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THE EVIL AND UNREASONABLENESS OF COVETOUSNESS.
And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness; for a mans life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.—Luke xii. 15.
I HAVE made entrance into a discourse upon these words, in which I told you there are three things observable.
First, The manner of the caution which our Saviour here gives, “Take heed and beware.”
Secondly, The matter of the caution, or the sin which our Saviour here warns his hearers against, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness:” and,
Thirdly, The reason of this caution, because “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
In discoursing of the second of these, viz. the matter of the caution, I proposed,
1. To consider wherein the nature of this vice of covetousness does consist.
2. To shew the evil and unreasonableness of it. The first of these I have dispatched, and now go on to the second; viz. To shew the great evil and unreasonableness of the vice of covetousness.
Now covetousness will appear to be very evil and unreasonable upon these following accounts.
I. Because it takes men off from religion and the care of their souls.82
II. Because it tempts men to do many things which are inconsistent with religion and directly contrary to it.
III. Because it is an endless and insatiable desire.
IV. Because the happiness of human life doth not consist in riches.
V. Because riches do very often contribute very much to the misery and infelicity of men.
First, Covetousness takes men off from religion and the care of their souls. The covetous man is wholly intent upon this world; and his inordinate desire after these things, makes him to neglect God and the eternal concernments of his soul. He employs all his time, and care, and thoughts about these temporal things; and his vehement love and eager pursuit of these things steals away his heart from God, robs him of his time, and of all opportunities for his soul, and diverts him from all serious thoughts of another world and the life to come. And the reason of this is that which our Saviour gives: (Matt. vi. 24.) “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” No man can serve two masters so different as God and the world are; because they will give cross commands, and enjoin contrary things. God calls upon us to mind the duties of his worship and service, to have a serious regard to religion, and a diligent care of our souls: but the cares of the world, and the importunity of business, and an eager appetite of being rich, call us off from these Divine and spiritual employments, or disturb us in them. God calls upon us to be charitable to those that are in want, to be willing to distribute, and 83ready to communicate to the necessities of our brethren: but our covetousness pulls us back, and hales us another way, and checks all merciful and charitable inclinations in us. God calls us to self-denial, and suffering, for the sake of him and his truth, and commands us to prefer the keeping of faith and a good conscience to all worldly considerations whatsoever: but the world inspires us with other thoughts, and whispers to us “to save ourselves, not to be righteous over much;” and rather to trust God with our souls, than men with our bodies and estates.
If we set our hearts and affections strongly upon any thing, they will partake of the object which they are conversant about; for where our treasure is (as our Lord hath told us) there will our hearts be also. If a great estate be our chief end and design, if riches be our treasure and our happiness, our hearts will be found among the stuff. We cannot bestow our affections freely upon two objects. We cannot intensely love God and the world; for no man can have two ultimate ends, two principal designs. Our riches may increase; but if we set our hearts upon them, and give them the chief place in our affections, we may make them our lord and master. What ever we make our ultimate end, we give it a sovereignty and empire over us; we put ourselves under its dominion, and make ourselves subject to all its commands. So that if it “bid us go, we must go; come, we must come; do this, we must do it; because we are under authority:” the world is our master, and we are its slaves. Now he that is under the rule and dominion of this master, must with draw his obedience from God, and, in many cases, decline obedience to his laws.84
This worldly covetous disposition was that which made those in the parable to make so many excuses, when they were invited to the supper: (Luke xiv. 18.) “One had bought a farm, and he could not come: another had bought so many yoke of oxen, and therefore he desired to be excused.” Riches do so fill the covetous man’s heart, and the cares of the world so possess his mind, that he hath no room left in his soul for any other guests: Intus existens prohibet alienum, “that which is full already can receive no more.” The covetous man’s heart is taken up with such things as keep out God, and Christ, and better things. “If any man love the world, and the things of it,” to this degree, St. John tells us, that “the love of the Father is not in him.” In the parable of the sower, (Matth. xiii. 7.) our Saviour represents to us, the cares of the world, which choke the word of God, by thorns which sprung up among the seed, and stifled the growth of it. The cares of the world will not suffer the word of God to take deep root in our hearts, and to have any permanent effect upon them: and, (Ezek. xxxiii. 31.) God gives this as a reason why the people of Israel would not hearken to the words of his prophet—because their hearts were upon the world. “They come unto thee (says God there to the prophet) as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their hearts goeth after their covetousness.” A heart that is deeply engaged in the world, will stand out against all the invitations, and promises, and threatenings of God’s word. When the word of God invites such persons, it is like making love to those who have already fixed their 85hearts and affections elsewhere; the promises and threatenings of the gospel signify but very little to such men, because their hearts are set upon worldly things, and all their affections are bent that way; all their hopes and desires are worldly; to be rich and abound in wealth; and all their fears are of poverty and loss. Now such a man can only be moved with the promises and threatenings of temporal things; for no promises have any effect upon us, but such as are of some good which we care for and value: nor are any threatenings apt to move us, but such as are of some evil which we dread and are afraid of. And therefore, when eternal life, and the happiness of another world, are offered to a worldly-minded man, he does not desire it, he is not at all sensible of the value of it; the man’s heart is full already of other hopes and desires, and “the full soul loatheth the honeycomb.” Promise to such a man the kingdom of heaven, and the pleasures of God’s presence, and the joys of eternity, this does not signify to such a man any good or happiness that he is sensible of, or knows how to relish. And, on the other hand, threaten him with the loss of God, and an eternal separation from that fountain of happiness, and with the unspeakable anguish and torments of a long eternity; these things, though they be terrible, yet they are at a distance, and the covetous man is inured to sense, and is only to be moved with things present and sensible; he can not extend his fears so far as another world, so long as he finds himself well and at ease as to the things of this present life.
