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Covetousness proved no less an absurdity in reason,
than a contradiction to religion, nor a more
unsure way to riches, than riches
themselves to happiness.
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.
IN these words our Saviour cautions his disciples, and the rest of his hearers, against covetousness; a vice, which, by striking in with some of the most active principles of our nature, and at the same time perverting them too, has ever yet been, and will no doubt ever be too hard for all the rules and arguments brought against it from bare morality. So that as a grammarian once answered his prince, offering to enter into a dispute with him upon a grammatical point, “that he would by no means dispute with one who had twenty legions at his command;” so as little success is like to be found in managing a dispute against covetousness, which sways and carries all before it in the strength of 288that great queen regent of the world, money; the absolute commandress of fleets and armies, and, which is more, very often of their commanders too. So hard has common experience found it for some to draw their swords heartily even against an enemy, who has first drawn his purse to them; such an universal influence has this mighty vice: a vice which, by a kind of amphibious quality, is equally strong by sea and land, and consequently never out of its element, whatsoever place, station, or condition it may be in. From which and too many the like instances, it will, I fear, prove but too evident, that let philosophers argue and rhetoricians declaim never so much against this always decried, but yet always practised vice, covetousness will hardly ever lose its reputation and credit in men’s minds, (whatsoever it may in their mouths,) so long as there shall be such a thing in the world as money, to hold them fast by.
The words contain in them these two general parts.
I. A dehortation or dissuasive from covetousness. Take heed, and beware of covetousness.
II. A reason enforcing it, and coupling the latter part of the text with the former, by the causal particle for; for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.
If we take the whole complex of the dehortation and the reason of it together, as they are joined in the text, we shall find that they are intended as an answer to a tacit argumentation apt to be formed by the minds of men in the behalf of covetousness, and founded upon these three principles.
1. That it is natural (and I may add also, allowable) 289for every man to endeavour to make his condition in this life as happy as lawfully he can.
2. That to abound with the good things of this world seems the direct and ready way to procure this happiness. And,
3. That covetousness is the proper and effectual means to acquire to a man this abundance.
Upon these three principles, I say, is built that plea or discourse, with which the heart of every worldling, upon the face of the earth, endeavours to satisfy itself of the reasonableness of covetousness. It being impossible, without some pretence of reason, for a rational agent to maintain a quiet mind in any ill course or practice whatsoever: no man ever doing any thing, which, at the time of his doing it, he does not actually judge that he has reason to do the same, whether that judgment be right or wrong, true or false. And therefore, since our Saviour, in the text we are upon, first supposes, and then sets himself to confute this plea, by overthrowing some of those sophistical, or sophistically applied principles, upon which it leaned, the particular knowledge of them was regularly to be premised by us, as the basis and groundwork of the whole prosecution of the subject now before us. In which we shall begin with the first general part of the text, to wit, the dehortation itself; and so confining our discourse wholly to this at present, we will consider in it these three following particulars.
1. The author of this dehortation, who was Christ himself; the great instructor, as well as Saviour of the world.
2. The thing he dehorts us from; to wit, the 290meanest and most sordid of all vices, covetousness. And,
3dly and lastly, The way prescribed by him, as the most sovereign and effectual preservative from it; to wit, a constant guard and a watchful eye over it. Take heed, says he, and beware of it; the present danger and the consequent mischief making the utmost caution against it no more than sufficient.
All which particulars put together, viz. the quality of the person dehorting us, the nature of the thing he dehorts us from, and the certainty of the remedy he advises us to, make it disputable, whether we are to take the words of the text as the absolute command of a legislator, or the endearing counsel of a friend. I think we have great reason to account them both, and that the text will sufficiently justify the assigning a double ground of the precept, where the doubling of that must needs also double our obligation to the practice; while as a counsel we ought to follow it, and as a command we are bound to obey it.
