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Of the unprofitable servant.
LUKE xvii. 7-10. Which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the
field, Go and sit down to meat ? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I
may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten
and drunken ; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink ? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that
were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants : we have done that which was our duty to do.
THE occasion of our Lord's speaking this parable to his apostles I suppose to be this. In the first verse of this chapter he tells them how impossible it is but that offences will come ; that some way or other men will be injurious to one another, and too often in the greatest concern of all, that of religion ; by ill example or ill doctrine, doing what may be very mischievous to each other's souls, and hindering the progress of the gospel, at least in its true life and energy, among those especially that are weak and unstable, not well fixed and settled in the faith of Christ; and so, easily led away from the truth, into destructive errors and delusions. But woe unto him, says Christ, by whom they come! it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend, or harm and mischief, and put a stumblingblock in the way of one of these little onesa. Whereby he gave his apostles sufficient caution to avoid every thing of that nature in the discharge of their ministry; and to treat every one, particularly the wavering and ignorant and ill grounded, with all the tenderness that was consistent with the safety of their souls, (for there is a tenderness that is very ruinous and destructive,) as St. Paul says he did, when he became all things to all men, that by all means he might save someb.
And as for any injurious ill treatment they might meet with themselves, he warns them to beware of malice and implacability and revenge; Take heed to yourselves, says he; If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him, in the spirit of meekness, to make him sensible of his fault; and then, if he repent, and is sorry for it, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him". Thy charity shall not be tired out, though with many and often repeated provocations, especially if the man returns to a better mind; according to what he had taught them to beg of God in their daily prayers, Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.
But this was so contrary to the corrupt tendencies of flesh and blood, and seemed a doctrine so very difficult to be practised, that the apostles distrusted their own ability in this matter, and said to their great Master, Lord, increase our faith !! “ So strengthen “ our confidence in thy mighty aid and assistance,
a Luke xvii. 1, 2. bi Cor. ix. 20, &c. Luke xvii. 3, 4. " that it may incline thee to enable us effectually to “ perform all thou requirest of us !”
d Ver. 5.
To this good prayer of theirs our Lord answers, as by way of approbation of it, and to assure them that such a firm faith was indeed all in all; If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say to this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you. For, as he said upon another occasion, all things are possible to him that believethf; and he that steadfastly relies upon God's aid in the performance of what he has made his duty, and does his own best endeavour towards it, and confidently expects the completion of any of his gracious promises, though seemingly never so hard to be made good, shall find God faithful and true. Nothing shall be too difficult for him in morality and Christian virtue, nor in nature, when God sets him about it, and has promised to carry him through. And this the event shewed to be true as to the apostles, in both respects, to the wonder of the world.
But lest this should make them hereafter apt to arrogate too much to themselves, our Lord subjoins the above-recited parable, But which of you having a servant plowing or feeding cattle ; that is, not a servant hired for so much wages, and for such a time, to do such and such work; but a servant or slave, bought with his money, or taken in war, who was entirely at his master's disposal, and whose maintenance and the preservation of his life was a sufficient recompense for the best service he could do; which of you having such a servant, that has
been all day employed in the field, will say unto him by and by, or presently, as soon as he is come home, Go and sit down to meat? and will not rather employ him in his domestic affairs, when he had finished those abroad, and say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant, is he obliged to him for all this, because he did those things that were commanded him, and it may be quietly and diligently too? I trow not; because his life and his livelihood being owing to his master, he is paid beforehand for all that he can do for him. So likewise ye, says Christ, (applying what he had said to his apostles,) when ye shall have done all those great things that are commanded you, do not be exalted by it in your own conceits, and think you merit great matters at my hands; but rather humbly say, (and which is no more than the very truth,) We are unprofitable servants, still indebted to God, not he at all to us; for we have done that which, antecedently, upon innumerable accounts, was our duty to do.
So that this parable, it is plain, was designed to cut off all pretence to merit, even in the apostles themselves; and that, though they should entirely perform their duty, how great and difficult soever it might be. And no doubt but it was likewise intended for the instruction of all ages and persons in the Christian church ; and is as effectual now as it was then, to convince every one of us of our no desert, even after the performance of our sincerest duty; and that, as the good Patriarch said, we are not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which God hath shewed to his unprofitable servants 8.
In discoursing, therefore, upon this parable, I shall endeavour to shew how utterly without reason and highly arrogant it is, for even the best man living, upon any account whatever, to pretend to merit any thing at the hands of God, much less eternal salvation; and then conclude with some proper inferences from the whole.
As for the great unreasonableness and arrogance of any man's pretending to merit any thing at the hands of God, be the man never so excellent and good, one would think it should be granted at first hearing by every one that knows what God and what man is; and to attempt seriously to prove it seems a great reproach to human nature, as if it were extremely ignorant or intolerably proud. And indeed the wiser and the better any man is, the more intimately sensible must he needs be of this great truth, and need no arguments to convince him of it.
But there being a great body of men, and who assume to themselves the venerable character of the only true catholic church of Christ, and pretend to be infallible too, who maintain the contrary doctrine, and tell us that our good works are meritorious, and that for others as well as for ourselves, for the dead as well as the living; (and infallibility and merit are doctrines that may well go together, and shew what manner of spirit those are of who hold them ;) for this reason it is but needful to preserve ourselves from the infection of so poisonous an
g Gen. xxxii. 10.