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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.
AFTER I had, in my first discourse upon this subject, given you an account of the nature of the vice of covetousness, I proceeded in the next place to represent the great evil and unreasonableness of it.
First, Because it takes men off from religion and the care of their souls.
Secondly, Because it tempts men to many things which are inconsistent with religion, and directly contrary to it.
Thirdly, Because it is an endless and insatiable desire. Thus far I have gone; I proceed to the
Fourth thing, whereby the unreasonableness of covetousness will yet farther appear: namely, because the happiness of human life doth not consist in riches and abundance. And this I shall insist upon somewhat the more largely, because it is the argument which our Saviour makes use of here in the text, to take men off from this sin: “The life of man consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. Therefore, take heed, and beware of covetousness.” And this, certainly, 97is one of the best and most reasonable considerations in the world to moderate our affections to wards these things. For every reasonable desire propounds some end to itself. Now to what purpose should any man desire to increase his wealth so vastly, and beyond the proportion of his necessities and real occasions? What benefit and advantage can it be to any man, to have a hundred or perhaps a thousand times more than he knows what to do withal?
And as for the other world, no man ever pretended that the heaping up riches here would be useful to him there; “riches will not deliver him in the day of wrath.” No man was ever so senseless as to imagine that he could take his estate along with him into the other world; or if he could, that heaven was to be bought with money; or that a great estate, or a great many lordships, would recommend him to the favour of God. It is true, indeed, a man may so use riches in this world, as thereby to promote and further his happiness in the next. But then it is likewise as true, that a man may so demean himself in a poor and low condition as thereby to render himself as acceptable to God, and capable of as great a reward, as the richest man can do. The poor woman’s two mites, cheerfully given to pious and charitable uses, will go as far in the other world, and find as great a reward there, as the rich man’s thousands of gold and silver. And a man may be as truly generous and charitable out of a little, as out of the greatest fortune. Besides that, the poor man’s contentedness in a mean condition is more admirable in itself, and more valuable with God, than for a rich man to be so. So that the great use of riches respects this world, 98and the best use of them is in ways of charity; and the poor man’s charity, though it cannot be of so great an extent in the effects of it, yet in the degree of its virtue and merit it may be equal to it.
Now the two great designs of men, in regard to this world, are these:
1. To maintain and support our lives as long as we can.
2. To make our lives as truly happy and comfortable as we can.
To the first of these ends, namely, the support of our lives, a very little will suffice; and it is not much that is necessary to the other, to render our lives as truly comfortable as this world can make them; so that a vast estate is not necessary to either of these ends; for a man may live by having what is necessary, and may live comfortably by having that which is convenient.
No man lives the longer by having abundance; it is many times an occasion of shortening a man’s life by ministering to excess and intemperance, but seldom of prolonging it. And, setting aside the vain fancy and conceit of men, no man lives the more happily for having more than he hath real use and occasion for.
These two heads I shall at present speak to, to make out the full force of this reason which our Saviour here useth; namely, that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”
I. That riches do not contribute to the support of our lives; nor,
II. To the happiness and comfort of them. That is, they are not necessary to either of these ends. For by riches, I mean whatever is beyond a 99competency of those things which are requisite to the real uses and occasions of human life.
First, Riches and abundance do not contribute to the support of our lives. And this our Saviour very well represents to us in the parable, immediately after the text, of the rich man who was continually increasing his estate, so that “he had goods laid up for many years;” but he lived not one jot the longer for being provided of the conveniences of life for so long a time beforehand; for whilst he was blessing himself as if he had secured his happiness sufficiently for this world, he was uncertain of his continuance in it; God having decreed to take him out of this world, at that very time when he had determined to enter upon the enjoyment of those things which he had been so long laying up. God says to him, “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee, and then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?” that is, what good then will all these things do thee, when thou hast no further use of and occasion for them? So that if he had been the poorest man in the world, and had not been provided for the next meal, he might have lived as long as he did with all his stores. You see, then, that in this sense, “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” For, notwithstanding all his great barns, and the abundance of fruits he had stowed in them, he did not live one jot the longer than the poorest man might have done.
Secondly, Nor do riches contribute to the happiness and comfort of our lives. Happiness is not to be bought and purchased together with great lord ships; it depends upon a great many causes, among 100which a competency of the things of this world is one; but riches and abundance is none of them. The happiness of this world consists in these two things.
1. In the enjoyment of good. And,
2. In a state of freedom from evil.
Now riches do not necessarily make a man happy in either of these respects.