To proceed therefore upon the forementioned particulars; we shall treat of each of them in their order. And,
1. For the great author of the dehortation or dissuasion here set down, who was Christ himself. He said unto them, Beware of covetousness. That is, he emphatically, he with a peculiar significance. For in all persuasions to, or dissuasions from any thing, the arguments enforcing both, must be either founded upon the authority of the person proposing them, or the reason and evidence of the thing proposed. 291As to the first of which, can any thing in nature be imagined more convincing, than the assertion or word of one, whose infinite knowledge makes it impossible for him to be deceived, and whose infinite goodness makes it equally impossible for him to deceive? The first of which must be abundantly sufficient to oblige our belief, and the other to claim our obedience. But both of them inseparably accompanied the words of our Saviour; who, as the evangelist tells us, speaking as one having authority, and, by the very testimony of his enemies, as none ever spoke before him, could not sink below this high character in his discourses upon any occasion or subject whatsoever; but upon none more eminently did he or could he shew it, than upon this of covetousness; where nothing but the superlative abilities of the speaker could reach the compass of the subject spoken to, nor any thing but the unblemished virtue of the reprover put the thing reproved out of countenance, or all defence of itself imaginable. For it is innocence which enables eloquence to reprove with power; and guilt attacked flies before the face of him who has none. And therefore, as every rebuke of vice comes or should come from the preacher’s mouth, like a dart or arrow thrown by some mighty hand, which does execution proportionably to the force or impulse it received from that which threw it; so our Saviour’s match less virtue, free from the least tincture of any thing immoral, armed every one of his reproofs with a piercing edge and an irresistible force: so that truth, in that respect, never came naked out of his mouth, but either clothed with thunder, or wrapped up in all the powers of persuasion; still his person 292animated and gave life and vigour to his expression; all his commands being but the transcript of his own life, and his sermons a living paraphrase upon his practice; thus, by the strongest way of argumentation, confuting and living down covetousness long before he preached against it. For though it is most true, that in hearing the word men should consider only the nature of the matter delivered to them, (which, if it contains a duty, will be sure to make good its hold upon them, be the quality of him who delivers it what it will;) yet since also the nature of man is such, that in all addresses to him, the person himself will be still as much considered as his discourse, and perhaps more; and since the circumstances of his condition will always have a mighty, determining influence upon the credibility of his words, we will consider our Saviour discoursing against covetousness under these two qualifications.
1. As he was Lord of the universe. And,
2. As he was depressed to the lowest estate of poverty.
By the former of which he possessed the fulness of the Godhead bodily; by the latter, he humbled, and (according to the apostle’s phrase) even emptied himself to the abject estate of a servant. For he who was the first, or rather only begotten of the Almighty, and consequently, by all rights, heir of all things, and so had an universal, unlimited claim to all that was great or glorious within the whole compass of nature, yet had so little of this claim in possession, that he tells us he was in a poorer and more forlorn condition than the very foxes of the field or the fowls of the air, as to the common accommodations of life. It was a saying in the Jewish church, 293and received with an universal reverence, both by the learned and unlearned, that the world was made for the Messias. And we Christians hold, that it was made by him too. For he was (as the prophet Esay styles him) the mighty God, and consequently the creator of all that was not God. The son of Abraham by one nature, and eternally before Abraham by another. And yet this wonderful almighty person, whom the whole world could not circumscribe, by reason of the divinity and immensity of his being, had not so much in the same world as where to lay his head, by reason of the meanness of his condition. From all which it follows, that since the quality of the person persuading makes one great part or ingredient in the persuasion, nothing could come more invincibly, by way of argument, against covetousness, than a discourse against it from the mouth of him who created, governed, and had a rightful title to all things, and yet possessed nothing. And thus much for the first thing to be considered in the dehortation; namely, the person dehorting, who was Christ himself. Pass we now to the
Second thing to be considered in it, to wit, the thing we are dehorted from, which is covetousness. And here, one would think, it might well be supposed, that there needed no great pains to explain what this is, if we may rationally conclude, that men know the things they practise, or (in other words) understand what they do; yet since the very nearness of the object sometimes hinders the sight of it, and nothing is more usual than for men to be most of all strangers at home, and to overlook the darling sin lying in their own bosoms, where they think they can never sufficiently hide it, (especially 294from themselves,) I shall endeavour to give some account of the nature of this vice. And that,
1. Negatively, by shewing what it is not. And
2. Positively, by declaring what it is, and wherein it does consist; for there is often a fallacy on both sides. And
1. For the negative. Covetousness is not that prudent forecast, parsimony, and exactness, by which men bound their expenses according to the proportion of their fortunes. When the river is shallow, surely it is concerned to keep within its own banks. No man is bound to make himself a beggar, that fools or flatterers may account him generous; nor to spend his estate, to gratify the humour of such as are like to be the first who shall despise and slight him, when it is spent. If God bestows upon us a blessing, we may be confident that he looks upon it as worth our keeping. And he only values the good providence of God for giving him an estate, who uses some providence himself in the management of it; and by so doing, puts it into his power to relieve the poverty of the distressed, and to recover a sinking friend, when the circumstances of things shall stamp his liberality with the name of charity and religion. For indeed he only is in a true sense charitable, who can sacrifice that to duty, which otherwise he knows well enough both how to prize and make use of himself; and he alone can be said to love his friend really, who can make his own convenience bow to his friend’s necessity, and thereby shews that he values his friend ship more than any thing that his friend can receive from him. But he who with a promiscuous undistinguishing profuseness does not so much dispense, as throw away what he has, proclaims himself a fool to 295all the intelligent world about him; and is utterly ignorant, both of what he has and what he does; till at length, having emptied himself of all, he comes to have his purse and his head both alike.
