Volume > Issue > The Danger of Riches

The Danger of Riches


By John Henry Newman | May 1989
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 Newman's 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 God’s 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 God’s 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 Saviour’s 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 Christ’s 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 Lord’s 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 needle’s 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 Lord’s 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 Lord’s coming.

But, in truth, that our Lord meant to speak of riches as being in some sense a calamity to the Christian, is plain, not only from such texts as the foregoing, but from His praises and recommenda­tion on the other hand of poverty. For instance, “Sell that ye have and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old.” “If thou wilt be perfect, go sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.” “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours…. but…. call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” And in like manner, St. James: “Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of that kingdom which He hath promised to them that love him?”3 Now, I cite these texts in the way of doctrine, not of precept. Whatever be the line of conduct they prescribe to this or that individual (with which I have nothing to do at present), so far seems clear, that according to the rule of the Gospel, the absence of wealth is, as such, a more blessed and a more Christian state than the possession of it.

The most obvious danger which worldly pos­sessions present to our spiritual welfare is, that they become practically a substitute in our hearts for that One object to which our supreme devotion is due. They are present; God is unseen. They are means at hand of effecting what we want: whether God will hear our petitions for those wants is un­certain; or rather I may say, certain in the negative. Thus they minister to the corrupt inclinations of our nature; they promise and are able to be gods to us, and such gods too as require no service, but, like dumb idols, exalt the worshipper, impressing him with a notion of his own power and security. And in this consist their chief and most subtle mis­chief. Religious men are able to repress, nay extir­pate sinful desires, the lust of the flesh and of the eyes, gluttony, drunkenness, and the like, love of amusements and frivolous pleasures and display, indulgence in luxuries of whatever kind; but as to wealth, they cannot easily rid themselves of a secret feeling that it gives them a footing to stand upon, an importance, a superiority; and in consequence they get attached to this world, lose sight of the duty of bearing the Cross, become dull and dim-sighted, and lose their delicacy and precision of touch, are numbed (so to say) in their fingers’ ends, as regards religious interests and prospects. To risk all upon Christ’s word seems somehow unnatural to them, extravagant, and evidences a morbid ex­citement; and death, instead of being a gracious, however awful release, is not a welcome subject of thought. They are content to remain as they are, and do not contemplate a change. They desire and mean to serve God, nay actually do serve him in their measure; but not with the keen sensibilities, the noble enthusiasm, the grandeur and elevation of soul, the dutifulness and affectionateness towards Christ which become a Christian, but as Jews might obey, who had no Image of God given them except this created world, “eating their bread with joy, and drinking their wine with a merry heart,” caring that “their garments be always white, and their head lacking no ointment, living joyfully with the wife whom they love all the days of the life of their vanity,” and “enjoying the good of their la­bour.”4 Not, of course, that the due use of God’s temporal blessings is wrong, but to make them the object of our affections, to allow them to beguile us from the “One Husband” to whom we are es­poused, is to mistake the Gospel for Judaism.

This, then, if we may venture to say so, was some part of our Saviour’s meaning, when He con­nects together the having with the trusting in riches; and it is especially suitable to consider it upon this day, when we commemorate an Apostle and an Evangelist, whose history is an example and encour­agement for all those who have, and fear lest they should trust. But St. Matthew was exposed to an additional temptation, which I shall proceed to consider; for he not only possessed, but he was en­gaged also in the pursuit of wealth. Our Saviour seems to warn us against this further danger in His description of the thorns in the parable of the Sow­er, as being “the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches;” and more clearly in the parable of the Great Supper, where the guests excuse them­selves, one as having “bought a piece of ground,” another “five yoke of oxen.” Still more openly does St. Paul speak in his First Epistle to Timothy: “They that desire to be rich, fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil; which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the Faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”5

The danger of possessing riches is the carnal security to which they lead; that of “desiring” and pursuing them, is, that an object of this world is thus set before us as the aim and end of life. It seems to be the will of Christ that His followers should have no aim or end, pursuit or business, merely of this world. Here, again, I speak as before, not in the way of precept, but of doctrine. I am looking at His holy religion as at a distance, and de­termining what is its general character and spirit, not what may happen to be the duty of this or that individual who has embraced it. It is His will that all we do should be done, not unto men, or to the world, or to self, but to His glory; and the more we are enabled to do this simply, the more favoured we are. Whenever we act with reference to an object of this world, even though it be ever so pure, we are exposed to the temptation — (not irresistible. God forbid!) still to the temptation — of setting our hearts upon obtaining it. And therefore, we call all such objects excitements, as stimulating us incongruously, casting us out of the serenity and stability of heavenly faith, attracting us aside by their proximity from our harmonious round of du­ties, and making our thoughts converge to some­thing short of that which is infinitely high and eter­nal. Such excitements are of perpetual occurrence, and the mere undergoing them, so far from involv­ing guilt in the act itself or its results, is the great business of life and the discipline of our hearts. It is often a sin to withdraw from them, as has been the case of some perhaps who have gone into mon­asteries to serve God more entirely. On the other hand, it is the very duty of the Spiritual Ruler to labour for the flock committed to him, to suffer and to dare; St. Paul was encompassed with excite­ments hence arising, and his writings show the agi­tating effect of them on his mind. He was like Da­vid, a man of war and blood; and that for our sakes. Still it holds good that the essential spirit of the Gospel is “quietness and confidence;” that the pos­session of these is the highest gift, and to gain them perfectly our main aim.

