“And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day he sent them into his vineyard.” —Matt. 20: 2
The parable from which these words are taken is one of the most complete in its details of any that the Saviour ever spoke. It covers a whole day, and as we read it the whole course of the day stands out clear before us. In the words which I have quoted we are set at one moment of the vivid story and can see exactly what is going on. The master of a vineyard having gone out into the highways and found some workmen waiting there now stands at his vineyard gate and, coming to an agreement with each man about the wages which he will receive, he sends each in succession into the great field where the work is waiting. It is a bright, fresh picture. Everything is sparkling in the morning light. The men all ready for work stand waiting. The master, thoughtful and considerate, stands talking with them. Through the open door we see the vineyard with its long rows of young vines. Here is strength waiting for work. Here is work waiting for strength. The two are just upon the point of touching one another. There is no sense of exhaustion anywhere. Everything shines with vigor and hope. There is no limit to the work which we dream may be done before the day is over. The exhilaration of beginning fills the verses.
A man has faded out of the real happiness and strength of life who does not know what that exhilaration is, who does not feel the brightness of the picture which this verse draws. It is sad indeed when any man comes to that state in which each new day does not seem in some true sense to begin the world anew, recalling every departed hope and brightening every faded color of the night before. There is a human instinct which tells us that our life, while it is meant to have a great continuousness and to be always one, is no less meant to be full of new starts, to be ever refreshing its forces and beginning once again. The true proportion between these two feelings, between the sense of continuity and the sense of ever new beginning, makes the finest, the freshest, and the primest life. We may picture to ourselves two rivers of wholly different kinds. One is a great, broad, quiet stream, ever moving swiftly but smoothly on, unbroken by rapids, majestic in its calm and noble monotony, each mile of its great course seeming like every other mile, so perfectly and evidently is it everywhere itself. Its great thought is continuity. The other river is a mountain torrent. Broken and stopped perpetually it is always gathering itself up in a pool, at the foot of the rock that stopped it, for a fresh start. It is always full of new beginnings. It is different in each mile of its course from what it is in every other mile; when it grows calm for a moment it seems as if it had wholly stopped, until it finds an outlet and plunges down another precipice, and with a new cascade begins its life again. Like the first stream, like the majestic and continuous river, is the life of God. Continuousness and identity is our great thought of Him,
“From everlasting to everlasting thou art God,” we cry. Full of movement, the impression of His life is stillness, like the impression of the vast and solemn Nile. But like the mountain torrent is the life of man. With a true continuity, so that it is the same life from its beginning to its end, it yet forever is refreshing its vitality with new beginnings. It loves to turn sharp comers into unseen ways. It loves to gather itself into knots and then start out with the new birth of a new resolution. It loves to take into itself the streams of newborn lives that its monotony may be refreshed with their freshness. It is wonderful how ingenious men will be in making artificial new starts in their lives, as if at midday they shut up the house and lighted all the lamps and made believe that it was night, only in order that in a moment they might fling the shutters back again as if a new moming had come with its enthusiasm. So all live men covet the exhilaration of beginning.
I want to speak today about beginnings or new starts in life. It is a subject which the time suggests. For, beside the aspect of perpetual renewal of which I have been speaking, life here among us in these days has a peculiar look of newness which belongs to the season and the place. The essential power of a new beginning, then, seems to be very simple. It is that it recalls and freshens the principle and fundamental motive under which a work is done, and so keeps it from degenerating into mechanical routine. When the stream starts over a new fall it cannot help being conscious anew of its own fluidness and of the force of gravitation. It is the renewed sense of these things, of what it is and of what a great power is at work upon it, that sparkles in it and fills it full of life as it begins its new career, which is simply the old career with its fundamental consciousness freshened and revived. And so when a man starts afresh, either with the newness of a new day, or with the stimulus of altered circumstances, or with the inspiration of a new work, what his new start ought to do for him is to refresh the deepest principles by which he lives. You feel the engine when the steamer starts. After that when the steamer is on its long monotonous voyage you feel as if the machinery moved itself. So in a new beginning men ought to feel, and in some way more or less real and clear they do feel, what they are and what great powers are at work upon them, as they do not ordinarily feel these things in common times.