We never find the scripture commending any prodigal but one, and him too only for his ceasing to be so. Whose courses if we reflect upon, we shall see his prodigality bringing him from his revelling companions and his riotous meats, to the swine and to the trough; and from imitating their sensuality, by a natural consequence, to take up with their diet too. Prodigality is the devil’s steward and purse-bearer, ministering to all sorts of vice; and it is hard, if not impossible, for a prodigal person to be guilty of no other vice but prodigality. For men generally are prodigal, because they are first intemperate, luxurious, or ambitious. And these, we know, are vices too brave and costly to be kept and maintained at an easy rate; they must have large pensions, and be fed with both hands, though the man who feeds them starves for his pains. From whence it is evident, that that which only retrenches, and cuts off the supplies of these gaping, boundless appetites, is so far from deserving the ugly name of avarice, that it is a noble instrument of virtue, a step to grace, and a great preparation of nature for religion. In a word, so far as parsimony is a part of prudence, it can be no part of covetousness.
And thus having shewn negatively what the covetousness here condemned by our Saviour is not, let us now shew positively what it is, and wherein it does consist. And we shall find that it consists in these following things.
1. An anxious, carking care about the things of 296this world: such a care as is expressed in Matth. vi. 28, by taking thought; the Greek word is τί μεριμνᾶτε, and in the 31st verse, as μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε. A word importing such a thoughtfulness as distracts, and, as it were, divides the mind, and after it has divided it, unconscionably takes both parts to itself. In short, such a care is here meant, as lies like a kind of wolf in a man’s breast, perpetually gnawing and corroding it, and is elsewhere expressed by St. Luke xii. 29, by being of doubtful mind. As when a man, after all his labours in the sober, rational, and industrious pursuit of his lawful calling, yet distrusts the issues of God’s providence for a competent support therein, and dares not cast himself upon that goodness of God which spreads its fatherly bounty over all, even the least, the lowest, and most contemptible parts of the creation. Such an one is a direct reproach to his great Lord and Maker, while he can find in his heart to think him so careful of the very mean est rank of beings, as in the mean time to overlook the wants of his noblest creatures, whom he made to lord it over all the rest, and, as a further honour, designed themselves for his own peculiar service; but yet so, that he never intended that they should serve even him, the Lord of all, for nothing. No; the methods of Providence are far from being so preposterous, as, while it adorns the lilies, and clothes the very grass of the field, to leave him naked, who was ordered by God and nature to set his feet upon both, and while it feeds the fowls of the air, and the beasts of the land, to suffer him to starve, for whose food both of them were made. Besides, that man has a claim also to a promise for his support and sustenance, which none ever missed of, who came up 297to the conditions of it. And now, can God require an easier and more reasonable homage from the sons of men, than that they should trust him, who neither will nor can fail them? And withal rest satisfied, quiet, and composed in their thoughts while they do so? For surely the infinite power and goodness of God may much more rationally be depended upon, than a man’s own pitiful projects and endeavours, so much subject to chance and disappointment, be the man himself never so skilful, never so laborious. See with what strength of reason our Saviour argues down this solicitous, restless temper of mind, in the forementioned 6th of St. Matthew, from this one unanswerable consideration, that if God so carefully and tenderly provides for mankind in their greatest concernments, surely he will not relinquish them in those, where the difficulty of a supply is less, and yet their inability to supply themselves altogether as great. Is not the life, says our Saviour, more than meat, and the body than raiment? And shall we commit the former to the common mercies of Providence, but wholly distrust it for the latter? And in stead thereof, fly for succour to our own short, fallible contrivances? When it is certain, that our thinking can no more of itself work an alteration in our civil, than it can in our natural estate; nor can a man, independently upon the overruling influence of God’s blessing, care and cark himself one penny richer, any more than one cubit taller: the same all-disposing power no less marking out the exact bounds and measures of our estates, than determining the just stature of our bodies; and so fixing the bulk and breadth of one, as well as the height of the other. We vainly think we have these things at the disposal 298of our own wills; but God will have us know, that they are solely the result of his. But,
2. Covetousness implies in it also a rapacity in getting. When men, as it were, with open mouth fly upon the prey, and catch with that eagerness, as if they could never open their hands wide enough, nor reach them out far enough to compass the objects of their boundless desires. So that, had they (as the fable goes of Briareus) each of them an hundred hands, they would all of them be employed in grasping and gathering, and hardly one of them in giving or laying out; but all in receiving, and none in restoring; a thing in itself so monstrous, that nothing in nature besides is like it, except it be death and the grave, the only things I know which are always robbing and carrying off the spoils of the world, and never making restitution. For otherwise, all the parts of the universe, as they borrow of one another, so they still pay what they borrow, and that by so just and well-balanced an equality, that their payments always keep pace with their receipts. But, on the contrary, so great and so voracious a prodigy is covetousness, that it will not allow a man to set bounds to his appetites, though he feels himself stinted in his capacities; but impetuously pushes him on to get more, while he is at a loss for room to bestow, and an heart to enjoy what he has already. This ravenous, vulture-like disposition the wise man expresses by making haste to be rich, Prov. xxviii. 20, adding withal, that he who does so shall not be innocent. The words are a meiosis, and import much more than they express, as there is great reason they should; for so much of violence is there in the course or practice here declared against, that 299neither reason nor religion, duty nor danger, shall be able to stop such an one in his career, but that he will leap over all mounds and fences, break through right and wrong, and even venture his neck in pursuit of the design his head and his heart are so set upon. And this, I confess, is haste with a witness, but not one degree more than what is implied in making haste to be rich. For from hence it is, that we see some estates, like mushrooms, spring up in a night, and some who were begging or borrowing at the beginning of the year, ready to be purchasers before it comes about. But this is by no means the course or method of nature; the advances of which are still gradual, and scarce discernible in their motions; but only visible in their issue. For nobody perceives the grass grow, or the shadow move upon the dial, till after some time and leisure we reflect upon their progress. In like manner, usually and naturally, riches, if lawful, rise by degrees, and rather come dropping by small proportions into the honest man’s coffers, than pouring in like a torrent or land-flood, which never brings so much plenty where at length it settles, but it does as much mischief all along where it passes.