First, For the enjoyment of good, a competent estate suitable to the condition and station in which God hath set us in this world, will give a man what ever nature and reason can desire, and abundance cannot make a man happier. If a man had a hundred times more than he needed, he could but enjoy it according to the capacity of a man; for if he consulted his own happiness, and would truly enjoy what he hath, he must eat and drink within the bounds of temperance and health, and must wear no more clothes than are for his convenience. It is true he hath wherewithal to put on a new suit every day, which is to be uneasy all the days of his life; and may drink, if he pleases, every time out of a new cup, which would be a vain expense and a great trouble to his servants, without any manner of convenience to himself.
But then if riches fall into the covetous man’s hands they can be no happiness to him, because he hath no heart to enjoy them. He hath indeed the estate of a rich man, but he wants the comfort of it, because he hath the mind of a poor man, and enjoyment is all the felicity that is in a great fortune; what we enjoy is ours, but what we lay up is, from that time, not ours but somebody’s else. He that heaps up riches, and enjoys them not, is rich only for his heir, but a beggar for himself.101
We are apt to pity poor men, and too apt to despise them; but surely no man’s condition is more to be deplored than his, who starves himself in the midst of plenty, and being surrounded with the blessings of God turns them into the greatest curse; for it is a much greater curse, not to use an estate when one has it, than not to have it. It is like a plentiful table without an appetite.
But it may be it is a great happiness to have a great estate, though a man never use it; the pleasure of seeing it and telling it over may be like the removing of billets; which may warm a man as much as if he had spent and consumed them. But this is real, and the other only imaginary. I doubt not many covetous men take a great deal of pleasure in ruminating upon their wealth, and in recounting what they have; but they have a great deal of tormenting care and fear about it, and if they had not, it is very hard to understand where the reason able pleasure and happiness lies of having things to no end. It is, at the best, like that of some foolish birds, which, they say, take pleasure in stealing money that they may hide it; as if it were worth the while for men to take pains to dig silver out of the earth, for no other purpose but to melt it down and stamp it, and bury it there again.
But many necessities may happen, which we can not foresee, and it is good to provide against them. There is nothing so bad, but something may be said in excuse of it; and I do not deny, but that a provident cure against the common accidents of human life is very commendable; but it is unreasonable to think of providing against all possibilities, which it is impossible either to foresee or prevent. It is very possible, that after a man hath gotten the greatest estate 102imaginable, he may lose it all by some fatal accident; and then to what purpose was all this provision made, when that, which was so long a time a getting and laying up, is lost at once?
Besides that, it is not easy to conceive what necessity can happen to a covetous man to give him an occasion of using his estate; he cannot find in his heart to bestow it upon himself in such things as are convenient, nay almost necessary for the support of his life; for no man can feed his servants more penuriously than he does himself; all the religion he values himself upon, is a strict observance of the Lessian diet which he recommends to those few that can deny themselves to dine with him, in hopes to make better meals upon his estate when he is gone. And if he be so penurious to himself, the necessities of others are not like to move him to be liberal. I can but imagine one occasion that could tempt such a man to lay out what he hath; namely, when one part of his estate is in danger, to spend the other to secure it. And yet, even in that case, if his cause were not very clear and good, he would go nigh to lose it, using it as he does himself; that is, by starving it. And if this be all, then a man had as good be without an estate, and save himself the trouble either of getting it or securing it; for if it were all gone, he might live as well as he does, and that with half the care and pains.
Secondly, The happiness of this world consists in a state of freedom from evil. Now the great evils that men are liable to in this world are such as are incident to them, either in the course of their lives or at the time of their death; and riches do not contribute to men’s happiness by freeing them from either of these. I shall speak to these severally.103
I. Not from the evils which are incident to men in the course of their lives. These are of two kinds, inward or outward.
1. Inward evils, by which I mean those of the mind; and our greatest troubles are from within, from the anxiety of our minds and the guilt of our consciences, from the vicious inclinations of our wills, and the irregularity and disorders of our passions. Now riches were an admirable thing indeed, and worth our coveting, if they would help to cure these distempers of our minds; but they are the least fitted for such a purpose of any thing in the world; for not he that hath the greatest estate, but he that hath the fewest and most reasonable desires, and the best governed passions and the most virtuous inclinations, is the happiest man, and dwells nearest to satisfaction. Nemo malus felix, “no bad man can be happy,” though he were possessed of the whole world; because he hath that within him which frets and discontents him, which galls his spirit and keeps his mind restless and uneasy; and he that does not enjoy himself can enjoy nothing else.
