Jesus is still on the brow of Olivet. It is 'toward evening, and the day is far spent,' when He utters the parable which is now to claim our attention--the last of the many spoken in the course of His public teaching. There was no single day, perhaps, in His previous ministry, into which so much was compressed as the present. Early in the morning, He had crossed the Mount to the courts of the Temple, there to encounter a succession of captious discussions--"the strife of tongues," to this had been added the delivery of the momentous prophetic discourse, with its accompanying exhortations, to His own disciples. As the Son of Man, "partaker of the human frame," He could not fail to be wearied alike in body and in spirit--and as the twilight was deepening around Him, (with Gethsemane in view--the anticipation of a gloomier, darker night at hand)--the feelings expressed on another occasion, could alone have led Him to task exhausted nature by prolonging these themes of prediction and warning, "I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day; the night comes wherein no man can work." For the last time previous to His Passion, He was returning to Bethany. Before He retraces that path, His eyes will have closed in death--the event, waited for by all time, will have been consummated--the redemption of the world completed.
Most of our recent commentators have correctly seized on the special distinctive lesson of this parable, and its relation to that of the Ten Virgins, which immediately precedes it. The great duty inculcated by the latter, is vigilant waiting for the coming of the Lord. The lesson of the present is the counterpart and complementary duty, of vigilant working in the prospect of that solemn event. It is indeed the union and combination of the two, which constitutes the ideal of the Christian character, 'the perfect man in Christ.'
Not all waiting or contemplation--not a life of quiet, prayerful meditative abstraction--the mere subjective of religion; nor yet all outward bustle and busy excitement, to the neglect of the cultivation of personal piety--but the happy incorporation and blending of both, 'not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord,'--the lamps of the soul trimmed--the oil of grace filling the flagons--every precaution used to prevent spiritual declension and "that day overtaking as a thief." At the same time, the earnest practical exemplification of the active virtues. In one word, to carry out and illustrate that simplest but most comprehensive definition of the Christian life and spirit--the being good and the doing good.
The sequence of the two parables is, in this respect, also, well worth noting. The subjective must precede the objective--waiting before working--the heart and affections must be right before God, before there can be any honest or acceptable outward activities. What Paul said to Timothy, may be addressed to every member of the Church, "Take heed to yourself, and to the doctrine." 'Yourself' first, then to the ministry. Yourself first--the trimming of the inner lamp--habitual readiness to obey the Bridegroom's call--then, the diligent prosecution of the activities of the Christian life. God can never accept the most splendid services, unless they be first consecrated by the surrender of the soul. Unless the root be holy, there can be no sound, no possible fruit. The great Apostle, in commending his Corinthian converts for their good deeds and Christian liberality, gives the secret of it in the emphatic words, "They first gave their own selves to the Lord."
The incidents and framework of the parable require no explanation. The Lord Jesus is Himself the Master, traveling to the far country, who, before leaving, summons his servants into his presence, entrusting them with his household property and the investment of his capital; and while the main or general lesson is an exhortation to diligence or activity, we shall find there is also a special truth interweaved and inculcated– that is, that the responsibility of each Christian is exactly commensurate with the amount of gifts, or graces, or talents received in trust from his absent Lord. All are to be workers; but on that worker rests the heaviest obligation whose means and opportunities and abilities are greatest. The Divine Redeemer had uttered, more than once, in the course of that memorable day, the midnight call. He enforces it by different, though certainly not conflicting considerations, in these twin parables; which, moreover, to complete the sequence, are appropriately followed by the magnificent representation of the general Judgment--a fit conclusion for these closing unrivaled utterances. There the Shepherd-Judge illustrates and enforces, by the most sublime of all His descriptions, the great principle which is to regulate the proceedings of the last assize, "Justified by faith, judged by works."
But, not to anticipate, let a few thoughts be offered, on these two points--the day of TRUST, and the day of RECKONING.
I. The day of TRUST.This heavenly Master, in His contemplated absence, allocates a sum of money to each of His servants, "Unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to every man according to his ability, and immediately took his journey."
The first remark which presents itself is--that to all of us are committed some peculiar gifts or talents. There is not the professing member of the Church of Christ who is not the possessor of some such trust, for which he is responsible to the almighty Donor, and which may be sanctified for the Master's use. A writer has noted, that the word "talented" has, with us, been diverted from its original meaning--it has come to be applied exclusively to a favored class--those peering above their fellows in superior genius and mental endowments. Not so are the "talented" of this parable. They are God's whole family of responsible moral agents--from the lowliest and most obscure, to those in conspicuous positions in the Church and in the world.
