Augustine of Hippo
ON THE WORDS OF THE GOSPEL, LUKE XII. 15, "AND HE SAID UNTO THEM, TAKE HEED, AND KEEP YOURSELVES FROM ALL COVETOUSNESS."
1. I Doubt not but that ye who fear God, do hear His word with awe, and execute it with cheerfulness; that what He hath promised, ye may at present hope for, hereafter receive. We have just now heard the Lord Christ Jesus, the Son of God, giving us a precept. The Truth, who neither deceiveth, nor is deceived, hath given us a precept; let us hear, fear, beware. What is this precept then: "I say unto you, Beware of all covetousness"? What is, "of all covetousness"? What is, "of all"? Why did He add, "of all"? For He might have spoken thus "Beware of covetousness" It suited Him to add, "of all; and to say, "Beware of all covetousness."
2. Why He said this, the occasion as it were out of which these words arose, is shown to us in the holy Gospel. A certain man appealed to Him against his brother, who had taken away all his patrimony, and gave not back his proper portion to his brother. Ye see then how good a case this appellant had. For he was not seeking to take by violence another's, but was seeking only for his own which had been left him by his parents; these was he demanding back by his appeal to the judgment of the Lord. He had an unrighteous brother; but against an unrighteous brother had he found a righteous Judge. Ought he then in so good a cause to lose that opportunity? Or who would say to his brother, "Restore to thy brother his portion," if Christ would not say it? Would that judge be likely to say it, whom perhaps his richer and extortionate brother might corrupt by a bribe? Forlorn then as he was, and despoiled of his father's goods, when he had found such and so great a Judge he goes up to Him, he appeals to, he beseeches Him, he lays his cause before Him in few words. For what occasion was there to set forth his cause at length, when he was speaking to Him who could even see the heart? "Master," he says, "speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me." The Lord did not say to him, "Let thy brother come." No, He neither sent for him to be present, nor in his presence did He say to him who had appealed to Him, "Prove what thou wast saying." He asked for half an inheritance, he asked for half an inheritance on earth; the Lord offered him a whole inheritance in heaven. The Lord gave more than asked for.
3. "Speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me." Just case, short case. But let us hear Him who at once gives judgment and instruction. "Man," He saith. "O man;" for seeing thou valuest this inheritance so highly, what art thou but a man? He wished to make him something more than man. What more did He wish to make him, from whom He wished to take covetousness away? What more did He wish to make him? I will tell you, "I have said, Ye are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High." Lo, what He wished to make him, to reckon him that hath no covetousness among the "gods." "Man, who made Me a divider among you?" So the Apostle Paul His servant, when he said, "I beseech you, brethren, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you," was unwilling to be a divider. And afterwards he thus admonished them who were running after his name, and dividing Christ: "Every one of you saith, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?" Judge then, how wicked are those men, who would have Him to be divided, who would not be a divider. "Who," saith He, "hath made Me a divider among you?"
4. Thou hast petitioned for a kindness; hear counsel. "I say unto you, Beware of all covetousness." "Perhaps," he would say, "thou wouldest call him covetous and greedy, if he were seeking another's goods; but I say, seek not even thine own greedily or covetously." This is "Of all, beware of all covetousness." A heavy burden this! If by any chance this burden be imposed on them that are weak; let Him be sought unto, that He who imposes it, may vouchsafe to give us strength. For it is not a thing to be lightly regarded, my Brethren, when our Lord, our Redeemer, our Saviour, who died for us, who gave His Own Blood as our ransom, to redeem us, our Advocate and Judge; it is no light matter when He saith, "Beware." He knoweth well how great the evil is; we know it not, let us believe Him. "Beware," saith He. Wherefore? of what? "of all covetousness." I am but keeping what is mine own, I am not taking away another's; "Beware of all covetousness." Not only is he covetous, who plunders the goods of others; but he is covetous too, who greedily keeps his own. But if he is so blamed who greedily keeps his own; how is he condemned who plunders what is another's! "Beware," He saith, "of all covetousness: For a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." He that stores up great abundance, how much does he take therefrom to live? When he has taken it, and m a way separated in thought sufficient to live upon from it, let him consider for whom the rest remains; test haply when thou keepest wherewith to live, thou art gathering only wherewith to die. Behold Christ, behold truth, behold severity. "Beware," saith truth: "Beware," saith severity. If thou love not the truth, fear severity. "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." Believe Him, He doth not deceive thee. On the other hand, thou sayest, "Yea, 'a man's life' does 'consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses.'" He doth not deceive thee; thou deceivest thyself.
