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The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, considered.
For the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a Man that is an Housholder, which went out early in the Morning to hire Labourers into his Vineyard, & c.
IN my last Discourse, I observed to you, that some Persons had mistaken and perverted the Parable in this Chapter; vainly arguing, from one Part of it, that the last Hour, or even the last Minute, of Life, may be sufficient for the Work of Repentance, and turning to God. In that, 1 only proposed one or two Considerations in general: but I now design to handle this Matter more particularly that it may the more clearly be seen, not only that this Parable gives not the least Encouragement to any such Thought; but that it really proves to all, who profess Christianity, the absolute Necessity of Holiness and Virtue, before the last Sickness, and Death, approach. In order to this, it will be necessary,
I. TO lay before you an Account of the Parable it self.
II. To shew you, what was intended to be signified by it.
III. To prove that there is no Foundation in it, for any such Imagination, as that before-mentioned: but an actual Declaration of the contrary.
I. As for the Parable it self; it sets forth to us an Housholder going forth into the Market-place, to hire Men to come and work for Him, in his Vineyard; that He met with some sooner than He did with others; that those whom He hired latest, came as soon as He called and invited them; and laboured heartily for the Time that they were in his Vineyard; and, at the End of their Day, were by his Favour rewarded, for that sincere and hearty, though short, Labour, with the same Reward which He had agreed to bestow upon those whom, He hired much sooner. This is the Sum of the Parable; as far as it concerns my present Design: for it is not of Importance to relate every particular Circumstance of it. The main Matter here to be considered, is the Reward bestowed upon Those who came so late into the Vineyard.
II. I MUST therefore, now shew you what was intended by this Parable. And it is plain that it was designed to represent the Method of God in dispensing his Favours and Rewards to the World. The Kingdom of Heaven, or the Method of God’s dealing with Mankind in the Revelation of his Will, and the calling of them to himself, was to be set forth in it. But, to be more particular.
1. IT is most probable, and, I believe, certain, that the main, if not the whole, Design of it, was to account for that Stumbling-block, as it was indeed, to the ill-natured. Jews; viz. God’s calling in the Gentiles to Himself, after the Jews; and making them equal to These, in Privileges and Favours, upon their sincere Acceptance of his Invitation. In the last Verse of the preceeding Chapter; our Lord declareth that many that are first shall be last, and the last first: that is, that in those first called to the Knowledge of God, viz, the Jews, and those to be called after them, viz, the Gentiles, God would make no difference; provided He found a sincere Disposition to obey his Call, and serve Him truly. Then immediately, at the first Verse of the xxth Chapter, our Lord goes on to illustrate what He had there said; and to discover the Equity of it.
IN this Sense, then, of the Parable, Almighty God is represented as calling Mankind at several Ages of the World: the Jews, and their Forefathers, in the first Ages; and, in the last Age, viz. that of the Gospel, as calling the Gentile World to the Knowledge of himself; and admitting them to equal Privileges with the Jews, who thought themselves his peculiar People; and rewarding them after the same manner, upon their sincere Compliance with his Terms, and Acceptance of his Invitation. The Gentile World are represented as coming into his Gospel, upon his Call; and living worthy of it after their coming into it: and our Lord is represented, at the End of the Day of this Life, as rewarding Them, as much as the Jews themselves, who were called to the Knowledge of God, in a so much earlier Age.
THAT which makes it mot probable that this was the true Intent of our Lord, in this Parable, is, that this calling of the Gentiles to equal Privileges with the Jews, was certainly a Matter which was to be opened by due Degrees, even to the best-temper’d amongst them; who were averse enough to all Thoughts of it: and likewise, that there is express mention made in it, of the murmuring of those who were hired first, against the Master of the House, for rewarding the last equally with them. For this agrees very well with the unconquered Prejudices of the Jewish Nation; and that Selfishness of Mind, by which they had set themselves apart from the rest of the World, and could not bear to think of any who might be equal Sharers with themselves in the Favour of God, whose People they had so long been. But it doth not seem so well to agree with a good Christian’s Temper; to repine, and murmur, that any other sincere Persons are made as happy, by the Favour of Almighty God, as Himself is. It rather adds to such an one’s Happiness, to see others happy, than sowrs and spoils it. But,
2. LET us suppose that the Parable was intended to signify to us the Method of God’s dealing with particular Persons, in the great Affair of their Happiness, and Salvation. And then, what is set forth in it, is this, that Almighty God, doth, in his Providence, call and invite some Persons to the Christian Religion sooner than others; and that those who come latest to the Knowledge of his Will, if they readily lay hold on his Invitation; if they accept his Offer; (nor doth the Parable go any farther than the first Offer;) and comply with his Terms; and enter in his Church; and labour in it; working out their own Salvation, and producing all manner of good Fruits, during that Season of Life which is allowed them after this Call, and Invitation: that those, I say, who are thus called, and do thus behave themselves upon such Call, shall, for that hearty Sincerity, be equalled in reward, by Almighty God, to those whom they would have certainly equalled in their Labours, if they had been as soon called and invited into his Church.