Upon the whole matter, the greedy getter is like the greedy eater; it is possible that by taking in too fast he may choke or surfeit, but he will hardly nourish and strengthen himself, or serve any of the noble purposes of nature, which rather intends the security of his health, than the gratification of his appetite.
And in this respect covetousness, a thing of itself bad enough, is heightened by the conjunction of another every whit as bad, which is impatience; a quality sudden, eager, and insatiable, which grasps 300at all, and admits of no delay, scorning to wait God’s leisure, and attend humbly and dutifully upon the issues of his wise and just providence. Such persons would have riches make themselves wings to fly to them, though one, much wiser than they, has assured us, Prov. xxiii. 5, that when they make themselves wings, they intend to fly away.
But certainly, in this business of growing rich, poor men (though never so poor) should slack their pace, (how open soever they found the way before them,) and (as we may so express it) join something of the cripple to the beggar, and not think to fly or run forthwith to a total and immediate change of their condition, but to consider, that both nature and religion love to proceed leisurely and gradually, and still to place a middle state between two extremes. And therefore, when God calls needy, hungry persons to places and opportunities of raising their fortunes, (a thing which of late has happened very often,) it concerns them to think seriously of the greatness of the temptation which is before them, and to consider the danger of a full table to a person ready to starve. But generally such as in this manner step immediately out of poverty into power know no bounds, but are infinite and intolerable in their exactions. So that, in Prov. xxviii. 3, Solomon most elegantly compares a poor man oppressing the poor, to a sweeping rain, which leaves no food; a rain which drives and carries off all clean before it; the least finger of a poor oppressor being heavier than the loins of a rich one; for while one is contented to fleece the skin, the other strips the very bones: and all this to redeem the time of his former poverty, and at one leap, as it were, to pass from a low and 301indigent into a full and magnificent condition. Though, for the most part, the righteous judgment of God overtakes such persons in the issue, and commonly appoints this for their lot, that estates sudden in the getting are but short in the continuance. They rose, as I shew, like land-floods, and like them they fell.
3. Covetousness implies in it all sinister and illegal ways of getting. And if we dwell fully upon this, we shall find, that it is not for nothing that covetousness is called by the apostle, 1 Tim. vi. 10, the root of all evil; a root as odious for its branches, as the branches for their fruit; a root fed with dirt and dunghills, and so no wonder if of as much foulness as fertility; there being no kind of vice whatsoever, but covetousness is ready to adopt and make use of it, so far as it finds it instrumental to its designs; and such is the cognation between all vices, that there is hardly any, but what very often happens to be instrumental and conducing to others besides itself. It is covetousness which commands in chief in most of the insurrections and murders which have infested the world; and most of the perjuries and pious frauds which have shamed down religion, and even dissolved society, have been resolved into the commanding dictates of this vice. So that, whatsoever has been pretended, gain has still been the thing aimed at, both in the grosser outrages of an open violence, and the sanctified rogueries of a more refined dissimulation. None ever acted the traitor and the Judas expertly and to the purpose, but still there was a Quid dabitis behind the curtain. Covetousness has been all along, even in the most villainous contrivances, the principal, though hidden spring of motion; and lying, 302cheating, hypocritical prayers and fastings, the sure wheels by which the great work (as they called it) has still gone forward. Nay, so mighty a sway does this pecuniary interest bear even in matters of religion, that toleration itself, (as sovereign a virtue as it is said to be of, for preserving order and discipline in the church,) yet without contribution, would hardly be able to support the separate meetings of the dissenting brotherhood; but that, if the people should once grow sullen, and shut up their purses, it is shrewdly to be feared, that the preachers themselves would shut up the conventicles too: at present, it is confessed, the trade is quick and gainful, but still, like other trades, not to be carried on without money. Gold is the best cordial to keep the good old cause in heart; and there is little danger of its fainting, and much less of starving, with so much of that in its pocket.
