The character of worldly-minded hearers considered.
MATT. xiii. 7.
And some fell among thorns: and the thorns sprung up and choked them.
The characters of the two first classes of hearers having been considered, we proceed now to that of the
THIRD, the WORLDLY-MINDED. These are described in our text. Some seeds fell among thorns: and the thorns sprung up and choked them.
The soil in the hedge or enclosure round about the field, is usually richer and deeper, and so more favourable for cultivation, than the ground on the way-side, or in stony-places. Wherefore the seed which accidentally falls here will be likely after a time to take root: nor is it liable to be trod on, or instantly scorched with heat. But then unhappily the thorns, which through the luxuriance of the soil here in abundance, spring up with it, and crowding about it keep off the sun and the air, so its growth is checked, and of consequence it brings no fruit to perfection, but in a course of time it is choked and destroyed.
Such is the figure our Lord adopts, to describe the effects which the word produces on their minds who, amidst all their pretensions to religion, are yet men of the world, and bring not forth such fruit as might reasonably be expected from their profession. His exposition of this part of the parable you have in the twenty-second verse: He also that received seed among the thorns, is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.—Here you will observe.
1. The treatment the word meets with from these persons.—They hear it, and receive it.
These terms have been already explained, and are here to be understood, as in the former case, of affixing some idea to the gospel, giving a general assent to its truth, and professing it. But some difference is to be remarked, even in regard of these particulars, between the sort of persons considered in the former discourse and those we are now treating of. The enthusiast, if not literally speaking under the influence of mere sound, yet hears with such an eager rapid kind of levity, that his notions of religion are a perfect chaos of wild ideas without either order or consistency. The transition, too, he makes from his first hearing the word to his believing and professing it, is almost instantaneous; and in the whole business he appears to be deeply interested in what he is about. But the case is perhaps otherwise here. The man hears, and goes on to hear, till at length he collects a tolerably consistent notion of the gospel. But though, like the other, he admits it all to be true without feeling himself embarrassed with doubts; yet he discovers little of that zeal, which so strongly marks the character of the enthusiast. After a while, however, he makes a public profession; and this done in the ordinary way and without any show or parade, he is considered as a sober sedate Christian. Yea more than this, having professed the word, he brings forth some fruit; for this is evidently implied in the phrase used by Luke (Chap. viii. 14) of his bringing no fruit to perfection. His conduct is in the general decent and respectable.—Now this being the manner of his receiving the word, you will observe,
2. How its salutary operation on his heart is obstructed and defeated.—He goes forth, says Luke, that is, mingles with the world, becomes more intimately connected with the businesses and amusements of life than he has occasion, and so by degrees is conformed to the spirit, manners, and conduct of the vain part of mankind. The cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things (Mark iv. 19), or the pleasures of life, as Luke has it, enter in, that is, into his heart. They seize his attention, exercise his thoughts, take up his time, and engross his affections.—And what,
3. Is the event?—These thorns choke the word.
Its natural and proper operation on his judgment, conscience, and passions is obstructed; and, after a time, the impressions it had made are wholly effaced, and the very remembrance of it lost. So he becomes unfruitful. None of the amiable graces of humility, meekness, temperance, simplicity, and benevolence adorn his profession. He is not indeed as yet strictly speaking an apostate, but maintains a general character for sobriety, justice, and decency. It is nevertheless true of him, that he brings no fruit to perfection. There is fruit, but it scarce deserves the name of fruit, not having arrived at its proper growth, ripened kindly, or got its true flavour. The duties of piety and devotion are reluctantly, irregularly and carelessly performed; those of Christian friendship and love are little attended to: and those of mortification and self-denial are almost wholly overlooked and forgotten. And what is the final issue? He is himself choked as well as the word, (for so Luke describes it) with cares, riches, and the pleasures of this life. He dies, perishes, is lost for ever.
