A Property Dispute -- Covetousness and Anxiety -- His Second Coming.
At the close of the remarks which Christ addressed to the crowd outside the house in which he had had the sharp encounter with the Scribes, Pharisees, and lawyers, described in the last chapter, an incident occurred that gave colour to a long and most valuable discourse on practical topics. One of the company, taking advantage of his personal proximity to Christ, asked him to interfere in a dispute in his family about property -- thinking no doubt that Christ's influence would be powerful for settlement. Christ will yet settle all disputes, great and small -- both by influence, and power; for it is written, "He shall execute justice and judgment in the earth," and "He shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, nor reprove after the hearing of his ears." But the time had not come for him to act this part. He had no command from the Father and no authority from man to interpose judicially in temporal affairs in his character as "the Lamb of God," manifested to "take away the sins of the world." He, therefore, could have no other answer than the one he gave: "Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?"
He did not, however, content himself with repudiating the part he was prematurely invited to act. He gave the subject an immediate present application. The man who had asked his interference in a property dispute evidently did so in the grasping spirit common to men at such times. Jesus took hold of this. "Take heed and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth." Then, as was his wont, he gave point to the lesson by employing a parable -- the parable of the man with the barns, which will be found discoursed of in chapter xxx. He leaves no doubt of its application; for he concludes by saying, "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God." We have already had occasion to remark on the frequency and the emphasis with which Jesus refers disparagingly to the influence of great possessions in the present state of existence. Some of the Sons of God can "make to themselves friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness," by their righteous use in the service of God, as Jesus himself in another place exhorted, and as exemplified in cases of Zaccheus, Joseph of Arimathea, Chusa, and many others in the apostolic age; and in the times of the prophets, Ezra, Josiah, Hezekiah, Solomon, David, and further back, Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and others. But, as regards the average run of men, there can be no doubt that the possession of wealth tends to generate a frame of mind inconsistent with the modesty and purity that are acceptable to God. It tends to pride and indulgence and barrenness of spiritual fruit. Therefore the operations of the gospel are divinely directed towards the poor. "To the poor the gospel is preached." "Hath not God chosen the poor of this world?"
There is an object in this. It is not that the poor as such are sought after, but that the poor offer a better soil for spiritual tillage. They are, as a class, humbler and more reasonably-minded where light comes, and more appreciative of the goodness of God than those who have "more than heart could wish." Where they are not in this sense "rich in faith," their poverty is no recommendation. A poor man who is poor in faith is an uninteresting object indeed, both to God and man. There are millions of them upon the earth who grow and perish like "the grass of the field." But such as are enlightened and believing and obedient, are precious in the sight of God. For their guidance, Jesus proceeded to speak.
Having finished his response to the man who had said, "Speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me," he addressed himself to his disciples (Luke xii. 22): He had not only deprecated riches: he went a step further. He discouraged the anxiety that is common to men on the subject of temporal affairs; that is, to men who have not faith in God. His command to his disciples was: "Have faith in God." That this means more than belief that God exists, and that He will perform His promises -- that it means trust in Him for care in temporal things, is manifest from what he said on this occasion. They were to take no thought for their life, what they should eat: neither for the body, what they should put on. They were to look at God's provision for the ravens and the herbs of the field, and to consider that they themselves were of more value in God's estimation than these. "How much more will He clothe you, O ye of little faith? Seek not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after (men that are 'without God in the world'). Your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you? Fear not little flock, it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom."
It is evident that these precepts pre-suppose "Faith in God." They test the existence of that faith. They excite no response where it does not exist. But they are not intended to lead to presumption. There is a palpable difference between faith and presumption. Jesus barred the way to a presumptuous application of the promises by his response to the Tempter's suggestion, that he should cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple on the strength of the assurance he had received that the angels would bear him free from harm. "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." If he recognised this rule in his own case, he did not mean his disciples to ignore it in theirs. That he did not mean them to neglect their part in the provision of promised daily bread is evident from other sayings of his, and notably from those which he spoke by the mouth of his apostles after his departure from the earth, such as "If any will not work, neither shall he eat" (2 Thes. iii. 10); and again, "If any provide not for his own, especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Tim. v. 8).
