Prosperity and Its Discontents

Sondra Wheeler

As is well known, John Wesley devotes a substantial amount of ink to the subject of money, returning to it several times, using a variety of biblical passages as his launching points. 

In the whole sweep of Wesley’s preaching and writing, the subject is central to only a small percentage of texts. However, the chronology of those texts suggests an increasing focus on possessions as a moral and spiritual danger as Wesley observed the course of his Methodist Societies’ development, and the character of his rhetoric indicates an increasing urgency to his concerns.

The standard list of pertinent works will be familiar even to casual students of Wesley. In chronological order: there is the most widely known (and equally widely misrepresented) sermon “The Use of Money” (1744); also the sermons entitled “The Good Steward” (1758), “The Danger of Riches” (1780), and “On Riches” (1788). There is also the late and deeply disappointed sermon “On the Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” (1789), and the final, almost desperate sermon “On the Danger of Increasing Riches” (1790). Relevant too is the pamphlet “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions” (1773). In addition, brief remarks about the potency, usefulness, and perils of wealth are laced through other sermons as occasion arises, for example in his multiple treatments of the Sermon on the Mount.

Finance and Fidelity

I propose to focus on what exactly Wesley is busy interpreting in these standard sources, and what interpretive strategies govern his readings. This will help to make sense of his conviction that the use of money and possessions is a central matter of fidelity or infidelity, something on which salvation itself hinges.

Wesley’s sermon on “The Use of Money” takes up a text that has confused and embarrassed the church for centuries, the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16), and handily transforms it into three easily remembered maxims: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”

On first glance they do not seem all that challenging. The first of his “three plain rules” – gain all you can – seems, in our own happily acquisitive society, a little like admonishing fire to burn or water to be wet, but of course Wesley has only begun. By the time he has finished laying out all the means and terms of gain that are ruled out for Christians, he has excluded anything that harms us in body, mind or spirit, anything which saps health or perverts character or weakens faith and joy in God. He 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. Anything that involves or even conduces to our own or another’s sin is out of bounds.

This is already a stunning check to business as usual in Wesley’s day, as it would be in our own. But these strictures, which according to Wesley follow from our duty to love our neighbors as ourselves, are not the most surprising or the most illuminating of his instructions. Included in Wesley’s explanation of what duty forbids are several practices we would likely consider part of healthy competition or the efficient operation of the market and regard as inseparable from capitalism. Wesley says we may not harm our neighbor’s livelihood, and under this heading he rules out not only predatory lending practices, price-gouging, and profiting from another’s hardship, but also routine competitive practices.

Unholy Competition

He does expressly forbid the sale of 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.” But he adds that we cannot compete with others for the capacity to do business in any way: for instance, we cannot solicit our neighbor’s workers, or even agree to hire them if she is in need of them. (He does not appear to have considered competition for labor as a potentially positive force in securing livable wages for laborers.) 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 as contrary to Christian duty.

What is evident here is Wesley’s resistance to economic changes that were part of the eighteenth- century transition from a predominantly rural agrarian society toward an urban and manufacturing economy, the prototype of early industrial capitalism. The subject of his interpretation is less the biblical text than his own society – its emerging patterns of commerce and the ethos they are fostering. The kind of direct competition for a limited market that we take for granted as the basic mechanism of capitalism Wesley regards as a violation of human solidarity, a transgression of our basic duty not to harm. Thus he calls into question its whole mechanism for profit-seeking itself.

It is important to note the biblical text that governs Wesley’s ethic of commerce is not his ostensible sermon text, which is here the parable of the dishonest steward. This receives only scant attention confined to the introductory paragraphs. Instead, as the foregoing has already suggested, the governing text is the oft-repeated and much more central commandment to “love the neighbor as the self.” 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 “on which hang all the law and the prophets,” and is thereby equated with “gaining the world at cost of your soul.” It is this hermeneutical judgment that does the real moral work in this part of the sermon.

But there is more. Wesley’s second rule about “saving all one can” is not just a plea for modesty or prudence in expenditures. It is an attack upon all the elective consumption that fuels a capitalist society. Licit expenses include those 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 health and strength, but not to provide such ancillary benefits as mere variety or pleasure or beauty in one’s food, clothing, or surroundings. All these are accounted luxuries. Not only do such unnecessary expenditures detract from what may be given away, and thus ignore our duties to our poor neighbors, but they are in themselves condemned as a species of worldliness. 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” (1 John 2:16). This Johannine phrase is used by Wesley repeatedly, in this sermon and elsewhere, 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 owed to the poor.