Thus you have a general comment upon this part of the parable, and upon our Saviour’s exposition of it. And now it will be necessary to consider more particularly,
I. What those things which prevent the salutary effect of God’s word upon that class of hearers we are here discoursing of;
II. How they operate to that end; and,
III. The sad event of all.
I. Let us consider what those things are which obstruct the due operation of God’s word on the hearts of these men. Our Lord mentions three—cares, riches, pleasures.
FIRST, The cares of the world.
By the cares of the world he means undue and criminal anxieties about secular concerns. Now, as it is allowed on all hands that worldly cares are not to be wholly reprobated; in order to our clearly shewing how far they are or are not sinful, we will consider them in reference to a threefold view of a man’s temporal interests—subsistence—competence—affluence.
By subsistence we mean the necessaries of life, what a man cannot do without, such as food, raiment, and habitation. To wish for these, to take proper measures to obtain them, and when we have them to enjoy them, cannot be wrong. Your Father, says our Saviour, knoweth that ye have need of these things (Luke xii. 30). Indifference to them, if that were possible, would be criminal, and of consequence, the not using proper endeavours to procure them, would be criminal also. No pretence of abstractedness from the world, and elevation of heart to heaven, will justify indolence. But then, on the contrary, such a care about even the necessaries of life as involves in it distrust of the providence of God, and drives a man almost to distraction; such a care as occupies all his thoughts and time, and renders him incompetent to the duties of religion; and such a care, which is worse, as precipitates him, through indulgence and sloth, into dishonest measures to obtain a livelihood, is very sinful and deplorable indeed. This must strike every on at first view, and therefore requires no further illustration here, in order to prove it, which is all our object at present.
Competence is a relative term, and has respect to capacity and desire. Such a proportion of the world as is suited to our capacity, that is, to our character, and station in life, is a real competence; but such as is suited to desires not regulated by reason and religion, is an equivocal competence. As to the latter, all care about it is criminal. But as to the former, a real competence, we do not sin when we wish to possess it. We are only wishing for so much property as the habits of life, acquired by education and the rank we hold in society, do in a sense make necessary; and surely that cannot be wrong. A prince requires more for his support than a subject, and a man in a middling station than a peasant. Desires, cares, and exertion therefore directed to this object, are not only allowable but commendable. But, even though the object may be right, our care about it may exceed; which is the case when it so entangles our minds, oppresses our spirits and engrosses our time, as to make us unhappy, and unfit us for the duties we owe to God and our fellow-creatures. In this case, we are no doubt to be blamed, and ought to use our utmost endeavours to correct so threatening an evil.—Once more,
Affluence, or such an abundance of the world as goes beyond subsistence and competence, is also a desirable good. Wherefore the taking prudent, honest, and temperate measures to acquire wealth, to the end our lives may be rendered more comfortable, and we may have it in our power to minister to the necessities of others, is not to be censured. But if our object is, the gratifying our pride and other vain frivolous passions, our painful labours, however they may assume the specious character of prudent industry, must needs be offensive to God, and injurious to our best interests.
If men will at all events be rich, not regarding the will of Providence, or reflecting that riches are often an occasion of great folly and sin; if they will set their hearts on the world and put out all their strength in pursuit of it, losing sight of God, their souls and a future state; the cares and anxieties that follow will bring a tremendous load of guilt upon their consciences, pierce them through with many sorrows, and, like thorns and briars, stifle in their breasts every worthy, generous, and religious sentiment.—So much then may suffice for explaining what is meant by the cares of the world, and to shew how fare they are or are not sinful. Their operation to obstruct the progress of religion in the heart, will come to be considered hereafter.—We go on now,
SECONDLY, to the deceitfulness of riches, the next thing our Saviour mentions.
His meaning is, that men are prone to reason mistakenly about riches: and the mode of speech he adopts more strongly and elegantly marks the idea, than if he had so expressed himself. Riches are, in a sense, themselves deceitful. They assume an appearance different from their real nature and use, and so the unwary observer is miserably imposed upon. Our business then will be to consider the false reasonings of a depraved heart in reference to—wealth itself—the mode of acquiring it—and the term of enjoying it.
