When our Lord was preaching on subjects of eternal importance, a certain young man interrupted him, requesting him to speak to his brother to divide the inheritance with him. It seems as if his father had lately died, and that his brother could not be induced to do him justice in the division of the estate. He might possibly have heard of some such case as that of Zaccheus; in which Jesus, by a few words speaking, had rendered a selfish man both just and generous. Jesus, however, instead of complying with his wishes, disclaims having any thing to do in such matters; and warns others, from his example, to “take heed and beware of covetousness.”
Allowing the propriety of our Lord’s declining to be a judge in such matters, as not comporting with the spiritual nature of his kingdom, yet how was it that he should take occasion hence to warn his followers against the sin of covetousness? There is nothing in the story that gives us to suppose that the young man coveted what was not his own. Wherein then consisted his sin? Let us suppose a person under a mortal disease, who, seeing an eminent physician passing by him, instead of telling him his case, should request him to settle a dispute in his family! What should we say? If any thing, it would be to this effect:—Settle those matters as you can; in applying to the physician, treat him in character, and have regard to your life.—For a sinner to come to the Saviour on a mere secular business, and this while his soul was in a perishing condition, must prove his heart to be set supremely on this world, and his regard to Christ to be only a wish to render him subservient to his temporal interest.
Here then we perceive the species of covetousness that our Lord meant to censure. It is not that which breaks out in acts of robbery, theft, or oppression—not that which withholds the hire of the labourer, or studies the arts of fraud—it is not any thing, in short, which respects the conduct of man to man; but that which immediately relates to God, withholding the heart from him, and giving it to the world.
Such is the idea conveyed by the parable of the rich fool, which is here introduced by our Lord in illustration of the subject. He is not accused of any thing injurious to those about him; his “grounds brought forth plentifully;” and who can blame him for this? All that he proposed was, by the bounty of Providence on his labours, to accumulate a fortune, and then to spend it on himself. And what harm (most men will ask) was there in this? Truly, it is the general opinion of mankind that this is all fair and right. If a man regard not God, but himself only, so long as he acts well towards them, he will not only be acquitted, but applauded at their tribunal: “Men will praise thee when thou doest well to thyself.” Howbeit, this is not the doctrine of Christ. In his account, it is not the miser only that is covetous, but he who sets his heart upon the world, rather than God, even though he lays out a part of his substance in building and other accommodations; and proposes, when he has got things a little in order, to “eat, drink, and be merry” with the surplus.
In the case of the young man who came to Christ on a secular errand, we see that things in themselves lawful, by being pursued out of place and out of season, may become sinful. It is lawful at proper seasons and in subordination to higher objects to follow our worldly affairs; but if we go to the house of God with this end in view, it is profaning it. The same is true if while we are there our thoughts are employed in forming plans and schemes for the week, by which we may promote our temporal interest. Such things are: nor is it confined to the house of God. Even when upon our knees, the busy mind will wander after this and that pursuit, till we have in a manner forgotten where we are! Nor does the evil of such things consist merely in a few volatile wandering thoughts, but in that of which they are an indication; namely, a mind cleaving to the earth instead of ascending to God. In the case of this young man, we may also see the danger of regarding Christ and religion in only a secondary or subordinate manner, while the world is treated as supreme. Religion may have changed a bad husband into a good one, or induced a customer to leave off his expensive habits, and to pay his bills with punctuality and promptitude, and as such you may respect it; but such respect will not be approved of Christ. If we have any thing to do with him, it must be in his proper character of Lord and Saviour. To attempt to render his religion subservient to worldly interest, is to lean upon him while you are worshipping in the temple of mammon.
It was not without cause that our Saviour said, on this occasion, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness!” Truly, this is a sin which presents itself under so many specious forms and names, which so insensibly insinuates itself on almost all occasions, and which may be indulged with so little danger of losing our good name among men, that without much prayer and watchfulness against it, and much communion with Christ, there is no hope of overcoming it.
In observing my own mind, and the behaviour of my acquaintance, I see matter for both pleasure and pain. I see a goodly number of professing Christians who appear to me to live “not unto themselves, but unto him that died for them and rose again.” I see some of this description into whose hands God is pouring plenty, and who, though continually imparting, still increase. The poor people of Glasgow used to say of a late great and good man in that city, “David Dale gives his money by sho’elsful, and God Almighty sho’els it back again.” Characters like-minded still live; and long may they live and be blessings to the world! They afford a striking contrast to those described by David: “Let them be as grass upon the housetop, which withereth before it groweth up; wherewith the mover filleth not his hand, nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom; neither do they that go by say, The blessing of the Lord be upon you!—we bless you in the name of the Lord!”