If we would affect such a man, we must offer to his consideration something that is fit to work upon him; threaten him with breaking open his house, 86and rifling his coffers, and carrying away his full bags; with questioning his title to his estate, or starting a precedent mortgage, or something of the like nature: these things indeed are dreadful and terrible to him; now you speak intelligibly to him, and he understands what you mean: tell him of a good bargain, or an advantageous purchase, offer him decently a good bribe, or give him notice of a young heir that may be circumvented and drawn in, then you say something to him that is worthy of his regard and attention; the man may be tempted by such offers and promises as these: but discourse to him with the tongue of men and angels, of the excellency of virtue and goodness, and of the necessity of it, to the obtaining of a glory and happiness that shall never have bounds nor end; and “Lo! thou art unto him as a lovely song of one that bath a pleasant voice, and can play well upon an instrument; for he hears thy words, but he will not do them;” as the prophet expressed) it, (Ezek. xxxiii. 32.) Such discourses as these they look upon as tine talk, or a melodious sound, that vanisheth into air, but leaves no impression behind it. Perhaps even these dull and stupid kind of men are affected a little for the present with the liveliness of the romance, and the poetical vein of the preacher; but these things pass away like a tale that is told, but have no lasting effect upon them. So effectually doth covetousness and the love of this present world obstruct all those passages, through which the consideration of religion and heavenly things should enter into our minds.
Secondly, As covetousness hinders men from religion, and takes them off from a due care of their souls; so it many times tempts and engageth men 87to do many things contrary to religion, and inconsistent with it: it is the natural source and fountain of a great many evils, and the parent of most of the worst of vices. He that will engage deep in the world, must use much more guard and caution than most men do, to do it without sin. How many temptations is the covetous man exposed to in the getting, and in the securing, and in the spending, and enjoying of a great estate? It is no easy task to reckon them up, and much more difficult to escape or resist them, and yet each of these temptations brings him into the dangers of a great many sins. For,
I. In the getting of an estate he is exposed to all those vices which may seem to be serviceable to this design. Nothing has been the cause of more and greater sins in the world than covetousness, and making haste to be rich. It is Solomon’s observation, (Prov. xxviii. 20.) “He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.” He does not say he cannot be innocent, but he speaks as if there were all the probability in the world that he will not prove to be so; but, being in so much haste, will almost unavoidably fall into a great many oversights and faults. And the heathen poet makes the same observation in more words:
Inde fere scelerum causae, nec plura venena
Miscuit, aut ferro grassatur saepius ullum
Humanae mentis vitium, quam saeva cupido
Immodici Census: nam dives qui fieri vult,
Et cito vult fieri; sed quae reverentia legum,
Quis metus aut pudor est unquam properantis avari?
” This,” says he, “is the cause of most sins: nor is there any vice of which the mind of man is capable, 88that hath been guilty of more murders and poisonings, than a furious desire of immoderate wealth; for he that will be rich, will make haste to be so: and what reverence of laws, what fear of shame, was ever seen in any man that was in haste to be rich?” And this is the sense of what the apostle says concerning this vice of covetousness, this peremptory resolution of being rich: (1 Tim. vi. 9, 10.) “They that will be 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.” If this vice of covetousness once reign in us, if we have once fixed our end, and set up this resolution with ourselves that we will be rich, we shall then make every thing stoop and submit to this design. A covetous man will make his principles and his conscience to bend to his resolution of being rich, and to bow to that interest. The eager desire of riches makes men to pursue them in indirect and uncharitable ways, by falsehood and perjury, by under mining and overreaching, by dissembling and flattery, by corrupting and embasing of commodities, by false weights and measures, by taking fees with both hands, by making use of their power and wit to oppress and defraud their brother, by imposing upon his ignorance and simplicity, or by making a prey of his poverty and necessity.