1. As to wealth itself, men reason very mistakenly about it.
To treat riches with absolute contempt, as some affect to do, is against all sense and reason. They are the gift of God, and when applied to their proper use are a great blessing. They will procure the necessaries and accommodations of life, and enable us, if we have hearts, to do a great deal of good. But alas! so besotted are mankind, they suppose wealth hath an intrinsic excellence in it which it really hath not. A diamond, it is true, is more precious than a pebble, and gold than a clod of earth. But compare either of them with true wisdom and the exalted pleasures of religion, and how mean and trifling do they appear!
The value of riches is chiefly to be estimated by their use. But even here men greatly mistake it. Money will purchase a man delicate food, gorgeous apparel, stately mansions, splendid furniture, power, and some kind of respect from his fellow creatures. But will it set him beyond the reach of sickness, pain, disappointment, vexation, and contempt? Or, if he escapes these evils, can wealth give him peace of mind, and fully satisfy the large desires of his heart? Will it make him completely and substantially happy? No. It is evident from the nature of the thing, and from the untied testimony of all, sooner or later, that it will not. And yet so foolish, so mad are the generality of mankind, that they reason and act as if they thought it would. With what eager desire, expectation and confidence do they look at these objects of sense! And how do these baubles (for so I call them as compared with intellectual and divine pleasures) dazzle their eyes, confound their reason, pervert their consciences, set all their passions on fire, and precipitate them, at the hazard of their everlasting interests, into practices the most fraudulent, cruel, and oppressive!—Which leads me to observe further, that in regard,
2. Of the mode of acquiring wealth, men reason very mistakenly.
Wealth does not fall to the lot of all, and the assent from a low station to that of opulence and honour, is usually slow, steep, and slippery. But multitudes, at the very setting off, mistake it. Their eager desire of success if by false reasoning converted into assurance of it. They will be rich, and their imagination instantly realizing the object, the measures that should be taken to secure it, are deranged by precipitancy. Industry, integrity, prudence, and opportunity have a great influence on worldly profession, but above all the smiles of Providence.
In regard of the first of these there is perhaps no failure here: they exert every nerve, compass sea and land to gain their point. But truth and probity, or at least frankness and generosity, standing in their way, these must be thrust aside: so they miss their end, forgetting that honesty is the best policy. Or if conscience is not thus in the beginning laid asleep, the plans they frame, for want of coolness and consideration, are not properly digested or warily pursued, and so they fail. Or if this is not the case, opportunity—the favourable moment for carrying a purpose into execution—is missed. And then providence is overlooked; their immoderate love of the world, which is their idol, shuts God out of their thoughts: or, if they do at all advert to that influence on which the success of their endeavours depends, their reasoning upon it is essentially wrong. So God is justly provoked to blast their schemes, or to punish them yet more sensibly, by converting the success he permits them to meet with into a curse, and so making their riches their ruin. He that trusteth, says Solomon, in his riches, shall fall (Prov. xi. 28). And they that will be rich, says the apostle, 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 (I Tim. vi. 9, 10).—Once more,
3. Men reason deceitfully concerning the term of enjoying the wealth they acquire.
From their vehement passion for riches, and the prodigious expense they are at to procure them, it is evident they conceive highly both of the greatness and the continuance of that enjoyment they expect. For who would put out all his strength, an endanger his happiness in another world, for a thing of naught, and which he knew would be no sooner got than lost? But men are deceived in both these particulars. As to the first, it has been already shewn that it is not in the nature of wealth to satisfy the vast desires of the soul: let a man therefore possess ever so large an abundance of it, there will still remain a vacuity in his mind, and of consequence his riches cannot make him completely happy.
But suppose his idea of worldly enjoyment to be moderate and within the bounds of reason, even of such enjoyment he may be disappointed. Few who have compassed their object, and acquired the exact portion of wealth they had marked out to themselves, have found that comfort resulting form it, which they naturally enough expected. The fruition hath been allayed by a variety of unforeseen circumstances, if not wholly defeated by bodily disorders, or troubles of a kind that riches cannot prevent or sooth.
