A Substitute in the Heart

From “The Danger of Riches Parochial and Plain Sermons (1835)

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 savior’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. Comfort, in the fullness 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 received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.”…

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 they implied no connection 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, 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 century and now, 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 make a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbors … but … call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” And in like manner, St. James writes, “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?” 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…

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 religions offerings are an expenditure without sensible return, and that upon objects for which the very pursuit of wealth has indisposed his mind.

St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was among the most widely influential English theologians of the nineteenth century. One of the principal leaders of Anglicanism’s Catholic revival at Oxford in the 1830’s, he became a Roman Catholic in 1845, and was an Oratorian for the remainder of his life. He was made a cardinal shortly before his death and was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2019. His Parochial and Plain Sermons, first published in 1863, were written in his years as an Anglican priest, while serving as vicar of Oxford’s Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. His feast day on the Roman Calendar is October 9 and he is commemorated on other days on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican Churches.

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