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THE NATURE OF COVETOUSNESS.
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.—Luke xii. 15.
AMONG all the irregular appetites of men, there is none that is more common and unreasonable, and of a more universal bad influence upon the hearts and lives of men, than this of covetousness; and therefore, in speaking of this vice, I shall strike at the root of a great many others; even of apostacy from God’s truth and religion, of which covetousness, and the love of this present world, is one of the most common causes. So that if I can contribute any thing to the cure of this great distemper of men’s minds, I “hall, in .so doing, remove that which is the cause and occasion of a great part of the evils and mischiefs which are in the world. And to this end I have pitched upon these words of our blessed Saviour to his hearers: “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 which words are these three things observable:
First, The manner of the caution which our Saviour here gives, “Take heed and beware;” he doubles it, to shew the great need and concernment of it.
Secondly, The matter of the caution, or the vice which our Saviour here warns his hearers against, 66and that is covetousness: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness.”
Thirdly, The reason of this caution, “because a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Human life is sustained by a little, and therefore abundance is not necessary either to the support or comfort of it. It is not a great estate and vast possessions that make a man happy in this world; but a mind that is equal to its condition, whatever it be.
First, The manner of the caution which our Saviour here gives, “Take heed and beware.” This is a peculiar kind of caution, and no where else, or upon any other occasion that I know of, used in Scripture; in which, for the greater emphasis and weight, the words of caution are doubled, as if the matter were of so much concernment, that no caution about it could be too much, to signify to us both the great danger of this sin of covetousness, and the great care men ought to use to preserve themselves from it.
I. The great danger of this sin; how apt we are to fall into this vice, and of how pernicious a consequence it is to those in whom it reigns.
1. How apt are we to fall into this vice: and, excepting those vices which are immediately founded in a man’s natural temper and constitution, there is none that men have a more universal propension to than this of covetousness. For there are two things which human nature docs more especially desire to be secured against, which are want and contempt: and riches seem to be a certain remedy against both these evils. And because men think they can never be sufficiently secured against these, therefore their desire of riches grows endless and insatiable; so 67that, unless men be very jealous and watchful over themselves, this desire will grow upon them, and enlarge itself beyond all bounds.
2. As men are very apt to fall into this vice, so is it of very pernicious consequence to those in whom it reigns. The mischief of it is very great and very extensive: so Paul tells us, (1 Tim. vi. 8, 9, 10.) where he presseth men to be contented with a small competency of the things of this life, because of the great danger and mischief of a covetous mind; “having food and raiment, let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich (that is, they that are bent and resolved upon being rich) fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil.” But this I shall speak more fully to, when I come to shew the great evil and unreasonableness of this vice.
II. This earnest kind of caution, as it signifies the great danger of this sin of covetousness, so likewise the great care that men ought to use to preserve themselves from it; for the greater the danger is in any kind, so much the greater care should be used for the avoiding of it. Men are not so solicitously concerned to defend themselves against a slight mischief; but when a terrible one threatens us, we should be continually upon our guard against it, and summon all our strength and force to resist it. Thus much for the manner of the caution.
I proceed to the second thing to be considered in the text; viz. the matter of the caution, or the vice which our Saviour here warns his hearers against, and that is covetousness; “Take heed, and beware of covetousness.” And in speaking of this, I shall consider these two things:68
I. Wherein the nature of this vice consists.
II. I shall endeavour to shew the great evil and unreasonableness of it. I shall be large in both.
I. For the nature of this vice of covetousness. The shortest description that I can give of it is this: that it is an inordinate desire and love of riches; but when this desire and love are inordinate, is not so easy to be determined. And therefore, that we may the better understand what the sin of covetousness is, which our Saviour doth so earnestly caution against, it will be requisite to consider more particularly wherein the vice and fault of it doth consist; that, whilst we are speaking against covetousness, we may not under that general word condemn any thing that is commendable or lawful. To the end, then, that we may the more clearly and distinctly understand wherein the nature of this vice doth consist, I shall
First, Endeavour to shew what is not condemned under this name of covetousness, either in Scripture or according to right reason: and,
Secondly, What is condemned by either of these, as a plain instance or branch of this sin.