But admitting still further, that the enjoyment exactly answers his expectations, yet how short is the term of possession! Very quickly perhaps upon his tasting the sweets of affluence, he is deprived of it. By fraud, or force, or some other calamity, he is cast down from the eminence he had taken such pains to reach, into an abyss of poverty and wretchedness. Charge them, says the apostle, that are rich in this world, not to trust in uncertain riches (I Tim. vi. 17)> Or if no such accident befalls him, yet while he is promising himself many years enjoyment of his wealth, death is preparing to turn him out of possession.
This has sometimes happened, and our Lord mentions it, in one of his parables, with a view to illustrate this very point of the deceitfulness of riches. The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do, I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there will I bestow my fruits, and my goods. And I will say to my soul, soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided (Luke xii. 16-20)? Could any one reason more mistakenly about riches than this unhappy man did? And how justly did he merit the character of a fool which our Lord gives him! The number of such fools is not small: for though the like event may not have happened to the greater part of the rich, yet it is too evident that the majority look forward to futurity with the same sanguine expectations this man did.
But suppose there are persons, here and there, who hold the peaceable possession of their wealth, with a relish for all the comforts it can procure them, for twenty or thirty years; how short is the term! And will a man of sense say, that a few instances of this sort will justify the wild reasonings and confident hopes of him, who sets out on the rapid career of accumulating wealth at the expense of ease and health, if not of conscience? Certainly not. How great then is the deceitfulness of riches!—It remains now to consider the third and last thing our Saviour mentions, as an obstruction to the due operation of God’s word on the heart, and that is,
THIRDLY, The pleasures of this life, or as Mark expresses it, the lusts of other things.
Here we need not be very particular, for as riches are the means of procuring pleasures and most generally coveted with that view, the same folly and criminality we have charged to the account of the avaricious, is, with a little variation of circumstances, to be imputed likewise to the sensualist. Pleasure indeed abstractedly considered is a real good: the desire of it is congenial with our nature, and cannot be eradicated without the destruction of our very existence. This is not therefore what our Lord condemns. He well knew that there are passions and appetites proper to men as men, that the moderate gratification of them is necessary to their happiness, and of consequence that the desire of such gratification is not sinful. But the pleasure he prohibits is that which results from the indulgence of irregular desires, I mean such as are directed to wrong objects, and such as are excessive in their degree.
With respect to the former, men are universally agreed that they are criminal; offensive to God, injurious to society, and destructive to him who indulges them. The murder, adulterer, and others that might be mentioned, we behold with abhorrence. But it is the latter kind of pleasures our Saviour has here chiefly in view, those which are in themselves innocent but become criminal by excess. And it is from this quarter that danger is most to be apprehended, in regard of the generality of mankind. For as it is difficult in many cases to draw the line exactly between moderation and excess, men have a thousand ways of excusing what is wrong, and of flattering themselves that their pleasures are innocent when they are really hurtful. There are, however, certain rules by which every one may be enabled to decide upon this question for himself, provided his passions and appetites are not under undue influence. Innocent pleasures no doubt become criminal, when instead of invigorating they relax and enfeeble our spirits; when they take up too much of our time, and so obstruct the regular discharge of our duty; when they are an occasion of evil to others; and, above all, when they so steal upon our affections, as to indispose us to the more noble and refined enjoyments of virtue and religion.
And now it were endless to enumerate the many particulars that fall under the general character of the pleasures of this life. Nature has provided objects for all the senses wonderfully adapted to afford them delight; and men have employed their utmost wit and ingenuity so to combine, arrange, and diversify them as to heighten and refine the delight. Hence all the scenes of splendour that dazzle the eye, all the soft and harmonious sounds that captivate the ear, and all the highly-flavoured delicacies that please the taste. Hence the amusements, recreations, and diversions of various descriptions that every where abound, and among people of every rank and condition. These are the things our Saviour speaks of which men lust after. That they may have the means of procuring them, is the end they propose by the pains they take to get rich; and to the enjoyment of them they devote all the time they can sequester from their worldly labours. Pleasure is the grand thing, their happiness is bound up in it. To the gratification of this passion every thing must submit. So they lose sight not only of God, but of all intellectual enjoyments, and at length through excess become incapable of relishing those very pleasures which they account the chief good.