Let us keep all this in our mind as we come back and stand in the bright morning light which floods the vineyard gate where the laborers of the parable are just beginning their day’s work. “When the householder had agreed with them for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.” In that verse, taken as the story of the way in which human life as a whole and also of the way in which any special department or enterprise of human life begins, there are two ideas which we may examine and develop in succession. One of them is the idea of mission. The other is the idea of wages. First the master of the vineyard sends the men to do their work, and second he agrees with them for “a penny a day.” We will look at these two ideas in relation to the great new starts or beginnings that come in every full human life.
I. First the idea of mission. “He sent them in his vineyard.” “He,” in the parable, means God in human life. See what a personality steps at once into the story and see how, when it once is there, it cannot be left out again. The whole story lives and moves and has its being in that central person, by whose sending the laborers start out on their day’s work. Suppose at first that you did not see the householder. Suppose you only saw a host of workmen with their tools streaming in through an open vineyard gate. “What are they going for?” you say. The answer must be one of two. Either it is the mere pleasure of the exercise they love, as when a company of boys go hurrying to a fruitless, profitless game of ball, for the pure pleasure of the game, or else it is the desire for something that they are to get, some profits, some reward that lies waiting for them in the vineyard. Both of these are conceivable, both are legitimate motives. And motives which correspond to both of them come in legitimately at every beginning in our lives. Any new undertaking of ours may properly be inspired by the pleasure which we find in its execution and by the advantage which it will bring to us when it is finished. But now put in the householder. Set him in your picture beside the vineyard gate. Make every laborer who passes in pass under his inspection, go in by his commission, and then have you not put another motive in which does not exclude the others but surrounds and comprehends them? Now you ask any laborer why he is there, and pointing back to the master at the gate, he says, “He sent me.” No matter how much any laborer might love the work or want the profits, he would have no right to be there unless the householder had sent him in. Do you not see the parable? Whenever any man believes that God has given him a work to do that belief becomes the great motive of his labor. It does not exclude the others, but it overshadows and, as it were, includes them. Still the man may find the work delightful and may expect from it a great result, but when you ask him why he does it, he rises from his happy toil and points back to where God stands beside the gate and says, “He sent me.” However he might love the work, whatever advantage he might look for from it, he would have no right to be doing it if God had not sent him.
Every work ought to begin simply and with one clear simple motive. It is not pleasant to hear the beginner in any work talk too far-looking talk, anticipate the gain that lies for him far away when his work shall have been successful. Prophecies are too doubtful, and this anticipative spirit is too apt to be discouraged. Some cloud comes between the beginner and his vision of the end, and his impulse is all gone. Nor is it pleasant to hear the new worker congratulating himself that his work is pleasant, that he loves it, and trusting to that love for his energy and his persistence. There will surely come times when the love will grow dull, when the enthusiasm will flicker. What then? There must be some authority that impels as well as some attraction that invites. Not merely a bright vineyard but a majestic master of the vineyard there must be. All serious men have craved a master as well as a task. Some workers call their master duty. Others wiser and devouter call him “God,” but all have done their best work only when they were not merely called by the thing that was to be done but sent by him for whom they were to do it. It is like the going of the arrow out of the bow. The starting arrow is only conscious of the string, not yet has it any perception of the target. You question it as it goes flying past you, and ask it why it takes that track, and its reply is not “Because the target stands this way” but “Because this way the bow-string sent me.” It is only in going where the bow-string sent it that the arrow finds first the joy of the rushing air and then at last the satisfaction as it buries itself into the very centre of the target.
“Like arrows in the hand of a giant so are the young children,” says the Psalm. The child’s life is marked by this, that it is conscious of impulse far more than of aim. It does all that it does because its father sent it, not because the essential attractiveness of the task invited it. If the task’s attractiveness is felt it is as an accidental pleasure, not as the main motive. The main motive is the Father’s will. And in God’s family we are all children always. We are God’s arrows. Not because the end attracts us, but because He says to us “Go” must be the main motive for our going. This is so clear in the life of Jesus, the perfect Son of God. No man ever felt as He felt the essential joy of holy work. No man ever saw as He saw the glorious fruits of holiness. And yet it was not for these at last that He always said that He was holy. The last, the deepest, and the strongest reason was that his Father sent Him. “I came down from heaven not to do mine own will but the will of Him that sent me.” Those are the key words of His life. And these words do not necessarily mean, I beg you to observe, that his will was contrary to the will of Him who sent him. They apply even when the wills are just the same. Then it meant everything to Jesus that the action which he did, though outwardly it would have been just the same act in either case, was done not because he wanted to do it, though he did, but because his Father wanted him to do it.” Father, not my will but thine be done,” Jesus was always saying even when there was no difference in what the two wills separately would have chosen. In that word “Father” lies the commission of his life. Only to a father would one have a right to say that, but when one once knew God to be his father there could be no other real completion of his life, no other crowning and filling of it with its consummate motive.
