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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 consist eth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.—LUKE xii. 15.
IN my two last discourses on this subject, I have represented the evil and unreasonableness of the vice of covetousness in four particulars. I proceed now to the fifth and last particular, whereby I told you the evil and unreasonableness of it would appear; viz.
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 evidently appear, if we consider these four things:
First, The labour and care which the covetous man is at in getting of a great estate.
Secondly, The anxiety of keeping it, together with the fears of losing it.
Thirdly, The trouble and vexation of having lost it.
Fourthly, The heavy and dreadful account which every man must give of a great estate.
First, The labour and care which the covetous man hath in getting a great estate. He that will be rich must sweat for it, and refuse no pains and trouble; he must “rise up early and lie down late, and eat the bread of carefulness.” A slave that digs in the mines, or rows in the galleys, is not a 113greater drudge than some covetous worldlings are; only, with this difference, that the covetous man thinks that he labours and takes all these pains for himself; whereas the slave understands the matter more truly, and thinks that he does it for another.
But besides the pains he takes, he is full of care and anxiety. How is he, through the greedy desire of having, racked between the hopes of getting and the fear of missing what he seeks? The apostle observes what tormenting cares accompany this vice: (1 Tim. vi. 10.) “The love of money (saith he) is the root of all evil;” not only of the evil of sin, but of the evil likewise of trouble and disquiet. For it follows, “which, while some coveted after, they have pierced themselves through with many sorrows:” variety of troubles attend them that will be rich.
Secondly, If we consider the anxiety of keeping what they have got, together with the fear of losing it again, this is another great part of a covetous man’s infelicity. The rich man here in the parable after the text, when he saw his estate coming upon him so fast, cries out, “what shall I do?” Poor man! who would not pity his condition, to see him put to this difficulty and distress, and to hear him make as heavy a moan as the poorest man could do! Now that he hath a plentiful harvest, and his crop hath answered, if it were possible, his covetous desire, he is in a great deal of perplexity, and almost at his wits end how to dispose of it: he was horribly afraid lest any of it should be lost for want of a secure place to store it up in: “what shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?” Where was the difficulty of this? Why, he was loath to lose his fruits, and he was loath to lay out money to 114secure them. But, upon farther consideration, he resolves of the two evils to choose the least: “and he said, This will I do, I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there will I bestow all ray fruits and my goods.” But why could he not let the barns he had stand, and build more? No, that he did not think so well, he loved to see all his good things at one view, and what a goodly show they would make together. Besides that, it is the humour of covetousness, when it breaks out into expense, to over-do; the miser’s buildings are like his feasts, always extravagant. The covetous man (as to the business of expense) is like a coward as to lighting, he declines it as long as he can; but when he is pushed to the last necessity, he grows desperate and lays about him.
Tantis parta malis, cura majore metuque
Servantur; misera est magni custodia census.
Riches, which are got with so much trouble, are not kept without greater fear and care. A covetous man is in nothing more miserable, than in the anxiety and care of disposing and securing what he hath got. When a man’s desires are endless, his cares and fears will be so too.
Thirdly, As great an evil as any of the former, is, the vexation of having lost these things. If by any accident the man happens to be deprived of them, then he takes on heavily, hangs down his head and mourns, “as a man would do for his first-born;” and is ready to cry out with Micah, “they have taken away my gods, and what have I more?” Upon every little loss the covetous man is undone, though he have a hundred times more left than he knows what to do withal. So deeply are the hearts of 115earthly-minded men many times pierced with earthly losses, as with Rachel to “refuse to be comforted.” Nay, St. Paul observes, that “the sorrow of the world sometimes worketh death/ (2 Cor. vii. 10.)
Fourthly, But the saddest consideration of all is, that heavy and dreadful account that must one day be given both of the getting and using of a great estate. They that have got an estate by fraud and falsehood, or by oppression and grinding the face of the poor, may read their doom at large: (James v. 1-5.) “Go to now ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you; your riches are corrupted, and your garments moth-eaten; your gold and silver are cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire: ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold the hire of the labourers which have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth, and the cries of them which have reaped, are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabbaoth; ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton, ye have nourished your hearts as in a day of slaughter.”