Covetousness many times makes men cruel and unjust; nay, it makes them guilty of the worst sort of cruelty and oppression. For (as one says well) the covetous man oppresseth his neighbour not for any good to himself; for he does not enjoy what he tears and rends from others; so that he is of that most hateful kind of beasts of prey that kill other 89creatures, not to eat them, but that they may see them lie dead by them. Lions and wolves kill out of hunger; but the covetous man, like a serpent or scorpion, stings and bites others to death, not for his need, but for his pleasure and recreation. Covetousness is the parent of the most monstrous sins; because it fixeth a man in a resolution of getting an estate by any means. If falseness and deceit, violence and oppression, will further this end, the ear nest desire of the end tempts men to use any sort of means whereby the end may be compassed; and though a man may have some averseness from them at first, yet that wears off by degrees, and the strong desire of the end reconciles a man at last to the love and liking of the means, how wicked and unwarrantable soever. Covetousness tempted Achan to steal the accursed thing, and Gehazi to lie to the prophet, and Ahab to oppress and murder Naboth. Nay, a small sum tempted the covetous mind of Judas to betray his Master and his Saviour. And how do many men every day strain their consciences to get an estate, and hazard their own souls for money; nay exchange their souls, which are of more value than the whole world, for a very small portion of it?
II. There are likewise many other temptations which a covetous man is exposed to in the keeping and securing an estate when he hath got it. A covetous and worldly-minded man, when it comes to the trial, is in great danger of quitting his religion, and “making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience.” When his estate comes to be in hazard, he is very apt to fall off from the truth; it is a hundred to one but in these circumstances he will choose rather to violate his conscience than to forfeit 90his estate. What the devil falsely said of Job is true of the covetous man: “He does not serve God for nought.” Upon these terms it was that Christ and the young man parted; “he had great possessions,” and it troubled him to part with them. When Demas was brought to the trial, and put to it, whether he would stick to the profession of the gospel or his worldly possessions? he quitted St. Paul and declared for the world: (2 Tim. iv. 10.) “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world.” So far had his covetous humour besotted him, as to make him prefer his present interest in these temporal things before those eternal rewards which the gospel offered.
III. There are likewise many temptations which men are exposed to in the enjoying and spending of a great estate. It is hard to have a great estate and not to be mastered by the love of it; not to have our cares and thoughts, our hearts and affections swallowed up by it. It is no easy thing for a man that hath riches not to overvalue them, and love them more than he ought; not to be puffed up by them, and so place his trust and confidence in them: (Prov. xviii. 11.) “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as a high wall in his own conceit.” The covetous man setteth up his riches in the place of God, and is apt “to fall down before his golden calf and worship it: to say to the gold, Thou art my hope, and to the fine gold, Thou art my confidence: to rejoice because his wealth is great, and because his hand hath gotten much.”
Riches are a great temptation to irreligion and atheism. Upon this account Agur wisely prays to God for a moderate estate, because of the danger of both the extremes of riches and poverty; because 91of the great and violent temptations which men are exposed to in both these conditions: (Prov. xxx. 8, 9.) “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but feed me with food convenient for me.” Why not riches? “Lest I be full and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?” And much more do riches tempt men to pride and insolence towards others: (Prov. xviii. 23.) “The poor useth entreaties, but the rich answereth roughly.” Men’s spirits are commonly blown up and bloated with their fortunes, and their pride, and stomach, and passion, do usually increase in proportion to their wealth.
And many times riches tempt men to luxury and intemperance, and all manner of excess. Rich men have a mighty temptation to allow themselves all manner of unlawful pleasures; because he who hath a great estate is furnished with that to which hardly any thing can be denied. And this is not inconsistent with a covetous humour; for there are, many times, men who are covetous in getting, for no other end and reason but that they may spend it upon their lusts. As covetousness sometimes starves other vices, so sometimes it serves them, and is made subordinate to a man’s ambition, or lust, or some other reigning vice. There is no such absolute inconsistency between riches and virtue, but that it is possible that a man that is very rich may be very good. But yet, if we consult experience, I doubt it will be found a true observation, that, there are but very few rich men who are not insupportable, either for their vanity or their vices; so that our Saviour had reason for that severe question: “How hard is it for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God?” And well might he upon this account pronounce the poor (the poor in estate, 92as well as the poor in spirit) blessed, as we find he does: (Luke vi. 20.) “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” They oftener enter there than the rich.
