By Bryan Owen
“When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”
Those words are attributed to John Wesley, the 18th-century Anglican priest and founder of Methodism. And there’s evidence to show that he really meant it.
When Wesley started teaching at Oxford University, his initial salary was £30 per year. Wesley’s living expenses came to £28. So he gave £2 away to the poor.
The next year, Wesley’s income doubled to £60. But because he still limited his expenses to £28, he gave away £32 to the poor.
The third year he earned £90, and so he gave away 62.
Eventually, Wesley’s annual income grew to over £1,400. By that point, Wesley needed £30 to live on, so he gave away £1,370 to the poor and needy. That was a huge sum back then!
When I first read about this, my knee-jerk response was, “Wow, this seems extreme. Just think of the things Wesley could have done with all of that extra money.”
But as I’ve reflected on our Lord’s teaching concerning money and possessions, Wesley’s actions appear more faithful than crazy.
Perhaps Wesley was motivated by Jesus’ words from the Gospel according to Luke:
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Luke 16:13)
Jesus returned many times in his teaching to the topic of money and possessions. Take, for example, when Jesus said that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33).
There’s also Jesus’ parable about a rich man who built up a stockpile of wealth to ensure a life of comfort and ease, only to suddenly die, leaving behind large new barns standing as monuments to irrelevance. In a prefatory remark to this parable, Jesus said: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).
It’s an inescapable fact: throughout the Gospels the topic of money and possessions occupies a central place. In fact, about one-third of Jesus’ parables address money matters.
If we add to Jesus’ teaching the concern of Jewish prophets like Amos for the ways in which wealth can lure us away from God and desensitize us to the plight of the poor, then we cannot afford to neglect the power that money and wealth possess for both good and evil.
As St. Paul sums it up in his first letter to Timothy: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal” (1 Tim. 6:10).
It’s a striking fact that even though such concerns regularly surface throughout the Bible, many churches don’t talk about it. As Christian ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee have noted: “Our defenses are so firmly entrenched that it is very difficult for us to simply listen to these [biblical] texts without qualifying, spiritualizing or dismissing them.”
But for the sake of our spiritual health, we need to face the truth. And the truth is that we live in not only one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on earth; we also live in a society that routinely entices us to give inordinate value to money and possessions. We live in a consumer culture that thrives on the creation of new and often false “needs” and the cut-throat competition required to fulfill those “needs.”
And so Jesus’ teaching on money and possessions may sound a dissonant and countercultural note. But it’s a note we need to hear. For the deeper truth of biblical teaching is this: having money and possessions is not in itself sinful; but money and possessions can be dangerous distractions from following Jesus as Lord and Savior.
And that’s because money and possessions can give us a false sense of security grounded in the illusion of self-sufficiency. As Philip Turner warns, they can tempt us to believe that we are the ultimate owners and masters of our lives, as though we can live “on our own resources rather than upon God’s generosity and mercy.” And if we fall for that temptation, we can end up misusing money and possessions in ways that hurt ourselves and others.
Talking about money and possessions as potentially dangerous may sound scary. But we will have missed something critically important if Jesus’ teachings make us feel fearful or guilty. After all, Jesus did not come to lay heavy burdens upon us or to make us feel unworthy of God’s love and mercy. He came that we might have life and have it in abundance (cf. John 10:10).
As stewards of material goods, we have a moral obligation to provide those things needful for ourselves, our families, our churches, and our community. So is there a way to use money and possessions that’s consistent with the abundant life Jesus offers? Is there an antidote to the dangers posed by money and possessions that can help us use these resources as God intends?
Christian tradition provides a tried and true answer to these questions by telling us that the antidote comes through practicing three virtues: hospitality, generosity, and simplicity (I continue to draw from Turner).
Hospitality is the practice of welcoming and embracing anyone who shows up by offering safety, refreshment, and respect. “Hospitality is an attitude of heart that opens us to others and receives them on their own terms,” thereby creating a space where strangers might become family, and enemies turned into friends.
Hospitality leads quite naturally to generosity, the practice of opening our hands, our wallets, and our cupboards to help feed, clothe, and shelter anyone in need. That especially includes giving to the hungry, the homeless, and refugees, regardless of whether the world thinks they are deserving. After all, God loves them. And God wants us to love them, too.
And then there’s simplicity — the practice of using only what we truly need by conserving resources and restricting our pursuit of luxury goods. Practicing simplicity, we are mindful that accumulating possessions we don’t really need comes at the expense of others being unable to acquire what they need to live with dignity. The virtue of simplicity reminds us that how each of us lives — the choices that we make in our saving, spending, and consuming — affects the well-being of others.
In a world driven by competition, greed, and excess, persons who practice hospitality, generosity, and simplicity proclaim the gospel by their actions. They bear witness to an alternative way of life that transcends the divisions and struggles of this world by pointing to the coming of God’s kingdom — a place where everyone can belong and where everyone’s needs can be met. And they practice faithful stewardship of money and possessions by using these resources to minister to a hungry and hurting world.