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Give To SermonIndex : Christian Books : LECTURE XVIII. GENESIS xxvii. 38.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold


GENESIS xxvii.38.

And Esau said unto his father, Hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.

MATTHEW xv.27.

And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table.

Of these two passages, the first, as we must all remember, is taken from the first lesson of this morning's service; the second is from the morning's gospel. Both speak the same language, and point out, I think, that particular view of the story of Jacob obtaining the blessing which is most capable of being turned to account; for, as to the conduct of Jacob and his mother, it is manifestly no more capable of affording us benefit, as a matter of example, than the conduct, in some respects similar, of the unjust steward in our Lord's parable. The example, indeed, is of the same kind as that. If the steward was so anxious about his future worldly welfare, and Jacob about the worldly welfare of his descendants, that they did not scruple to obtain their ends, the one by dishonesty, the other by falsehood, much more should we be anxious about the true welfare of ourselves and those belonging to us, which no such unworthy means can be required to gain. But the point of the story to which the text refers, and which is illustrated also by the words of the Syrophoenician woman, is one which very directly concerns us all, being no other than this, -- what should be the effect upon our own minds of witnessing others possessed of greater advantages than ourselves, whether obtained by the immediate gift of God, through the course of his ordinary providence, or acquired directly by some unjust or unlawful act of those who are in possession of them?

Now, it is evident that, as equality is not the rule either of nature or of human society, there must be many in every congregation who are so far in the condition of Esau and of the Syrophoenician woman, as to be inferior to others around them in some one or more advantages. The inferiority may consist in what are called worldly advantages, or in natural advantages, or in spiritual advantages, or in some or all of these united. And it is not to be doubted that the sense of this inferiority is a hard trial, both as respects our feelings towards God and towards men. It is a hard trial; but yet, no trial overtakes us but such as is common to man: and here, as in all other cases, God will, with the trial, also make a way for us to escape, that we may be able to bear it.

Let us consider, then, some of the most common cases in which this inferiority exists amongst us. With regard to worldly advantages, the peculiar nature of this congregation makes it less necessary than it generally would be, to dwell upon inequality in these: in fact, speaking generally, we are a very unusual example of equality in these respects; the advantages of station and fortune are enjoyed not, literally, in an equal degree by all of us, but equally as compared with, the lot of the great mass of society; we all enjoy the necessaries, and most of the comforts of life. What differences there are would, probably, appear in instances seemingly trifling, if, indeed, any thing were really trifling by which the temper and feelings, and through them the principles, of any amongst us may be affected for good or for evil. It may possibly happen that, in the indulgences, or means of indulgence, given to you by your friends at home, there may be sometimes, such a difference as to excite discontent or jealousy. It may be, that some are apt to exult over others, by talking of the pleasures, or the liberty, which they enjoy; and which the friends of others, either from necessity or from a sense of duty, are obliged to withhold. If this be ever felt by any of you as a trial; if it gall your pride, as well as restrict your enjoyments; then remember, that here, even in this seemingly little thing, the inferiority of which you complain may be either increased ten-fold, or changed into a blessed superiority. Increased ten-fold, even as from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath, if by discontent, and evil passions towards God and man, you make yourselves a hundred times more inferior spiritually than you were in outward circumstances; but changed into a blessed superiority, if it be borne with meekness, and patience, and thankfulness, even as it was said of the Gentile centurion, that there had not been found faith equal to his, no, not in Israel.

But turning from worldly advantages to those which are called natural, and the inequality here is at once as great as elsewhere. In all faculties of body and mind; in the vigour of the senses, of the limbs, of the general constitution; in the greater or less liability to disease generally, or to any particular form of it; or, again, in powers of mind, in quickness, in memory, in imagination, in judgment; the differences between different persons in this congregation must be exceedingly wide. But, with regard to bodily powers, the trial is little felt, till the inferiority is shown in actual suffering from pain or from disease. So long as we are in health, our enjoyments are so many, and we so easily accommodate our habits to our powers, that a mere inferiority of strength, whether it be of limb or of constitution, is not apt to make us dissatisfied. But if it comes to actual illness or to pain, if we are deprived of the common enjoyments and occupations of our age, then perhaps the trial begins to be severe; and when we look at others who have taken the same liberties with their health as we have done, and see them notwithstanding perfectly well and strong, while we are disabled or suffering, we may think that God has dealt hardly with us, and may be inclined to ask with Esau, |Hast thou but one blessing, my Father? bless me, even me also, O my Father!| Now this language, according to the sense in which we use it, is either blameable or innocent. If we mean to say, |Hast thou health to give to others only and not to me? give me this blessing also, as thou hast given it to my brethren:| then it has in it somewhat of discontent and murmuring; it implies a claim to which God never listens. But if we mean, |Hast thou only one kind of blessing, my father? If thou hast blest others in one way, I murmur not nor complain: but out of thine infinite store, give me also such a blessing as may be convenient for me;| then God hears the prayer, then he gives the blessing, and gives it so richly, and makes it bear so evidently the mark of his love, that they who were last are become first; if others have health, and we have sickness, yet the spirit of patience and cheerful submission which God gives with it is so great a blessing, and makes us so certainly happy, that the strongest and healthiest of our friends have often far more reason to wish to change places with us, than we with them.