Thirdly, Covetousness is likewise evil and unreasonable, because it is an endless and insatiable desire. A covetous mind may propose to itself some certain bounds and limits; and a man may think that when he is arrived to such an estate, and hath raised his fortune to such a pitch, that he will then sit down, contented and satisfied, and will seek after no more. But he deceives himself in this mat ter; for when he hath attained to that which he proposed to himself, he will be never the nearer being satisfied. So Solomon tells us: (Eccles. v. 10.) He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase; for no degree of wealth can satisfy a covetous mind. He may think so beforehand, that if he had so much it would be enough; but when he hath attained it he will be still reaching after more; for covetousness is a disease of the mind, and an unnatural thirst which is inflamed by that which should quench it. Every desire that is natural is satisfied and at rest, when it hath once obtained the thing it desired. If a man be hungry, he is satisfied when he hath eaten; or if he be thirsty, his thirst is allayed and quenched when he hath drank to such a proportion as nature doth require; and if he eat and drink beyond this measure, nature is oppressed, and it is a burden to him. But covetousness is not the thirst of nature, but of a diseased mind. It is the thirst of a fever, or of a dropsy; the more a man drinks the more he desires, and the more he is inflamed. In like manner, the more the covetous man increaseth his estate, 93the more his desires are enlarged and extended, and he finds continually new occasions and new necessities; and every day as he grows richer, he discovers new wants; and a new poverty to be provided against, which he did not think of before, comes into his mind: Et minus haec optat, qui non habet; “and he that is without these things covets them less than he that hath them.” So far is a covetous man’s attaining to riches from giving him satisfaction, that he who hath scarce any thing at all is many times much nearer to contentment than he that hath got so much; nay, so unreasonable is this appetite, as to desire more, even when the man knows not how to bestow what he hath already. This Solomon observed long since (for the vices and humours of men are much the same in all ages), Eccles. iv. 8. “There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labours, neither is his eye satisfied with riches, neither saith he, For whom do I labour and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.” And indeed what can be greater vanity and folly, than to be at certain pains and labour all the days of a man’s life, and yet to be uncertain all the while for whom it is that he drudgeth and taketh all these pains?
And if this be the nature of this vice, the more it gets still to covet the more, then nothing can be more unreasonable than to think to gratify this appetite; because, at this rate, the man can never be contented, because he can never have enough; nay, so far is it from that, that every new accession to his fortune sets his desires one degree farther from rest and satisfaction; for a covetous mind having no bounds, it is very probable that the man’s desire 94will increase much faster than his estate; and then the richer he is, still the poorer, because he is still the less contented with his condition. However, it is impossible that the man’s desire should ever be satisfied; for desire being always first, if the man’s desire of riches advanceth and goes forward as fast as riches follow, then it is not possible for riches ever to overtake the desire of them, no more than the hinder wheels of a coach can overtake those which are before; because, as they were at a distance at first setting out, so let them go never so far or so fast, they keep the same distance still.
So that it is the vainest thing in the world for a man to design his own satisfaction by the perpetual increase of his fortune, because contentment doth not arise from the abundance of what a man hath, but it must spring from the inward frame and temper of our minds; and the true way to it is not to enlarge our estate, but to contract our desires; and then it is possible that a man’s money and his mind may meet; otherwise the pursuit is endless, and the farther a man follows contentment, it will but flee so much the farther from him; and when he hath attained the estate of a prince, and a revenue as great as that of France or the Turkish empire, he shall be farther from being satisfied than when he began the world, and had no more beforehand than would just pay for his next meal.
I should now have proceeded to the fourth thing, whereby the unreasonableness of covetousness doth appear; because the happiness of human life doth not consist in riches. And this is the argument which I shall more especially insist upon, because it is that which our Saviour useth here in the text to take men off from this vice: “The life of man 95consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” And this, certainly, is one of the best and most reasonable considerations in the world, to moderate men’s affections towards these things. Every reasonable desire propounds some end to itself. Now to what purpose should any man desire to increase his wealth so vastly beyond the proportion of his necessities and real occasions? What benefit and advantage would it be to any man to have a hundred times more than he knows what to do withal? But I shall not enlarge upon this argument at present, but refer it to another opportunity.96
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