The Danger of Riches
May 1989By John Henry Newman
John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) is generally considered to have been the main leader of the Oxford Movement, from which the New Oxford Review takes its name. The above sermon, preached on the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, when he was still an Anglican, is presented here in unabridged and unedited form, and is reprinted with permission from Newmans Parochial and Plain Sermons (available from Ignatius Press).
Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Luke vi.24.
Unless we were accustomed to read the New Testament from our childhood, I think we should be very much struck with the warnings which it contains, not only against the love of riches, but the very possession of them; we should wonder with a portion of that astonishment which the Apostles at first felt, who had been brought up in the notion that they were a chief reward which God bestowed on those He loved. As it is, we have heard the most solemn declarations so continually, that we have ceased to attach any distinct meaning to them; or, if our attention is at any time drawn more closely to them, we soon dismiss the subject on some vague imagination, that what is said in Scripture had a reference to the particular times when Christ came, without attempting to settle its exact application to us, or whether it has any such application at all, as if the circumstance, that the interpretation requires care and thought, were an excuse for giving no thought or care whatever to the settling of it.
But, even if we had ever so little concern in the Scripture denunciations against riches and the love of riches, the very awfulness of them might have seemed enough to save them from neglect; just as the flood, and the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah, are still dwelt upon by Christians with solemn attention, though we have a promise against the recurrence of the one, and trust we shall never be so deserted by Gods grace as to call down upon us the other. And this consideration may lead a man to suspect that the neglect in question does not entirely arise from unconcern, but from a sort of misgiving that the subject of riches is one which cannot be safely or comfortably discussed by the Christian world at this day; that is, which cannot be discussed without placing the claims of Gods Law and the pride of life into visible and perplexing opposition.
Let us then see what the letter of Scripture says on the subject. For instance, consider the text. Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. The words are sufficiently clear (it will not be denied), as spoken of rich persons in our Saviours day. Let the full force of the word consolation be observed. It is used by way of contrast to the comfort which is promised to the Christian in the list of Beatitudes.1 Comfort, in the fulness of that word, as including help, guidance, encouragement, and support, is the peculiar promise of the Gospel. The Promised Spirit, who has taken Christs place, was called by Him the Comforter. There is then something very fearful in the intimation of the text, that those who have riches thereby receive their portion, such as it is, in full, instead of the Heavenly Gift of the Gospel. The same doctrine is implied in our Lords words in the parable of Dives and Lazarus: Son, remember thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. At another time He said to His disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! for it is easier for a camel to go through a needles eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.2
Now, it is usual to dismiss such passages with the remark, that they are directed, not against those who have, but against those who trust in, riches; as if forsooth they implied no connexion between the having and the trusting, no warning lest the possession led to the idolatrous reliance on them, no necessity of fear and anxiety in the possessors, lest they should become castaways. And this irrelevant distinction is supposed to find countenance in our Lords own language on one of the occasions above referred to, in which He first says, How hardly shall they that have riches, then, How hard is it for them that trust in riches, to enter into the kingdom of God; whereas surely, He only removes His disciples false impression, that the bare circumstance of possessing wealth was inconsistent with a state of salvation, and no more interprets having by trusting than makes trusting essential to having. He connects the two, without identifying, without explaining away; and the simple question which lies for our determination is this: whether, considering that they who had riches when Christ came, [and] were likely in His judgment idolatrously to trust in them, there is, or is not, reason for thinking that this likelihood varies materially in different ages; and, according to the solution of this question, must we determine the application of the woe pronounced in the text to these times. And, at all events, let it be observed, it is for those who would make out that these passages do not apply now, to give their reasons for their opinion; the burden of proof is with them. Till they draw their clear and reasonable distinctions between the first and the nineteenth century, the denunciation hangs over the world, that is, as much as over the Pharisees and Sadducees at our Lords coming.
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