First, What things are not condemned under the name of covetousness, either in Scripture or according to right reason, which yet have some appearance of it; namely, these three things:
1. Not a provident care about the things of this present life.
2. Not a regular industry and diligence for the obtaining of them: nor,
3. Every degree of love and affection to them. I mention these three, because they may all seem to be condemned by Scripture, as parts or degrees of this vice, but really are not.69
1. Not a provident care about the things of this present life. This, indeed, seems to be condemned in Scripture as a branch of covetousness; namely, in our Saviour’s sermon upon the mount, (Matth. vi. 25.) “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall rat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Here our Saviour seems to forbid all care, even about the necessaries of life, meat, and drink, and clothing, much more about the delights and conveniences of it. But this is not absolutely, and in ordinary cases, intruded by our Saviour to be condemned, as I shall shew by and by under the next head.
2. Neither is a regular industry and diligence for the obtaining of these things condemned in Scripture; though this also seems to be prohibited by our Saviour, in the same chapter, (ver. 26.) “Behold the fowls of the air. for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feedeth them;” and, (ver. 28.) “Why take ye thought for raiment? consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” In which words our Saviour seems to intimate, that. we ought to depend upon the providence of God for food and raiment, and to use no more industry for the obtaining of them than the fowls of the air do, or the lilies of the field: and the same may seem to be collected out of this chapter of St. Luke; for after our Saviour had in my text cautioned them against covetousness, and spoken to them a parable to that purpose, of “a rich man who enlarged his barns, and laid up goods for many years,” he infers from thence, (ver. 22.) that men should take no thought for the things of this life, nor use any industry about them: “And he said unto his disciples, Therefore 70I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.”
Now, to avoid all inconvenience from our Saviour’s words, I think that it is commonly said by interpreters, that he does here only condemn a distrustful and anxious care about the things of this life, and an over-solicitous industry and diligence for the obtaining of them; but that he allows a prudent care and regular industry about these things: and this were very well said, if it would agree with the scope and design of our Saviour’s discourse; but the instances which he gives of the fowls of the air, and the lilies of the field, which are sufficiently provided for without any care and industry of theirs, and which he seems to set before us for a pattern; “Behold (says he) the fowls of the air:” I say, these instances which he gives, seem to exclude even all regular and ordinary care and diligence about these things.
What shall we say then, that our Saviour in tended by his religion to take men off from all labour and industry in their callings? This seems to be unreasonable; and indeed so it certainly were, if our Saviour had given this for a standing and ordinary rule to all Christians; and not only so, but contrary to the apostle’s doctrine, who constantly charged Christians to labour with great diligence in their callings, that they might be able to provide for themselves and their families.
But this discourse of our Saviour’s was not in tended for a general and standing rule to all Christians; but only designed for his disciples, to take them oft from all care about the things of this life, that they might attend upon his person, and wholly 71give up themselves to that work to which he had called them. And therefore St. Luke takes notice, that, after he had cautioned his hearers in general against covetousness, he applies himself particularly to his disciples, and tells them, that he would have them so far from this vice of covetousness, that they should not so much as use that ordinary care and industry about the things of this life, which is not only lawful, but necessary for men in all ordinary cases, (ver. 22.) “And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat.” And this agrees very well with the direction which our Saviour gave to his disciples, when he first sent them forth to preach: (Matth. x. 9.) “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass, in your purses, neither coat nor scrip;” which no man ever understood as a general law to all Christians, but as a particular precept to the apostles at that time.
And, if this be our Saviour’s meaning, there is then no reason to think that this caution against covetousness does forbid men to use a provident care and regular industry about the things of this life.