Having thus taken a general view of the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world, our next business is to shew how they obstruct the due operation of God’s word on the heart. But this we shall dismiss to the next opportunity, and close what has been said with a serious address to three sorts of persons—the careful—the covetous—and the voluptuous.
1. As to those of the first description, the careful.
Your case, my friends, is truly pitiable, and all charitable allowance ought to be made for the unavoidable infirmities of human nature. It is not affluence, but subsistence, or at most competence, that is your object. You are, however, not wholly inexcusable. Prudence and industry are amiable virtues: but your anxiety, exceeding the bounds of reason, is offensive to God and injurious to yourselves, and therefore deserving of censure. It involves in it a criminal distrust of the faithfulness and goodness of divine providence; and this surely is very disingenuous in those who fear god, for to such I am now more especially addressing myself. What! Have you entrusted your immortal interests to the care of the blessed God, and can you hesitate a moment upon the question respecting your temporal concerns? Have you been hitherto provided with the necessaries of life, and can you suppose your heavenly Father, who knoweth that you have need of these things, will desert you for time to come? Besides, this undue solicitude about the world is hurtful to you in many respects. Instead of forwarding, it rather obstructs your affairs. It makes you unhappy, restless, and miserable. And, what is worse, it is a great hindrance to your progress in religion, as will hereafter be more largely shewn.
Let me beseech you, then,, to be upon your guard against this evil temper. Resist every temptation to it. Check the first risings of it. Put the best face you can upon your affairs. Oppose your deserts to your wants, and the good you actually do possess to that you are in the anxious pursuit of. Give diligence to make your calling and election sure. Cherish in your breast a divine faith. Be thoroughly established in the doctrine of a particular providence. Frequently call to mind the interpositions of that providence in your favour. In a word, be careful for nothing: but in every thing, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God (Philip. iv. 6).
2. As to the avaricious.
Permit me, sirs, to expostulate with you a moment upon the extreme absurdity of your temper and conduct. It is not subsistence, competence, or affluence only you covet: it is the world, the whole world. But the object is not to be attained, or if it were, it would not satisfy. How vain then your desires! But your expectations are not boundless like your desires, they are held within narrower limits. Yet we may venture to affirm they are extravagant: for the desires of the avaricious have such an influence on their hopes, that it is scarce possible their expectations should be moderate. You sanguinely hope for an object, which will very probably elude your pursuit; or if compassed, will not afford you the comfort you promise yourself from it. How vain then are your expectations! But such is your love of the world, you are resolved at all adventures to make it your grand object. Be it so then. Carry your resolution into practice. Put out all your strength. Spend the greater part of your life in the pursuit. Leap over the mounds of honour and justice. And at length seize your prey. But what, what do you gain? Your gain is loss; the loss of health, peace, reputation, conscience, life, and—Oh tremendous thought!—your immortal soul.
Nor should it be thought strange that the love of the world is punished with the loss of the soul: it is most deserving of such punishment; indeed the latter is the natural and necessary result of the former. What wretched disingenuity, to love the world more than God, that is, to love him ont at all!—to prostitute the bounty of your sovereign to the purpose of dethroning him! A crime that wants a name for it. And how is it possible that a soul thus depraved should be happy? Such depravity, if not cured, necessarily brings after it misery.—How vain then are all your desires, your expectations, and your exertions! O that we could convince you of your folly and sin! O that we could stop you in your mad career!
But their conduct, who under a profession of religion make the world their object, is still more preposterous, base, and ruinous. What! Will you, sirs, having heard the word, and to appearance received it into your hearts, suffer the briers and thorns to grow up with the seed and choke it? Yea, more than this, cherish the noxious weeds of detestable avarice? If so, what may you reasonably expect, as the fruit of this your baseness and perfidy, but disappointment and sorrow in this world, and the wrath of God in that to come? Can you wonder, resolving at all adventures to be rich that you 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 (I Tim. vi. 9, 10). Hear, O hear with solemn attention, the sentence of provoked justice and abused mercy denounced upon you. Go to now ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire (James v. 1, 2, 3). Would to God we could awaken you to repentance ere it is too late!