The truth is, covetousness is a vice of such a general influence and superintendency over all other vices, that it will serve its turn even by those which, at first view, seem most contrary to it. So that it will command votaries to itself even out of the tribe of Epicurus, and make uncleanness, drunkenness, and intemperance itself minister to its designs; for let a man be but rich and great, and there shall be enough to humour him in his lusts, that they may go sharers with him in his wealth; enough to drink, and sot, and carouse with him, if, by drinking with him, they may come also to eat, and drink, and live upon him, and, by creeping into his bosom, to get into his pocket too: so that we need not go to the cozening, lying, perjured shopkeeper, who will curse himself into hell forty times over, to gain twopence 303or threepence in the pound extraordinary, and sits retailing away heaven and salvation for pence and halfpence, and seldom vends any commodity, but he sells his soul with it, like brown paper, into the bar gain. I say, we need not go to these forlorn wretches, to find where the covetous man dwells; for sometimes we may find him also in a clean contrary disguise, perhaps gallanting it with his ladies, or drinking and roaring, and shaking his elbow in a tavern with some rich young cully by his side, who, from his dull, rustic converse, (as some will have it,) is newly come to town to see fashions and know men, forsooth; and having newly buried his father in the country, to give his estate a more honourable burial in the city.
In short, the covetous person puts on all forms and shapes, runs through all trades and professions, haunts all places, and makes himself expert in the mystery of all vices, that he may the better pay his devotions to his god Mammon. And so, in a quite different way from that of the blessed apostle, he becomes all things to all men, that he may by any means gain something; for he cares not much for gaining persons, where he can gain nothing else.
4thly and lastly, Covetousness implies in it a tenaciousness in keeping. Hitherto we have seen it filling its bags, and in this property we find it sealing them up. In the former, we have seen how eagerly it can catch; and in this latter, it shews us how fast it can gripe. And we need no other proof of the peculiar baseness of this vice, than this. For as the prime and more essential property of goodness is to communicate and diffuse itself; so, in the same degree that any thing incloses and shuts up its 304plenty within itself, in the same it recedes and falls off from the nature of good. If we cast our eyes over the whole creation, we shall find every part of the universe contributing something or other, either to the help or ornament of the whole. The great business of Providence is to be continually issuing out fresh supplies of the divine bounty to the creature, which lives and subsists like a lamp fed by continual infusions from the same hand which first lights and sets it up. So that covetousness is nothing so much as a grand contradiction to Providence, while it terminates wholly within itself. The covetous person lives as if the world were made altogether for him, and not he for the world, to take in every thing, and to part with nothing. Charity is accounted no grace with him, nor gratitude any virtue. The cries of the poor never enter into his ears; or if they do, he has always one ear readier to let them out, than the other to take them in. In a word, by his rapines and extortions, he is always for making as many poor as he can, but for relieving none whom he either finds or makes so: so that it is a question, whether his heart be harder, or his fist closer. In a word, he is a pest and a monster; greedier than the sea, and barrener than the shore; a scandal to religion, and an exception from common humanity; and upon no other account fit to live in this world, but to be made an example of God’s justice in the next.
Creditor and debtor divide the world; and he who is not one, is certainly the other. But the covetous wretch does not only shut his hand to the poor in point of relief, but to others also in point of debt. Upon which account the apostle James up braids the rich men, in James v. 4. Behold, says 305he, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back, crieth. These, it seems, being the men who allow neither servants nor workmen any other wages than, as the saying is, their labour for their pains. Men generally as the world goes are too powerful to be just, and too rich to pay their debts. For whatsoever they can borrow, they look upon as lawful prize, and extremely despise and laugh at the folly of restitution. But well it is for the poor orphan and the oppressed, that there is a court above, where the cause of both will be infallibly recognized, and such devourers be forced to disgorge the widows’ houses they had swallowed, and the most righteous Judge be sure to pay those their due, who would never pay any else theirs.
The truth is, the covetous person is so bad a pay master, that he lives and dies as much a debtor to himself as to any one else: his own back and belly having an action of debt against him; while he pines, and pinches, and denies himself, not only in the accommodations, but also in the very necessities of nature; with the greatest nonsense imaginable, living a beggar, that he may die rich, and leave behind him a mass of money, valuable upon no other account in the world, but as it is an instrument to command and procure to a man those conveniencies of life, which such an one voluntarily and by full choice deprives himself of.