All, in a greater or less degree, are invested with the goods of heaven, either natural, moral, or spiritual; from the trust committed to the FEW--the talents of wealth, station, influence, intellect--to the talents belonging to the MANY--time, reason, unimpaired intellect, kindly sympathies and affections, the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and the like.
Oh, never make light of the smallest gift; never despise or repudiate the smallest moral, or intellectual, or spiritual resources. Has not many a man in our great mercantile communities, by diligent trading, not on pounds, but on mites--not on pounds, but on pence and farthings, by God's blessing on unwearied diligence and successful investment, placed himself in opulence and splendor? And shall we not make light of small natural advantages, and yet trifle with our moral responsibilities--despise Heaven's "day of small things?"
Observe next--The varied trusts are proportioned to our varied capabilities. The master of the parable gave his servants "every man according to his ability." God, in the dispensing of these sacred trusts, does not act capriciously; He distributes the talents according to the known powers and capacities of His servants--"to every man his work." He gives equitably, and He expects a corresponding return. Some, from peculiar outward circumstances--from their position in the Church and the world--will be able to invest a large capital, and draw in a large return--these are the five talented servants. Others move in a humbler and less influential sphere--they have only two talents, and from them, as the result of trading, their Lord expects no more. In either case, they have done their duty up to the measure of their responsibility; the amount entrusted to them has been doubled; and their fidelity being thus tested and proved, their Master is satisfied.
The Church of Christ is made up of "vessels of large and small quantity;" but the Lord does not unreasonably expect the smaller vessel to hold the contents of the large one. The Church is a garden adorned with trees and plants and flowers; but the Lord does not expect the hyssop to assume the dimensions of the cedar, nor the olive tree to attain the height of the stately palm, nor the myrtle to be laden with the fruit of the vine, nor the lily to waft the perfume of the rose.
He does not expect the lowly unlettered Christian to fight like the champion of the faith. He does not expect from poverty the alms it has not to give, nor from the sick-bed sufferer the active energies which bodily prostration forbids. Let none needlessly mourn that they cannot glorify God by talents He never gave them, and for which therefore they are not responsible. Let none say, 'Had I been in another position in life, I might have invested a large capital for my Lord.' Though you are narrowed and restricted where you are to the one talent, use it well, and God will accept "according to what a man has, not according to what he has not."
There is nothing more beautiful than this arrangement, alike in the Church and in the world, of "diversities of gifts," like stars of diverse magnitude among the heavenly bodies. And the desirable thing is, not to be aspiring after great things, in order to do great services; but to do our little work, to trade on our limited talent, our few pence, with a solemn sense of our responsibility for its right employment in the sight of God.
I repeat--let no man despise the humblest moral or spiritual resources. The rill does not say, I need not pursue this narrow course because I am not a river. The grass or lichen do not say, We need not grow, because we are not forest trees. The lamp does not say, I need not shine, because I am not a star; nor the star, I need not shine, because am not a sun. The common soldier does not say, I need not gird myself for the battle, for I am neither officer not commander. No; alike in the natural, moral, and spiritual worlds, there is to everything, and every man, their own peculiar sphere and place and vocation; and God asks no more and no less, from the lowliest as well as the mightiest, than that they fulfill their appointed and prescribed destiny. The interest expected, will be in proportion to the amount of entrusted capital, "according to the measure of the gift of Christ."
A third remark suggested is, that Christ has a right to our services. The very name of servant involves the idea of hire, work, responsibility. And what (especially as professing Christians) is our relation to Him? We have become His servants by grace. It is not our own property we have entrusted to us for investment--had it been so, we might have exercised a discretionary power; we might have hoarded it or spent it as we desired. But the capital being His, we are responsible for its use or abuse. We shall be justly challenged and condemned for our unworthy stewardship, if this capital, with so many outlets for eligible investment, has been allowed to lie dormant in our coffers, or buried in the earth. He speaks, towards the close of the parable, of receiving (not ours) but "His OWN," with interest.
Jesus has been delivering His goods, age after age, to His Church. One generation after another has been gathering up the hereditary trust; and now these talents, eighteen hundred years ago put into the hands of His apostles, have descended to us. Do we realize our true position as His hired servants? He has paid us the wages of His own blood and sufferings to secure our willing servitude and obedience. Do we feel our responsibilities regarding the committed trust, whatever it be? Do we feel that all we have, is a loan from Him--that we are stewards of His grace; custodians of the great Master's goods; and that the lowliest talent, the humblest service, may become a consecrated gift, if exercised and employed with the high end of doing our Master's bidding, and promoting His glory?
