Once in medieval Rome there stood in one of the squares an image with an outstretched hand. On the forefinger of the image was a golden ring inscribed with the device "Strike Here." Men often stopped to look at the image and read the device on the finger, but they did not know what it meant. However, a learned clerk often passing the image was careful to observe the place on the street where the shadow of the finger fell.
Coming one night at midnight, he began to dig in that spot—and soon came upon a secret stairway, leading underground until it brought him into a spacious hall which was lighted by a flaming jewel on the wall. Opposite the flaming jewel there was a statue, a man holding a bow and shaft ready to shoot, and upon the forehead of this image were the words, "That which I am I am. My fatal aim none can escape." Midway in the hall there was a table upon which the cloth, the cups, the plates and knives, and all the meats and bread, were gold or studded with precious stones. Around the table, silent, motionless, and sad, were seated knights and ladies and men from every rank of life. But they were turned to stone.
The clerk looked at the scene in amazement and then, stirred by greed, began to gather up the silver and the gold. Whereupon the figures seated about the table suddenly leaped to their feet, the archer shot his arrow, and the clerk lay dead on the floor in the midst of darkness.
The image is the adversary, the tempter whose finger points to the realms of gold. The downward stair is our lusts and passions, the archer is death, the flaming jewel, life. The table heaped with gold and silver is the things of this world, the knights and ladies those whose flesh and bone have been hardened into stone by avarice.
Tolstoi has a powerful tale of a young Russian who fell heir to his father's small farm. He was no sooner in possession of this land than he began to dream eagerly how he could add to it. One morning a stranger, evidendy a person of power and authority, came to him and told him, as they were standing near the old homestead, that he could have, for nothing, all the land he could walk over in one day—but at sundown he must be back at the very place from which he started. Pointing to the grave of the young man's father, the stranger said, "This is the point to which you must return."
The youth looked eagerly over the rich fields in the distance and, throwing off his coat and without waiting to say a word to his wife and children, started off across the fields. His first plan was to cover a tract of ground six miles square; but when he had walked the six he decided to make it nine, then twelve, and then fifteen—which would give him sixty miles to walk before sundown!
By noon he had covered two sides of this square, or thirty miles. But eager to get on and compass the whole distance, he did not stop for food. An hour later he saw an old man drinking at a spring, but in his hunger for land he brushed aside the cup which the old man offered him and rushed on in his eager quest for possession of land. When he was a few miles from the goal he was worn down with fatigue.
A few hundred yards from the line, he saw the sun approaching the horizon and knew that he had but a few minutes left. Hurrying on and ready to faint, he summoned all his energies for one last effort—and managed to stagger across the line just as the sun was sinking. But as he crossed the line he saw a cruel, cynical smile on the face of the stranger who had promised him the land, and who was waiting for him there at his father's grave. Just as he crossed the line—the master and possessor, as he thought, of fifteen square miles of rich land—the youth fell dead upon the ground which he had coveted.
The stranger then said to the servants, "I offered him all the land he could cover. Now you see what that is: six feet long by two feet wide; and I thought he would like to have the land close to his father's grave, rather than to have it anywhere else." With that the stranger, who was Death, vanished, saying as he did so, "I have kept my pledge."
"Whose shall those things be?" (Luke 12:20.)
One of the old saints, according to the legend, in his journey overtook two travelers. One was a greedy, avaricious, covetous man; the other was of a jealous and envious nature. When they came to the parting of the ways, the saint said he would give them a parting gift. Whichever made a wish first would have his wish fulfilled, and the other man would get a double portion of what the first had asked for. The greedy man knew what he wanted; but he was afraid to make his wish, because he wanted a double portion and could not bear the thought of his companion getting twice as much as he had. But the envious man was also unwilling to wish first, because he could not stand the idea of his companion getting twice as much as he would get. So each waited for the other to wish first. At length the greedy man took his fellow by the throat and said he would choke him to death unless he made his wish. At that the envious man said, "Very well; I will make my wish. I wish to be made blind in one eye." Immediately he lost the sight of his eye —and his companion went blind in both eyes.
So avarice and its companion, envy, blind and curse the soul of man.
In the ruins of Pompeii there was found a petrified woman who, instead of trying to flee from the city, had spent her time in gathering up her jewels. In one of the houses was found the skeleton of a man who, for the sake of sixty coins, a small plate and a saucepan of silver, had remained in his house till the street was half-filled with volcanic matter, then was trying to escape from the window.—The Dawn (1 Tim. 6. 9, 10; James 5. 1-3)
One summer afternoon a steamer, crowded with passengers, many of them miners from California, suddenly struck a submerged wreck as it sped down the Mississippi. In a moment her deck was a wild confusion. The boats were able to take off only one-fourth of the passengers: the rest, divesting themselves of their garments, succeeded in swimming to shore. Immediately after the last had quitted the vessel, a man appeared on deck. Seizing a spar, he leapt into the river but instantly sank like a stone. When his body was recovered, it was found that, while the other passengers were escaping, he had been rifling the miners' trunks, and round his waist he had fastened bags of gold. In a quarter of an hour he had amassed more than most men do in a lifetime; but he lost himself in an instant. 'Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.'—The Dawn