Nor does this vice stop here; but, as I verily believe, one great reason which keeps some persons from the blessed sacrament, may be resolved into their covetousness. For God, in that duty, certainly calls for a remembrance of the poor; and therefore 306there must be something offered, as well as received, by the worthy communicant. But this the covetous wretch likes not, who perhaps could brook the duty well enough, were it an ordinance only for receiving and taking in: but since it requires also something to be parted with, he flies from the altar, as if he were to be sacrificed upon it; and so, turning his back upon his Saviour, chooses rather to forget all the benefits of his precious death and passion, than to cast in his portion into the poor’s treasury; a strange piece of good husbandry certainly, for a man thus to lose his soul, only to save his pelf.
And thus much for the second thing considerable in the dehortation; namely, the thing we are therein dehorted from, which is that mean, sordid, and degrading vice of covetousness: the nature of which I have been endeavouring to make out, both negatively, by shewing what it is not; and positively, by shewing what it is, and wherein it consists. I proceed now to the
Third and last thing to be considered in the dehortation; which is, the way and means whereby we are taught to avoid the thing we are thus dehorted from. And that is, by using a constant care and vigilance against it; Take heed, and beware of covetousness. Concerning which we must observe, that as every thing to be avoided is properly an evil or mischief, so such an evil as is to be avoided by a singular and more than ordinary caution, is always attended with one or both of these two qualifications.
1. An exceeding aptness to prevail upon us.
2. An equal difficulty in removing it, when it has once prevailed. In both which respects we are eminently cautioned against covetousness. And first, we 307shall find, that it is a vice marvellously apt to prevail upon and insinuate into the heart of man; and that upon these three accounts.
1. The near resemblance which it often bears to virtue.
2. The plausibility of its pleas and pretences. And,
3. The great reputation which riches generally give men in the world, by whatsoever ways or means they were gotten. And,
1. It insinuates, by the near resemblance it bears to virtue. Virtue and vice dwell upon the confines of each other; always most distant in their natures, though the same too often in appearance, like the borderers of two kingdoms or countries, the greatest enemies, and yet the nearest neighbours: so that it must needs require no small accuracy of judgment (and such as few are masters of) to state the just limits of both: and a man must go nearer than the covetous person himself, to hit the dividing point, and to shew exactly where the virtue ends and the vice begins; a small accident or circumstance often changing the whole quality of the action, and of lawful or indifferent, rendering it culpable and unlawful. Covetousness is confessedly a vice, could we but know where to find it. But when it is confronted with prodigality, it is so apt to take shelter under the name and shew of good husbandry, that it is hard to discern the reality from the pretence, and to represent nature in its true shape. Parsimony and saving, determined by due circumstances, are, questionless, the dictates of right reason, and so far not allowable only, but commendable also. For surely there can be no immorality in sparing, where 308there is no law whatsoever that obliges a man to spend. It is the common and received voice of the world, that nothing can be more laudably got, than that which is lawfully saved. Saving, as I hinted before, being nothing else but a due valuation of the favours of Providence, and a fencing against one of the greatest of miseries, poverty, which, Solomon tells us, comes like an armed man upon the lavish and the prodigal; and when it comes, is of itself a curse and a temptation, and too often makes a man as wicked as he is poor. But such is the frailty of human nature, and its great proneness to vice, that, under the mask of lawful parsimony, that amor sceleratus habendi, covetousness insensibly steals upon and gets possession of the soul, and the man is entangled and enslaved, and brought under the power of an ill habit, before he is so much as alarmed with its first approaches; and ready to be carried off by the plague, or some mortal distemper, before he is aware of the infection. But,
2dly, Covetousness is apt to insinuate also by the plausibility of its pleas. Amongst which, none more usual and general, than the necessity of providing for children and posterity; whom, all will grant, pa rents should not be instrumental to bring into the world, only to see them starve when they are here. Nor are just the necessities of a bare subsistence to be the only measure of their care for them; but some consideration is to be had also of the quality and condition to which they were born, and consequently were brought into, not by choice, but by descent. For it seems not1212 But much different was the advice of a certain lawyer, a great confident of the rebels in the time of their reign; who, upon a consult held amongst them, how to dispose of the duke of Gloucester, youngest son of king Charles the first, then in their hands, with great gravity (forsooth) declared it for his opinion, that they should bind him out to some good trade, that so he might eat his bread honestly. These were his words, and very extraordinary ones they were indeed. Nevertheless, they could not hinder him from being made a judge in the reign of king Charles the Second. A practice not unusual in the courts of some princes, to encourage and prefer their mortal enemies before their truest friends. suitable to the common and most 309impartial judgment of mankind, that one of a noble family and extraction should be put to hedging and ditching, and be forced to support himself with the labour of his hands and the sweat of his brow. It is hard measure to be nobly born and basely endowed; to wear a title above one’s circumstances, and so serve only as a foil to an elder brother. But now, by such provisions for posterity, the reason and measure of men’s gains, from personal, is like to grow infinite and perpetual; and yet no charge of covetousness seems here able to take place; it being impossible for a man to be covetous in that, in which no getting can be superfluous. The first plea of avarice therefore is, provision for posterity.