It is evident that the design of the remarks under consideration was to encourage a tranquil spirit of faith and hope in the occupations of life, and not to inculcate idleness or neglect. Christ would place God and the hope of His kingdom and the obtaining of an entrance therein, first in the aims of a man's life. Therefore, he would have temporalities, which with the world occupy the first place, put in the second, on the ground that God, who has made us, and will bestow the kingdom that is coming, is not indifferent to the conditions that affect us now while we are in probation for His use. In this there is perfect reasonableness. But it affords no countenance to the extremes to which many in past ages, and some in the present, have carried it. It tells us not to make life a slavery to the mere material means of its sustenance, since God has promised what we need (of which He alone is judge). It tells us to bend mortal strength and anxiety to the attainment of God's approbation, that we may enter at last upon the fulness of well-being and joy which He purposes to bestow at the right and ripe hour, in His kingdom upon earth. It does not tell us to neglect this world's affairs, or to put forth none of the exertions which in the wisdom of God are necessary for the maintenance of life in its present state.
Christ went further than to inculcate a cheerful faith and a non-anxious providing. He advised giving to others as the best method of saving -- not as some ancient philosophers have recommended: by having our time of need met by the gratitude of those whom we may succour in the day of our ability; but that by giving alms we may lay up "a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth." This doctrine of Christ is as far above the doctrine of the philosophers as the heaven is high above the earth. The philosophers would give us human gratitude as our resource and our reward (a poor reliance as all experience proves). Christ gives us God's recognition and memory as our incentive in doing good to men. This is all-powerful where there is "faith in God." Of course, if the foolish heart whisper, "there is no God," it will fall like grain on the arid rock -- which is pretty much the case with universal mankind upon the earth at the present time. It was no new lesson. It had been heard before from the same Spirit speaking in the prophets. "He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord, and that which he hath given will he repay to him again." It is a standing obligation and a test during all the generations of mortal men. The children of God are distinguishable from the children of the devil in their submission to this self-denying precept.
Before leaving the subject, Jesus gave it practical application in another way: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let your loins be girded about and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding, that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately." It is as if Jesus had said: "Beware of whatever steals the heart. If you pile up wealth, you create a magnet that will act drawingly on the heart, and if your heart is under bondage to earthly things, where then will you be when the Son of Man comes? Can you be among those who will open to him immediately?" There is great force in this way of putting it. It is a matter of common experience that opulence indisposes the heart to godliness. A man who is full of what consolations the present life can afford is liable to have but a feeble sense of dependence upon God, and but little ardour of desire for the coming of Christ. He naturally lapses into the condition described by a modern preacher as that of being in no danger of bursting the boilers in getting saved.
Jesus goes on to indicate the superior blessedness of the class to which he would have us belong: "Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when he cometh shall find watching." This would apply equally to those who fall asleep "watching," and to those whom the Lord finds in the watching attitude at his appearing. The contrast is between the state of mind usually generated by riches and the state of mind that qualifies a man for the coming of Christ. Wealth is liable to throw a man off the watching mood. Therefore, says Jesus, "seek it not." In his other teaching he adds, If you have it, turn it to account as stewards who will have to account to their lord at his coming. There is a logical cohesion in the whole discourse that is not apparent on an inattentive reading.
He specifies the blessedness of the watching servants in a way suggestive of much comfort in the prospect of his coming, and much motive to compliance with the course which he recommends. "Verily, I say unto you that he (their lord) shall gird himself and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them." It is impossible to exhaust the significance of this. The imagination may revel in it without the danger of going too far. Christ taking the attitude of servitor and comforter to his brethren at his coming! There is the element of parable in it. All the more comprehensively and richly does it convey the attractive meaning that Jesus intended to express. We cannot in the present state know the full meaning of Christ's beneficence to those whom he has come to save. We know his gracious testimony that he came not to be ministered unto but to minister. We know that he laid down his life for us, and that the Father for his sake has forgiven us, whereby, though originally dead in trespasses and in sins, we have the answer of a good conscience towards him. But these are privileges discerned by faith in a land of darkness and exile, We are in "a great and terrible wilderness," in which the hardships and discouragements of the way often come nigh quenching all comfort and hope. What shall the blessedness be when the journey is ended, and we stand in Christ's actual presence, to find the whole earth tinder his charge, and ourselves in an emancipated nature, the special objects of his kindness and attention? It is no dream. This is waiting. It is in the Father's own declared purpose. "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall He not with him also freely give us all things?" (Rom. viii. 32).