III. HAVING thus laid down what was certainly, or might possibly be, intended by this Parable: it will be the easier to shew that there is no Foundation in it for any such Imagination, as that the late Sorrow, falsely called Repentance, of any Christian who hath been a wilful habitual Sinner through the whole Course of his Life and Health, will atone at last, for his Sins; and make him the Object of God’s Favour: For,
I. IF we take the first Account now given of the meaning of this Parable, which is certainly the true one; then there is nothing contained in it, but that the: Gentile World, though called to the Knowledge of God much latter than the Jews, yet, upon their acceptance of that Call, and their hearty application of themselves to Christian good Works, shall be accepted to equal Privileges, with the Jews, who had so long before them, been the peculiar People of God. This, therefore, cannot possibly bear any relation to the Case of such particular Christians, as have been long called to the Knowledge of God, and have wilfully neglected to do the Works of him that called them. No two Matters can be more distant from one another, than these two are: And, therefore, there can be no imaginable Argument drawn, from on to the other. But,
2. SUPPOSING that the Second interpretation be pitch’d upon: yet even upon this Supposition, the Parable sets forth all of them that are hired, as Labourers. The Housholder went out to hire Labourers into his Vineyard: not such as professed only to labour; but such as would actually do it. So that it is to none but such, that he agrees to give any Reward. And when the Persons hired are spoken of, they are all described as truly setting themselves to labour, as soon as they are invited, and called in. All the difference, is, that some met with earlier; and some later; but as soon as they are spoken to, they all immediately leave their former Station; and apply themselves to work. There is mention, indeed, of some standing idle: but it was in the Market-place; and it was only because they had met with no body to hire them, to work. But as soon as they are hired, there is no mention of their Idleness in the Vineyard: but there they work’d immediately, as soon as they enter’d; and continued to do so, as long as the Day lasted.
WHAT is there then for a Christian to learn from hence? Why, If this Parable .touch his particular Case; what He must learn, is this, viz. that the Supreme Housholder, when He calls him into his Vineyard, the Church, hires him as a Labourer; and, under that Notion only, agrees with Him for a Reward; that, as soon as He is called to the Knowledge of the Gospel, his time is come for beginning to work; that, as long as He lives a Professor of the Gospel, so long doth the Day last in which He is to work; that, if He entred into this Religion in his young and early Days, He must in his young and early Days labour in the Works of it; that, if He were old before He came to the Knowledge of it, and had Christianity proposed to him, He must immediately lay hold on the Proposal; He must heartily profess himself a Disciple of the Master who invites him; He must immediately set himself to his Work, and continue to approve himself a faithful Servant to Him, as long as his State of Probation lasts. This is what this Parable plainly sets forth. For there is not one of those mention’d, who did not come into the Vineyard, and work in it, as soon as He was called; not one, who was idle. unless out of necessity before He was hired; not one who continued idle afterwards, or did not heartily work in the Vineyard; not one who delayed his coming in, or used any pretence to avoid working, while the time for Working lasted: And therefore, we find that, their Sincerity being, equal, which is the Ground of all, their Lord made their Rewards equal.
IF, therefore We will apply this to the State of particular Persons in Christ’s Vineyard, the Church; there can be no hopes of Reward, according to this Parable, but to such carefully and conscientious set themselves to work in their State of Trial; to such as come in, when God calls them; and make use of all their Time afterwards, to promote his Honour, and work out their own Salvation. The Person, who is called last, and yet hath a Reward, is one who hath not heard of the Gospel till Age is come upon him; but, as soon as He doth hear of it, embraces it; enters into the Service of it, and shews himself, in the time He hath to live after this, a true and sincere Disciple of it, by the amendment and reformation of his Life.