But, while we are dissuading men from the love of the world, have we no object to hold up to their view of superior value and excellence, to captivate their attention and engage their pursuit? We have. Hear the voice of Wisdom, listen to the gracious entreaties of him who has immense wealth at his disposal, and a heart freely to bestow it on all who in earnest seek it. I love them that love me, and those that seek me early shall find me. Riches and honour are with me; yea, durable riches and righteousness. My fruit is better than gold, yea, than fine gold, and my revenue than choice silver. I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment. That I may cause those that love me, to inherit substance; and I will fill their treasures (Prov. viii. 17-21).—I have only now to address myself in a few words,
3. To the voluptuous.
The pleasures of the world are your object. But let me beseech you, sirs, to consider a moment the extreme folly, sin, and danger of indulging this passion. It sensualizes the mind, and renders it incapable of those intellectual improvements and refined pleasures for which it was originally formed. It debases men to the rank of the brute creation. It brings them into contempt among the wise, virtuous, and good. It robs them of their time which was given them for the important purposes of glorifying God, serving their generation, and preparing for another world. It precipitates them into extravagancies which often prove fatal, not only to their character, but their worldly prosperity, and their very existence. It brings a tremendous load of guilt upon their consciences, arms death with invincible terrors, and plunges them in all the miseries of that world, where this passion cannot be gratified, and where there is not a drop of water to cool the parched tongue. For the truth of what we thus affirm, we appeal to the dictates of sound reason, to the sentence of scripture, to the united testimony of all wise and good men, to your own painful feelings in an hour of satiety and disgust, and to the concessions and exclamations of an infinite multitude of profligate sinners in the decline of life, and at the hour of death. Nor can you wonder that such should be the effect of the lawless gratification of brutal appetites and passions. How fit that men should eat of the fruits of their own way, and be filled with their own devices (Prov. 1. 3)! How fit that they who have been lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God (2 Tim. iii. 4), should lie down in sorrow (Isai. l. 11) and mourn at the last when their flesh and their body are consumed (Prov. v. 12)!
Let me then beseech you, O ye who have been hitherto given to pleasures (Isai xlvii. 6), and have lived deliciously (Rev. xviii. 7), seriously to consider these things. Why should you throw the reins upon the neck of your lusts, and willfully resolve upon your own ruin? Why should you tempt down the vengeance of almighty God upon your head, by ungratefully abusing the bounty of his providence? Is suicide no sin? Are the pleasures of sense a valuable consideration for the loss of the soul?—but if, after all our remonstrances and expostulations, ye are determined to walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes, know ye that for these things God will bring you into judgment (Eccles. Xi. 9).
Thus would we fain stem the torrent of this wretched insanity, bring men to their senses, and convince them that by an excessive love of pleasure they are entailing upon themselves substantial misery. But do we mean to annihilate all idea of pleasure, and to throw every possible obstruction in your way to happiness?—that would be cruel indeed! No. The reverse is our object. We wish to persuade you of a plain and most interesting truth, attested by the word of God and the experience of the best of men, that religion is true wisdom, and that her ways are the ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace (Prov. iii. 17). Her form is most beautiful, however she may have been misrepresented by prejudice, and her counsels most soft and engaging, however rejected by a vain world. She hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars. She hath killed her beasts, she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens, she crieth upon the highest places of the city. Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish and live; and go in the way of understanding (Prov. ix. 1-6). Oh! may you be persuaded to accept of her generous invitation, and to partake of this delicious entertainment—an entertainment prepared at an expense that surpasses all human imagination! So will you be convinced, by your own happy experience, that he who renounces the pleasures of sin for the pleasures of religion, makes an exchange to his unspeakable advantage in the present life, as well as to his infinite emolument in the world to come.