I am afraid this looks to some of you like foolish subtlety, but, indeed, my friends, it is not so. Let me try to apply it more closely and show how prac- tical it is. I said that there were certain different beginnings in men’s lives to which the parable of our text might be applied. In every full life, in the life of every man who goes through the whole circle of what a man ought to be, there must be at least three such beginnings or new starts, and to each of those three we may apply what I have just been saying. These three beginnings are: i. Youth, or the start of the physical life. 2. The choice of occupation or the deliberate selection of one’s work; and 3. Religious consecration or the entrance of the soul in its deeper life with God. No man lives completely who does not at least start in each of these three roads. O, think of it, you to whom only the first beginning has any recognizable reality. You who were born, but who have never entered upon any work upon the earth and who have known nothing whatever of that deeper birth in which the spirit takes up a willing loyalty to God. This is the measure of your wretched incompleteness. Judged by the standard of the completest human being, does it not seem as if you were really nearer to the brutes than to Him. For you have entered upon only the first and lowest of careers, and even for that it may be, as we shall see, that you have not begun to conceive the true motive which gives it its real value.
Take the mere physical beginning. How beautiful it is! It is not confined to any one moment when the new-born being first catches with a gasp our earthly air. It runs through all those bright and happy years which we call youth, the years in which the physical life is always coming to some new relation to the earth where it has freshly come. Youth is but one long birth. The leaping of new tastes, the timid trying of new skills, the ripening of the senses in answer to the skies they see and the world full of melody which they are ever hearing. Youth is one long bright being bornâ€” one rich and gradual beginning. And what shall be its consciousness, its great prevailing feeling about this life that lies before it? O my young friends, the world is beautiful and every breath of your young life is happiness. You have a full right to feel that! And life is full of promise. There are great prizes to be gained in this great world with which your relations grow completer every day.
But those are not all. These two are like two flowers which need a stem to hold them and to give them life. If they have no stem and try to live alone, they are doomed to wither. The stem must be the consciousness of God, God as the sender and the source of life. The instant that consciousness stands up firm and complete everything else takes its true place and value. The beauty of the flowers means something when they hang upon the stem. It means seed and endless perpetuity of growth. A young man to whom life stretching out before him is not merely something which attracts him for himself but something to which God has sent him with a commission to live peculiarly his own, to him youth gets its full glory. His spirit, as he gazes forth into the future, is full at once of humility and hope. Into his beginning work there comes a noble union of energy and repose. Responsibility becomes to him an inspiration, not a weight.
There is an utter absence of frivolity, a perfect seriousness, and at the same time an absolute buoyancy and joy. Is not that what we all want to see in youth as its chief glory. There is a youth which sets forth on the sea of life as apleasure yacht sails from her moorings on a summer morning. All is gay and bright and trifling, all is light and laughter. She sails because the wind is fair and the sea smooth.
No one bids her go and there is no port for her to seek. There is another youth whose start is like the sailing of a great deep-freighted ship. There is no less joy and exhilaration, but there is no laughter. Faces are serious. Still the sweet freshness in the breeze, the sunlight on the water, bring their influence of happiness, but there is so much underneath. This ship is sent. Great interests are embarked in her. She is freighted with sacred hopes. And so she sails forth in the silence of a joy that does not break out in chattering talk. Such is the sacred joy that fills a child’s, a young man’s, or young woman’s life to whom the simplest and greatest of all truths has come, that they are going forth into life sent by God. That just as truly as He sent Moses, David, Paul, Luther, God has sent them into life out of His own great hand. O parents, what a task and privilege is yours to make God so real to your children’s life that they shall know that He did send them; and so to make God great and true and sweet and good to your children’s first thoughts of Him, that they shall rejoice and triumph in the knowledge that they are sent by such a God as He is.
