John Wesley’s teachings about money and riches are nearly as popular today as they were in his day — which means not much at all.
Actor Mark Topping has an excellent re-enactment of a portion of Wesley’s eighth sermon on the Sermon of the Mount.
We hear this sermon with as much discomfort and outrage as people did in Wesley’s day. Wesley’s own journals and writings indicate he was driven almost to despair by the way even the people called Methodists would not obey the plain, Scriptural teaching about money and wealth.
From the sermon above:
“Lay not up for” thyself “treasures upon earth.” This is a flat, positive command; full as clear as “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” How then is it possible for a rich man to grow richer without denying the Lord that bought him? Yea, how can any man who has already the necessaries of life gain or aim at more, and be guiltless? “Lay not up,” saith our Lord, “treasures upon earth.” If, in spite of this, you do and will lay up money or goods, which “moth or rust may corrupt, or thieves break through and steal;” if you will add house to house, or field to field, — why do you call yourself a Christian? You do not obey Jesus Christ. You do not design it. Why do you name yourself by his name? “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord,” saith he himself, “and do not the things which I say?”
Our denomination’s own Social Principles fall well short of Wesley’s words on this account. We speak quite a bit about economic systems and social structures, but always with an eye toward piling up treasure by honest means. An attitude that Wesley, again, took head on in his sermon.
In what Christian city do you find one man of five hundred who makes the least scruple of laying up just as much treasure as he can? — of increasing his goods just as far as he is able? There are indeed those who would not do this unjustly; there are many who will neither rob nor steal; and some who will not defraud their neighbour; nay, who will not gain either by his ignorance or necessity. But this is quite another point. Even these do not scruple the thing, but the manner of it. They do not scruple the “laying up treasures upon earth,” but the laying them up by dishonesty. They do not start at disobeying Christ, but at a breach of heathen morality. So that even these honest men do no more obey this command than a highwayman or a house-breaker. Nay, they never designed to obey it. From their youth up it never entered into their thoughts. They were bred up by their Christian parents, masters, and friends, without any instruction at all concerning it; unless it were this, — to break it as soon and as much as they could, and to continue breaking it to their lives’ end.
Now, it is clear that we United Methodists have made a choice to ignore this rather consistent and strong theme in John Wesley’s ministry.
So far as I can tell, we have not rejected his teaching by arguing Scripture with him. We have no theological justification for buying into and even celebrating the pursuit of wealth for the purpose of piling up piles of money for ourselves and our children. We seem to live a prosperity gospel without going so far as preaching what the TV preachers say: God wants you to be rich and if you are rich it is a sign of God’s favor.
Here is a summary of Wesley’s preaching, and his own practice, about earning and using money.
Everyone should work diligently and honestly in work that does not damage the body, mind, or soul of themselves or others. They should work to earn all they can without doing harm to themselves or their duties to God and neighbor.
They should save all they can by avoiding all expenses that are not necessary to sustain life, care for the needs of family, and provide the necessities for our own work and setting up our children so they can work productively when they reach the proper age. In this, we should strive to owe nothing to anyone (Romans 13:8).
And we should with everything that is left over after our necessary and prudent expenses give it away or employ it to do good for the bodies, minds, and souls of others. So, for instance, funding a school or hospital would be a good use of money on Wesley’s account.
Wesley never taught the tithe but set a much higher standard. Since everything we have and are belongs to God, it should be used as God would use it and not be horded up for ourselves, especially while there are those who could be benefited by the use of God’s gifts.
By our practice, we reject Wesley’s teachings in this area. We read the Bible he read and come to completely different conclusions — although I am not familiar with us putting our disagreements in the form of an argument. We simply ignore him.
We do not need to reflexively adopt Wesley’s position on everything. I’m not in favor, for instance, of electrocuting myself to heal ailments, and I do not accept Bishop Ussher’s calculation of a 7,000-year-old Earth. But as Methodists, we should at least have reasons for rejecting our own tradition.
So, help me understand this, how do you interpret what Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:19-34?