Christ appeals to our common sense to make a consistent application of these facts. He reminds us of what every householder does who knows that a thief is abroad. He watches that he may prevent his house from being broken into. "Therefore," he says, "be ye ready also; for the Son of Man cometh at an hour when ye think not." The idea is -- be on the watch in the sense of preparedness for what you know will happen, and which may happen at any time -- namely, the return of Christ to the earth to take vengeance on the ungodly, and to comfort and save his people. Is not this appeal irresistible to practical judgment? It can only fail where the facts on which it is based are denied, or doubted, or dimly perceived. Such denial or doubt or dimness is a form of mental aberration. A man's mind must be inaccessible to the greatest fact of history who is in that state. Has not Christ appeared among men? Has he not left his mark on their affairs? Has he not given us the witness of himself in the inexpungable writings of the apostles occupying the highest place among the literary monuments of the world? Have we not every pledge that the case admits of that he lives now and will come again? It is therefore the simplest practical unwisdom to leave it out of account as almost all men do, and to spend life in a total devotion to the things that pass away.
Peter asked whether the parable was confined to the apostles, or whether it bore upon all and sundry. Jesus did not answer categorically, but nevertheless made it manifest that it was for every one who chose to make it his own. "Who then," said he, "is that faithful and wise steward whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant whom the lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth, I say unto you, he will make him ruler over all that he hath." It is evident that Jesus means to say that the exaltation which he will bestow at his coming is not to be conferred by partiality or respect of persons, but on the principal of just award to faithful stewardship in whomsoever it may be found. "Who is such a steward?" is his question -- as much as to say, wherever he is, there is the man who is entitled to and will receive the special recognition of which he speaks.
This holds out an incentive to all. All are not appointed to the same degree of stewardship. The apostles had a rank in this matter that none who came after them can attain. They were "stewards of the mysteries of God." To them, by the Spirit of God, were confided knowledge and gifts that have and could descend to no successors. Their responsibility will be correspondingly great, for "to whom much is given, of them will much be required." But all have a degree of stewardship corresponding with the degree of privilege which they possess in the matter of knowledge, capacity, opportunity, health, means, and what not. It is, therefore, open to every one to earn in measure the blessedness of which Christ speaks. Every "faithful and wise steward" -- every enlightened and justified man who sincerely and modestly realises that he is not his own, but belongs to Christ, as whose agent he must act, will experience at the hands of Christ that enlargement of trust of which Christ here speaks. He will be made "ruler over many things." How imperfectly popular theories of Christianity provide scope for this feature of the teaching of Christ, and how complete and suitable is the place for it in the gospel of the kingdom (as witnessed in the total collective testimony of Moses, the prophets and apostles) -- those are aware who have been privileged to have their eyes opened to primitive apostolic truth, and whose hearts have been delivered from the confusion of the theological systems of the day.
Jesus brings into contrast with "the faithful and wise steward" a servant of another class, whom it concerns every one to diagnose distinctly with a view to habitual subjective repudiation -- the servant who says "My lord delayeth his coming," and who under the demoralising power of that thought, abandons himself to frolic and carousal. That Jesus should introduce such a case for even supposition merely, is proof of our danger in that direction. Our own experience will tell us the danger is not imaginary. The purposes and plans of God are on a scale that is trying to human littleness. "A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past -- as a watch in the night" (Psa. xc. 4). Because, therefore, each man's watching day is his short life, God's great ways seem long in maturing, and there is a liability to listen to the suggestion of our weakness: "My lord delayeth his coming." Resist the thought by knowledge acquired in the daily reading and pondering the word of his truth; and by conformity to the instruction he has appointed for our preservation in the path of life. If we give in to the feeling that the coming of the Lord is too remote and intangible to be taken into account, we get on to an incline that leads to death. First, we take part with the foolish in their ways. Once do this, and you cannot stop. The little salt of godliness that may be left in your mind soon disappears. You degenerate in all your ways, till at last, in the language of Peter, you "who once escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," are "again entangled therein and overcome" with a "latter end worse than the beginning."