II. The second beginning which I spoke of was the start of a new occupation, the deliberate entrance by a young man upon what is to be the profession of his life. With regard to that time I think that all of us who have seen many men will bear witness that it is just there that very many men grow narrow, and, from being broad in sympathies, large, generous, humane, before, even in all the crudity of theu” boyhood, the moment of the choice of their profession seems to make them limited and special, shuts them up between narrow walls, makes them uninteresting to all the world outside their little work, and makes all the world outside their little work uninteresting to them. It is not strange. The works that men must do to live become more and more special and absorbing. Anybody who thinks about it sees that the escape must be not in the worker refusing to do one work and undertaking to do all things. It must be in his doing his one thing in a larger spirit. Where shall that larger spirit come from? The spirit of an act comes from its motive. There must be a larger motive then. And the largest of all motives is the sending of God, the commission of Him who is the Father of us all. When the young lawyer dares to believe beyond the pleasure which he finds in the practice of the law, beyond the fortune or the fame that he hopes to make out of it, that God sent him there, that the fitness for it which he has found in his character and circumstances is something more than a lucky accident, is a true sign of the inten- tion concerning him of the dear, wise God; when a young lawyer dares to believe this, two great blessings come to him out of so high a faith : first he is armed against the lower temptations of his profession, and second, he is kept in cordial sympathy with all other children of God who are trying to find and follow the same Father’s intentions concerning them, though in works utterly different from his. The true salvation from the sordidness and narrowness of professional life comes only with a profound faith that God sent us to be the thing we are, to do the work that we are doing.
III. And then with regard to the third great beginning which comes in every man’s life who lives completely, the beginning of conscious religion, of the deliberate consecration to God and culture of the soul. It begins in every kind of way, suddenly with one man, gradually with another. With one man like the swift illumination of a flash of lightning, with another man like the slow brightening of the dawn; but to all men who come to their full life it surely comes by that unchangeable necessity which is in the words of Jesus, “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”; and no man truly lives who does not see that kingdom. But of this deeper life, the life of spiritual struggle, of prayer, of search after divine communion, the life that sacrifices the body for the soul, that hopes for heaven and overcomes the world by faith, of this life so misty and vague to many men, so much realler than all realities besides to every man who lives it, what is the motive power? Why do the best souls undertake it? The simplest answer is the truest, I believe. Because God calls them into it. Ask me why I am a Christian, and I may say, ” Because the Christian life is satisfactory and full of daily sweetness,” or I may say, “Because in the certain distance hangs the prize of everlasting life.” Both are good answers. But suppose I say, “Because God bade me be.” That is a better answer. It includes both the others. The soul that makes it is sure of happiness and reward not by its own direct perception of them but because they are involved in the very nature of God, in obedience to whose authority it gives itself to Him. It makes the persistence of the Christian life depend not on the constancy of our emotions but on the unremitting sense of the Divine authority. The best and noblest Christians, I am sure, have always most loved to give this simplest account of their experience. “Why are you
in the vineyard?” “Because He sent me,” that is all.
Afterward the perception of the sweetness of the work, but first of all because He sent me. O my young friends to whom the soul’s life with its vast hopes and mysterious joys is just opening, I beg you to set at the gate through which you enter into it the simple authority of your master. Come to your Lord because He calls you. As John and James came off the lake where they were fishing; as Matthew came out of the shop where he was gathering taxes; for only to the soul that first gives itself to Him in unquestioning obedience can Christ give himself in unhindered love.