And let none rest in the mere complacent feeling of being possessed with talents, if they do not turn them to advantage for Him who bestowed them. There, is often self-delusion in this. A man, for example, is conscious of being possessed of a generous heart, a love of doing kind things. He pities the poor miser who, in his narrow soul, grudges the smallest pittance to the needy in a time of distress. But he is, nevertheless, contented himself with doing nothing. He reposes in the unctuous thought, that if opportunity offered, (which he imagines it has not,) he would be capable of rising to do some magnanimous deed; but, meanwhile, he folds his hands, and rests satisfied with the reflection, that he feels at least better than his mean-souled neighbor. Ah, he is the greater delinquent of the two! The man with the narrow mind is responsible for his niggardliness. But more responsible is he, whose soul has been filled by his Master with generous impulses and kindly affections, if he padlocks the door of his heart, and keeps the talents hoarded, wasting, rusting, unemployed, and unimproved. The mere having qualities and affections, instead of releasing us of obligation, only increases and intensifies our responsibility. The question with us is not 'What have I of my Lord's!' but, 'What do I do with what I have?'
II. Let us pass now to consider the second leading theme of the parable--the day of RECKONING.
Yes, of reckoning; for the minute and detailed account required and given of the talents used and abused, shows that there will be a personal dealing on the part of God with each individual. The doings and trusts of earth will not be jostled together in a general indiscriminate mass. The divine Master, in bestowing His rewards, will scrutinize the return of every talent; the great Shepherd will call, one by one, His own sheep by name, and "lead them out."
It is said in the parable that, "after a long time, the master of these servants comes and reckons with them." "After a long time." In one sense it is a short time. To the Almighty Lord Himself, these few thousand years will be but as "one day;" and to His servants also, in comparison with that condition of infinite being on which they are about to enter, oh, how short!
Yet, in another sense, to them it is "a long time" of solemn privilege and sacred trust. If our anxious, solemn moments, the crisis-hours of life--those seasons of deep suspense which all know from personal experience--if these always seem longest; well may the present probation period, to all Christ's servants--to all immortal beings--be a LONG time indeed! It is the season of infinite suspense on which hangs their happiness or their woe forever. It is the long momentous period, which will be regarded by them through an endless eternity, either with feelings of adoring thankfulness and joy--or with the pang of unutterable despair.
But to proceed. The first thing to be noted with regard to this day of reckoning is, that as the rewards are received by the faithful servants, they appropriate no merit in the diligent trading to themselves, they give their Lord all the glory. "You entrusted to me," or, as it is expressed in the kindred parable in Luke, "Your pound." And when they speak of their gain, they take care to tell whence it emanated. No gain could there have been without the deposit--no interest without the principal. "I have gained beside them," (that is, along with them--by their help.) They feel they have done no more than their duty. The capital was advanced by Him; and if they have traded on it successfully, He shall have all the glory of the return.
And yet observe, in conjunction with this, that though they owe all to the sovereign grace and mercy of Jesus; though, but for His generous benefaction--His advanced capital--they must have been bankrupts for eternity--when He comes to confer the tokens of His approbation, He rewards, as if the merit were their own. He speaks to them in language of singular and encouraging approval, "Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things--enter you into the joy of your lord."
What blessed words, overflowing with comfort! The countenance of the Master, in uttering them, seems full of joy; as if it were a delight to Himself to shower upon them the infinite blessings of His love, and to recompense faithful service performed. If the architect has joy, in seeing the stately edifice he has planned, reared by discerning and diligent workmen; if the teacher has joy, in seeing his laborious toils resulting in the intellectual distinctions and triumphs of his scholars; if the commander has joy, in seeing his brave men mounting the ramparts for the release of the beleaguered garrison, putting glad hope into countenances wan with despair and death--what will be the joy of the great Lord on that Day, when called to distribute His own rewards to 'devoted love and earnest toil'--when upon those faithful unto death, He confers the crown of life? He celebrates His return with a festival of joy; He invites His redeemed to enter His own banqueting hall, there to receive His cheering commendation. In a nobler sense than the words bore when He uttered them on the eve of His humiliation on earth, will He say at that festal gathering, "Henceforth I call you not servants, but friends."
One other thought suggested in the parable regarding that day of reckoning, (to which, indeed, we have already referred, but which is here again brought before our notice,) is, that the approving sentence of the great Master is not grounded upon having gained many things, but on account of fidelity over a few things. "Well done," is the twice repeated encomium, "good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a few things."
