THE PRICE OF PREFERMENT
Rev. Prof. R. A. Finlayson, M.A.
I would like to say something helpful to you about that strange parable of Jotham’s which we read together (reference: Judges 9:7-15). It is supposed to be the only fairytale in the Bible, and one wonders why it should be there at all. It must be because it has a permanent lesson to convey. I will not detain you by going into the historical context. The parable was very clear in that setting. It had a message to those who first heard it. But it has a message for us; a message for our personal life, for our personal character and witness, our personal disposition, personal spirit and usefulness.
Now, in this fairy story, the trees of the forest set out to select a king who would be crowned over the forest, and the offer was given first to the Olive which is the biggest tree in the Eastern landscape;
after that, to the Fig which has such beautiful foliage, as many of you know; and, then, both having turned it down, the offer was given to the rather unlikely candidate, the Vine; it was turned down again;
and finally the offer was given to the Thorn, and accepted.
Now, what can this parable convey to us that is of permanent significance to our spiritual life? It is, I think, the price of preferment; the price that we have to pay for advancement. There are many offers that come our way that seem to advance our interests, give us promotion in certain walks of life, even in the Lord’s work, and yet each offer constitutes a real test to our spiritual life, our spiritual usefulness, and our service to God.
Let me go over, very briefly, the offers that were given in this parable.
First, the offer was given to the Olive Tree. The Olive said, “Shall I leave my fatness wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?” As you know, in Eastern lands the people of that day, as to a large extent people to this day, largely live on olive oil. The olive press is part of the husbandry of every home. Olive oil in those days had a big variety of uses. It was used for anointing to office; it was used for the lamps in the sanctuary; it was used for the lamps of the home; it was also used as part of the daily diet. Now the Olive Tree argued that if it lost this fatness, it would lose its source of usefulness and service, which it was meant by nature to bestow. Having assessed profit and loss, it decided to refuse to be crowned king of the forest.
True Usefulness or Mere Authority?
There is no doubt at all that many things come our way that are attractive and constitute a real temptation, but if we are going to
dim the light of our witness, put ourselves in situations where we cannot fearlessly and unambiguously witness to the Lord our God, it’s a dead loss. We know that character, in a very imperceptible way, can lose its witness to God. I have been busy in the garden the last week or two, and my wife has clamoured, “Why don’t you sow some mignonette?” Now in her youth, which is more or less coeval with my own, mignonette was a great favourite because of its permeating perfume. But you will find it nowhere now. Never meet with it! Why? For some reason, unknown to horticulturists, during the First World War the mignonette has lost its fragrance. Nobody knows why, but it happened the world over; and, of course, it is a very drab plant, very little colour, nothing very attractive, it was valued merely for its perfume, for its fragrance. Now, if the Christian character, in what may be an imperceptible, inexplicable way, loses the fragrance of its witness, it has lost that which is instinctive of a Christian. I think that may be the reason why the early disciples were called “Christians” at Antioch. They were reminiscent of Christ; they had an aroma, what the Apostle Paul speaks of as “a sweet saviour of Christ”. And that “saviour” of Christ can be lost, you know, lost in ways that defy logic to explain, but it is noticed immediately. What did Christ say of salt that lost its saltness? “It is good for nothing, but to be cast out and trod under the feet of men.” What an ignominious end for something that is so useful in the staple diet of men, to be cast out and trampled under the feet of men! Nothing could more graphically portray what a Christian can come to, if he has lost the light of a character that witnesses to his Saviour and Lord. Obviously it can happen, because our Saviour warned His disciples against it. This is the first thing that you and I have to be closely on our guard against, that we do not accept a position in which our witness is dimmed, a position in which our character cannot emit the fragrance of Jesus Christ, a position in which we compromise something that is integral to our witness to our Lord. That is the first warning, the warning of the Olive Tree, that was to lose its fatness and therefore its usefulness to God and man. So we can lose the sap of a Christian character; we can become shrunken and shrivelled; our witness has gone because we accepted something outside the will of God.