HAD it been so indeed, that our Lord had represented the Housholder, as calling Men into his Vineyard; and, after they had enter’d into it, and professed to work, and yet spent their time in it idly, or mischievously; either in doing nothing, or in ruining his Interest; as rewarding such Persons equally with those who had labour’d hard; and this merely for their expressing a Sorrow at Night, for the wilful Faults of the whole Day: something then might have been urged; and there might be some colour from hence, for hoping that Almighty God will at last reward Christians, who profess his Service, and enter his Vineyard as Labourers, and live useless, wicked, and profligate Lives; merely for their sorrowful Concern for their Sins, at the end of their Day of Trial. But, as the Case is; and as the Parable is expressed: what is there, I beseech you, in it, that can possibly encourage any such Hope? Nay, what is there in it, but what forcibly shews the necessity of Christian good Works, for the Justification of all who are called into Christ’s Vineyard; whether early or late; whether at the beginning, or towards the end, of their Days?
WE, for our parts, generally speaking, are called into God’s Vineyard, at the very first Hour of the Day, at the dawning of our Lives; educated in the Christian Religion; called upon, day after day, to live worthy of that Holy Vocation wherewith we are called, and of that Profession which we make. We are not, therefore, of the Number of those who stood Idle in the Market-place, .merely because no one would hire them; and so were but late called into the Vineyard. But we have been long ago hired by God himself; and invited into his Service by the promise of the most immense: and unspeakable Rewards. If, therefore, we stand Idle; it is in his Vineyard, in which we undertook to do him Service. And if it be asked, why stand you here all the day Idle? We cannot have that to urge, because no Body hath hired us: for God Almighty is our Master; and we are his professed Servants. And we can have nothing to expect but the Punishment due to such Servants, as hypocritically pretend to serve, while they dishonour and disobey, their Master. Little will it avail us to take Refuge at last in Sorrow; when, at the Evening, or at Night, our Work is to be examined; and the Enquiry to be made, what we have done in that Service which we have undertaken. If we appeal to this Parable; that shews forth no Reward, but for such as have actually worked in the Service of their Master, from the time of their admission into the Vineyard, to the time of their being removed out of it; and this will administer but little Comfort to any, who have spent the time due to their Master, in the Service of his greatest Enemy. And the mere pretending to be his Disciple, or Servant, will be so far from lessening, that it must increase, the Guilt.
IN the Chapter following This which I am now considering, at the 28th Verse, our Lord proposeth the following Case to the Jews. A certain Man bad two Sons, and He came to the first and said, Son, go work to day in my Vineyard. He answered and said, I will not. But afterward He repented, and went. And He came to the second, and said likewise. And He answered and said, I go, Sir, and went not. Whether of them twain did the Will of his Father? They say unto Him, the First. He proposeth this, to let them know that it was not the Profession of being his Children, and his People; not the calling Him, Lord, Lord, that would satisfy Almighty God; but the doing his Will; and that the professing to do it, did but aggravate the Fault of not sincerely answering that Profession. He goes on to tell them, that those very Harlots and Publicans, who, though before at a distance from all pretences to serve God, yet repented, and were converted by the Preaching of John the Baptist, would go into the Kingdom of God, and be accepted to his Favour, long before such as They were; who, making great Professions of belonging to God, and being his People, yet, were scandalously deficient in performing his Will, and constantly employed in provoking Him by their Disobedience. This is the meaning of those Words; and what follow. Verily, 1 say unto you, that the Publicans, and the Harlots, go into the Kingdom of God before you. Not that any, continuing such Sinners, could ever arrive at Happiness: but, as it follows, that such Sinners, repenting at the Preaching of John the Baptist, and reforming their Lives; even the vile Publicans, so much detested by the Jews, should be vastly preferred before them, with all their Professions, and all their Protestations.
THE Vineyard, therefore, is not a place of Ostentation; but of Work: not framed to feed and support the Idle; but to employ the Diligent: not made to adorn, and defend, all those that enter it; but to be adorned, and defended; by those who pretend to come into it. The very Notion of it is, that it wants their Help, and Cultivation. This is what the great Master of it expects. This is what he hires his Labourers for. If, therefore, the Reward be so great, and so certain, for all, who enter as soon as they are invited; and sincerely labour as soon as they are entered: how great, and how certain, must be the Punishment of those who act the Reverse of this; who enter indeed, with Profession of working, but basely desert the Cause, and prostitute the Honour, and disregard the Commands of that great Master who called and invited them to his Service.