But then, if a man’s condition be such, that all his cares are to terminate in his own person, and that he has neither sons nor daughters to lay up for, but that his whole family lives and dies with him, and one grave is to receive them all, why then covetousness will urge to him the necessity of hoarding up against old age, against the days of weakness and infirmity, when the strength of his body and the vigour of his mind shall fail him, and when the world shall measure out their friendships and respects to him only according to the dimensions of his purse. Upon which account, one would 310think, that all a man’s gettings and hoardings up, during his youth, ought to pass but for charity and compassion to his old age; which must either live and subsist upon the stock of former acquisitions, or expect all that misery, which want, added to weakness, can bring upon it. The sight of an old man, poor and destitute, crazy and scorned, unable to help himself, or to buy the help of others, is a shrewd argument to recommend covetousness to one, even in his greenest years, and to make the very youngest and j oiliest sparks, in their most flourishing age, look about them. It having been the observation and judgment of some, who have wanted neither wisdom nor experience, that an old man has no friend but his money. And I heartily wish I could confute the observation.
But the like and no less plausible a plea will this vice also put in for providing against times of persecution, or public calamity; calling to a man’s mind all the hardships of a civil war, all the plunders and rapines, when nothing was safe above-ground; but a man was forced to bury his bags, to keep himself alive. And therefore, though, at present, there should be peace, and all about us calm and quiet; yet who knows how soon a storm may arise, and the spirit of rebellion and fanaticism put it into men’s heads once more to raise armies to plunder and cut throats in the Lord; and then, believe it, when the great work shall be thus carrying on, and we shall see our friends and our neighbours reformed out of house and home as formerly, it will be found worth while to have secured a friendly penny in a corner, which may bid us eat, when we should otherwise starve, and speak comfort 311to us, when our friends will not so much as know us.
With these and such like reasonings, fallaciously applied, will covetousness persuade a man both of the necessity and lawfulness of his raising heap upon heap, and joining house to house, and putting no bounds to his gains, when his hand is once in. And it must be confessed, that there is some shew of reason for what has been alleged. But when again we shall consider, that the forementioned cases are all but future contingencies, which are by no means to be the rule of men’s actions, our duty is only to look to the precept, and the obligation of it, which is plain and present, and may be easily known; and for the rest, to commit ourselves to the good providence of God. For while we are solicitously providing against the miseries of age and persecution, how do we know, whether we shall ever live to be old? or to see the calamity of our country? or the persecution of our persons? But however, if God shall see it for his honour to try and humble us with the miseries of any of these conditions, it is not all our art and labour, all our parsimony and providence, which can prevent them. And therefore, how plausible soever the pleas of covetousness may seem, they are far from being ration ah But,
3dly and lastly, Covetousness is apt to prevail upon the minds of men, by reason of the reputation which riches generally give men in the world, by whatsoever ways or means they were gotten. It is a very great, though sad and scandalous truth, that rich men are at the very same time esteemed and honoured, while the ways by which they grew rich are abhorred and detested: for how is griping and 312avarice exclaimed against! how is oppression branded all the world over! All mankind seems agreed to run them down; and yet, what addresses are made, what respects shewn, what high encomiums given to a wealthy miser, to a rich and flourishing oppressor! The lucky effect seems to have atoned for and sanctified its vile cause; and the basest thing covered with gold, lies hid itself, and shines with the lustre of its covering.
Virtue, charity, and generosity, are indeed splendid names, and look bright in sermons and panegyrics, (which few regard:) but when we come to practice and common life, virtue, if poor, is but a sneaking thing, looked upon disdainfully, and treated coldly; and when charity brings a man to need charity, he must be content with the scraps from the table of the rich miser or the great oppressor. For no invitations are now made, like that in the gospel, where messengers are sent, with tickets, to bring in guests from the hedges and highways. No, it is not the way in our days to spread tables or furnish out banquets for the poor and the blind, the hungry and the indigent. For in our times, (to the just shame of the fops our ancestors, as some call them,) full bellies are still oftenest feasted; and to them who have shall be given, and they shall have more abundantly. This is the way of the world; be the discourse of it what it will.
And as this is the general practice of the world, so it must needs be the general observation of the world too; for while men reproach vice, and caress the vicious; upbraid the guilt of an action, but adore its success; they must not think, that all about them are so without eyes or common sense, as not 313to spy out the prevarication, and to take an estimate of their real value of things and persons, rather by what they do, than by what they talk. Since therefore it is so natural for every one to desire to live with as good esteem and reputation in the world as he can, it is no wonder, if covetousness makes so strong a plea for itself in the hearts of men, by promising them riches, which they find so certain a way to honour and respect. And thus much for the first general reason of the caution, given by our Saviour, against covetousness; namely, its great aptness to prevail upon and insinuate into men’s minds.