Freshness or Forefront
The offer was given in the second place to the Fig Tree. The Fig Tree argued, “Am I going to forsake my sweetness and my good Fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?” It is well known that figs, eaten when they are ripe and eaten with great discretion because they are appetizing, are extraordinarily sweet, and form a part of the diet of Eastern nations; probably the main source of their
carbohydrates come from the fig. The fig tree is prolific and a source of strength and re-invigorating to those who live that way. Now, the fig Tree concluded that, if it lost its capacity to sweeten, to make
his contribution to the strength and the livelihood of the community, any position it got in the forest would be a loss; it would cease to perform the function that nature had assigned it.
Friends, there is no doubt that there are situations in which a
Christian can lose the sweetness of his Christian disposition. You meet people who were amiable, kind, gracious, winsome once, and they have turned surly, sour and bitter, and you wonder what on earth happened! Well, I think, putting it by and large, they went outside of the will of God and accepted a position that took the sweetness away from their disposition. They became acid, and sour, and repellant. Now, when a Christian loses the sweetness, the reasonableness of his disposition, the sweetness that contact with the Lord Jesus gives, and turns sour and bitter, critical and censorious, unkind, then he loses the major part of his usefulness in the service of God. It is up to you and to me to remember that there are situations that do detract from the simplicity that is in Christ, and the sweetness that is in Christ. Our dispositions can change very suddenly. A sour Christian is one of the least attractive forms of life that you meet; you meet them anywhere! They have gone outside, in some mysterious way, the will of God. They have lost the sweetness of their Christian disposition. Now the grace of God it is that sweetens the sourest life. I can never cease to marvel at the saddenness of that change that came over the Philippian Jailor. The previous day he had put his prisoners in the inner prison and made their feet fast in the stocks. In the morning, or rather at midnight, he had a basin of water, and on bended knee was washing the bruised feet with all the tenderness of a woman’s hand! What had given that gentleness? Ah, it was the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ which made a sudden transformation in a rough character and gave him something of the tenderness and the sweetness that is in the Christ-life.
To Serve or To Be Served
The third occasion, the offer was given to the Vine. Now the Vine was the most unlikely of the trees to be monarch of the forest. The weak, trailing vine, that needs external support, to be crowned monarch of the wood! But it was its usefulness that the Vine looked at. The Vine said, “Shall I leave my wine, my juice, whereby I cheer God and man?” The fruit of the grape, as you know, was the staple drink of the East. Of course, it is well-known that it stood for joy, for merriment. The Vine regarded that as its natural function. If it stepped outside of that, it was of no further use. As you can see, if the Vine did not grow grapes, of what use was it? It was a feeble,
clinging plant. If it lost its grapes, it lost all its usefulness among the trees of the wood.
Friend, if we lose the joy of the Christian spirit, we lose something that is integral to the witness of the Master. I fear that so many of us have put ourselves in positions in which we have lost the sparkle of that first-born joy when we knew the Lord, when we tasted that He was gracious, when we came face to face with the wonder of our personal redemption. A Christian who ceases to wonder at the grace of God and what it has wrought in him, becomes a sad Christian, a morbid Christian, an introspective Christian. There is no use plucking ourselves up by the roots to see if we are growing. That is not the way to grow. It is to grow upwards and bear the fruit that we were meant to bear, and one of the fruits of the Christian spirit is the joy of salvation. That is why we should pray as the Psalmist prayed, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation”. We know that sin in the inner life, and sin in the outer life, sin that is cherished, and nursed, and given quarter, stifles the song of rejoicing immediately in our hearts. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” if sin has brought us into captivity? It has stifled the new song in our heart. Therefore, the Christian must guard against anything that mars the sense of being redeemed, the joy of Divine salvation, the wonder of his personal redemption. He must not step outside the river of cleansing and comfort that flows from the Throne of God and of the Lamb. There, there we must abide.
