This is part of the Gospel for this Sunday; and a specially fit text for this day, which happens to be St Matthew's Day.
On this day we commemorate one who made up his mind, once and for all, that whoever could serve God and money at once, he could not: and who therefore threw up all his prospects in life--which were those of a peculiarly lucrative profession, that of a farmer of Roman taxes--in order to become the wandering disciple of a reputed carpenter's son. He became, it is true, in due time, an Apostle, an Evangelist, and a Martyr; and if posthumous fame be worth the ambition of any man, Matthew the publican--Saint Matthew as we call him--has his share thereof, because he discovered, like a wise man, that he could not serve God and money; and therefore, when Jesus saw him sitting at the receipt of custom, and bade him "Follow Me," he rose up, and left his money-bags, and followed Him, whom he afterwards discovered to be no less than God made man. "Ye cannot serve God and Mammon." It is very difficult to make men believe these words. So difficult, that our Lord Himself could not make the Jews believe them, especially the rich and comfortable religious people among them. When He told them that they could not serve two masters; that they could not worship God and money at the same time, the Pharisees, who were covetous, derided Him. They laughed to scorn the notion that they could not be very religious, and respectable, and so forth, and yet set their hearts on making money all the while. They thought that they could have their treasure on earth and in heaven also; and they went their way, in spite of our Lord's warnings; and made money, honestly no doubt, if they could, but if not, why then dishonestly; for money must be made, at all risks.
St Paul warned them, by his disciple Timothy, of their danger. He told them that the love of money is the root of all evil; and that those who will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.
St James warned them even more sternly; and told the rich men among the Jews of his day to weep and howl for the miseries which were coming on them. They had heaped up treasure for the last days, when it would be of no use to them. They were fattening their hearts--he told them--against a day of slaughter.
But they listened to St Paul and St James no more than they did to our Lord. After the fall of Jerusalem, even more than before, they became the money-makers and the money-lenders of the whole world. And what befel them? Their wealth stirred up the envy and the suspicion of the Gentiles. They were persecuted, robbed, slaughtered, again and again for the sake of their money. And yet they would not give up their ruinous passion. Throughout all the middle ages, here in England, just as much as on the Continent, they lent money at exorbitant interest; and then their debtors, to escape payment, turned on them for not being Christians; accused them of poisoning the wells, and what not; massacred them, burnt them alive, and committed the most horrible atrocities; fulfilling the warnings of our Lord and His Apostles, only too terribly and brutally, again and again.
Do I say this to make any man dislike or despise the Jews? God forbid. The Jews have noble qualities in them, by which they have prospered, and for the sake of which--as I believe--God's blessing rests on them to this day. They have prospered: not by their love of money, not even by their extraordinary courage, persistence, and intellectual power; but by their keeping two at least of the commandments, as no other people on earth has kept them. They have kept the second commandment; and hated idolatry, and any approach to it, with a stern and noble hatred, which would God that all who call themselves Christians would imitate. They have kept, likewise, the fifth commandment; and have honoured their parents, as no other people on earth have done, except it may be the Chinese, who prosper still, in spite of many sins. Their family affections are so intense, their family life is so pure and sound, that they put to shame too many Christians; and where the family life is sound, the heart of a people is sure to be sound likewise; and all will come right with them at last: and meanwhile the days of the Jews will be long in whatsoever land the Lord their God shall give them, till the day of which St Paul prophesied, when the veil shall be taken off their hearts, and they shall acknowledge that Christ, whom their forefathers crucified in their blindness, for their King, and Lord, and God; and so all Israel shall be saved. Amen. Amen.
And meanwhile, who are we that we should complain of the Jews now, or the Jews of our Lord's time, for being too fond of money? Is anything more certain, than that we English are becoming given up, more and more, to the passion for making money at all risks, and by all means fair or foul? Our covetousness is--alas! that it should be so--become a by-word among foreign nations; while our old English commercial honesty--which was once our strength, and protected us from, and all but atoned for, our covetousness--is going fast; and leaving us, feared indeed for our power; but suspected for our chicanery; and odious for our arrogance.
And it is most sad, but most certain, that we are like those Pharisees of old in this also, that we too have made up our mind that we can serve God and Mammon at once; that the very classes among us who are most utterly given up to money-making, are the very classes which, in all denominations, make the loudest religious profession; that our churches and chapels are crowded on Sundays by people whose souls are set, the whole week through, upon gain and nothing but gain; who pretend to reverence Scripture, while they despise the warning of Scripture, that the love of money is the root of all evil.