5. Out of this occasion then, when that appellant was seeking his own portion, not desiring to plunder another's, arose that sentence of the Lord, wherein He said not, "Beware of covetousness;" but added, "of all covetousness." Nor was this all: He giveth another example of a certain rich man, "whose ground had turned out well." "There was," He saith, "a certain rich man, whose round had turned s out well." What is, "had turned out well"? The ground which he possessed had brought forth a great produce. How great? So that he could not find where to bestow it: suddenly, through his abundance he became straitened--this old covetous man. For how many years had already passed away, and yet those barns had been enough? So great then was the produce, that the accustomed places were not sufficient. And the wretched man sought counsel, not as to how he should lay the additional produce out, but how he should store it up; and in thinking he discovered an expedient. He seemed as it were wise in his own eyes, by the discovery of this expedient. Knowingly did he think of it, wisely hit upon it. What was this he wisely hit upon? "I will destroy," he says,
"my" old "barns, and will build new ones greater, and will fill them; and I will say to my soul." What wilt thou say to thy soul? "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry." This did the wise discoverer of this expedient say to his soul.
6. "And God," who doth not disdain to speak even with fools, "said unto him." Some of you may peradventure say, And how did God speak with a fool? O, my Brethren, with how many fools does He speak here, when the Gospel is read! When it is read, are not they who hear and do not, fools? What then did the Lord say? For he, I repeat, thought himself wise by the discovery of his expedient. "Thou fool," He saith; "Thou fool," who seemest wise unto thyself; "Thou fool," who hast said to thy soul, "Thou hast much goods laid up for many years: to-day is thy soul required of thee!" Thy soul to which thou hast said, "Thou hast much goods," to-day is "required," and hath no good at all. Let it then despise these goods, and be herself good, that when she is "required," she may depart in assured hope. For what is more perverse than a man who wishes to have "much goods," and does not wish to be good himself? Unworthy art thou to have them, who dost not wish to be what thou dost wish to have. For dost thou wish to have a bad country house? No indeed, but a good one. Or a bad wife? No, but a good one. Or a bad hood? Or even a bad shoe? And Why a bad soul only? He did not in this place say to this fool who was thinking on vain things, building barns, and who had no regard to the wants of the poor; He did not say to him, "To-day shall thy soul be hurried away to hell:" He said no such thing as this, but "is required of thee." "I do not tell thee whither thy soul shall go; yet hence, where thou art laying up for it such store of things, must it depart, whether thou wilt or no." Lo, "thou fool," thou hast thought to fill thy new and greater barns, as if there was nothing to be done with what thou hast.
7. But peradventure he was not yet a Christian. Let us hear then, Brethren, to whom as believers the Gospel is read, by whom He who spake these things, is worshipped, whose mark is borne by us on our forehead, and is held in the heart. For of very great concernment is it where a man hath the mark of Christ, whether in the forehead, or both in the forehead and the heart. Ye have heard to-day the words of the holy prophet Ezekiel, how that before God sent one to destroy the ungodly people, He first sent one to mark them, and said to him, "Go and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and moan for the sins of my people that are done in the midst of them." He did not say, "which are done without them;" but "in the midst of them." Yet they "sigh and moan;" and therefore are they "marked on the forehead:" in the forehead of the inner man, not the outer. For there is a forehead in the face, there is a forehead in the conscience. So it happens that when the inner forehead is stricken, the outer grows red; either red with shame, or pale with fear. So then there is a forehead of the inner man. There were they "marked" that they might not be destroyed; because though they did not correct the sins which were "done in the midst of them," yet they sorrowed for them, and by that very sorrow separated themselves; and though separated in God's sight, they were mixed with them in the eyes of men. They are "marked" secretly, are not hurt openly. Afterwards the Destroyer is sent, and to him it is said, "Go, lay waste, spare neither young nor old, male nor female, but come not near those who have the mark on their forehead." How great security is granted to you, my Brethren, who among this people are sighing, and moaning for the iniquities which are being done in the midst of you, and who do them not!