And we must be accountable likewise for the using of our estates. God gives them to us in trust, and the greater they are the more we are to account for; so much as we need is ours, but beyond what will support us, and be a convenient provision for our families, in the rank God hath placed them; all that is given to us, that we may give it lo others . and indeed it is not ours; we are the proprietors of it in respect of men, but in respect of God we are but trustees and stewards, and God will require an account of us how we have disposed of it.116
And can there be a more reigning madness among men, than to take care only to increase their account more and more by receiving much; whereas our great care and concernment should be to clear our account, by laying out what we receive, according to the trust reposed in us? How much we shall receive of the things of this world, is in the care and will of our Master; but our care and fidelity are seen in laying it out as we ought. Among men (says one) it is well enough if a steward can give an account of so much laid out, and so much in cash, and upon this he shall have his discharge: but we cannot this way clear our account with God; for it is not offering him his own again that will satisfy him, as we may learn from the parable of the talents. So that upon the whole matter, we should be so far from envying the rich, that we should rather envy the safety and happiness of those who are not en trusted with such dangerous blessings, and who are free from the temptations of a plentiful fortune, and the curse of a covetous mind, and from the heavy account of a great estate.
I come now, in the last place, to make some application of this discourse to ourselves.
I. Let our Saviour’s caution take place with us, let these words of his sink into our minds: “Take heed and beware of covetousness.” Our Saviour, I told you, doubles the caution, that we may double our care. It is a sin very apt to steal upon us, and slily to insinuate itself into us under the specious pretence of industry in our callings, and a provident care of our families: but however it may be coloured over, it is a great evil dangerous to ourselves, and mischievous to the world. Now to kill this vice in us, besides the considerations beforementioned 117taken from the evil and unreasonableness of it, I will urge these three more:
1. That the things of this world are uncertain.
2. That our lives are as uncertain as these things: and,
3. That there is another life after this.
1. The uncertainty of the things of this world. This should very much cool our affections toward them, that, after all our care and diligence for the obtaining of them, we are not sure to enjoy them; we may be deprived of them by a thousand accidents. This consideration Solomon urgeth, to take men off from an over-eager pursuit of these things: (Prov. xxiii. 5.) “Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make to themselves wings, they fly away as an eagle towards heaven.” After we have sat brooding over an estate many years, it may all on a sudden, before we are aware, take wing and “fly away, like an eagle towards heaven,” soaring suddenly out of our sight, and never to return again.
And the same argument St. Paul useth, to take off men’s affections from the world, (1 Cor. vii. 31.) because “the fashion of this world passeth away;” παράγει τό σχῆμα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου. He Compares the things of this world to a scene which is presently changed, and vanisheth almost as soon as it appears. Now, seeing these things are so uncertain, we should take heed how we fix our hearts too much upon them; we should not make love to any thing that is so fickle and inconstant as this world is. We should be afraid to contract too near and intimate a friendship with any thing which will forsake us, after we have courted it with so much importunity, and purchased it with so much pains, and endeavoured to secure it with so much caution and tenderness.118
2. Our lives are as uncertain as these things. If our estates remain with us, we are continually in danger of being removed from them. And (as one says) it is folly to build our hopes upon a match, where both parties are so uncertain and inconstant. Why should we place our dearest affections upon things, which we are sure not to enjoy one moment? “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be taken from thee, and then whose shall those things be?” I remember Seneca tells us a real story, just answerable to the rich man in the parable, of an acquaintance of his, who by long and great industry had arrived to a vast estate; and, just when he began to enjoy it, after one of the first good meals which, perhaps, he ever made in his life, that very night his soul was taken from him; for presently after supper he died. In ipso actu bene sedentium rerum, in ipso procurrentis fortunae impetu. “In the height of his prosperity, and in the full career of his good fortune.”