Be not cast down or disappointed, because, as Christ's servants on earth, what you may have accomplished is small--because the measure of your success has not been commensurate with your labor. It is not results, but motives He looks to. It is not the successful man, as has been well observed, whom He praises in the parable, but the good and faithful one. Thanks be to God fidelity, not success, is to regulate the final reward given. If it were otherwise, how hardly would many a brave heart in the battle of life, fare at the Great Day. How many a noble, unselfish, kindly spirit, has on earth been baffled and buffeted, misapprehended and misrepresented; his best deeds turned into ridicule, his best efforts thwarted, his kindness requited with insult, his faithful warnings and admonitions scorned! How many a spiritual soldier has sunk broken-hearted into the tomb, conscious of not one successful result to his labors! How many a faithful missionary has had to return home from his field of self-sacrificing toil, with health ruined and energy prostrated; or, sadder still, has had to turn, after years of patient work, from a field that refused to yield fruit, and from degraded souls that would be caught neither by love nor by expertise! But see, in this parable, how the sentence and utterance of the Master runs. It is not "Well done, good and successful," but "good and faithful servant." Oh, many an unrequited laborer, who had not so much as one sheaf gleaned on the earthly field, will doubtless, in that day of the world's great Harvest home, come again with rejoicing, bringing the sheaves of 'recompensed fidelity' with him.
Reader, are you prepared for that season of solemn scrutiny? Make the most of your present fleeting hours of mercy and forbearance. We never know how long or how brief these may be. "Occupy," says Christ, "until I come." That coming, as we have seen in a previous chapter, is to all of us, practically, the day of our death; and who among us, with reference to that unknown hour, can measure the span of that little word until! "Until!" It may be after the snows of many winters have gathered on our heads, and age has ploughed its wrinkled furrows on our brow. "Until!" It may be a few years hence--before some bright project we now have mapped out for the future has reached its realization. We may imagine we are near our coveted prize; a few steps more up the ladder, and it is ours--the dream of life fulfilled and consummated--when a noiseless footfall is heard behind us, tracking us up the dizzy eminence, and the startling word is whispered, 'I come!'
"Until!" It may be a year, a month, a week, tomorrow. Oh, what a narrow bridge that word may be!--a plank between two seas--the narrow sea of time, and the wide sea of eternity--"until"--verily there may be but a step between us and death!
You, who peruse these pages, to whom some trust, be it great or small, is committed--are you conscious until now, of misused or abused talent, wasted hours, neglected duties, despised privileges? What is to be done? Abandon yourself to ignoble despair? No, Christ's is a nobler philosophy--"Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain that are ready to die." Satan's cruel whisper is, 'Hopeless, unredeemable bankruptcy.' But let the apostolic injunction be a heart-cheerer to any who may have been lagging behind, conscience-stricken for the present, and trembling for the future, "Redeeming the time, because the days are evil."
Remember (for this is the gist, the keynote, the interweaved lesson of the parable) all depends on the USE you make of your entrusted talents. Keep them unused, they will turn to decay. The hoarded garments which would have clothed the naked will become moth-eaten; the hoarded bread that would have fed the hungry will mold. Your mental gifts and endowments may make those within the sphere of your influence wiser and better, or, they may be prostituted and degraded to the basest of uses. Your WEALTH may be employed in scattering around you a golden shower of blessing, and when you die, the tears of the orphan and widow will be your noblest recompense; or, it may become cankered--turn to rust; and, as an abused talent, witness against you at the last. Your POSITION in society may be made a mighty engine and instrument of good, throwing a shield over the defenseless, redressing the wrongs of the injured, setting a lofty example of purity, virtue, beneficence, to inferiors and dependents. But be unfaithful, let position and influence be made the mere apology for reckless extravagance, profligate selfishness, or unprincipled ambition--and the beacon for guidance and example, becomes the balefire luring to destruction.
Up, then, and be doing! The heavenly Master is on His journey, and the talents for use or abuse are now in our hands. Oh, let us not have to mourn, when too late, forfeited opportunities! It may be now, or never. The talents, ours today, may be demanded by the Owner tomorrow. Trading may be done by us today, but the mart of the exchanger may be closed tomorrow. Staking all for time, all may be lost for eternity. But, laying out, with honest fidelity, the talents entrusted to us, no fear of a usurious interest on our capital thus invested for the good of men and the glory of God. "Be not weary in well-doing, for in due season you shall reap if you faint not."