Social Inequality and the 5th Commandment

Social Inequality and the 5th Commandment

Samuel Willard
A Complete Body of Divinity
An Excerpt from a Sermon on the 5th Commandment

We have taken a brief account of the chief and most comprehensive duties, relative between superiors and inferiors, both natural and political. There are some other differences in providence between men, which though they do not give a civil power to the one, or require a civil subjection from the other, yet as God does put a difference, so should they acknowledge it, and demean themselves each to other accordingly. One of these, namely, that of age and youth (in which the light of nature speaks so much, and about which the word of God speaks so much), we took some account of. There are some others, which I shall but touch at, and pass.

1. There is a difference in birth, which God’s providence is pleased to put between some and others.

Though all mankind have one original, having one first father, whose apostasy has brought disgrace equally upon all his posterity, who do equally bear the blot of his rebellion in their escutcheon, Eph. 2:3 “…by nature the children of wrath,” nevertheless, there is a civil distinction made between families, which makes some to be of a higher, others of a lower degree, Psalm 62:9. God’s pleasure orders it to be so, and the well-being of human societies requires it. And these must live together; which intimates, that there should be a mutual respect and honor paid each to other in this regard also. And here,

1. It is the duty of those that are well-descended, to endeavor to commend themselves to others, in a carriage worthy their descent. There is a civility and courtesy, which these owe to the meanest, which is the only way for them to retain a report among men. Those that would maintain the respect paid to their ancestors, must see that they imitate the praiseworthy virtues, for which they were had in esteem. They ought not to despise such as are meaner, but to set before them an example of good behavior; which is to express itself, in a meek, affable, humble conversation; and that is the way to purchase honor to themselves; and for want of it, they will soon fall into disgrace among men. It was the honor of Timothy, not that he sprang of good parents, but that he imitated them in their virtues, 2 Tim. 1:5.

2. It is the duty of such as are of a meaner descent, to acknowledge it by putting a suitable respect upon the other, according to their birth. There is an honor derived to them; and God requires that it be paid to them, Rom. 13:7, “Render honor to whom honor is due.” And the more worthily they carry themselves of it, the more care there should be to express it. There is a civil deference to be paid them, and a preference to be allowed to them; and that, though the providence of God may bring them into poverty. The neglect of this is therefore threatened as a judgment, Isa. 3:5, “…the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honorable.” Not but that such may forfeit this respect from men by their vile carriage; but the frowns of providence on them, in the affairs of this life, do not procure it.

2. Another inequality, which the providence of God puts between men, is that of riches and poverty.

And this, in the world’s esteem, is greater than it should be, inasmuch as it makes men neither better nor worse, being an external thing. Nevertheless, it is to be observed, because it is of the overruling hand of God. Hence that in Prov. 22:2, “The rich and poor meet together: the Lord is the maker of them all.” And here,

1. The principal duties of the rich are,

1.) To take heed that they despise not the poor, because they are so. It is a thing too frequent for such, especially if they are raised from the dunghill, to scorn, despise, and look with contempt upon their poor neighbors, as if they were of another species: but this is to abuse the favor of God, by whose blessing they gained their wealth. To be rich and humble, is a desirable, but a very rare combination. We are told, Prov. 17:5, “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker: and he that is glad at calamities shall not be unpunished.” And such are they, who taunt the poor with their poverty, as if it were their shame; and they must not open their mouths before them. Such should remember, that their wealth makes them not better men; wealth and folly frequently dwell under the same roof, and a rich fool is not better than an ass in fine trappings. They should also consider, that they pride themselves in a thing of nothing, and which may in the turn of a hand forsake them; and then, their former pride will expose them to the greater contempt. Hence that, Prov. 23:5, “Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven.

2.) To relieve and succor the poor, out of their abundance. No man is lord-proprietor of his estate; but is made a steward of it by God, whose it is. Wealth is one of those talents which God bestows upon men, which they are to occupy for him, whereof they must give an account to him another day. And he has made the poor to be the objects of their charity; and has given these charge concerning them, 1 Tim. 6:17–18, “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate.” And if they will lay out all upon gratifying their own lusts, and meanwhile shut up their bowels against such as are in want, and let them starve, rather than deny themselves of their superfluities, it will expose them to an uncomfortable reckoning another day.

2. The duties of the poor on the other hand are, principally,

1.) Not to envy, but to rejoice in the prosperity of their wealthy neighbors. It is too much a fault among men, that they can hardly bear to see others prosper, and themselves in adversity; and herein not only show their discontent at the providence of God, as unequal, but also to bear a prejudiced spirit against them, and be always fretting at them, and seeking to undermine them. But they ought on the other hand to rejoice with them; Rom. 12:15, and to be thankful to God that he blesses them. Envying therefore is reckoned among the works of the flesh, Gal. 5:21, and hence it is forbidden in respect of another’s prosperity, Psalm 37:7. What if God will give another more in the world, than he will give to us, may he not do with his own, as he sees good? And shall our eye be evil, because he is good.

2.) To pay them a due acknowledgment for all the kindness they receive from them. There is a sort of subjection due from the poor to the rich, inasmuch as they have a subordinate dependence on them. We are therefore told, Prov. 22:7, “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” When therefore God inclines their hearts to improve their estates, either for the public benefit, or for their private support and supply, they ought not only to bless God for it, but also for them; and acknowledge them in it, for which they should love and commend them, and cordially pray for God’s blessing to be upon them.

3. Another inequality which God makes between men, is in regard of gifts, whether natural or acquired.

There are diversities of these, which God distributes among men, according to his pleasure. Some have large natural abilities, and these also advantaged with great attainments of skill, knowledge and prudence; whereas others are low in both regards. These gifts also are diversely distributed, 1 Cor. 12:1ff. And these are conferred by God, to render men publicly serviceable, and the better fitted to profit others. Now,

1. Those that do excel in gifts, ought to improve them readily for the benefit of others, who need the help of them. God has bestowed them for that end; and made them stewards thereof, 1 Pet. 4:10. And if they do not thus improve them, they hide their talent in a napkin. This should keep them humble, and make them not to despise those that are weaker than themselves, but acknowledge God’s kindness, in making this difference, and thus using them to his glory by being profitable. And this is to use them to the end for which they were conferred, 1 Cor. 12:7. And this will be the way to honor themselves, and do good in their generation.

2. Those that are inferior in gifts, should highly value the others, and thankfully make improvement of them. Man was made a sociable creature; and God has seen meet that one should need the help of another. When therefore God makes any useful by those abilities which he confers upon them, and disposing of them to serve others with them, they are not to be despised or maligned, but prized; doubtless herein they really excel. We are told, Eccl. 8:1, “Who is as the wise man? and who knoweth the interpretation of a thing? a man’s wisdom maketh his face to shine, and the boldness of his face shall be changed.” And we ought to account them blessings; to be willing to learn of them, and take opportunities of conversing with them, and inquiring of them; for we are told, Prov. 20:5, “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.” And since God has divided these gifts, there should be a mutual preference accordingly; which seems to be the mind of, Phil. 2:3, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.

And this may suffice to have been spoken concerning those orders, between which there is a superiority and inferiority.



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