Simple Rules for a Complex Time
by James A. Harnish
Our guest writer for this issue is The Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish. He is a retired pastor of the United Methodist Church and has served as a facilitator for the Florida Conference Institute of Preaching for 15 years.
What can an 18th century preacher teach us about money in complexity of our 21st century economy?
The 18th century was an era of economic and social tension in England. The gap between the comfortable, affluent aristocracy and the beleaguered, poverty-stricken working class was growing wider and more tenuous. It was, in that sense, a time not unlike our own.
John Wesley and the early Methodists came on the scene with a message of personal transformation that expressed itself in practical terms and impacted the social, political, and economic patterns of his society. Wesley’s sermon on The Use of Money became the basis for seven sermons on the subject in his published works.
He began with a positive word that must have surprised his hearers. It was a direct contradiction of the assumption that money is “filthy lucre,” a derisive term in the King James version of the Bible that was reinforced by John Bunyan in A Pilgrim’s Progress. Wesley declared:
Let the world be as corrupt as it will … the fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it … [Money] is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends.
To reach those “noblest ends,” Wesley offered three simple rules that continue to provide a framework for a healthy, productive, and faithful use of money.
Gain All You Can
Congregations accustomed to preachers who rail against greed are still surprised to hear Wesley say, “It is our bounden duty to do this: We ought to gain all we can gain.”
When I preached on this rule, a businessman told me it was the first time he heard a good word about his desire to be successful. He had only heard slick purveyors of the “prosperity gospel” or warnings about the camel going through a needle’s eye. He was encouraged by an affirmation of the efforts in which he invested his life.
But Wesley was not an 18th century version of Gordon Gekko declaring, “Greed is good!” in the movie classic, Wall Street. He provided helpful boundaries on how we gain money by calling us to earn all we can “without buying gold too dear, without paying more for it than it is worth … We ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor at the expense of our health … We are to gain all we can without hurting our neighbour… Gain all you can by honest industry … make the best of all that is in your hands.”
Save All You Can
It worked! Because of their disciplined lifestyle, Methodist people, who were primarily from the lower economic class, began making money. This led to the urgency in Wesley’s second rule.
Having gained all you can, by honest wisdom and unwearied diligence, the second rule of Christian prudence is, ‘Save all you can.’ Do not throw it away in idle expenses, which is just the same as throwing it into the sea.
Wesley challenged the Methodist people to live modestly and within their means. But he was not encouraging hoarding. The word “prudence” was familiar to his hearers, appearing multiple times in the King James version of the Bible and personified as one of the spiritual guides in Pilgrim’s Progress. It comes from a root word meaning “farsighted.” Prudence is the wisdom to use money wisely with an eye on long-term values and goals. It provides a necessary correction to the contemporary assumption that we can have everything now resulting in oppressive and unmanageable debt.
Give All You Can
So, what is the goal? What is our gaining and saving for? Wesley’s third rule points to what he called “the farther end.”
Let no one imagine that you have done anything, barely by ‘gaining and saving all you can’ if you were to stop here. All this is nothing, if you go not forward, if you do not point all this at a farther end … Having, First, gained all you can, and Secondly, saved all you can, Then give all you can.
Wesley’s purpose was not primarily to raise money for the Methodist movement, but to guide his people into a healthier, more productive, more deeply Christ-centered life. He promised:
If those who ‘gain all they can’ and ‘save all they can’ will likewise ‘give all they can,’ then the more they gain the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.
William Sloane Coffin was preaching in the spirit of Wesley when he told his congregation at The Riverside Church in New York City, “It is the preacher’s job not to tell people what to do, but rather to remind them of who they are … I’m not begging for money. I’m offering you an opportunity to be useful to others and to save your soul.”
In our era of slick slogans, bumper stickers, and 30-second sound bites, Wesley’s simple rules might still be the “excellent branch of Christian wisdom” we need!
The Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish retired after 43 years of pastoral ministry in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. He is the author of numerous bible studies and books including “Extraordinary Ministry in Ordinary Time: An Invitation for Renewal for Pastors.” He has served as a facilitator for the Florida Conference Institute of Preaching for 15 years. He and his wife, Martha, live in Longwood, Florida. He blogs at www.jimharnish.org.
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