The delay of the Lord's coming is only a mere appearance to mortal shortsightedness and ignorance. There is no delay. The Lord has already been on the scene, and he will reappear thereon by a plan all marked out and that will not fail. However long this plan might be drawn out, the whole length exists not for us. Our few and evil days are the full measure of all the waiting we can have; for in the grave there is not a moment; consequently, it is infatuation for a man to say in his heart, "My lord delayeth his coming." In a moment his life may cease. In a moment he may be face to face with the Lord at his coming. So that there is a sense applicable to every generation in the words Jesus proceeded to utter: "The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers."
Among those in this terrible position, he indicates two classes: 1. "That servant that knew his lord's will and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will." 2. "He that knew not and did commit things worthy of stripes." To each he assigns beforehand a retribution according to what every one will recognise to be the justice of the case. The first "shall be beaten with many stripes;" the second "shall be beaten with few stripes." Of course, this is the language of parable which Jesus was so prone to use, but it has an obvious and solemn significance. We have clear indication in various parts of Scripture of the fate that is in reserve for those who emerge from the grave at the coming of Christ to be rejected at his judgment seat. We are told of "shame" (Dan. xii. 2); tribulation and anguish and wrath (Rom. ii. 8-9); hurt and corruption (Rev. ii. 11; Gal. vi. 8); banishment to outer darkness (Matt. xxii. 13); weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. xiii. 28); burning up with fire unquenchable (Mal. iv. 1; Mark ix. 48). Many other like expressions there are which we can be at no loss to interpret in view of what we might call the dispensational fruits of sin as experienced in the present state. The race has for ages existed in a state of suffering, dishonour, calamity and pain of every kind ending in death. If we imagine these brought to an individual focus, we may form some conception of what awaits the rejected, and may perceive how scope is afforded for many or few stripes, according to the judge's infallible award.
A man dismissed from the judgment seat first suffers the agony of having his shame "seen" (Rev. xvi. 15). He is publicly condemned in the presence of fellow, servants and a multitude of the angelic host (Rev. iii. 5-9; Luke xii. 8) Next, he departs not whither he wills. He might choose to bury himself in the forests or wander wide o'er earth or ocean, or find refuge in death. The sentence orders his expulsion to the "outer darkness" which still reigns in the world for a while after Christ's return. In this outer darkness, the world of the ungodly, organised as "the devil and his angels," alias "the beast and the kings of the earth and their army" (Rev. xix. 19), is marshalling its forces for "the war of the great day of God Almighty," in which they "make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb shall overcome them." Fierce judgment impends at that moment, of which the world is unconscious. Christ, of whose presence they are not aware, is about to be manifested "in flaming fire taking vengeance" (2 Thess. i. 7, 8).
The sentence of expulsion consigns its unhappy objects to participation in "the judgment and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries" (Heb. x. 27). Their fate is to "depart from me, ye cursed, into the aionian fire, prepared for the devil and his angels." Into the countries of the condemned, the whole multitude of the rejected will be driven to shift for themselves among a cruel population for whom judgment waits. Mortal as they are, it is no stretch of the imagination to realise the suffering of body, the anguish of mind incidental to such a fearful situation -- without home or friends or acquaintances or means of living, wandering as vagabonds like Cain till the maturing judgment of God culminates in the terrible outbreak of destruction and desolation long foretold. This "hour of judgment" will take time to run. The "few stripes" will probably be exemplified in the shortening of the term of suffering. Such will die before the worst comes. "Many stripes" will be seen in the case of those wretched children of disobedience who will be preserved through all the terrors of "the time of trouble such as never was," and survive to be engulfed in the finishing strokes of judgment by which wickedness will be finally overthrown, and the way cleared for the Kingdom of God.
This is what Jesus describes as being "appointed a portion with the unbelievers." It is the most terrible calamity possible to man. "A portion with the unbelievers" just now means a share in the honours and advantages of the present evil world, which is made up of unbelievers. A portion with them now means a portion with them then, and what a portion then! What a companion picture to the present. It is no picture of fancy. It is Christ's own delineation. It will sure to be verified in actual human experience.
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