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COUNSELS OF PRUDENCE FOR THE USE OF YOUNG PEOPLE.
WISDOM OF THE SERPENT AND THE INNOCENCE OF THE DOVE:
IN WHICH ARE RECOMMENDED GENERAL RULES OF PRUDENCE; WITH PARTICULAR DIRECTIONS RELATING TO BUSINESS, CONVERSATION, FRIENDSHIP, AND USEFULNESS.
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. Matt. x. 16.
THIS advice is found among those directions which our blessed Lord gave his disciples when he sent them from him upon a commission in his lifetime here on earth. "These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying: Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give." Matt. x. 5-8.
It is reasonable to conclude, that the disciples received this commission with much pleasure and satisfaction, accounting it a great honour done them, and conceiving at the same time fond expectations of honour and acceptance wherever they came. They were to carry with them very joyful and desirable tidings, that "the kingdom of heaven was at hand:" they were empowered to confer very great benefits, and were required to do all freely, without receiving any gratuity. The limitation in their commission could not but be a high recommendation of it: the good news was to be published to Jews, and them only, not to Gentiles, nor to Samaritans.
But our Lord thought not fit to dismiss them without soine particular counsels and directions, which would be of use to them now, but especially hereafter; when their com
mission should receive an enlargement, both with regard to the subject matter of their message, and the persons to whom they were to carry it. And he judged it needful to give them some hints of a different reception from what they thought of, and some cautions to be upon their guard: that they might not afford any just ground for misconstructions or injurious reflections, nor do any thing that should tend to draw upon themselves a disagreeable treatment. He therefore tells them: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves." You mean well yourselves, and you think well of others. But I must forewarn you, that 'many, to whom you are going, have selfish and malicious dispositions, and are subtle and artful. For which reason you are to be cautious and prudent: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Maintaining your present innocence and integrity, decline dangers as 'much as possible, and take care not to give any ground 'for reflection upon your conduct.'
This advice then of our Saviour to his disciples will give me just occasion to recommend some rules and directions of prudent conduct and behaviour to those who are entering upon the stage of action in the world. In doing which I shall take this method.
I. I shall represent the nature of prudence.
II. I shall show the necessity, grounds, and reasons of prudence.
III. I intend to lay down some rules and directions concerning a prudent conduct, with regard both to our words and actions.
I. I shall represent the nature of prudence. In general, it is a discerning and employing the most proper means of obtaining those ends which we propose to ourselves. He who aims at his own advancement is prudent, if he contrive a good scheme for that purpose, and then put in practice the several parts of it with diligence and discretion. If the end aimed at be the good and welfare of others, in any particular respect; then prudence lies in taking those methods. which are most likely to promote the advantage of those persons, and in doing that in the way least prejudicial to ourselves, and most consistent with our own safety.
It is an important branch of prudence to avoid faults. One false step sometimes ruins, or however greatly embarrasses and retards a good design. Therefore prudent conduct depends more on great caution and circumspection than great abilities. A bright genius is necessary for producing a fine composition. Courage and presence of mind are needful
for a hazardous undertaking: but circumspection alone, such caution as secures against errors and faults, makes up a great part of prudent conduct, by preventing many evils and inconveniences.
Prudence likewise supposeth the maintaining of innocence and integrity. We may not neglect our duty to avoid danger. The principal wisdom is to approve ourselves to God, and it is better to suffer any temporal evil, than incur the divine displeasure. These disciples of Christ were to go out and preach, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." That was the work assigned them by their Lord and Master, which therefore it was their duty to perform, and they could by no means decline. But they might do it in the way which would least expose them to inconveniences, and was most likely to secure acceptance to their message and themselves. This is prudence.
We are not out of a pretence of discretion to desert the cause of truth. But we are to espouse it with safety if we can; that is, maintain it in the way least offensive to others, and least dangerous to ourselves.
Nor have we a right from any rules of prudence to use unlawful methods to obtain our end. Our end is supposed to be good, and the means must be so likewise. Thus far of the nature of prudence.
II. I would now show the necessity, grounds, and reasons of prudence. These are chiefly the wickedness and the weakness of men. The former is the reason which our Lord refers to. 66 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents." It is upon this ground likewise, that St. Paul recommends the practice of prudent caution: "See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil," Eph. v. 15, 16. Some men are malicious and designing, enemies to truth and virtue, and to all that are hearty friends of either. Good men therefore are obliged to be upon their guard, and make use of some methods of defence and security. Others are weak and simple, and therefore liable to be misled and imposed upon by the insinuations of the subtle and malicious.
Nay, if there were no bad men, yet there would be need of a prudent behaviour, because some who have not much reflection or experience are apt to put wrong constructions upon harmless actions.
This leads us somewhat farther into the nature of prudence, and to observe a particular, which could not be so