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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 57

Sermon 57 on the New Testament

[CVII. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Luke 12:15 , And he said unto them, take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness.

1. I doubt not but that you who fear God, do hear His word with awe, and execute it with cheerfulness; that what He has promised, you 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 deceives, nor is deceived, has 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. You 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 your 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 your 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 you were 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 says. O man; for seeing you value this inheritance so highly, what are you 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, You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. Lo, what He wished to make him, to reckon him that has 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 you 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 says, 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, says He, has made Me a divider among you?

4. You have petitioned for a kindness; hear counsel. I say unto you, Beware of all covetousness. Perhaps, he would say, you would call him covetous and greedy, if he were seeking another's goods; but I say, seek not even your 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 says, Beware. He knows well how great the evil is; we know it not, let us believe Him. Beware, says He. Wherefore? Of what? of all covetousness. I am but keeping what is my 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 says, of all covetousness: For a man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses. He that stores up great abundance, how much does he take therefrom to live? When he has taken it, and in a way separated in thought sufficient to live upon from it, let him consider for whom the rest remains; lest haply when you keep wherewith to live, you are gathering only wherewith to die. Behold Christ, behold truth, behold severity. Beware, says truth: Beware, says severity. If you love not the truth, fear severity. A man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses. Believe Him, He does not deceive you. On the other hand, you say, Yea, 'a man's life' does 'consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses.' He does not deceive you; you deceive yourself.

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 gives another example of a certain rich man, whose ground had turned out well. There was, He says, a certain rich man, whose ground had turned 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 will you say to your soul? Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years, take your ease, eat, drink, be merry. This did the wise discoverer of this expedient say to his soul.

6. And God, who does not disdain to speak even with fools, said unto him. Some of you may perhaps 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. You fool, He says; You fool, who seemest wise unto yourself; You fool, who hast said to your soul, You have much goods laid up for many years: today is your soul required of you! Your soul to which you have said, You have much goods, today is required, and has 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 are you to have them, who dost not wish to be what you wish to have. For do you 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, Today shall your soul be hurried away to hell: He said no such thing as this, but is required of you. I do not tell you whither your soul shall go; yet hence, where you are laying up for it such store of things, must it depart, whether you will or no. Lo, you fool, you have thought to fill your new and greater barns, as if there was nothing to be done with what you have.

7. But perhaps he was not yet a Christian. Let us hear then, Brethren, to whom as believers the Gospel is read, by whom He who spoke 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 has the mark of Christ, whether in the forehead, or both in the forehead and the heart. You have heard today 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 you 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, you love your own goods, and dost boast yourself in that you seek not the goods of others; see what evil you do in not hearing Christ, who says, Beware of all covetousness. Love your own goods, do not take away the goods of others; you have the fruits of your labour, they are justly yours; you have been left an heir, someone whose good graces you have attained has given it to you; you have been on the sea, and in its perils, hast committed no fraud, hast sworn no lie, hast acquired what it has pleased God you should, and you are keeping it greedily as in a good conscience, because you do not possess it from evil sources, and dost not seek what is another's. Yet if you give not heed to Him who has said, Beware of all covetousness, hear how great evils you will be ready to do for your own goods' sake. Lo, for example, it has chanced to you to be made a judge. You will not be corrupted, because you do not seek the goods of others; no one gives you a bribe and says, Give judgment against my adversary. This be far from you, a man, who seeks not the things of others, how could you be persuaded to do this? Yet see what evil you will be ready to do for your own goods' sake. Peradventure he that wishes you to judge evilly, and pronounce sentence for him against his adversary is a powerful man, and able to bring up false accusation against you, that you may lose what you have. Thou dost reflect, and think upon his power, think of your own goods you are keeping, which you love: not which you have possessed, but in whose power rather you are yourself unhappily fixed. This your bird-lime, by reason of which you have not the wings of virtue free, you look to; and you say within your 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 you will give unrighteous judgment, not when you seek another's, but when you keep your 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 you have placed before my eyes. Yet lo, even this poor man I will tell what he ought to fear. Some rich and powerful person calls you to give false witness for him. What will you be doing now? Tell me. You have a good little property of your own; you have laboured for it, hast acquired, and kept it. That person requires of you; Give false witness for me, and I will give you 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. Have you no wish to receive what I give? I will take away what you have already. See now prove yourself, question now your own self. Why do you look at me? Look inward on your own self, look at your own self within, examine your own self within; sit down before your own self, and summon your own self before you, and stretch yourself upon the rack of God's commandment, and torment yourself with His fear, and deal not softly with yourself; answer your own self. Lo, if any one were to threaten you with this, what would you do? I will take away from you what with so great labour you have acquired, if you will not give false witness for me. Give him that; Beware of all covetousness. O my servant, He will say to you, 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 you have acquired, Me he shall not take away from you. Are you keeping your own goods, that you may not perish? What, have I not said unto you, 'Beware of all covetousness'?

10. Lo, you are in confusion, tossed to and fro; your heart as a ship is shaken about by tempests. Christ is asleep: awake Him, that sleeps, and you shall be exposed no more to the raging of the storm. Awake Him, who was pleased to have nothing here, and you have all, who came even to the Cross for you, 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 you have. 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 has 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 your priests be clothed with righteousness.' But what if he say to you, when you have despised the things which you possess, what if he say to you, I will kill you? If you have given ear to Christ, answer him, Will You kill me? Better that you should kill my body, than that I by a false tongue should kill my soul! What can you do to me? You will kill my body; my soul will depart at liberty, to receive again at the end of the world even this very body she has despised. What can you do to me then? Whereas if I should give false witness for you, with your tongue do I kill myself; and not in my body do I kill myself; 'For the mouth that lies kills the soul.' But perhaps you do not say so. And why do you not say so? You wish to live; you wish to live longer than God has appointed for you? Do you then beware of all covetousness? So long was it God's will that you should live, till this person came to you. It may be that he will kill you, to make a martyr of you. Entertain then no undue desire of life; and so you will not have an eternity of death. You 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.

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Source. Translated by R.G. MacMullen. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160357.htm>.

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