3. Nor is every degree of love and affection to the things of this world condemned in Scripture, as any branch or part of this vice of covetousness; but such a love of the things of this world as is truly consistent with the love of God, and a due and a serious care of our souls, is allowed both by Scripture and reason. St.. John indeed seems to condemn all love of the world, and of the things of it, as utterly inconsistent with the love of God; (1 John ii. 15.) “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world; if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him:” but this is 72according to the Hebrew phrase and manner of speaking, to forbid things absolutely, which are to be understood only comparatively. So Matth. vi. 19. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven;” i. e. be not so solicitous for the good things of this world, as for the glory and happiness of the next. And, (Luke xii. 4.) “Be not afraid of them that kill the body;” that is, fear them not so much as “him that can destroy both body and soul in hell:” and, (Luke xiv. 20.) “If any man come unto me, and hate not his father and mother, and all that he hath;” that is, if he do not love me more than all these things, “he cannot be my disciple:” and, (John vi. 27.) “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth to everlasting life;” that is, labour not so much for the one as for the other—be not so solicitous about the things of this life as about the great concernments of eternity. So likewise (Coloss. iii. 2.) “Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth;” i. e. set them more on things above, than on earthly things. So here, “Love not the world, neither the things of the world;” that is, do not overvalue them, do not love them so much as not to be able to part with them for Christ; for if any man thus love the world, he does not love God as he ought. So that when the Scripture commands us not to love the world, this is to be understood comparatively, that we should not love these things in comparison of God, and the great concernments of another world: but it does not forbid us to love these things in a due decree, and with a due subordination to those things which are more excellent, and of infinitely greater concernment to us. For nothing can be more inconsistent 73than to recommend to men diligence in their worldly callings and employments (as the Scripture frequently does), and that in order to the attaining of the good things of this life; and yet to forbid us to love these things at all. For if men have no degree of love to them, the best argument to diligence for the obtaining of them would be taken away. Besides that, we are commanded in Scripture to be thankful to God for bestowing on us the blessings of this life, and we are to love him upon this account. Now can any man love the giver for bestowing such gifts upon him, which, if he does as he ought, he must not love?
You see then what those are which the Scripture does not condemn as any branch or degree of this vice of covetousness; a provident care and a regular industry, and such a degree of love to the things of this world, as is consistent with the love of God and the care of our soul.
Secondly , I come now to shew what is condemned in Scripture under the name of covetousness; and by this we shall best understand wherein the nature of this sin doth consist. Now covetousness is a word of a large signification, and comprehends in it most of the irregularities of men’s minds, either in desiring, or getting, or in possessing, and using an estate. I shall speak to each of these severally.
I. Covetousness, in the desire of riches, consists in an eager and insatiable desire after the things of this world. This the Scripture condemns, though it be free from injustice, as it seldom happens to be. This insatiable desire of wealth, God plainly condemns by his prophet: (Isa. v. 8.) “Woe unto them that join house to house, and lay field to field, till 74there be no place, that they may he placed alone in the midst of the earth.” And this is that which our Saviour here in the text seems to have a more particular respect to, when he cautions men against the sin of covetousness, as appears both from the reason which he gives of this caution, and from the parable whereby he illustrates it. From the reason which he gives of this caution, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness; for the life of man doth not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” As if he had said, Take great care to set some bounds to your desires after the things of this world. For whatever men may imagine, it is certain, in experience, that it is not the abundance of outward things which makes the life of man happy. Wealth and content do not always dwell together; nay, so far from that, that perhaps they very seldom meet.
And the parable likewise which follows upon this caution, doth sufficiently shew this to be our Saviour’s meaning; for he illustrates what he was speaking of, by a rich man whose desire of wealth was never satisfied, but he was continually increasing his estate and enlarging his barns, to make more room still for his fruits, that he might “lay up goods in store for many years.” The parable does not so much as intimate any indirect and unjust ways of gain which this man used to increase his estate, but condemns his insatiable desire and thirst after more; so that even this alone is covetousness, and a great fault, though it were attended with no other; because it is unreasonable and without end.
