Wisdom is better than wealth

July 19th, 2022

The Hebrew sages were clear that, given the choice between wisdom and wealth, we should always choose wisdom.

Happy are those who find wisdom
and those who gain understanding.
Her profit is better than silver,
and her gain better than gold.
Her value exceeds pearls;
all you desire can’t compare with her.
In her right hand is a long life;
in her left are wealth and honor. (Proverbs 3:13-16)

These early sages were convinced that some of the most important choices we make are not between good or evil but between what is wise and what is foolish. The words wise and wisdom appear 111 times in the Proverbs; the words fool and foolish appear 77 times (NRSV).[1]

Jesus drew on this wisdom tradition in painting the contrast between wise and foolish servants (Matthew 24:45-51), bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), and builders (Matthew 7:24-27). He told the story of a rich man whose fields produced more than his barns could contain. Instead of sharing his wealth, the man hoarded it by building larger barns and told himself, “Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” The culture in which we live would call him wise. But God said, “Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?” Jesus added the punch line to the story: “This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God” (Luke 12:19-21). Knowing the difference calls for wisdom.

The Book of Proverbs concludes with the powerful description of a strong, capable woman (Proverbs 31:10-31) whose “mouth is full of wisdom” (31:26). Her family celebrates the wisdom they have received from her.

Her children bless her;
her husband praises her:
“Many women act competently,
but you surpass them all!”
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting,
but a woman who fears
the Lord is to be praised.
Let her share in the results of her work;
let her deeds praise her in the
city gates. (31:28-31)

Wisdom Leads to Life

Don’t consider yourself wise.
Fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
Then your body will be healthy
and your bones strengthened.
Honor the Lord with your wealth
and with the first of all your crops.
Then your barns will be filled with plenty,
and your vats will burst with wine. (Proverbs 3:7-10)

Those words could be a perfect text for the “prosperity gospel” preachers who declare that God intends for us to be rich. The size of their congregations, the ratings of their television programs, and the place their books hold on the best-seller lists confirm that there is always a market for their emotional manipulation and dubious theology.

And yet, the kernel of biblical truth that they effectively distort is that the Bible does have positive things to say about the results of wise living that are just as true today as when the Proverbs were written.

  • It’s wise to use our talents and the opportunities that come our way to earn an honest income. It’s foolish to bury our talents and never find productive ways to use them. (Matthew 25: 26-30)
  • It’s wise to use our money well by living within our means. It’s foolish to be like the prodigal son who “wasted his wealth through extrava- gant living.” (Luke 15:13)
  • It’s wise to manage our money in order to become debt-free. It’s foolish to be consumed by unnecessary and unmanageable debt. (Proverbs 11:15) 

Wise living may not insure that we will be rich, but it always leads to a healthy, prosperous, abundant life. It’s the deeper wisdom Paul expressed when he wrote:

I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Biblical wisdom on the use of money is centered in helping faithful people order their financial lives around their commitment to Christ so that they can live well in every area of their lives. All of which brings us to John Wesley and his words of wisdom about money.

Wisdom from Wesley

The eighteenth century was a time of major economic and social change in England. The economic inequality between the comfortable, affluent aristocracy and the beleaguered, poverty-stricken lower classes was growing larger and more tenuous.

The first Methodists came on the scene with a life-giving proclamation of the gospel that offered hope for transformation in every area of human experience. Some historians say that the Methodist revival saved England from the kind of violent revolution that swept across Western Europe.[2] The personal and spiritual disciplines that John Wesley practiced and taught enabled people in the lower classes to become more responsible, better educated, and more prosperous. Soon Wesley faced the unexpected predicament of Methodist people accumulating wealth, wearing fine clothing, and building more attractive homes and preaching houses.

Wesley responded to this change of economic circumstances in his classic sermon, “The Use of Money.” He used the defining word from the Proverbs when he declared that “the right use of money” is “an excellent branch of Christian wisdom” (italics added). In fact, the word wisdom appears seven times in this sermon. He acknowledged that money was “a subject largely spoken of . . . by men of the world; but not suf- ficiently considered by those whom God hath chosen out of the world.”[3]

We could say the same thing about many congregations today in which the only time money is mentioned is during an annual pledge drive to support the church budget. But Wesley’s concern in the sermon was not to raise money for the Methodist movement; his purpose was to equip Methodists to manage and use their money in the most faithful and effective ways. In this sermon, he set out the essential themes that he continued to proclaim in multiple sermons that were intended to provide wisdom on both the spiritual and practical aspects of managing money.

Wesley’s text was Jesus’ strange command to “make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16:9 KJV). It’s an odd statement, taken from an even more bizarre story of a dishonest manager who, when confronted with a financial crisis, was smart enough to look out for his own welfare (Luke 16:1–9). Here’s the way Eugene Peterson para- phrased the punch line of the parable.

“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.” (Luke 16:8-9 The Message)

The parable is followed by Jesus’ application of the story to the relationship between our faith and our finances.

“If you’re honest in small things,
you’ll be honest in big things;
If you’re a crook in small things,
you’ll be a crook in big things.
If you’re not honest in small jobs,
who will put you in charge of the store?
No worker can serve two bosses:
He’ll either hate the first and love the second
Or adore the first and despise the second.
You can’t serve both God and the Bank.” (Luke 16:10-13 The Message)

The story turns our expectations inside out. The crook becomes the hero because of the way he man- aged his money. And that’s precisely the kind of twist that Wesley built into his sermon.

Mr. Wesley began by countering the assumption that money is “the grand corrupter of the world, the bane of virtue, the pest of human society.” He called this kind of negative talk about money “an empty rant.” Referencing Paul’s words to Timothy, he pointed out that “ ‘the love of money . . . is the root of all evil;’ but not the thing itself. The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it.” Wesley went on to celebrate money as “an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends.”[4]

It would be difficult to find a nobler vision for the use of money than the one Wesley gives:

In the hands of his children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked. . . . By it we may supply the place of an husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless; we may be a defence 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![5]

From that starting point, Mr. Wesley outlined what he called “three plain rules” on the use of money. They are as simple, clear, and memorable as any of the Old Testament proverbs:

  • Gain all you can.
  • Save all you can.
  • Give all you can. 

For this reflection, we have replaced the word gain with earn, to make Wesley’s rules more directly applicable to our times.

“The Use of Money” laid out a description of what it means to live by those rules, and he reaffirmed them in a number of his other sermons. Two-and-a-half centuries later, Wesley’s rules continue to provide practical and positive wisdom for discovering a faithful, biblical, and hopeful approach to our financial lives. Like the Proverbs, they lay out time-tested, experience-proven disciplines that if practiced over time can lead to a healthy relationship between our faith and our finances.


Excerpted from Earn. Save. Give. by Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] “Wise,” http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=290151447; “wisdom,” http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=290151643; “fool,” http://bible. oremus.org/?ql=290151892; and “foolish,” http://bible.oremus. org/?ql=290151953.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, “Methodism and the Threat of Revolution in Britain,” History Today, Volume 7, Issue 5, May 1957, http://www .historytoday.com/eric-hobsbawm/methodism-and-threat-revolution-britain

[3] “The Use of Money,” Intro., 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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