Nor is it in men of opulence only that this grace shines! I see men who have learned to be economical in order to be generous; men whose deep poverty abounds to the riches of their liberality! This is to “cast our bread upon the waters;” and this may be more in the esteem of Christ than the most splendid donations of those who, in giving, exercise no self-denial.
But I see, on the other hand, not only sordid misers, but men who profess godliness, and who would be thought liberal, full of anxiety about appearance. They must dress, visit, and show away in their circle. The consequence is, they have nothing to spare in the way of doing good; or if they give a little, it is chiefly to save appearances. It may be thought this belongs to vanity rather than covetousness; it is, however, living to ourselves rather than God; and this is the covetousness against which our Saviour warns us.
There are three descriptions of men, each of which, if I mistake not, has some peculiar temptations to this sin; and who, if destitute of grace, are likely to be carried away by it; these are the prosperous, the aged, and the professor of religion.
With respect to the prosperous, it is a fact which falls under common observation, that men who while possessing little were compassionate and willing to communicate, when they come to rise in the world, are hardhearted, and part with their money with great reluctance. This is not difficult to be accounted for. While necessity calls for nearly the whole of what is received, there is no room for a plan of accumulation; but when money flows in, and rises beyond the mark of immediate want, and the advantages of it begin to be felt, a saving system is adopted, and the mind is employed in calculating the number of years necessary to the arrival of such and such a point; and when this comes to be the case, every application for benevolence strikes a damp upon the spirits, as interfering with the system, and lengthening the time ere it will reach the proposed point. Hence arises the force of the caution, “If riches increase, set not your heart upon them.” Hence also we perceive the folly and self-deception of thinking—If we had such a one’s estate, what great things we should do? or if we should live to possess so and so, then how charitable we will be! All such thoughts are framed to excuse the neglect of present duty, and are as if a person engaged in a race should desire, in order to make swifter progress, to have his feet laden with thick clay.
With respect to the aged, it is a fact which also falls under common observation, that persons as they get older get more covetous. This observation, however, is not universally true. There is a goodly number of men who bring forth other “fruits in old age;” or who, as they draw nearer to heaven, become more heavenly-minded. The truth seems to be, that as every principle tends to maturity, those who have been covetous in their younger years, provided there be no change of heart, will be more covetous in old age. The stream of depravity in early life had several channels,—such as the lust of the flesh and the pride of life, and these would of course diminish the strength of avarice; but in the last stages of life those channels are in a manner stopped by the decay of the natural powers, and the whole current flows in one direction. Hence we perceive many an old wealthy churl living to himself, and repelling every application for a Divine or benevolent object: “Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse? There be many servants now-a-days that break away every man from his master. Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men whom I know not whence they be?”
When I see such a spirit in aged people, recollecting that every principle, as was said, tends to maturity, I cannot help considering it as a strong indication that they have all their lives been under the dominion of this vice, only that it has been checked by a regard to appearances, and it may be by other vices; and that they are now fast ripening for destruction.
But in what way, it will be asked, are the third class, namely, professors of religion, subject to this sin, more than other men? As a fact, it has long impressed my mind, and I conceive it is not difficult to be accounted for. Supposing a person to be merely a professor, whatever impedes his evil propensity in all directions but one, will be certain to strengthen it in respect of that one. This is exactly the case as to a profession of religion. If you would be thought a Christian, you must not be a drunkard, nor a debauchee, nor a gamester, nor a liar, nor a blasphemer, nor an injurious person; but you may love the world more than God; for this, being confined to things between God and your own conscience, does not fall under human cognizance; or though it may affect your liberality to men, yet, as the discipline of the New Testament leaves every man to judge of his own ability, and to give what he gives, not as it were of necessity, but willingly, you may here live undetected, and with a little management unsuspected, by your brethren. Of this the case of Judas Iscariot will furnish you with a notable example!
In this view, perhaps, Dissenters from the Established Church may be more in danger of indulging in covetousness than in most other evils. They are shut out from things which are principally adapted to feed other dispositions as well as this; such as promotion in the church, in the army, and in the navy. The chief openings for them are found in manufactures, trade, and husbandry; openings which it is certainly very lawful for them to embrace, but which, in case of success attending them, are often great temptations to covetousness.
I close with two remarks:—First, That the danger of falling into covetousness is not confined to the mere professor: a Christian may be greatly impeded by it in his way to heaven, and like Lot, whose heart was seduced by the well-watered plains of Sodom, may die under a cloud. Lastly, That the most effectual preservative from this sin, as well as others, is believingly to converse with the doctrine of the cross. By this the world was crucified to the apostle, and he unto the world.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). “Covetousness,” Sermon LI. The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.; Vol. 1, pp. 448–451). Sprinkle Publications.