Thorns in the Flesh
Lastly, the offer was given to the Thorn. Now, if the Vine was an unlikely candidate for royalty, what about the Thorn? The prickly thorn! Well, the Thorn jumped at it! The Thorn said, “Well, I have nothing to lose. All that I have that is distinctive is these spinous, piercing thorns. And I can take them with me, and they will become more piercing and more wounding than ever!” The Thorn said, to the trees of the forest, “Come and put your trust in my shadow, under my shelter. And if not, a fire will come out of the Thorn and it will burn the Cedars of Lebanon!”
Friend, the lesson hardly needs to be pointed out. There is a thorn in the nature of all of us. It is always wanting supremacy. I don’t need to point out what it is. I know the thorn in my own nature, and I always argue that people are more or less suffering from the same weaknesses. If once we yield to our passion and pride, and our jealousies and our envies, and our quick temper, our irritableness, and all the things that are so wounding, if once we yield, then our weaknesses become so strong that they demand complete submission. When they get complete submission, what a fire can be
kindled in a Christian life! How devastating it can be! One passion can blacken a life if only supremacy is given to it. You know that; I don’t need to belabour it. So, it is a life-long conflict to keep the thorn out of our life, not to give it additional strength and power. You know how wounding it can be to a fellow-Christian! How prickly we can become; how unnecessarily we grieve and hurt those who are our fellow-workers in the Kingdom and patience of Christ. That is because we give scope to the Thorn; we give supremacy to the weakness in our nature; we allow it to get the upper hand of us;
and see the fire it has kindled, how it has blackened our own lives and hurt the lives of our fellow-men! The thorn is never satisfied until it has supremacy, if once we yield.
Learn of Him
Now, it is cheerful to remember that there was only one life without a thorn. It is said that the only rose that has no thorn is the Rose of Sharon. Be that true or not. He who was called the Rose of Sharon had no thorn in His nature, and yet, mystery of mysteries, at the last, He bore a Crown of Thorns, a crown of Acacia thorns, which was the longest, the most piercing, the most wounding of all the thorns. They wove a Crown of Thorns and pressed it on His brow. Why, oh Why? In order that He might take the Thorn, feelingly, graciously and tenderly out of our natures, and that He might heal the wounds that the Thorn made to His cause and Kingdom. You remember how, during His arrest, Peter drew the sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, and immediately the Saviour healed the wounded ear. He is still healing the wounds made by disciples, thoughtless, reckless, irresponsible disciples. Christ can heal these. He bore a Crown of Thorns who had no thorn at all in His own nature. He did it that in order by His own stripes, we might be healed.
Now, friends, if I didn’t think that that could become meaningful to you, I would not have bothered going over the fanciful parable, but it strikes deep, it strikes very deep. Anything at all offered to usÂ—and there is not one of us, be our position ever so humble, be our task ever so menial, be our station ever so lowly, there is not one of us but gets some time the offer of a crown; it may be a crown of straw, but it’s a crown. It is desirable. It gives us a certain standing;
we gain prestige. When that hour comes to each of us, as it will have come, and may come again, let us remember the price of preferment. We may lose the witness of our character. You may be in a very humble station, but your character can transmit light. I never forget that, when I was a boy, on the western seaboard of Scotland, in the evenings I used to look from my own home across
the Loch, across the arm of the sea, and I used to see every evening a blaze of light on the other side. My boyish mind often wondered what a magnificent place it was to blaze like that. Then I learned, it was a shepherd’s humble cottage. The setting sun caught the window and it reflected its rays and the whole cottage was ablaze with light for a minute or two with the setting sun.
The Life that Tells
Friends, the humblest life can catch some rays of the light of the Saviour’s grace and love, and humble as it is, it can be ablaze for Him. Let us do nothing that will dim our witness. Let us do nothing that sours our disposition. Spurgeon used to say that a spoonful of honey attracted more flies than a barrelful of vinegar. If we lose the sweetness of our disposition, we cease to be attractive Christians. Let us take nothing into our lives that will mar and stifle our joy. But above all, let us not give rein to the thorn in our lives, for if we do, there will come a fire out of our lives which will be devastating to ourselves and also to the sphere in which we labour. So Jotham taught us; so God would have us live and do.