So that from this Parable it is impossible to collect any thing to sooth professed Christians in their hopes of being accepted without a Life of Holiness and Virtue: nay, it is impossible, one would think, not to see that the very design and intent of it, supposing it to respect particular Persons, must be to shew that it is indispensably required of all, at what time soever they are called to the Knowledge of God and his Gospel, to obey that Call; and conscientiously to employ the time allowed them, after this, in the good Works which God hath marked out to them in his Law. Far be it, therefore, from any Christian, who hath long ago entered into God’s Vineyard, to argue himself, from this part of the Gospel, into any shadow of Hope, whilst He is in a state of supine Neglect of his Duty, or wilful Disobedience to God.
AND if we look into any other of those Parables, by which our Lord represents the Proceedings of. Almighty God with his Servants; we shall find the plainest Discouragement to all such Hopes. When He represents Him as a Master, intrusting several sorts of Talents to several Servants, Matth. xxv. 14. we find that He certainly expects an actual Improvement of those Talents; not only, that they should not be made use of against his Honour and Interest, but that they should not be buried, and rendred useless: And accordingly, that, when one of those Servants appears to his Lord to have buried what was intrusted to Him, that He Might be sure to restore it whole at his return; the Sentence is, Cast ye the unprofitable Servant into outer Darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. See from hence what Almighty God certainly expects from those who are called to his Knowledge, and his Service. Nor could all the Sorrow of that Servant, at his Master’s return, atone, or compensate, for past ill Conduct.
IN the xxist Chapter God is represented as letting out his Vineyard to Husbandmen, who abused his Mercy; and, at last destroying them, and letting out his Vineyard to others who should render him the Fruits in their Seasons. In another Parable, chap. xviii. at the end, He is represented, as delivering over to the Tormenters, a Servant, only for being unmerciful, and implacable, towards his Fellow-Servant. Doth all this look, as if he would accept of any thing; at last, at the Hands of those who are called into his Service, instead of an hearty and sincere Obedience; or, as if He did not lay a Duty, an indispensable Duty, upon them: the Duty of reforming whatever is amiss in themselves: and of flourishing in all those good Fruits, and good Works, which are well pleasing in his Eyes?
AND thus have I done what I designed: And, as I hope, have, in this, and several other Discourses, effectually shewn the great Weakness, and Folly, of a Christian’s relying upon any thing for Salvation, but the actual Reformation, and Amendment, of what he knows to be sinful in himself.
I CAN at present think but of one thing more that remains to be touched upon, before we leave this Subject. There are some Christians, I am sensible, who are truly convinced that this is a just Account of the Matter; that their only Hopes must be in the actual amendment of their Lives, and practice of Virtue, whilst God gives them opportunity; and that all other Hopes are vain and deluding: and are therefore resolved to reform what is bad in themselves. But then, they deferr this great Work; they are unwilling to do it immediately: but hope that what they Design may be as well performed some time hereafter. They place not their Hopes in any thing but Amendment: but they put off this Amendment till another Season. A few Considerations, will shew us the extreme Hazard, and Folly, of such a Proceeding. For,
1. SUPPOSING that, they are taken away before they have put this Resolution into effect; they are, by their own Confession, in a most deplorable, inexcusable, Condition: being removed from hence, in a State, which they themselves account to be a State condemned by God in his Gospel. It is the Amendment of their Lives which, they know, He requires; and the resolution of Amendment, is not Amendment. Nay, indeed, it will be so far from helping them, upon this Supposition; that it will aggravate their Guilt and their Punishment, that they have not actually done what they knew to be their indispensable Duty to do. And who knows when his last Hour may come? Is this State a State of Certainty, and Duration? In the midst of Life, are we not in Death? Do we not see, every day, Persons as likely, nay, more likely, than ourselves, to continue here, called to give account of their Lives? What is it then we can hope for? or how can we think it consistent with the lowest Degree of Prudence, to delay that which we know not whether we can ever have an opportunity too perform, unless we lay hold on the present? But,
2. WHAT is it that can induce Men to delay this great, and necessary Work? Is it the Difficulty of it at present? Alas! that will be so far from being diminished, that it will be increased, by time. Every Step we take, in most of the Vices, renders the attempt of Reformation so much the more difficult. As we grow old, evil Habits grow old upon us. Custom becomes like Nature it self; not to be put off, or broken through, but with a difficulty which we become willing at last to think insuperable. This made the Prophet cry out, Can the Ethiopian change his Skin, or the Leopard his Spots? then shall ye also, that are accustomed to do evil, learn to do well. He thought it such a difficulty, as, in the figurative Style, might be represented by Matters utterly impossible. Certainly, to delay an important Matter; a Business necessary to be performed, because it is difficult; when every Moment that it is delayed, will add to the difficulty of it; is to put it more out of our Power than it is at present: It is to render our Work more difficult, because it is difficult already; which is the most inexcusable Weakness.
