Many of us are familiar with the "catch phrase" that is often used to sum up John Wesley's teachings on wealth and the use of money. It is in fact the major preaching point of one of is published sermons --"The Use of Money," often thought of as his best example of stewardship. "Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can."
While this was not a simple sermon (Wesley's sermons never are), it can be summarized in a straightforward manner.
Gain all you can, sounds to our modern ears like a call to workaholism. From Wesley,
this is a call do work that suits the individual, does not degrade one's health, nor harm one's body nor mind. Or risk one's soul by requiring lying, cheating or conforming to a practice that is inconsistent with a good conscious. (I guess that lets out working at Enron, or for some parts of the government...) Wesley was also clear that however wealth was earned, it must never harm others -- that is, our every action must be consistent with the law of Love: specifically Wesley mentions undercutting neighbors in trade, collecting exorbitant interest, or anything that might pass for "doing evil that good may come."
At first pass, this all sounds fairly basic and common sense. But, for many of us --
especially those of us that have worked supplying government contracts -- Wesley's admonitions are as timely now as then. And, decisions about employment necessarily change in times of high unemployment: it is much easier to avoid military contracts when unemployment is low than it may be today, for instance.
When I was fairly new with Tymshare, working as a technical consultant in Connecticut,
one of the accounts assigned to me was Remington Arms. I programmed and installed an
inventory tracking system for them -- a munitions tracking system. But the more I thought about the industry they were in -- rifles and handguns -- the more uncomfortable I was working with them. Even 20 years ago I was fairly clear about my views on handgun control. My branch manager and I discussed my hesitations, and luckily another technical consultant was available.
That wasn't the end of my ethical dilemmas, however. I spent my last year in Connecticut
working on a system for Nestlé, at a time their policies surrounding selling infant formula in third world countries were suspect. I was never completely satisfied one way or the other with their policies, and I did come to realize just how hard it is to define the boundaries of my own "ethical workplace" where will I participate, where will I choose to abstain and at what cost.
Wesley's approach to "save all you can" has nothing to do with 401K plans, retirement
funds, stocks or bonds. With "save all you can", Wesley challenges his listeners to live simply so as not to waste resources on trivial expenses such as "sophisticated Epicurean pleasures", but be content with simple foods, to live with plain furnishings and clothing, and spend nothing to gratify the price of life or to gain the admiration of others. Wesley himself lived on about 28 pounds when he was a student at Oxford. He continued to live on about that amount for the rest of his life -- by living simply, eating simply, dressing simply. He wrote extensively that excess wealth -- that is, anything left after one fed and clothed one's self and family -- should be put to work for the poor. (Which, by the way, is different than putting those funds into church buildings, church administration, etc!)
We certainly live "higher on the hog" than Wesley would. But, when does "enough"
become too much? When do my possessions own me? Many of us can resonate with a time
when a "thing" has taken over importance in our life -- even if briefly. A new car, a home of our own, a dress for the prom, a new pair of shoes, some material item that fills our mind. I've noticed a trend in the catalogs I receive, though. I'm getting a couple of catalogs that are now filled with all sorts of clever devices that you can purchase so that you can live more simply. Somehow, buying more to live more simply isn't what Wesley had in mind either!
Finally, we cannot imagine that Wesley would stop with merely gaining and saving. The
purpose of these first two is the last tenet: Give all you can. Wesley takes seriously the radical New Testament stewardship as Jesus taught. We are stewards of the world: ownership rests in God. We may get to use and employ some things, but God retains the pink slips, our time is only temporary.
Now, lest you think this is a Sunnyhills Stewardship Sermon in disguise -- it isn't. A
stewardship campaign will come in the fall, and won't be dressed up like something else.
Wesley was concerned that no members of the Methodist Societies should be hungry or poorly
housed or inadequately clothed, and that wrongs of society be addressed. His message was that generosity deep set in gratitude for God's graciousness was a natural outpouring of holy living. "If the Methodists would give all they can, then all would have enough." Wesley himself lived on that 28 pounds. When he had 30, he gave away 2. When he had 40, he gave away 12. In fact, he remarked that if he died with more than 10 pounds to his name, he should be held up as a thief or traitor, for hoarding funds.
Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can sums up Wesley's understanding of Stewardship: that giving is basic to Christian discipleship --a grateful response to God's actions in the world and in our lives. This grateful response is the natural result of one's transformation -- one's sanctification -- as one walks and lives in a deep and personal relationship with God.
Ted Jennings describes Wesley's preaching, emphasizing a personal relationship with
God, holy living that is,
"inseparably linked to a real transformation in the form of one's life. This transformation ...brought one into necessary conflict with the character of the world and its conventional wisdom. Above all it had to result in a transformation of one's
relation to the world, especially as this world was instantiated in mammon, the desire of
riches, the ethos of acquisition and expenditure."
Jennings goes on,
"Those evangelicals who preach a conversion that does not turn us toward the poor, that does
not result in a redistribution of wealth...are offering individual salvation as a substitute
for meaningful transformation either of persons or of society. Such a project receives
no support from either Wesley or the Gospel he sought to serve." [Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics, Theodore Jennings, Jr., Abingdon Press, 1990, p. 17.
Holy living put one at odds with the status quo. Personal transformation through holy
living as understood by Wesley put one in a new relationship with wealth and its uses, turned one to use wealth outward in the world toward the transformation of the world.
Wesley took the Gospel quite seriously:
Matthew 6:19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth
and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for
yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where
thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will
He believed that the increase in possessions lead to the death of one's faith and religion,
and was not at all bashful about hammering home this message. It is a message that even the
early Methodist movement gave little heed to, but one that Wesley preached all his life -- that wealth is inimical to faith, that one cannot serve both God and possessions. Wesley didn't believe that money is itself evil, nor that it is more sinful to be rich than to be poor, but that being rich is "dangerous beyond expression" to one's soul; that possession of riches naturally breeds the love of them. And if they were increasing one's wealth, they weren't working for the poor.
Wesley's economics are Jesus' economics: we are caretakers and stewards of creation,
that proper exercise of stewardship requires radical distribution the earth's resources with all God's family, that relationship with God is more important than treasure stored on earth. As a denomination, we are who we are -- to a great extent -- because of the ideas and ideals of John Wesley. But Wesley was more radical than even we dare to think, in his literal understanding of New Testament economics.
But, let me leave you with Wesley's words:
"[Wealth] is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the
hands of his children it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the
naked. It gives to the traveler and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we
may supply the place of an husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless;
We may be a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to
them that are in pain. It may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a
lifter up from the gates of death."
Wesley's approach to wealth? Give it away. It isn't really ours in the first place,
and if we all give, there is enough for all.
Thoughts and ideas for this message and others in this series are significantly
Wesley and the Quadrilateral, Stephen Gunther, Scott Jones, Ted Campbell, Rebekah Miles and Randy Maddox, Abington Press, 1997.
Rethinking Wesley's Theology, Randy Maddox, Editor, Kingswood Books, 1998.
Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics, Theodore Jennings, Jr.,
Wesley and the Quadrilateral, Stephen Gunther, Scott Jones, Ted Campbell, Rebekah Miles and
Randy Maddox, Abington Press, 1997.
Grace and Responsibility, John Cobb, Abington Press, 1995.