But if we live to enjoy for any time what we have got, we should remember that our life is but a passage through the world, and that we are but “pilgrims and strangers in the world as all our fathers were, that we have here no abiding place, no continuing city,” but are travelling towards our own country. And why should we load ourselves whilst we are upon our journey, and cumber ourselves with those things which will be of no use to us there, where we are going.
But the great wonder of all is, that this vice should so strongly reign, and even grow upon men in old age, and get strength as weakness creeps upon us. This very thought, that we are to die, should work in us a great indifferency towards the things of this world. But when men are convinced 119they cannot live long, and that every step they take they are in danger of stumbling into the grave, this, one would think, should wean our affections from this world; and yet, usually, none take so fast hold of it, and embrace it so kindly, as old men; like friends, who, though they know they must leave one another, yet are loath to part. Do we not see many pursue these things with as much eagerness and appetite when they are leaving the world, as if they Mere to stay in it a hundred years longer? so that, in this sense also, they are children again, and are as fond of these toys as if they were just beginning the world, and setting out for their whole life.
3. There is another life after this to be seriously thought on, and provided for with great care; and did men firmly believe this, they would not, with Martha, “busy themselves about, the many things, but would mind the one thing necessary,” and, with Mary, “choose that better part,” which could not be taken from them. They would overlook the trifles of this world, and scarce take notice of” the things which are seen,” but be only intent upon “the things which are not seen; because the things which are seen are but temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” The great concernments of another world would employ their utmost care and their best thoughts.
Whilst we are in this world, we should remember that this is not our home, nor the place of our rest; and therefore, as men do in an inn, we should make a shift with those indifferent accommodations which the world will afford us, and which we can have upon easy terms, without too much trouble and stir, because we are not to continue long here; and. in the mean time, we should cheer up ourselves with 120the thoughts of the pleasure and the plenty of our Father’s house, and of that full contentment and satisfaction which we shall meet withal, when we come to those everlasting habitations.
So that our great care should be to provide for eternity. If we have unbounded desires, let us place them upon such objects as are worthy of them. Let us earnestly covet the best things, and seek after the true riches. We should so mind the world, as to make heaven our great care; as to make sure to “provide ourselves bags that wax not old; a treasure in the heavens, that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth,” as our Saviour adviseth. (Luke xii. 33.) To the same purpose is the counsel of St. Paul: (1 Tim. vi. 17, 18, 19.) “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be rich in good works, willing to distribute, ready to communicate, laying up for themselves a good foundation (or, as the word θεμέλιος may also be rendered, a good treasure) against the time which is to come, that they may lay hold of eternal life.”
I have told you, that all these things will fail in a short space; we shall either be stripped of them, or separated from them when we come to die, and shall look over to that vast eternity which we must shortly enter upon; this world, and all the enjoyments of it, will then be as nothing to us, and we shall be wholly taken up with the thoughts of another world, and be heartily sorry that the things of this world have taken up so much of our time and care, and that the great and weighty concernments of all eternity have been so little minded and regarded by us. Now seeing all these things shall be, pardon me, if I earnestly beg of you, in the midst of all your worldly cares, to have some consideration for your 121immortal souls, which are in no wise provided for by a great estate, but are designed for nobler enjoyments than this world can afford. When you are inking care to feed and clothe these dying bodies, remember that better part of yourselves which is to live for ever. Let not all your inquiry be, “What shall I eat? or what shall I drink? or wherewithal shall I be clothed?” But sometimes ask yourselves this question, “What shall I do to be saved?” I have an immortal spirit, it is but lit some care should be taken of that, to train it up to eternity, and to make it “fit to be made partaker of an inheritance among them that are sanctified.”
The firm belief and serious consideration of the great things of another world, cannot surely but cool the heat of our affections towards these dying and perishing things, and make us resolved not to do any thing whereby we may violate the peace of our consciences, or forfeit our interest and happiness in another world.