2. The other general reason is, the exceeding great difficulty of removing it, when it has once prevailed. In which and the like cases, one would think it argument sufficient to caution any man against a disease, if we can but convince him of the great likelihood of his falling into it; and not only of that, but, in case he should fall into it, of the extreme difficulty (sometimes next to an impossibility) of his recovering, and getting out of it. Both which considerations together, certainly should add some thing more than ordinary to the caution of every wise man, and make him double his guards against so threatening a mischief. And as for covetousness, we may truly say of it, that it makes both the alpha and omega in the Devil’s alphabet, and that it is the first vice in corrupt nature which moves, and the last which dies. For look upon any infant, and as soon as it can but move an hand, we shall see it reaching out after something or other which it should not have; and he who does not know it to be the proper and peculiar sin of old age, seems 314himself to have the dotage of that age upon him, whether he has the years or no. For who so intent upon the world commonly, as those who are just going out of it? Who so diligent in heaping up wealth, as those who have neither will nor time to spend it?
If we should insist upon the reason of things, no thing seems more a prodigy, than to observe, how catching and griping those are, who are utterly void of all power and capacity of enjoying any of these things which they so eagerly catch at. All which shews, how fast this vice rivets itself into the heart, which it once gets hold of; how it even grows into a part of nature, and scarce ever leaves the man, who has been enslaved by it, till he leaves the world.
Now, if we inquire into the reason of the difficult removal of this vice, we shall find, that all those causes, which promoted its first insinuation and entrance into men’s affections, contribute also to its settlement and continuance in the same; as the same sword which enables to conquer, enables also to reign and rule after the conquest. Covetousness, we shew, prevailed by its likeness and resemblance to virtue, by the plausibility of its pleas, and by the reputation of its effects. All which, as they were so many arguments to the soul, first to admit and take in the vice, so they are as potent persuasives not to part with it. But the grand reason, I conceive, which ties the knot so fast, that it is hardly to be untied, is this; that covetousness is founded upon that great and predominant principle of nature, which is self-preservation. It is indeed an ill-built superstructure, but yet it is raised upon that lawful 315and most allowed foundation. The prime and main design of nature, whether in things animate or in animate, being to preserve or defend itself; which since it cannot do, but by taking in relief and succour from things without, and since this desire is so very eager and transporting, it easily overshoots in the measure of what it takes in, and thereby incurs the sin and contracts the guilt of covetousness; which is properly an “immoderate desire and pursuit of even the lawful helps and supports of nature.”
Men dread want, misery, and contempt, and therefore think they can never be enough provided with the means of keeping off these evils: so that, if want, misery, and contempt were not manifestly enemies to, and destructive of the enjoyments of nature; and nature were not infinitely concerned to secure and make good these enjoyments; and riches and plenty were not thought the direct instruments to effect this; there could be no such thing as covetousness in the world. But even money (the desire of all nations) would sink in its value, and gold itself lose its weight, though it kept its lustre. For to what rational purpose should men prowl and labour for that, without which nature could continue in its full, entire fruition of whatsoever was either needful for its support, or desirable for its pleasure? But it is evident, that men live and act under this persuasion, that unless they have wealth and plenty enough, they shall be needy, miserable, and despised, and that the way to have enough, is to let nothing, if possible, go beside them. So that herein lies the strength of covetousness, that it acts in the strength of nature, that it strikes in with its first and most 316forcible inclination; which is to secure itself, both in the good it actually has, and against the evil it fears.
In short therefore, to recapitulate the foregoing particulars. If caution and vigilance be ever necessary for the prevention of any evil, it must be of such an one as insinuates itself easily, grows upon a man insensibly, and sticks to him immovably; and in a word, scarce ever loses its hold where it has once got it. So that a man must be continually watching and fencing against it, or he shall be sure to fall by it.
And thus much for the first general part of the text, to wit, the dehortation from covetousness, expressed in these words, Take heed, and beware of covetousness. A vice, which no character can reach the compass, or fully express the baseness of, holding fast all it can get in one hand, and reaching at all it can desire with the other. A vice which may but too significantly be called the1313 Viz. Insatiabilis edendi cupiditas; sive morbus, quo laborantes, etiam post cibum esuriunt. Tusanus. βουλιμία, or appetitus caninus of the soul, perpetually disposing it to a course of alternate craving and swallowing, and swallowing and craving; and which nothing can cure, or put an end to, but that which puts an end to the man himself too. In a word, of so killing a malignity is it, that wheresoever it settles, it may be deservedly said of it, that if it has enriched its thousands, it has damned its ten thousands. An hard saying, I confess; but it is the truth of it which makes it so. And therefore happy, no doubt, is that man, who maturely takes the warning which our Saviour so favourably gives him; and by shunning 317the contagion of a vice so peculiarly branded and declared against, neither contracts the guilt, nor comes within the number of those whom God himself, in Psalm x. 3, expressly tells us he abhors.
To which God (who so graciously warns us here, that he may not condemn us hereafter) be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.318
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