Let us now take inequality in powers of mind. And here, undoubtedly, the difference is apt to be a trial. Not that, probably, it excites discontent or murmuring against God; nor jealousy against those whose faculties are better than our own: the trial is of another kind; we are tempted to make our inferiority an excuse for neglect; because we cannot do so much nor so easily as others, we do far less than we might do. But the parable shows us plainly, that if one talent only has been given us, while others have ten, yet that the one, no less than the ten, must be made to yield its increase. Here is the feeling expressed so earnestly by the woman entreating Christ to heal her daughter. |The dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table.| Small as may be the portion of power given us, when compared with the plenty vouchsafed to others, still it is capable of nourishing us if we make use of it; still it shows that we too have our blessing. And if using it with thankfulness, if doing our very best with it, knowing that |a man is accepted according to what he hath, and not according to what he hath not,| we labour humbly and diligently; then, not only does the talent itself become increased, so that our Lord, when he comes to reckon with us, may receive his own with usury: but a blessing of another kind is added to our labours, again, as in the former case, making those who were last to become first. For if there be one thing on earth which is truly admirable, it is to see God's wisdom blessing an inferiority of natural powers, when they have been honestly, humbly, and zealously cultivated. From how many pains are they delivered, to which great natural talents are continually exposed; irritation, jealousy, a morbid and nervous activity, bearing fruits not of peace, but of gall! With what blessings are they crowned, to which, the most powerful natural understanding is a stranger! the love of truth gratified, without the fear that truth will demand the sacrifice of personal vanity; the line of duty clearly discerned, because those mists of passion and selfishness which obscure it so often from the view of the keenest natural perception, have been dispersed by the spirit of humility and love; imperfect knowledge patiently endured, because whatever knowledge is enjoyed is known to be God's gift, and what he gives, or what he withholds, is alike welcome. This is the blessing of those who having had inferior natural powers, have so laboured to improve them according to God's will, that on all there has been grafted, as it were, some better power of grace, to yield a fruit most precious both for earth and heaven.

But I spoke of an equality of spiritual advantages also, and this is perhaps the hardest trial of all. Oh, how great is this inequality in truth, when it seems to be so little! All of you, the children of Christian parents; all members of the Christian Church; all partaking here of the same worship, the same prayers, the same word of God, the same sacrament; are you not all the Israel of God, and not, like Esau, or the Syrophoenician woman, strangers to the covenant of blessing? Yet your real condition is, notwithstanding, very unequal. How unlike are your friends at home; how, unlike, also, are your friends here! Are there not some to whom their homes, both by direct precept and by example, are a far greater help than to others? Are there not some, whose immediate companions here may encourage them in all good far more than may be the case with, others? So, then, there may be some to whom this great blessing has been denied, whilst others enjoy it. What then? Shall we say, that, because we have it not, we will refuse to go in to our Father's house; that we will not walk as our brother walks, unless we have his advantages? Then must we remain cast out; vessels fashioned to dishonour; rejected of God, and cursed. Nay rather let us put a Christian sense on Esau's prayer, and cry, |'Hast thou but one blessing, my Father? bless me, even me also, O my Father.' If thou hast given to others earthly helps, which thou hast denied to me, give me thyself and thy own Spirit the more! If father and mother forsake my most precious interest, do thou take me up. If my nearest friends will not walk with me in the house of God, be thou my friend, and abide with, me always, making my house as thine. Outward and earthly means thou givest or takest away at thy pleasure; but give me help according to my need, that I yet may not lose thee.|

How naturally are we interested at the thought of any one so circumstanced, and uttering such a prayer! How earnestly do we wish to help him, to show our respect and true love for a faith so tried and so enduring! And think we that God cares for it less than we do? or have we not already the record of his love towards it, when Christ answered the Syrophoenician woman, |O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt?| He may not, indeed, see fit to give the very same blessing which was in the first instance denied: we may still have fewer spiritual advantages than others, as far as human helps are concerned; fewer good and earnest friends; fewer examples of holiness around us; fewer to join with us in our prayers and in our struggles against evil. But though this particular blessing may be denied, -- as Esau could not gain that blessing which had been given to Jacob, -- yet there is a blessing for us also, which may prove, in the end, even better than our brother's. He who serves God steadily, amidst many disadvantages, enjoys the blessing of a more confirmed and hardier faith; he has gone through trials, and been found conqueror; and for him that overcometh is reserved a more abundant measure of glory.

But on the other side, we who, like Jacob, or Jacob's posterity, have the blessing, -- whether it be natural, worldly, or spiritual, -- let us consider what became of it when it was not improved. What was the sin of Esau, -- speaking not of the individual, but of the less favoured people of Edom, -- compared with the sin of Jacob? Nay, not of Edom only; but it shall be more tolerable for Sodom, in the day of judgment, than for the unbelieving cities of Israel. So it is, not only with the literal, but with the Christian Israel; so it is, not only with the Church as a whole compared with heathens, but with all those individuals amongst us, who enjoy in any larger measure than others any of God's blessings. They are blessings; but they may be made fatal curses. This holds true with blessings of every kind: with station and wealth, with bodily health and vigour, with, great powers of mind, with large means of spiritual improvement. To whom much is given, of him shall be much, required. It is required of us to enjoy our blessings by using them: so will they be blessings indeed. So it is with money and influence, with health, with talents, with spiritual knowledge, and good friends and parents. There are first who shall be last; that is, those who began their course with advantages which set them before their brethren, if they do not exert themselves, will fall grievously behind them: for the blessing denied may be, in effect, a blessing given; and the blessing given, in like manner, becomes too often a blessing taken away.

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