II. By way of remedy against this vice of covetousness, it is good for men to be contented with their condition. This the apostle prescribes as the best cure of this vice, (Heb. xiii. 5.) “Let your conversation be without covetousness, and be content with such things as ye have;” ἀρκούμενοι τοῖς παροῦσιν, being contented with the present, and thinking that sufficient. A covetous man cannot enjoy tin present for fear of the future; either out of fear that he shall come to want, or out of a sickness and uneasiness of mind, which makes that nothing pleaseth him; but, if we could bring our minds to our condition, and be contented with what we have, we should not be so eager and impatient after more.122
This contentedness with our present condition doth not hinder, but that men, by providence and industry and lawful endeavours, may lay the foundation of a more plentiful fortune than they have at present. For provided a man use no indirect and dishonest ways to increase his estate, and do not torment himself with anxious cares; do neither make himself guilty, nor miserable, that he may be rich; provided he do not neglect better things, to attain these, and have not an insatiable appetite towards them; provided he do not idolize his estate, and set his heart upon these things; and if he can find in his heart to enjoy them himself, and to be charitable to others; nothing hinders but that he may be contented with his present condition, and yet take all fair opportunities, which the providence of God puts into his hands, of enlarging his fortune. It is a good character which the poet gives of Aristippus:
Onmis Aristippum decuit color, et status, et res;
Tentantem majora, fere praesentibus aequum.
“Every state and condition became him; for though he endeavoured after more, yet his mind was al ways in a manner equal to his present condition.”
But if a man be discontented with the present, and restless because he hath no more, the whole world will not satisfy him; and if God should raise him from one step to another, he would never think his fortune high enough, and in every degree of it would be as little contented as he was at first. Our Saviour represents this sort of men by the rich man here in the parable, who, when his barns were full f and ready to crack, his mind was not filled; therefore he pulls them down and builds greater; and if 123he had lived till these had been full, they must have gone down too, and he would still have built greater. So that though he designed when he had raised his estate to such a pitch, to have set down and taken his ease, yet his covetous humour would have been stirring again, and still have stepped in between him and contentment, and for ever have hindered him from arriving at it.
III. By way of direction, I would persuade those who are rich to be charitable with what they have. If God hath blessed us with abundance, and we would not be like this rich man here in the parable, we must lay out of our estates, in ways of piety and charity, for the public good, and for the private relief of those who are in want; for that is the ἀπόδοσις, or moral of the parable; so “is he that layeth up treasures for himself, and is not rich towards God.” So shall he be; such an issue of his folly may every one expect (to be taken away from his estate before he comes to enjoy it), who “layeth up treasures for himself, but is not rich towards God;” but does not lay up riches with God. How is that? by works of mercy, and charity. This our Saviour calls “laying up for ourselves treasure in heaven;” (Matth. vi. 20.) and at the 33d verse of this chapter, he calls giving of alms, “providing for ourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens which faileth not:” they who do thus, who “are rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate/ are said to “lay up for themselves a good treasure against the time which is to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life,” (1 Tim. vi. 18, 19.) Extra fortunam est quicquid donatur; “Whatsoever we give to the poor is safely disposed, and put out of the of fortune, because it is laid up in heaven, 124where we may expect the return and recompence of it.” Charity to our poor brethren is a certain way of transmitting our riches into the other world to make way for our reception there. So our Lord tells us: (Luke xvi. 9.) “I say unto you, make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when ye shall fail (that is, when you shall leave this world and the enjoyments of it), they may receive you into everlasting habitations.”
At the great day of judgment, when we shall all appear before God, and, according to our Saviour’s representation of the proceedings of that day, shall hear him thus expostulating with men, “I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat; thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not;” what would we then give, how much of our estates, if we had them then at our command, would we not be willing to part withal, to have that comfortable sentence passed upon us, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, before the foundation of the world!” But if we be found among those who would spare nothing out of their abundance to any charitable use and purpose; I have not the heart to tell you how miserable the condition of such persons will be, and how dreadful a doom will be passed upon them.