At Odds With God

The weight of Wesley’s biblical interpretation falls here – on this identification of unnecessary pur- chases with “loving the world and the things that are in the world,” inherently at odds with loving God. The creation of new conveniences and the turning of a newly emerging productive capacity to consumer goods that marked the latter half of the eighteenth century (and which continues as the central engine of our own prosperity) becomes on this view one vast temptation. The basic premises of consumer capitalism, market competition, and continuously rising consumption are, from Wesley’s standpoint, occasions of sin – sin which, while rejecting the Scholastic category, he nevertheless identifies as mortal. Despite its reputation as the most accom- modating of Wesley’s treatments of wealth, “The Use of Money” takes as its subject not the biblical text but the economics of the emerging Industrial Revolution, and it does not fare well.

The sermon on “The Danger of Riches” is no- table for the degree to which it actually focuses on the exposition of the sermon text, 1 Tim 6:9 – “They that will be rich fall into a temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful desires which drown men in destruction and perdition.” Wesley proceeds by identifying those who fall under the warning, and then details the nature and operation of the threat, and ends with a plea that his hearers turn from destruction.

From the preceding biblical verse, “having food and raiment, with these let us be content” (1 Tim 6:8), Wesley moves summarily to the judgment that all who desire anything beyond this, all who seek it, or even those who simply retain it when it comes to them without being sought, fall under the text’s working definition of “those who would be rich.” This is true whether the wealth is stored as possessions, or as land, or as money laid by against adversity. All those who make such provisions, along with all who love money in itself, fall into the temptations and disasters of “those who will be rich.” On this contention hang the force and persuasiveness of Wesley’s whole interpretation, and the cogency of the conclusions he draws from it.

Pathologist of Desire

Along with what he calls the “gross and unnatural sin of love of money” itself, Wesley speaks of the more refined sin of “desiring more.” He observes that while this desire kept within proper bounds can be innocent, yet he warns, “how difficult it is not to exceed them!” The danger of riches, plainly put, is sin, and Wesley identifies the heart of that peril bluntly: at its root, the sin consists in the desiring of happiness in something other than God.

In fact, much of the sermon explores what a modern commentator might call the psychology of desire. It details the effects of gratifying desires, which is not to quiet but rather to increase them. It is the experience of ensnarement that Wesley ex- pounds, and the slide into spiritual paralysis and blindness that attends it. He provides a kind of phenomenology of the captivity of affluence.

Those who have economic resources, and use them to gratify their desires, risk becoming unable to forego them. They are chained to novelty, ease, and convenience. And the blows to patience, humility, zeal, and ultimately to faith and charity that come of that attachment are deadly. This is Wesley as pathologist, describing the natural history of a fatal disease. Indeed, he closes with a long list of diagnostic questions, inviting his hearers to determine whether they are not infected with this toxic desire that “distorts hope, dilutes faith, and destroys zeal” for the active work of charity. He ends with the warning of Matthew 19:24 about how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom.

This verse from Matthew is treated further in the 1788 sermon “On Riches,” where he explores another dimension of the perilous quality of wealth – the number of temptations to and occasions for sin that lie in the path of the rich. Beginning with the temptation to place one’s confidence in riches rather than God, Wesley describes the particular moral deformities of English social life that reinforce and exacerbate that tendency.

Wounded Wealth

He notes how the adjective “good” is applied to any man who is rich, and how a wealthy man is held in honor. He declares it impossible that such a one should escape the sin of pride so that he might come to God as the merest sinner, trusting only in faith for salvation, unless it were the result of the special intervening grace of God. Lacking that realization of a welcome altogether unmerited, the rich are hindered in their love for God itself. And should that obstacle be overcome, another waits, for “how is it possible for a man not to love the world who is surrounded by all its allurements?” Like the rich man in Matthew’s story, Wesley says, his “great possessions” will expel the love of God from his soul. Thus faith and love toward God, the central virtues of Christian life, are both wounded.

Moral virtues are likewise harder to acquire for the rich, for they are “cut off from that freedom of conversation whereby they might be made sensible of their defects, and come to a true knowledge of themselves,” Wesley declares. Surrounded by dependents and sycophants, by those who from fear or greed will offer only flattery, “(the rich man’s) situation necessarily occasions praise to flow in upon him from every quarter.” Wealth ensures that whims are gratified on every side, Wesley observes, as all strive to oblige the wealthy, increasing self- will and thwarting patience, until he becomes “ill able to submit to the will of either God or men.” The rich are thus deprived of opportunities to learn meekness and gentleness, to learn to yield to other persons, and to love with disinterested benevolence those who do not flatter and pamper their vanity. Not only the love of God but the love of neighbor will find little occasion to grow up in such a setting. More than an interpretation of the passage, this is an interpretation and critique of eighteenth-century British society, and of the moral distortions he saw embedded in its class-conscious social order.