OR, Is it that Men hope that Time, and Years, will naturally wear out their Inclinations to Sin; and that then they shall find it a much more easy Matter to live as they ought? Alas! Time, and Years, bring an Inclination to some Vices along with them, against which we shall find enough to do to guard our selves; and present us with Evils, under which alone we shall have enough to do to support our selves: and to some former Vices they add a Strength, and Force, which they had not before. Nay, What one ill Temper, or bad Inclination or Passion, is ever known to be removed, or totally cured, by Years; after an Indulgence hath been given to it through the former Course of Life? It is the Mind, that is the Seat of Vice: and if that remain corrupt and vitiated, the Man is still corrupt and vicious in the Eyes of God; how much soever his outward Appearance may be altered in other respects.
BUT could it be so, that Age and Years would certainly remove all that Viciousness, which Custom had been breeding: yet how little likelihood, as I observed before, is there of arriving at such a Term of Years? And how much more likelihood is there of the contrary? And if we should; and that should be the Case: yet how would all the Beauty and Reward of Virtue be gone; What a Return would it be to Almighty God, for all his Long-suffering, to present him at last with a Heart dead to all the Purposes of Life; rendered useless, and insignificant by old Age? What an Affront to Him, to have spent all the best part of Life in the Service of his Enemy; and then to come and offer Him a Service that hath nothing in it: or, to profess to serve Him, when we are past the time in which it can be acceptable to Him? Is it Virtue, for Creatures in a State of Probation, to leave off Vices, which they cannot retain? to forsake Customs, which they cannot follow? To pretend to relinquish Habits, which have relinquished them? For, in truth, this is the Case, upon the present Supposition. They design to serve God with the Dregs of Life; They leave not their Vices, but their Vices leave them; They abandon not their Sins, but their Sins have abandoned them.
TRY, therefore, how such an Offer, and such, a Dedication of your selves to God, after a multitude of Years spent in the hearty Service of his Adversary, will sound, Suppose your selves in his Presence, addressing to Him in this manner. “ Lord! We have indeed spent the Vigour of our whole Life, in the Service of Sin; in dishonouring Thee; and in neglecting thy Religion. The time is now come when we can sin no longer, when our Vices have abandoned us; and Human Society hath as it were excluded us. Behold! now, that we cannot well do any thing else we offer to Thee our Services, which are without Vigour or Force; and present to Thee the Dregs of Life, and the Refute of all our Years.” 11 See Archbishop Tillotson’s Sermon concerning the Advantages of Early Piety. This is what every Man must in effect say, that puts off his Amendment till Old-age; upon supposition that He shall arrive at it; and that then He shall be able, and willing, to sin no longer. And if there cannot be a greater Affront imagined, than such an Offer; and if it be the greatest Shame even to think of such a Return to God as this: let not any Consideration in the World move any of us to defer so indispensable a Duty to a time so improper, and so utterly unfit for it
LET us consider what hath been said; that our Days are uncertain; and, therefore, that ’tis Madness to put off, even for one Day, that Work which is certainly necessary; that if we should have more time allowed us, yet our Business of Amendment would grow more and more difficult every Day; that the present time is that in which it is most easy, and most likely, to be effected; and that if we could suppose any such time to be coming to us in this State, in which our Vices will forsake us whether we will or no, we must not expect that this shall be accounted our Virtue, and reckoned to us for Reward, any more than our ceasing to sin, when we are laid in our Graves: or that God will accept the Present of our Service, when all our past Health and Life have been wilfully spent in the Prosecution of our Lusts; and we now offer it to Him, because we know not what else to do with it.
WHAT remains, therefore, but that we immediately set about that Work, which cannot be too soon begun; nor too soon finished? A Work so necessary, that it is impossible to be happy without it? That nothing delude us into a Delay, in a Case in which the least Delay may be our Ruine? That no Pretence, of what sort soever, divert us from the entring into the Paths of that Holiness, without which no Man shall see the Lord? Nothing but this can give us Peace of Conscience here: nothing but this can assure us of the least Degree of Happiness hereafter. And God grant that this may be the Effect of what hath been said; for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord! To whom, with the Father, and Holy Spirit, be all Glory now, and for evermore. Amen!
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