Did but men know how much happiness hath been enjoyed by many a pious and virtuous man in a mean fortune, how quiet and easy their minds have been, how much fuller of joy and pleasure, than the heart of any covetous worldling ever was in his most prosperous estate, and when his corn, and .wine, and oil abounded; did we, I say, but know this we should not envy the men of mighty fortunes. Nam neque divitbus contingunt gaudia solis; “Rich men are not the only happy people in the world.” If they be not good as well as rich, happiness is a greater stranger to their dwellings than to the cottages of poorer men.104
Now riches are so far from helping to make men good, that they are one of the greatest temptations to them in the world to be otherwise; which is the reason why our Saviour says, it is so very hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven; because, considering the powerful and almost irresistible temptations of a great estate, and the impotency and weakness of human nature to govern itself in a plentiful fortune, it is very hard for a rich man to be so good as he ought, it requires a great force and firmness of resolution, a very solid and vigorous constitution of mind, to bear a great fortune, and not to be corrupted by it; and a man hath never more reason to implore God’s gracious help and assistance, and to consult his own best and coolest thoughts, to know what he ought to do, and how he ought to demean himself, than when the outward blessings of this life flow in amain upon him; felicitate corrumpimur, “nothing sooner debaucheth men than prosperity;” and he is a very happy man whom wealth and a good fortune do not make licentious and dissolute; because these tempt men with the power and opportunity to do all the ill that their wicked hearts can design or desire.
The temptation of riches, and the power that goes along with them, is so forcible and prevalent, that the devil, who is a sagacious spirit, and hath great and long experience in this kind, when he was making the experiment, whether Christ was a mere man or the Son of God, reserved this for his last temptation, resolving, if that would not do, to try him no farther. After he had assaulted him in several kinds, he represents to him at last that which was sufficient to have surfeited two of the most insatiable desires of human nature, ambition and covetousness, even 105“all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, in a moment (or point) of time;” he brings all the rays of this glory to one point, that the temptation might kindle and take hold the sooner; and says to him, “all this will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” He supposed, with great probability, that, if he were but a mere man, the strongest and most resolved mind would bend and yield to so dazzling a temptation as this; but when he saw that this temptation was rejected, he found himself baffled and gave him over; since this did not move him, he concluded now that he was the Son of God indeed, and that it was in vain to tempt him any farther.
From all this it appears, that riches are so far from making men virtuous, that nothing is more dangerous to virtue than a full condition, if men have not a great degree of grace, as well as discretion, to manage it. Solomon tells us, that the prosperity of fools destroyeth them.
And yet how do most of us court this temptation, and are forward to thrust and venture ourselves upon it? there are a great many other things, in which most men make a right judgment of themselves, and will readily acknowledge that they are altogether unfit for them. Every man will not take upon him to be a physician, or a lawyer, to prescribe medicines in dangerous cases, and to give counsel to men in knotty and difficult points about their estates; but every man thinks himself fit enough to be rich, and sufficiently qualified to manage a great estate if he can but get it; when perhaps there are few things in the world, which men are more insufficient for, than to wield and govern a great fortune, nor wherein there is greater danger of miscarriage. It 106is not every body’s talent to be wealthy and wise, rich and innocent.
2. As for the outward evils of this life, such as want and contempt, bodily pains and diseases, unhappiness in friends and relations, a great estate is by no means a sufficient security or remedy to a covetous man against these.
(1.) As for want. And surely one would think, that if riches were good for any thing they are a very proper remedy against this evil, and a most certain and infallible cure of it; but experience tells us quite otherwise. Socrates was wont to say, that, “To want nothing is the privilege of the Deity, and proper to God alone; but to stand in need of as few things as may be, is the privilege of a wise and good man, and a state of happiness next to that of God himself; because he that hath the fewest wants is the most easily supplied, and is next to him that is self-sufficient.” Now a man of moderate desires hath infinitely fewer wants than a covetous man; and because his desires are moderate, a moderate estate will satisfy them: but the wants of a covetous mind are never to be supplied, because it hath ordered the matter so cunningly as to want even that which it hath: such a man does not get riches to supply his wants, but is content to want that he may be rich; insomuch that he hath not the heart to use his estate for the supply of his real necessities. How many do almost starve themselves in the midst of plenty and abundance? There is no greater sign of poverty than to be deeply in debt: now the covetous man lives and dies in debt to himself. Some men have been so shamefully penurious and stingy to themselves as even to die to save charges, which yet perhaps is the most generous thing they ever did 107in their whole lives, in respect to the world; because by this means somebody may come to the enjoyment of their estates; and that great dunghill which they have been so long in raking together, may by this means come to be spread abroad for the public benefit.
So that if a covetous man were possessed of the wealth of both the Indies, all this would not free him from want. A poor man’s wants may be satisfied, when he hath obtained what he wants: but the covetous man labours of an incurable want; because he wants that which he hath, as well as that which he hath not.
(2.) As for contempt, riches will not secure a covetous man against this neither; nay, so far is it from that, that he is commonly more ridiculous and despised for living poor in the midst of abundance, than if he were really so. Did I say really so? He is the most really poor of all other men. For, as one says well, “The rich poor man is emphatically poor.”