I must pass on to say a few words on what we saw to be the second point suggested in our text, namely, the wages which were promised to those whom the master sent into his vineyard.” When he had agreed with them for a penny a day he sent them into his vineyard.” The first thing that strikes us is that there should be any wages. It is that truth of covenant, that picture of a bargain between God and man which runs through all the Bible, and has often given much trouble to very spiritual and unselfish hearts. “Can I not give myself to God and God promise me nothing? Must I have a promise of advantage to myself, to watch every consecration of myself to Him whom I love better than my life? Is not the “penny a day” an intrusion and offence coming in between me and my Lord?” Such thoughts have come to many minds. I know but one answer. The master owes something to himself as well as to his laborers. He owes it to himself to recognize the service that they give him. Not even from the child will the father take a wholly unacknowledged duty. The “penny a day” is wages, but it is wages raised to its highest power in love. It is valuable not for itself alone, but as the token of the master’s recognition of the service. In other words, I think we have the perpetual recurrence of the covenant idea all through the Bible until something of it appears even in the mystery of the Atonement, and the precious sacrifice of Calvary is called the “Blood of the Everlasting Covenant”; we have in all this not a degradation of the spiritual relations to a commercial sordidness, we have rather an exaltation of the essential idea of commerce, an assertion of the invariable and beautiful reciprocity which runs through all the universe; a declaration that righteousness and justice, the return of like for like, is not an arbitrary arrangement, which can be tampered with or repealed, but is in the very nature of all things and beings because it is in the nature of Him from whom all things and beings come.
And then, if the idea of wages need not trouble us, see what the special wages are which the Lord offers. He agreed with them for a penny a day. It was no outright gift, given in bulk, one large, round sum with which He fastened their allegiance. It was to be a daily payment. Evening by evening they were to come to him, and only gradually should the money accumulate and grow large in their hands. What picture could more truly show the way in which the Lord gives His rewards to all His servants? What could more truly set before us all the kind of promise which He makes us as we begin our life, or our profession, or our soul’s experience at His command! Not in one complete gift is physical life bestowed on any child. “A penny a day” is the promise which is fulfilled in the slow development of the vital powers which goes on all through the infancy and early years. Not all at once are the fruits of a new career or profession put into the eager hands of the young aspirant. “A penny a day” comes scholarship to the scholar, power to the statesman, wealth to the merchant. Not all at once does the new Christian win the completeness of his Saviour’s grace. “A penny a day “! “A penny a day”! so only does the soul grow rich, so only are truthfulness, courage, humility, patience, love, faithfulness given to the soul and made its own. Surely it is a kind warning of the master at the open gate. He will not have us disappointed. O, hear His warning, you who are taking any of His invitations. You cannot take it all at once. Even to His Incarnate Son God gave life in slow development. What wonder if to us it comes with a slowness that makes us often despair; and yet when it does come completely we shall know that except as it was thus slowly given it never could have been made really ours at all.
There is a reason for this method of God’s gifts which we soon learn to know. It lies in two truths. The first is that the very nature of the soul itself requires it. The soul appropriates slowly. A torrent drowns the soil which a rain would make fertile. There is such a thing as a soul gorged with blessing and not fed.
And the other reason is still truer and deeper. The object of God’s giving us any gift is not that we may possess the gift, but that through the possession of the gift we may possess Him. The gift is a pledge to assure us of His presence and His love. God’s gifts are given to us not like robes to clothe us in. The only robe in which we can be clothed is He Himself, His righteousness made truly ours not in an unreal, artificial sense, but really, truly. The gifts He gives us are the clasps that hold the robe about us â€” not the robe. Therefore it is that they are given only as they are required. Not once for all, so that we might take them on our shoulders and go away and forget the Giver, but day by day, so that each day the day’s gift might make the giver real and so all life be filled with Him.
I have spoken mainly to the young today. At least, they have been mostly in my mind as I have spoken. To them the exhilaration of beginning is an ever-present consciousness. Thank God life may be always so full of new beginnings that it never need be stale to any of us. And before us all there always is the great beginning of the everlasting life to keep us always young. Aye, even to make us count ourselves as babes unborn. But to the young the sense of starting is the great prevailing sense of life. I wish that something I have said to-day might make you feel how noble and rich the opening of any life becomes when at the very gate it comes to agreement with God. It is a beautiful moment when with life before you, with your work before you, with your soul’s salvation before you, you stand first with Him beside the gate and let Him, when He has agreed with you for a penny a day, send you into His vineyard. I dare to think that some of you are standing there with Him now ; that while I speak it is that moment, awful and glorious for some of you, in which, while those who sit beside you in the pew cannot guess at what is passing, you are giving yourself to Him and taking Him to be yours for all your life. If it is so, may He make the consecration perfect and keep you always faithful with His great surrounding love!