It is a sad consideration, that there are some persons in the world who seem to be only defective in this duty; like the young man in the gospel, who lacked but this one thing to make him perfect; he had kept the commandments from his youth, and preserved himself from those gross sins which the law did plainly forbid; and yet, for want of this one thing, he parted from his Saviour, and, for any thing 125we know, fell short of eternal life. There are many who are very devout and religious, much in prayer and fasting, and all the other frugal exercises of piety, which cost them no money; but yet are very defective in alms and charity, which in Scripture are so frequently joined with the fasting and prayers of good men; and, by this means, all their devotion and diligence in the other parts of religion is lost, and will not bring them to heaven. And is it not great pity, that they who are not far from the kingdom of God should fall short of it? that they who in most other things bid so fair for heaven, should break with God upon this single point?
I know men have several ways to deceive their own hearts, and to defend themselves against all these assaults.
First, They say, they are injurious to no man in not being charitable. And it is true, that in human courts the poor can have no action against the rich for want of charity to them; but yet, for all that, they do injuriously detain that which doth not of right belong to them. They are cruel and hard hearted, and they are guilty of a high breach of trust in respect of God, whose stewards they are, and who hath dealt so liberally with them in the things of this life, on purpose to oblige them to be so to others. That which thou storest up, without regard to the necessities of others, is unlawfully detained by thee, since God intended it should have been for bread to the hungry, and clothes to the naked, and for help and relief of those who are ready to perish. For why art thou rich, and another poor; but that thou mightest exercise thy charity upon those fitting objects which the providence of God presents to thee? It had been easy for God (since “the earth is his, and 126the fulness thereof”) so to have contrived things, that every man should have had a sufficiency, and have been in a moderate condition; but then a great many virtues would have been shut out of the world, and lost for want of opportunity to exercise them. Where then had been the poor man’s patience, and the rich man’s pity, and the contentedness of men of moderate fortune?
Secondly, Men say that they have children to provide for. And do so, in God’s name, for he al lows us to do it liberally; but unless their condition and wealth set them above an ordinary calling, do not choose so to provide for them, as to take them off from all employment, lest you put them in the ready way to be undone; have a care of leaving them no other business, but to spend what you have left them; if you do so, they will in all probability do that work very effectually, and make as much haste to be poor, as you did to make them rich. If men could be but contented to do that which is best for their children, they might do a great deal better for themselves, by disposing what they have to spare in charity.
Thirdly, Others would fain excuse themselves from this duty, at present, by telling what they intend to do when they come to die; that is, when they can keep what they have no longer. It seems, then, thou wilt leave it to thy executor to do good in thy stead. This shews thou hast no great heart to the business, when thou deferrest it as long as ever thou canst. But why wilt thou trust another with the disposal of thy charity, rather than thyself? This is hardly to offer either a reasonable, or a living sacrifice to God, to do good only when we are dead. It is well that God hath made all men mortal, and that 127it is appointed for all men once to die; otherwise some men would never do good at all.
Wherefore, setting aside these, and all other excuses, which will not be admitted, nor will any of us have the face to plead them at the day of judgment; I say, setting aside all excuses whatsoever, let us resolve to do good with what we have whilst we can; and to that end let us lay aside some portion of what God hath blessed us withal, for the uses of piety and charity, and let it bear some decent proportion to what God hath given us.
There is never want of proper objects for our largest charity, and now less than ever. Besides these at home, which present themselves to us in great numbers every day, God hath sent us many from abroad, who call loud upon us for our pity and help, both as they are reduced to the greatest extremity, and are sufferers in the best cause, that of our common religion, which ought now to be dearer to us than ever. Let us shew mercy now, as we expect mercy from others, in any day of our distress in this world, and as ever we hope, whenever we come to appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, to find mercy with the Lord in that day.
Consider what I have said upon this argument, and let this extraordinary kind of caution, which our Saviour here gives, make a deep impression upon your minds; “Take heed, and beware of covetousness; for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”128
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