Consequently, however much a duty it is to undergo excitements when they are sent upon us, it is plainly unchristian, a manifest foolishness and sin, to seek out any such, whether secular or reli­gious. Hence gaming is so great an offence; as being a presumptuous creation on our part of a serious, if not an overpowering, temptation to fix the heart upon an object of this world. Hence, the mischief of many amusements, of (what is called) the fashion of the day; which are devised for the very pur­pose of taking up the thoughts, and making time pass easy. Quite contrary is the Christian temper, which is in its perfect and peculiar enjoyment when engaged in that ordinary, unvaried course of duties which God assigns, and which the world calls dull and tiresome. To get up day after day to the same employments, and to feel happy in them, is the great lesson of the Gospel; and, when exemplified in those who are alive to the temptation of being busy, it implies a heart weaned from the love of this world. True it is that illness of body, as well as restlessness of mind, may occasionally render such a life a burden; it is true also that indolence, self-in­dulgence, timidity, and other similar bad habits, may adopt it by preference, as a pretext for neglect­ing more active duties. Men of energetic minds and talents for action are called to a life of trouble; they are the compensations and antagonists of the world’s evils[;] still let them never forget their place; they are men of war, and we war that we may obtain peace. They are but men of war, honoured indeed by God’s choice, and, in spite of all momentary excitements, resting in the depth of their hearts upon the One true Vision of Christian faith; still after all they are but soldiers in the open field, not builders of the Temple, nor inhabitants of those “amiable” and specially blessed “Tabernacles” where the wor­shipper lives in praise and intercession, and is mili­tant amid the unostentatious duties of ordinary life. “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.”6 Such is our Lord’s judg­ment, showing that our true happiness consists in being at leisure to serve God without excitements. For this gift we especially pray in one of our Col­lects: “Grant, O Lord, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by Thy governance, that Thy Church may joyfully serve Thee in all god­ly quietness.”7 Persecution, civil changes, and the like break in upon the Church’s calm. The greatest privilege of a Christian is to have nothing to do with worldly politics, — to be governed and to sub­mit obediently; and though here again selfishness may creep in, and lead a man to neglect public con­cerns in which he is called to take his share, yet, af­ter all, such participation must be regarded as a duty, scarcely as a privilege, as the fulfilment of trusts committed to him for the good of others, not as the enjoyment of rights (as men talk in these days of delusion), not as if political power were in itself a good.

To return to the subject immediately before us; I say then, that it is a part of Christian caution to see that our engagements do not become pursuits. Engagements are our portion, but pursuits are for the most part of our own choosing. We may be en­gaged in worldly business, without pursuing world­ly objects; “not slothful in business,” yet “serving the Lord.” In this then consists the danger of the pursuit of gain, as by trade and the like. It is the most common and widely extended of all excite­ments. It is one in which every one almost may in­dulge, nay, and will be praised by the world for in­dulging. And it lasts through life; in that differing from the amusements and pleasures of the world, which are short-lived, and succeed one after anoth­er. Dissipation of mind, which these amusements create, is itself indeed miserable enough: but far worse than this dissipation is the concentration of mind upon some worldly object, which admits of being constantly pursued, — and such is the pursuit of gain. Nor is it a slight aggravation of the evil, that anxiety is almost sure to attend it. A life of money-getting is a life of care; from the first there is a fearful anticipation of loss in various ways to de­press and unsettle the mind; nay to haunt it, till a man finds he can think about nothing else, and is unable to give his mind to religion from the constant whirl of business in which he is involved. It is well this should be understood. You may hear men talk as if the pursuit of wealth was the business of life. They will argue, that by the law of nature a man is bound to gain a livelihood for his family, and that he finds a reward in doing so, an innocent and honourable satisfaction, as he adds one sum to another, and counts up his gains. And perhaps they go on to argue, that it is the very duty of man since Adam’s fall, “in the sweat of his face,” by effort and anxiety, “to eat bread.” How strange it is that they do not remember Christ’s gracious promise, repealing that original curse, and obviating the nec­essity of any real pursuit after “the meat that perisheth!” In order that we might be delivered from the bondage of corruption, He has expressly told us that the necessaries of life shall never fail His faithful follower, any more than the meal and oil the widow-woman of Sarepta; that, while he is bound to labour for his family, he need not be en­grossed by his toil, — that while he is busy, his heart may be at leisure for his Lord. “Be not anxious, saying, what shall we eat? or what shall we drink? or wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heaven­ly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be add­ed unto you.” Here is revealed to us at once our privilege and our duty, the Christian portion of having engagements of this world without pursuing objects. And in accordance with our Divine Teach­er are the words of the Apostle, introductory of a passage already cited. “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment, let us therewith be content.”8 There is no excuse then for that ab­sorbing pursuit of wealth, which many men indulge in as if a virtue, and expatiate upon as if a science. “After all these things do the Gentiles seek!” Con­sider how different is the rule of life left us by the Apostles. “I speak this for your own profit,” says St. Paul, “that ye may attend upon the Lord, with­out distraction.” “This I say, brethren, the time is short; it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none, and they that weep as though they wept not, and they that rejoice as though they rejoiced not, and they that buy as though they possessed not, and they that use this world as not abusing it, for the fashion of this world passeth away.” “Be anxious for nothing; but in ev­erything, by prayer and supplication with thanks­giving, let your requests be made known unto God.” And St. Peter, “Casting all your anxiety upon Him, for He careth for you.”9