Have we not seen in our own days persons of the highest religious profession, whose names were the foremost on every charitable subscription list, so devoured by this mad love for money for its own sake, that though they had already more money than they could spend, or enjoy in any way soever, save by saying to themselves--I have got it, I have got it--they must needs, in the mere lust for becoming richer still, ruin themselves and others by frantic speculations? Have we not seen--but why should I defile myself, and you, and this holy place by telling you what I have seen; and what I hope, and hope alas! in vain, that I shall never see again, among those who must needs serve God and Mammon? Has not the love of money become such a chronic disease among us, that we can actually calculate, now, when the disease will come to a head; and relieve itself for a while: though alas! only for a while?
About every eleven years, I am informed, we are to expect a commercial crisis; panics, bankruptcies, and misery and ruin to hundreds; a sort of terrible but beneficent thunderstorm, which clears the foul atmosphere of our commercial system at the expense, alas! not merely of the guilty, but of the innocent; involving the widow and the orphan, the poor and the simple, in the same fate as the rich and powerful whom they have trusted to their own ruin. And yet we boast of our civilization and of our Christianity; and hardly one, here and there, lays the lesson to heart, but each man, like a moth about a candle, unwarned by the fate of his fellows, fancies that he at least can flutter round the flames and not be burned; that whoever else cannot serve God and Mammon, he can do it; and holds, by virtue of his superior prudence, a special dispensation from the plain warnings of Holy Scripture.
But every reasonable man knows what advantages money, and nothing but money, will obtain, not only for a man himself but for his children; and answers me--If I wish to rise in life, if I wish my children to rise in life, how can I do it, without making money?
God forbid that I should check an honourable ambition, and a desire to rise in life. We all ought to rise in life, and to rise far higher than most of us are likely to rise. But I ask you to consider very seriously what you mean by rising in life.
Do you mean by rising in life, merely becoming a richer man; living in a larger house, eating, drinking, clothing, better; having more servants, carriages, plate? Is that to be the highest triumph of all your labours? Is that your notion of rising in life? If it is, you are not singular in your notion. There are thousands who call themselves civilized and Christians, and yet have no higher notion of what man's highest good may be. But do you mean by rising in life, simply becoming a nobler, because a better man? For if you mean that latter, I seriously advise you to hearken to what the Creator and Governor of all heaven and earth, Jesus Christ our Lord, has told you on that matter, when He said--"Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."
Seek ye first the kingdom of God. Alas! this money-making generation talks a great deal about religion and saving their souls, being quite indifferent to the serious question--whether their souls are worth saving or not: but as for the kingdom of God, of which our Lord and His Apostles speak so often, they have forgotten altogether what it is. They talk too, a great deal, about the righteousness of Christ: but they have forgotten also what the righteousness of Christ, which is also the righteousness of God, is like.
The kingdom of God; the government of God; the laws and rules by which Christ, King of kings, and King, too, of every nation and man on earth, whether they know it or not, governs mankind, that is what you have to seek, because it is there already. You are in Christ's kingdom. If you wish to prosper in it, find out what its laws are. That will be true wisdom. For in keeping the commandments of God, and in obeying His laws; in that alone is life; life for body and soul; life for time and for eternity.
And the righteousness of God, which is the righteousness of Christ;--find out what that is, and pray to Christ to give it to you; for so alone will you be what a man should be, created after God in righteousness and true holiness, and renewed into the image and likeness of God. You will find plenty of persons now, as in all times, who will tell you that you need not do that; that all you need, for this world or the world to come, is some righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees; calling that--oh shame that such a glorious and eternal truth should be so caricatured and degraded by man--justification by faith: while all they mean is, justification not by faith, but by mere assent; assenting to certain doctrines; keeping certain religious watch-words in your mouth, and, over and above, leading a tolerably respectable life. But what says our Lord? "Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven." Not merely--not dwell in it for ever, but not even enter it, not even get through the very gate, and cross the very threshold, of it. The merely assenting, merely respectable, even the so-called religious and orthodox life will not let you into the kingdom of heaven, either in this life or the life to come. No. That requires the noble life, the pure life, the just life, the gentle life, the generous life, the heroic life, the Godlike life, which is perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect, because He lets His sun shine on the evil and on the good, and His rain fall on the just and on the unjust. But how will this help you to rise in life? Our Lord Himself answers--and our Lord should surely know--"Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." Have faith in God, and in His promise; and your faith in God shall be rewarded. You shall find that your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things; and has arranged His kingdom, and the whole universe, accordingly. The very good things of this world--wealth, honour, power, and the rest, for the sake of which worldly men quarrel, and envy, and slander, and bully, and cringe, and commit all basenesses and crimes--all these shall come to you of their own accord by the providence of your Father in heaven and by His everlasting Laws, if you will but learn and do God's will, and lead the Christlike and the Godlike life. Honour and power, wealth and prosperity, as much of them as is justly good for you, and as much of them as you deserve--that is, earn and merit by your own ability and self- control--shall come to you by the very laws of the universe and by the very providence of God. You shall find that godliness hath the promise of this life, as well as of the life which is to come. You shall find that God's kingdom is a well-made and well-ordered kingdom; and that His laws are life, and are far more worth trusting in than the maxims of that ill-made and ill-ordered world of man, which you all renounced at your baptism. You shall find that the promises of Scripture are no dreams, but actual practical living truths, which come true, and fulfil themselves, in the lives and histories of men.