8. But that ye may not commit iniquities, "beware of all covetousness." I will tell you in its full extent, what is "of all covetousness." In matter of lust he is covetous, whom his own wife suffices not. And idolatry itself is called covetousness; because again in matter of divine worship he is covetous, whom the one and true God suffices not. What but the covetous soul makes for itself many gods? What but the covetous soul makes to itself false martyrs? "Beware of all covetousness." Lo, thou lovest thine own goods, and dost boast thyself in that thou seekest not the goods of others; see what evil thou doest in not hearing Christ, who saith, "Beware of all covetousness." See thou dost love thine own goods, thou dost not take away the goods of others; thou hast the fruits of thy labour, they are justly thine; thou hast been left an heir, some one whose good graces thou hast attained has given it to thee; thou hast been on the sea, and in its perils, hast committed no fraud, hast sworn no lie, hast acquired what it hath pleased God thou shouldest; and thou art keeping it greedily as in a good conscience, because thou dost not possess it from evil sources, and dost not seek what is another's. Yet if thou give not heed to Him who hath said, "Beware of all covetousness," hear how great evils thou wilt be ready to do for thine own goods' sake. Lo, for example, it hath chanced to thee to be made a judge. Thou wilt not be corrupted, because thou dost not seek the goods of others; no one giveth thee a bribe and says, "Give judgment against my adversary." This be far from thee, a man, who seekest not the things of others, how couldest thou be persuaded to do this? Yet see what evil thou wilt be ready to do for thine own goods' sake. Peradventure he that wishes thee to judge evilly, and pronounce sentence for him against his adversary is a powerful man, and able to bring up false accusation against thee, that thou mayest lose what thou hast. Thou dost reflect, and think upon his power, think of thine own goods thou art keeping, which thou dost love: not which thou hast possessed, but in whose power rather thou art thyself unhappily fixed. This thy bird-lime, by reason of which thou hast not the wings of virtue free, thou dost look to; and thou sayest within thine own self, "I am offending this man, he has much influence in the world; he will suggest evil accusations against me, and I shall be outlawed, and lose all I have." Thus thou wilt give unrighteous judgment, not when thou seekest another's, but when thou keepest thine own.
9. Give me a man who has given ear to Christ, give me a man who has heard with fear "Beware of all covetousness;" and let him not say to me, "I am a poor man, a plebeian of mean estate, one of the common people, how can I hope ever to be a judge? I am in no fear of this temptation, the peril of which thou hast placed before mine eyes." Yet lo, even this poor man I will tell what he ought to fear. Some rich and powerful person calls thee to give false witness for him. What wilt thou be doing now? Tell me. Thou hast a good little property of thine own; thou hast laboured for it, hast acquired, and kept it. That person requires of thee; "Give false witness for me, and I will give thee so and so much." Thou who seekest not the things of others, sayest, "That be far from me: I do not seek for what it has not pleased God to give me, I will not receive it; depart from me." "Hast thou no wish to receive what I give? I will take away what thou hast already." See now prove thyself, question now thine own self. Why dost thou look at me? Look inward on thine own self, look at thine own self within, examine thine own self within; sit down before thine own self, and summon thine own self before thee, and stretch thyself upon the rack of God's commandment, and torment thyself with His fear, and deal not softly with thyself; answer thine own self. Lo, if any one were to threaten thee with this, what wouldest thou do? "I will take away from thee what with so great labour thou hast acquired, if thou wilt not give false witness for me." Give him that; "Beware of all covetousness." "O my servant," He will say to thee, "whom I have redeemed and made free, whom from a servant I have adopted to be a brother, whom I have set as a member in My Body, give ear to Me: He may take away what thou hast acquired, Me he shall not take away from thee. Art thou keeping thine own goods, that thou mayest not perish? What, have I not said unto thee, 'Beware of all covetousness'?"
10. Lo, thou art in confusion, tossed to and fro; thy heart as a ship is shaken about by tempests. Christ is asleep: awake Him, that sleepeth, and thou shalt be exposed no more to the raging of the storm. Awake Him, who was pleased to have nothing here, and thou hast all, who came even to the Cross for thee, whose "Bones" as He was naked and hanging "were numbered" by them that mocked Him; and "beware of all covetousness." Covetousness of money is not all; "beware of covetousness" of life. A dreadful covetousness, covetousness much to be feared. Sometimes a man will despise what he has, and say, "I will not give false witness; I will not. You tell me, I will take away what thou hast. Take away what I have; you do not take away what I have within. For he was not left a poor man, who said, 'The Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; it is done as it pleased the Lord; blessed' therefore 'be the Name of the Lord. Naked came I out of my mother's womb, naked shall I return to the earth.' Naked outwardly, well-clothed within. Naked as regards these rags, these corruptible rags outwardly, clothed within. With what? 'Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness.'" But what if he say to thee, when thou hast despised the things which thou possessest, what if he say to thee, "I will kill thee"? If thou have given ear to Christ, answer him, "Wilt Thou kill me? Better that thou shouldest kill my body, than that I by a false tongue should kill my soul! What canst thou do to me? Thou wilt kill my body; my soul will depart at liberty, to receive again at the end of the world even this very body she hath despised. What canst thou do to me then? Whereas if I should give false witness for thee, with thy tongue do I kill myself; and not in my body do I kill myself; 'For the mouth that lieth killeth the soul.'" But peradventure thou dost not say so. And why dost thou not say so? Thou wishest to live; thou wishest to live longer than God hath appointed for thee? Dost thou then "beware of all covetousness"? So long was it God's will that thou shouldest live, till this person came to thee. It may he that he will kill thee, to make a martyr of thee. Entertain then no undue desire of life; and so thou wilt not have an eternity of death. Ye see how that covetousness everywhere, when we wish for more than is necessary, causes us to sin. Beware we of all covetousness, if we would enjoy eternal wisdom.