I have now given the main reason why the pur­suit of gain, whether in a large or small way, is prej­udicial to our spiritual interests, that it fixes the mind upon an object of this world; yet others re­main behind. Money is a sort of creation, and gives the acquirer, even more than the possessor, an imag­ination of his own power; and tends to make him idolize self. Again, what we have hardly won, we are unwilling to part with; so that a man who has himself made his wealth will commonly be penur­ious, or at least will not part with it except in ex­change for what will reflect credit upon himself, or increase his importance. Even when his conduct is most disinterested and amiable (as in spending for the comfort of those who depend upon him), still this indulgence of self, of pride and worldliness, insinuates itself. Very unlikely therefore is it that he should be liberal towards God; for religious offer­ings are an expenditure without sensible return, and that upon objects for which the very pursuit of wealth has indisposed his mind. Moreover, if it may be added, there is a considerable tendency in occupations connected with gain to make a man unfair in his dealings, — that is, in a subtle way. There are so many conventional deceits and prevarications in the details of the world’s business, so much intri­cacy in the management of accounts, so many per­plexed questions about justice and equity, so many plausible subterfuges and fictions of law, so much confusion between the distinct yet approximating outlines of honesty and civil enactment, that it re­quires a very straightforward mind to keep firm hold of strict conscientiousness, honour, and truth, and to look at matters in which he is engaged, as he would have looked on them, supposing he now came upon them all at once as a stranger.

And if such be the effect of the pursuit of gain on an individual, doubtless it will be the same on a nation; and if the peril be so great in the one case, why should it be less in the other? Rather, considering that the tendencies of things are sure to be brought out, where time and numbers allow them fair course, is it not certain that any multitude, any society of men, whose object is gain, will on the whole be actuated by those feelings, and moulded into that character, which has been above described? With this thought before us, it is a very fearful consideration that we belong to a nation which in good measure subsists by making money. I will not pursue it; nor inquire whether the especial political evils of the day have not their root in that principle, which St. Paul calls the root of all evil, the love of money. Only let us consider the fact, that we are money-making people, with our Sav­iour’s declarations before us against wealth, and trust in wealth: and we shall have abundant matter for serious thought.

Lastly, with this dreary view before us of our condition and prospects as a nation, the pattern of St. Matthew is our consolation; for it suggests that we, Christ’s ministers, may use great freedom of speech, and state unreservedly the peril of wealth and gain, without aught of harshness or uncharitableness towards individuals who are exposed to it. They may be brethren of the Evangelist, who left all for Christ’s sake. Nay, such there have been (blessed be God!) in every age; and in proportion to the strength of the temptation which surrounds them, is their blessedness and their praise, if they are enabled amid the “wares of the seas” and the “great wisdom of their traffic” to hear Christ’s voice, to take up their cross, and follow Him.


1. Matt. v.4.

2. Luke xvi.25; xviii.24,25.

3. Luke xii.33. Matt, xix.31. Luke vi.20; xiv.12, 13. James ii.5.

4. Eccles. ix.7-9; v.18.

5. Matt, xiii.22. Luke siv. 18, 19. I Tim. vi.9,10.

6. Luke x.41,42.

7. Vide I Tim. ii.2.

8. Matt. vi. I Tim. vi.7, 8.

9. I Cor. vii.29-31, 35. Phil. iv.6. I Pet. v.7.

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