II. There is covetousness likewise in getting an estate; and the vice or evil of this kind of covetousness consists chiefly in these three things.75
1. In the use of unlawful and unjust ways to get or increase an estate. He is a covetous man, who, by the greediness of gain, is tempted to do any unjust action, whether it be in the way of fraud and deceit, or of violence and oppression. And this, perhaps, is that which is most frequently in Scripture called covetousness. And this I take to be the meaning of the tenth commandment, “Thoushalt not covet;” wherein is forbidden all unjust desire of that which is another man’s, and all unjust endeavours and attempts to deprive him of it. For so our Saviour renders it, Mark x. 19. where he says to the young man that came to be directed by him, what good thing he should do, that he might inherit eternal life—“Thou knowest the commandments, do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not steal, do not bear false witness;” and then, instead of the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” or rather by way of explication of it, he adds, μὴ ἀποστερήσῃς, defraud not; as if he had said in a word, Be not injurious to thy neighbour in any kind, in desiring or endeavouring to deprive him of any thing that is his. As the Romans in their laws were wont to comprehend those crimes, which had no proper name, by the general name of stellionatus and dolus malus; so here in the decalogue, after God had instanced in the chief and most common sorts of injuries which men are guilty of towards their neighbour, as murder, adultery, theft, bearing of false witness; he sums up all the rest, which could not so easily be reckoned particularly, in this short and general prohibition, “Thou shalt not covet;” that is, thou shalt not be injurious to thy neighbour in any kind; in his wife, or servant, or house, or cattle, “or any thing that is his.” Covetousness, or any inordinate 76desire of that which is our neighbour’s, being commonly the root and parent of all those kind of in juries.
And for the same reason St. Matthew, instead of the tenth commandment, puts this general precept, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” as being the sense of it in other words: (Matt. xix. 18, 19.) “Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, honour thy father and thy mother, and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” And this command of loving our neighbour as ourselves, our Saviour elsewhere tells us, was the sum of the duties of the second table; and it is the same in sense with that precept of our Saviour, (Matt. vii. 12.) “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.” That is, as thou wouldest have no man to be injurious to thee in any thing, so be not thou to any other man in any kind. And the apostle (Rom. xiii. 8, 9, 10.) shews us upon what account this general precept, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” is the sum of the second table. “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law; for this, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” And then he adds, in the next words, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” That is, he that truly loves his neighbour will not be injurious to him in any kind: therefore love is the sum of the law.
The design of all this is to shew, that he that is 77injurious to his neighbour in his estate in any kind is properly guilty of the sin of covetousness, which is forbidden in the tenth commandment. So that all arts of fraud and oppression, whereby men endeavour to get and increase an estate by the injury of their neighbour, is a branch of the sin of covetousness.
2. The vice of covetousness in getting wealth, does likewise consist in an anxious and tormenting care about obtaining the things of this life. The regular and due temper of a man’s mind about the things of this world, is to commit ourselves to the providence of God in the use of honest and lawful endeavours, and to refer the success of all to his good pleasure; and whatsoever is beyond this, is a branch from the evil root of covetousness. We distrust the providence of God, when, after we had used our best endeavours, and begged his blessing upon them, we torment ourselves about the issue and event of things. And as this is sinful, so it is vain and to no purpose. Diligence in our business is the way to get an estate; but no man was ever the richer for tormenting himself because he is not so. The reason why men seek the things of this world, and take pains to get them, is to make life convenient and comfortable; and consequently, he that torments himself about the getting of these things contradicts himself, in his own design, because he makes his life miserable, that he may make it comfortable.
