Riches or Poverty

From “Sermon 15”(1625)

“That men of low degree are vanity, and that men of high degree are a lie.” This constitutes a problem, it requires a discourse, it will abide a debate, whether men of high degree, or of low degree be worst; whether riches or poverty, prosperity or adversity occasion most sins. Though God calls upon us in every leaf of the Scripture, to pity the poor, and relieve the poor, and grounds his Last Judgement upon our works of mercy (“Because you have fed and clothed the poor, inherit the kingdom, Matt. 25:34), yet, as the rich and the poor stand before us now (as it were in judgement), we inquire and hear evidence, about which state is most obnoxious, and open to most sins. We embrace, and apply to ourselves that law, “Thou shalt not be partial to a poor man in his cause” (Exod. 23:3); and (as it is repeated) “Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor in judgement” (Lev. 19:15).

There is then a poverty, which, without all question, is the direct way to heaven; and that is spiritual: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). This poverty is humility, it is not beggary. A rich man may have it, and a beggar may be without it. The wise man did not find this poverty, (humility) in every poor man. He found three sorts of men, whom his soul hated; And one of the three, was a poor man that is proud (Ecclus. 25:2). And when the prophet said of Jerusalem in her afflictions, “Thou art poor, and miserable, and yet drunk” (Isa. 51:21) — though not with wine, (which is now, in our days, an ordinary refuge of men of all sorts, in all sadnesses and crosses to relieve themselves with wine and strong drink, which are indeed strong illusions).

Yet Jerusalem’s drunkenness was not with wine, it was worse; It was a staggering, a dizziness, an ignorance, a blindness, a not discerning the ways to God; which is the worst drunkenness, and falls often upon the poor and afflicted. Their poverty and affliction staggers them, and depresses them in their recourse to God, so far, as that they know not “that they are miserable, and wretched, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). The Holy Ghost always makes the danger of the poor great, as well as of the rich.

The rich man’s wealth is his strong city. There is his fault, his confidence is in that… Solomon presents them, as equally dangerous: “Give me neither poverty, nor riches” (Prov. 30:8). So does Boaz to Ruth, “Blessed be thou of the Lord, my daughter, in as much as thou followedst not young men, whether poor, or rich” (Ruth 3:10). That which Boaz intended there, promiscuity, and all vices that arise immediately from the corruption of nature, and are not induced by other circumstances, have as much inclination from poverty as from riches.

May we not say, more? He must be a very sanctified man, whom extreme poverty, and other afflictions, does not incline towards jealousy, and suspicion, and distrusting of God. And then, the sins that bend towards desperation are so much more dangerous, than those that bend towards presumption. He that presumes still has mercy in view. He does not think that he needs no mercy, but that mercy is easily had; He believes there is mercy, he doubts not of that; But the despairing man imagines a cruelty, an unmercifulness in God, and destroys the very nature of God himself.

Riches is the metaphor, in which, the Holy Ghost hath delighted to express God and heaven to us; “Despise not the riches of his goodness,” says the apostle (Rom. 2:4); And again, “O the depth of the riches of his wisdom” (Rom. 11:33). And so, after, “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). And for the consummation of all, “the riches of his glory” (Eph. 3:16). God’s goodness towards us in general, our religion in the way, his grace here, his glory hereafter, are all represented to us as riches. With poverty God ordinarily accompanies his denunciations; he threatens feebleness, and war, and captivity, and poverty everywhere, but he never threatens men with riches.

John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and scholar, acclaimed as one of the finest preachers of his day. He is widely considered the preeminent metaphysical poet, prized for his inventiveness in the use of metaphor and his dramatic, vigorous style. He was ordained after a political and military career, serving as chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, and for the last ten years of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of several Anglican churches on March 31.


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