Choose, young men; choose now; and make up your minds which way you will rise in life; by merely getting money; or by getting wisdom and honour and virtue. The Psalmists of old, yea our Lord Himself, tell you what will happen in each case. If you want only to be rich, why then be rich; if you are clever enough. The Lord may give you what you want, in this evil world. He may give you your portion in this life, and fill you with His hid treasure. He may let you heap up money which you do not know how to spend, and be a laughing-stock to others while you live; and after you die, your children will probably squander what you have hoarded; while you will carry away nothing when you die, neither will your pomp follow you: and take care lest you wake, after all, like Dives in the torment, to hear the fearful but most reasonable words--"Son, thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and therefore thou art tormented." Those words too, I fear, will come true, in this very generation, of many a wretched soul who while he lived counted himself a happy man; and had all men speaking well of him, because he did well unto himself. On whose souls may God have mercy.
Choose, young men: choose; now in the golden days of youth, and strength, and honour, ere you have laid a yoke on your own shoulders--even the yoke of money-worship;--not light and easy, like the yoke of Christ, but heavier and heavier as the years roll on, while you, with fading intellect, fading hopes, and it may be fading credit, and certainly fading power of any rational enjoyment, have still, like the doomed souls in Dante's Inferno, to roll up hill the money-bags which are perpetually slipping back. I have seen that, and more than once or twice; and it is, I think, the saddest sight on earth--save one. Choose, I say again, then, young men, before you have spread a net round your own feet, which, as in disturbed dreams, grows and tangles more and more each time you move--even the net of greed and craft, which men set for their neighbours; and are but too apt, ere all is done, to be taken in themselves; the net of truly bad society, of the society of men who have set their hearts on making money, somehow or other; and with whom, if you cast in your lot, you may descend--O God, I know full well what I am saying--to depths from which your young spirits now would shrink; till your higher nature be subdued to the element in which it works; and the poet's curse on all who bind themselves to natures lower than their own come true of you--
Thou shall lower to their level, day by day, All that once was fine within thee growing coarse to sympathize with clay.
Or you may choose--God grant that you may choose--the other path; the path of the law of Christ, and of the Spirit of Christ; the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And then shall come true of you, as far as God shall see good for your immortal soul, those other promises--
"Come, ye children, and hearken unto me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord. What man is he that loves life, and would fain see good days? Let him keep his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no deceit. Let him eschew evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers. . . For the Lord ordereth a good man's going, and maketh his way acceptable to Himself. Though he fall he shall not be cast away, for the Lord upholdeth him with His hand . . . I have been young, and now am old, and yet never saw I the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread. Flee from evil, and do the thing that is good, and dwell for evermore. For the Lord loveth the thing that is righteous. He forsaketh not His that be godly, but they are preserved for ever."
Choose that; the better part which shall not be taken from you; for it is according to the true laws of political and social economy, which are the laws of the Maker of the Universe, and of the Redeemer of Mankind. And then, whether or not you leave your children wealth, you will, at all events, leave them an example by which they, and their children's children, must prosper to the world's end. And your prayer will be, more and more, as you grow old and weary with the hard work of life--
"I will go forth in the strength of the Lord God, and make mention of His righteousness only. Thou, O God, hast taught me from my youth up until now. Therefore will I tell of Thy wondrous works. Forsake me not, O Lord, in my old age, when I am grey-headed, till I have shewn Thy strength unto this generation; and Thy power unto those that are yet to come."
To which end may Christ bring us all, of His infinite mercy. Amen.