Wesley and Us

Speaking at last not to the rich in general but to the wealthy now numbered among his own communities, Wesley applies to them the words of James 5:1: “Woe to you rich, weep and howl for the miseries which are coming upon you … !” Here Wesley is no longer principally interpreting Scripture, no longer expounding the divinely intended purpose of money or the theological fitness of the metaphor of stewardship or the wide parameters of the lusts of the flesh. Here he begins to deal with his own deeply felt failure – the failure of his decades of preaching and teaching to counter the effects of the changing social location of Methodists on their conduct and their souls. With the growth in property, status, respectability, and wealth, he sees them falling prey to all that his analysis of desire and the temptations of riches could predict, but has not been able to prevent.

Wesley interpreted Scripture powerfully and vigorously in light of the circumstances and failings of his own churches. We cannot leave Wesley’s urgent theme without asking, “What would an analogous hermeneutic look like in our own world?” What are the comparable tasks that face us as expositors of Scripture who are also teachers of the church set within a particular time and place?

The question has particular weight and significance in our immediate context. We live in the world’s richest nation, one in which unheard of concentrations of individual and corporate wealth exist side by side with families and communities facing genuine hardship and deprivation. We negotiate our economic lives within a globalized economy that includes areas of desperate poverty and unimaginable suffering. And we are emerging slowly and uncertainly from a worldwide financial crisis whose scale and complex, interlocking triggers seem to exceed our grasp, making moral judgment tenuous at the same time it remains vital.

Here are a handful of suggestions, offered as a stimulus to our thinking about what it might involve for us to continue John Wesley’s tradition of broad and unflinching economic and social critique. 

  • Building upon Wesley’s model, we might undertake to re-interpret our own economic system: driven by short - and medium-term profit, it is locked in competition for global markets, moved by large-scale forces that drive down labor costs, so that there is a loss of living wage jobs and a curtailment of benefits for even mid-range workers. Wesley’s vigorous critique might bring us to ask again fundamental critical questions such as, “What are the aims of economic life?” and “What are the criteria by which an economic system is judged good?”
  • We might reconsider our own theology of stewardship, given our national situation in the world environment, both biological and social. Ours is a setting of unparalleled military and industrial power, historically unprecedented concentrations of private wealth, and racing technological development. What would constitute faithful stewardship of such power? What are the questions we must ask of ourselves as we exercise it? Most important, operating as we do in the context of secular politics and corporate entities ruled by the imperatives of the marketplace, where can we lodge the work of moral judgment that is inseparable from wielding it?
  • The average American is exposed to an estimated 3,000 commercial messages per day. We might devote serious research to the moral and theological analysis of the psychology of desire in a mass media advertising culture. Our whole system lives on the insatiability of desire, indeed on the deliberate and calculated creation of de- sire for products heretofore nonexistent. This is at once the engine of our affluence and the force hastening the degradation of our environment. What resources do the thought and practice of our faith bring to the runaway train of rising consumption in the West? 
  • At a deeper level, we might examine the effect upon faith, indeed upon human existence, of a world of continuous distraction. Our modes of stimulation now follow us via earphone and pod- cast into every moment and every space of our frantic lives. We are constantly entertained, via music and images, video and electronic games, so that we need never have an idle moment – or a reflective thought. Do we even recognize an inner life? Or have we rendered ourselves effectively deaf to what Wesley would have called the inward promptings of the Holy Spirit, and drowned out the voice of God?
  • Finally: Wesley traced the failure of Christian faith to transform lives in his own era to his people’s unwillingness to practice self-denial. We, meanwhile, have all but lost the language. Can we achieve even the flickers of self-forgetfulness that make it possible to attend to the needs of others? Ours is a culture that has rejected suffering, regarding it not so much as a mystery as an offense, an infringement upon our entitlement to happiness and ease. Are we prepared to read the Bible to and for our own society, prepared to reclaim its insistence that the one who loses his life will save it? Moreover, do we have the imagination to proclaim as good news the mes- sage that we were made to find our life in God, to share in God’s work of blessing others, and find there a share in God’s inexhaustible gladness? 

Sondra Wheeler ’87 M.A.R., ’92 Ph.D. is a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Her books include Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions (Eerdmans, 1995), Stewards of Life: Bioethics and Pastoral Care (Abingdon, 1996), and What We Were Made For: Christian Reflections on Love (Jossey-Bass, 2007). She is at work on a book tentatively entitled, Children of One’s Own: Creation and the Limits of Parental Power