Jesus had come to seek and save them. It was with this view he humbled himself to their society. He did not associate with them as sinners, but as sinners willing to be saved, which is a very different class of sinners from those of whom David speaks when he says: "Blessed is the man that standeth not in the way of sinners" (Psa. i. 1). Jesus did not associate with sinners to entertain them, or to take part with them in their pleasures or their sins. He humbled himself to them that he might teach them the way of righteousness: and if they would not listen to this, he turned away from them, and they from him. If they listened to him, and conformed to the Father's requirements as made known by him, then he received them gladly, and could say of such to the Pharisees, "The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." Nay, he not only thus received them: what said he in finishing his parables? "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." "More than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance." If a Pharisee was glad at the recovery of living mutton, why should he be envious at a spiritual recovery which caused joy among the angels? This was the argument of the parable. The lesson it conveys, it is easy to see; but how flat the lesson falls in our worse than Laodicean age, when the gladness of the angels is esteemed a myth, and interest on behalf of the fallen is pitied as an enthusiasts' craze. Yet there are those who as in Peter's day will "save themselves from this untoward generation." Let such be very courageous, and go in the face of the sublime complacency of a generation of shallow wiseacres who think themselves profound and learned and great and excellent, when the state of the case is tremendously the reverse when estimated in the light of divine common sense. "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God."

The Lost Money. -- A woman has lost money, and makes diligent search and finds it, and is so glad that she convenes her neighbours to rejoice with her (Luke xv. 8). This parable was spoken on the same occasion as the parable of the lost sheep, and has the same meaning, -- the figure merely being changed.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son. -- There have been many fanciful interpretations of this. There is no need for special ingenuity. The meaning of it is evidently very simple. It follows the parables of the lost sheep and the lost money, and was spoken in the same connection, and is therefore to be read in the light of the cavils and feelings that suggested them. The Pharisees and the Scribes murmured at Christ's reception of publicans and sinners. Christ aims by parable to exhibit the true meaning of his attitude, which on the surface appeared ambiguous. This he could not have more effectively done than by supposing the case of a man with two sons, one of whom, having received the portion his father had set aside for him, should emigrate and squander his substance in riotous living, and afterwards rue his course of life, and resolve to return home and throw himself upon his father's mercy. That a father should compassionately receive a son under such circumstances must have seemed natural even to the fossilised Scribes and Pharisees. How much more was Divine clemency to be shown to the fallen classes of Israel, who listened gladly to Christ, with an earnest resolution to walk in the ways of righteousness? There was a power in this argument which must have gone home even to the perceptions of the "blind Pharisee." But Jesus did not stop his parable there. He introduced a picture of the odious part the Pharisees themselves were playing. This he did in the case of the second son who stayed at home and behaved correctly, so far as outward decorum was concerned; and who, finding his vagrant brother received, in his own temporary absence, with joy and festivity, "was (on his arrival) angry, and would not go in." His father went out to him, and expostulated with him. The son complained that the father had never made him a feast, although he had faithfully served him so many years. The father pointed out that he was always at home, and that the whole establishment was at his command, and that it was reasonable they should make merry at the return of a son who had been as good as lost and dead to them all. The whole parable was an answer to the cavils of the Pharisees at Christ consorting with sinners. The record of it has been at the same time an encouragement, during all the ages that have since elapsed, to the erring who desire to return to the ways of right. It is, in a parabolic form, a reiteration of the comforting words of the Eternal Father, by Isaiah, "Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" (Is. lv. 7); or by Ezekiel, "If the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All the transgressions that he hath committed shall not be mentioned unto him" (Ezek. xviii 21).

The Unjust Steward. -- At the same time, "Jesus said also unto his disciples, there was a certain rich man who had a steward, and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him and said unto him, how is it that I hear this of thee? Give an account of thy stewardship: for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my Lord taketh away from me my stewardship. I cannot dig: to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, an hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, an hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill and write fourscore. And the lord (that is, the lord of the steward) commended the unjust steward because he had done wisely," to which Jesus adds the comment, "The children of this world are, in their generation, wiser than the children of light." The sense of this remark we realise on reflection. It was good policy on the part of the steward to use his vanishing opportunity while it lasted, as to make it provide a future for him which it did not yield in itself. The point of Christ's remark lies here, that the children of light -- (those who embrace and profess the faith of the kingdom) -- do not, as a rule, make a similarly wise use of their vanishing opportunity. They have only one life to live, and but a short time in which to use the power and opportunities they may have as stewards of the manifold grace of God. And yet, in most cases, they live as if this life would last for ever, and as if its one business were to provide for natural and personal wants. The consequence will be that, sowing to the flesh, they will reap corruption (Gal. vi. 8). In this they are not so wise as the children of this world, who, when they see a thing is going from their hand, make the most of their chance, "making hay while the sun shines." That is the view Jesus wished to enforce by the parable, is evident from the remarks with which he accompanied it. "And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." The mammon of unrighteousness is a phrase by which Jesus defines worldly wealth. Why he so designates it, we need not concern ourselves to enquire beyond noting that, as a rule, wealth is acquired and used unrighteously, which sufficiently accounts for Christ's expression. The important question is, How can the Mammon of unrighteousness be turned into "friends" against a time of failure? The time of failure is certain, in view of the fact that everyone of us must shortly part with all that we have. Death dissolves a man's connection with all he may have: and resurrection will not restore it. He will emerge from the ground a penniless man. How can wealth be so handled now as to be at such a time a "friend" providing us "everlasting habitations?" Jesus indicates the answer in saying, "He that is faithful in that which is least (mortal wealth) is faithful also in much (that which is to come).... If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's -- (the property of Christ in our hands now as stewards), -- who shall give you that which is your own?" (what a man receives in eternal life will in a peculiar sense be "his own"). Faithfulness, then, in the use of what we have now is the rule of promotion when the time comes to "give to every man according to his works." "Unrighteous mammon" used in the service of God will be found to have been turned into a friend for us in the day of account, when we have no longer any control over it. How it may be so used is abundantly indicated throughout the Scriptures. It is not confined to any particular form, but certainly does not consist in bestowing it wholly on one's own respectability and comfort, whether in self or family. The mode is indicated in Paul's words to Timothy about the rich: "Charge them that are rich in this world ... that they do good; that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate, laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life" (1 Tim. vi. 17-19). Jesus strongly recommends this application of the unrighteous mammon, by which a dangerous foe is turned into a friend. He emphasizes his exhortation by dogmatically asserting, "No servant can serve two masters ... Ye cannot serve God and mammon." The doctrine may be unacceptable, but it is true, as will be found in joy and grief by two different classes in the day of the issues of life.

There is no real ground for the difficulty that some feel about Christ parabolically holding up an unjust steward for imitation. He did not do so in the matter of the unjustness. The falsifier of his master's accounts is only introduced to illustrate the wisdom of providing for future need. The children of this world do it in their way, the children of light are exorted to do it in theirs, by a faithful use of "the unrighteous mammon."

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