(3.) Neither will riches free men from bodily illness and pain. The rich are liable to as many diseases, and as sharp pains, as the poor, and they have commonly less patience to bear them than the poor; because they have not been inured to other sorts of evils. They that have been accustomed to labour, are generally best fitted to bear pain; the rich are commonly more tender and delicate, and have a quicker sense of pain, more matter, and greater quantity of humours to feed a disease, and to in flame it to a greater height.
I must not here forget that there is a sort of rich men, I mean the penurious mix is, who starve themselves move than the poor, and fare many times 108more hardly; and, for this reason, though they be not in danger of the diseases that come from intemperance and a plentiful table, yet they are liable to the diseases which proceed from starving and emptiness; which the physicians say are more dangerous than the other: so that neither the prodigal nor the niggardly rich man is secured from bodily pains and diseases by a great estate.
(4.) Neither will riches secure a man from being unhappy in his friends and relations. A great estate will not make a man’s children either more dutiful or wise than the children of meaner persons; and if they be not so, his estate cannot be so great a happiness to him, as they may prove an affliction. Solomon tells us, that the very fear and apprehension of this did very much embitter the fruit of all his labour; and he seems to speak it sensibly, and very probably with a melancholy reflection upon his son Rehoboam: (Eccles. ii. 18, 19.) “Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun, because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me; and who knows whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? Yet shall he have rule over all my labour, wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun.” “Who knows whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?” he seems to speak doubtfully: but he had a very shrewd guess what kind of man his son would make; for he speaks more despondingly in the next words: (ver. 20, 21.) “Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun;” that is, when I thought seriously of it, I began to think, that all the pains I had taken to get an estate would be but to little purpose; “for there is a man (saith he) whose labour 109is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity (that is, who by wise and honest means hath raised a great estate); yet to a man that hath not laboured therein (that is, to a man who is endowed with none of these qualities) shall he leave it for his portion; this also is vanity, and a great evil.”
And as for friends, though the rich man have many that will call themselves so, yet he had al most as good have none; for he can hardly ever know whether they be so or not, unless he chance to fall into poverty; and then, indeed, the change of his condition may give him that advantage and opportunity, which Otherwise he is never like to have, of discerning between his friends and his flatterers. Thus you see that riches are no security against the most considerable evils which attend us in the course of our lives.
II. When we come to die, nothing will minister less comfort to us, at that time, than a great estate. It is then a very small pleasure to a man to reflect how much he hath gotten in the world, when he sees that he must leave it; nay, like the young man in the gospel, he goes away so much the more “sorrowful, because he hath great possessions.” All the things of this world seem very inconsiderable to a man, when he approaches to the confines of the other: for when he sees that he must leave this world, then he would fain make a virtue of necessity, and begins to change his apprehensions of these things, and to have very slight and mean thoughts of them, when he is convinced he can enjoy them no longer. What the philosopher was wont to say of the pleasures of this world, is as tin. of riches, and all the other enjoyments of it; that, “if they did but put on the same countenance, 110and look with the same face, when they come to us, that they will do when they turn from us, and take their leave of us, we should hardly entertain them.”
Now if a man have placed his chief happiness in this world, as the covetous man does in his riches, his great trouble, when he comes to die, will be, that he must leave them. Nothing could be more severely said to the covetous man, than that which God says to the rich man in the parable: “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee, and then whose shall these things be?” For of all things in the world, such men cannot endure to think of parting with these things, or that what they have got, with such great care and labour, should come to the possession of another.
And therefore, when we are so hot and eager in the pursuit of these things, we should do well to consider how they will appear to us in a dying hour. And this consideration well imprinted upon our minds would make us very careful, to treasure up other kind of comforts to ourselves against such a time, and to labour after those things which we shall never grow out of conceit withal, but shall value them to the last, and then most of all when we come to die, and leave this world. For as a poet of our own says excellently,
’Tis not that which first we love;
But what dying we approve.
Thus I have done with the fourth thing, whereby the evil and unreasonableness of covetousness doth appear; namely, that the happiness of human life doth not consist in a great estate; “the life of man doth not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” The great ends of religion, 111and covetousness are very different. The great end which religion proposeth to itself is happiness; but the great end which covetousness proposeth is riches; which are neither a necessary nor a probable means of happiness. I should now have proceeded to the fifth and last particular; namely, that riches are so far from being the happiness of human life, that they usually contribute very much to our misery and sorrow; as will appear, if we consider these four things.
First, The labour and care which covetous men are at in the getting of a great estate.
Secondly, The anxiety of keeping it, together with the fears of losing it.
Thirdly, The trouble and vexation of losing it; and,
Fourthly, The dreadful and heavy account which every man must give of a great estate. But these particulars, together with the application of this whole discourse, I shall refer to another opportunity.112
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