Wesley on Money

May 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Money (May/June/July 2009) issue of Circuit Rider

John Wesley's sermon on “The Use of Money” is popular because it takes up a text that has confused and embarrassed the church for centuries, the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Lk.16), and handily transforms it into three easily-remembered maxims: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Better still, they seem like such reasonable rules, not all that far from our common wisdom about money—unless you read closely.

If you do, you will find that the terms on which gain may be sought by Christians exclude anything that harms us in body, mind, or spirit. Also with regard to the first rule, earning all one can, Wesley also excludes anything that harms our neighbor in any aspect, by damaging her body, by failing to exercise due diligence in her protection, or by exploiting weaknesses of mind or failings of character. It is interesting to think about what modern occupations would pass Wesley's tests—and what would not.

Wesley goes on to say that we may not harm our neighbor's substance. He rules out not only predatory lending practices and profiting from another's hardship, but also things we think of as routine competitive practices. He forbids selling goods below market value for the purpose of driving others out of business, and lays it down as a principle that we may not “study to ruin our neighbor's trade in order to advance our own.” For that reason, we cannot solicit our neighbor's workers, or even agree to hire them if he is in need of them. To the extent that competition in trade is constructed as a zero-sum game, one in which my benefit depends upon your loss, Wesley regards it is as contrary to Christian duty. Christians are to prosper in business by sheer diligence, by ingenuity and excellence in the use of their various skills, and by the superior quality of their work. Anything else violates the commandment to love your neighbor, “on which hang all the law and the prophets,” and this is equated with “gaining the world at cost of your soul.”

Wesley's second rule, about saving all one can, is not just a plea for modesty or prudence in expenditures. It is really an attack upon all the discretionary spending that fuels our consumer capitalist society. Legitimate expenses include anything actually needed to provide basic sustenance for oneself and one's dependents, but Wesley's exposition makes clear that the accent here falls upon “basic.” One may in good conscience spend enough to support bodily health and strength, and one may invest in business or education to advance a future good. But he argues against expending even a penny to provide such trivial benefits as mere variety or beauty in one's food, clothing, or surroundings. All these he regards as luxuries. What would he think of our routine spending on household furnishings, entertainment, and fashion?

According to Wesley, resources devoted to such things are not merely wasted; they are devoted to “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). This phrase is one he uses repeatedly in this sermon to sweep up whatever is desired without being strictly needed for life. The result is a standard for what may be innocently spent not much beyond bare necessity, with whatever is left over strictly owed to the poor. The weight of Wesley's biblical interpretation falls here, on this identification of unnecessary purchases with “loving the world and the things that are in the world” (John 2:15), inherently at odds with loving God. It is hard to imagine what Wesley would make of our modern culture of consumption, or of the degree to which the contemporary church has accommodated it.

Finally, the critical point of Wesley's sermon is maxim three, “give all you can.” The whole purpose of earning and saving all you can is that you might be able to give all you can to support the most basic needs of those who lack the means for health and safety. Wesley insists that such giving is not a matter of charity but of duty. When we use our resources to indulge our desires instead of meeting the needs of the poor, we do not merely miss an opportunity to do good: we “rob God", taking what God has entrusted to our administration and turning it from the purposes for which it was given. Despite its reputation as the most accommodating of Wesley's treatments of wealth, to take Wesley's sermon “The Use of Money” seriously would require a whole new way of thinking about how we earn and use money in a world in which others are in want.


Sondra Wheeler is the Carr Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C.  

comments powered by Disqus