3. The sin of covetousness in getting, consists in seeking the things of this life, with the neglect of things infinitely better, and which are of far greater and nearer concernment to us. He is a covetous man, who so minds the world, as to neglect God 78and his soul; who is so busy and intent upon making provision for this life, as to take no care of the other; so concerned for a few days of his pilgrimage here, as to have no consideration and regard for his eternal abode in another world. God allows us to provide for this life, and considers the necessities which do continually press us while we are in the body: but while we are making provision for these dying bodies, he expects that we should remember that we have immortal souls: which, since they are to have an endless duration in another world, ought to be provided for with far greater care. It is an inordinate desire of riches, when men so lay out all their care and industry for the obtaining of them, as if nothing else were to be regarded, as if no consideration at all were to be had of another world, and of that better part of ourselves which is to continue and live for ever. All desires and endeavours after riches, which take men off from the business of religion and the care of their souls, which allow men neither the leisure and opportunity, nor the heart and affection to love God and to serve him, are to be referred to the sin of covetousness, which is hero condemned by our Saviour in the text.
III. There is covetousness likewise in possessing or using an estate; and this consists chiefly in these three things:
First, When men are sordid towards themselves, and cannot find in their hearts to use and enjoy what they possess; are continually adding to their estate, without any design of enjoyment; and take infinite pains to raise a huge fortune, not that they may use it, but that they may be said to have it. This is a degree of covetousness even beyond that of the rich man in the parable after the text: for he, 79it seems, after he had enlarged his barns to his mind, and laid up goods for many years, designed at last to have taken his ease, and have fallen to the enjoyment of what he had gotten; “to have eat and drank, and to have been merry;” and this, though it proved but a foolish design in the issue, he being cut off in that very instant when he was come to the point of satisfaction and enjoyment; yet it is infinitely more reasonable, than to take great pains to get an estate with a full resolution never to be the better for it.
Secondly, Men are covetous in keeping an estate, when they do not use it charitably; when they can not find in their hearts to spare any thing out of their abundance to the relief of those who are in want. Though a man get an estate without covetousness, and have a heart to enjoy it, yet so far he is covetous, as he is uncharitable. He loves money more than he ought, who, having enough to spare, chooseth rather to keep it than to do good with it, and to use it to one of the principal ends for which God gives an estate.
Thirdly, They likewise are covetous who place their chief trust and happiness in riches, who (as the expression is, Job. xxxi. 24.) “make gold their hope, and say to the fine gold, Thou art my confidence.” And this is the reason why covetousness is so often in Scripture called idolatry; because the covetous man sets up his riches in the place of God, putting his trust and confidence in them, and setting his whole heart upon them, loving them as he should love God only, with all his heart, and soul, and strength: and therefore mammon, which signifies riches, is in Scripture represented as a deity, and the covetous man, as a servant or worshipper of mammon.80
So that in Scripture he is a covetous man who placeth his chief felicity in a great fortune, and would venture to lose any thing rather than to part with that; who will quit his religion, and violate his conscience and run the hazard of his soul, rather than forfeit his estate, or the hopes of advancing it to his mind.
And this, in times of trial and difficulty, is the great temptation to which the covetous man is exposed. When a man may not only save himself, but get considerable advantage by departing from the truth; and in changing his religion, may have a good sum of money to boot, or, which is equal to it, a good place; this to a covetous mind is a very strong temptation, and almost irresistible. When error and delusion can bid so high, and offer so good terms, no wonder if it gain some proselytes among the covetous and ambitious part of mankind. This the apostle gives warning of, as a great temptation to rich men in times of suffering: (1 Tim. vi. 9, 10.) “They that will be rich, fall into temptation and a snare: for the love of money is the root of all evil; which while some have lusted after, they have erred from the faith.” The young man in the gospel is a sad in stance of this kind, who chose rather to leave Christ than to part with his great possessions. And such an one was Demas, who forsook the apostles, and Christianity itself, to cleave to this present world.
Thus I have done with the first thing I proposed to speak to, the nature of this vice, which our Saviour in the text cautions men so earnestly against; “Take heed, and beware of covetousness.” I shall now proceed, in the second place, to shew the evil and unreasonableness of this vice: but that shall be the subject of another discourse.81
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