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SUMMARY OF DISCOURSE VIII.
ACTS, CHAP. XX.-VERSE 35.
These words conclude the moving discourse of St. Paul to the elders of the church of Ephesus; his last advice, and the best legacy that he could leave them. Two things he especially recommends; the care of the church of God; and provision to be made for the necessities of the poor and helpless : the former duty in verse 28.; the latter in the words of the text. In speaking of the duty of charity, in that restrained sense of the word in which it regards only the temporal wants of our brethren, there are three things proper to be considered : I. how far, and to whom, its obligations extend : II. the objects who are duly qualified to receive charity: III. what is the blessing and reward which attend on the faithful discharge of this duty.
With regard to the first point, it is shown, by the Apostle's words and his example, that he calls on all indifferently, the elders and pastors of the church, as well as others, to labor working with their hands; and that he charges on their labor, not only the duty of providing for themselves and families, but also the care of supporting those among them who were indigent and necessitous : the measures, however, and proportions of charity not being determinate, but relative to the condition of times and persons, varying and changing with them, it must be absurd to apply the rules of charity, found in the holy Scriptures, to ourselves and our own times, without making due allowance for the difference in our circumstances and theirs to whom the rules were first directed. Hence it becomes neces
sary to consider the state of the times and persons to which those rules have reference,
The church of Christ at the first consisted almost wholly of the poor and indigent; whence St. Paul chose rather to work for his bread with his own hands, than to make his ministry burthensome to the churches, though he always asserts his right to be supported by them in his function : nor were the learning and education of the first converts much better than their fortunes; even the rulers of the church being often taken from trades and mean employments, the Spirit of God wonderfully supplying all their defects: this point enlarged on.
These circumstances of the first Christians considered, it is easy to justify the propriety of the Apostle's exhortation in the text: though it would scarcely be at this time a proper one. We must rather be exhorted to part with something out of our abundance to relieve the necessities of the poor. Those however who are able to work, who are blessed with health and strength and vigor of limbs, are rich with respect to others who are incapable, through want of limbs, or by the weight of years, to assist themselves : when therefore bodily labor was the whole wealth of the church, there was a necessity that the strong should work to support the weak; or the weak must have perished in their want and poverty. This shows the reason of such precepts, in which men are exhorted to part with something, even out of the little they can earn by the sweat of their brows. This also will help us to understand some other passages
of Scripture relating to the exercise of charity: examples given : hence also we may learn to answer the first inquiry, viz. how far the duty of charity extends. The Apostle brings all under it who are able to labor; but this must be mitigated by the difference of circumstances between us and those whom he addressed. He pressed all to labor for the purpose of being charitable, because he had none to speak to but such as lived by their labor : but if he were now to address us, his exhortation would doubtlessly be directed to the rich and prosperous : this point enlarged on: exhortation, founded on St. Paul's advice to the Corinthians, that they should lay by in store, the first day of every week, as God had prospered them.
Second subject of inquiry, viz. who are duly qualified to receive charity.
I have showed you all things, how that so laboring ye ought to support the weak. By the weak here we must understand such as are not able to labor and work for their own living ; for since all who can labor are placed on one side and made debtors to charity, the weak, who are placed on the other side, and have a right to be supported by charity, must be such as are not able to work or to provide for themselves in any honest calling. This case is fully determined by the Apostle in 2 Thess. iii. 10-12. The general rule therefore arising from these apostolical precepts, seems to be this : that such only are due objects of charity, who are, through sickness or other infirmity, rendered incapable of labor. Yet this rule, rigorously construed, would be found inconsistent with reason and equity; for the man who is most able and willing to labor, may be the most pitiable and unexceptionable object of charity : this point enlarged on.
But though the rule of charity must not be so restricted as to exclude all who can labor, it may seem reasonable perhaps so to limit it, as that all who can work, should work before they are intitled to assistance from others; yet even to require this in all cases would be cruel and inhuman: for instance, if you saw a man fallen under great calamities, who had relieved thousands in the days of his own prosperity, would you, when the hand of God was thus on him, turn aside from his affliction and say, Go, work for your living ?
Since then there can hardly be any general rule fused which will be equally applicable to all cases, it may be worth
while to examine the reason and equity from which this duty flows, which may serve to direct us in it.
Charity is a relative duty, and supposes the distinction of rich and poor; since without it there could be no reason assigned why any man should part with what he has to another who is already in as easy a condition as himself: the distinction of rich and poor supposes property, for if all things were in common, one man could hardly be richer than another : but then how unequally soever the good things of the world are divided, the wants and necessities of nature are shared in common; and it cannot be supposed that God sent men into the world with such wants and cravings, merely to starve and perish under them: yet how shall their wants be supplied, who have nothing to supply them with? Steal they must not: it remains therefore, that they must obtain the things they want from the proprietors of the world, in exchange for such services as they can perform. But, it may be said, is this a sufficient source for their maintenance? Will the rich so accept the services of the poor? This would be a hard question, were there not an equal necessity on both sides ; had not Providence so ordered it that the rich can no more live without the poor, than the poor without the rich : this topic enlarged on.
It is agreeable then to reason and equity that the poor who have strength and ability to labor, should work for their living. It is next considered, how the duty of the rich stands with respect to this sort of poor.
The right which all men have to maintenance and subsistence is a superior right to that of property ; for the great law of self-preservation is antecedent to all private laws and possessions whatever; the consequence of which is, that in the last result the property of the rich is subject to the maintenance of the poor : this point enlarged on. As reasonable as this may seem, yet it is hard to tell every particular rich man what the measure of his duty is in this case, or how many poor
he ought to employ: but the wisdom of Providence has in great measure superseded this difficulty; for a rich man cannot enjoy his estate, or live answerably to his condition, without creating a great deal of work for the support of the poor.
Hence we may judge what real iniquity there is in the temper and practice of the penurious miser: that he denies to himself the comforts and enjoyments of life, is the least part of his crime; for whilst he pinches himself, he starves the poor, and withdraws from the needy and industrious that maintenance which God has provided for them.
Whenever this ordinary method of supporting the poor fails, the providing for them is a debt lying over the possessions of the rich ; for this is a necessary condition of that law which secures them in their property, by making it penal for the poor to dispossess them by violence. The reasonableness of our poor laws shown from hence.
We see then how the duties arising from the distinction of rich and poor, stand on the ground of natural reason and equity.
The gospel, though it has left men in possession of their ancient rights, yet has enlarged the duties of love and compassion ; has taught the rich to look on the poor not only as servants, but as brethren : this point enlarged on.
To speak of the duty strictly, charity must begin where the maintenance of the poor fails ; for whenever it becomes impossible for them to provide for themselves, it becomes the duty of others to provide for them. Now work being the maintenance of the poor, it is evident that, whenever this fails, they become objects of charity; and this happens many ways: these enlarged on: the report read. Last thing proposed for consideration, viz. what is the blessing and reward attending on the faithful discharge of this duty: it is more blessed to give than to receive.
First; if we consider the different conditions into which men