This week we continue to explore John Wesley’s sermon entitled the “Use of Money.” As I wrote last week, this particular sermon was his second most preached sermon. He preached on Luke 16:9 at least 27 times between 1741 and 1758. Often it was under the title of “The Mammon of Unrighteousness.”
Last week I wrote that Wesley thought that the practice of “three plain rules” was the sure route to faithfulness concerning money and wealth. The three rules are: gain all you can; save all you can; give all you can. We will this week look at what Wesley had to say about the first of these, gain all you can.
Wesley believed that on this particular rule, gain all you can, the follower of Christ, “met [the children of the world] on their own ground.” However, immediately Wesley qualifies this statement by emphatic negatives: we should not pay more than it is worth, it should not be gained at the expense of life, and it should not be gained at the expense of one’s health. Wesley pointed to some very dangerous occupations at the time, like dealing with arsenic or other harmful minerals, or breathing air contaminated with the steam coming off of melted lead. This concerned Wesley considerably as the industrial age brought more and more people from the land into the smelting plants of England. But it wasn’t just factory jobs that Wesley thought were dangerous to one’s health and well being. Wesley claimed that jobs requiring many hours of writing were bad for the health. We can only assume that Wesley would be horrified state of clerical workers chained to computers across the planet in the 21st century.
Wesley also preached that gain all you can did not mean that one should endanger one’s mental state. For Wesley one was not to gain wealth at the loss of our mortal souls. Wesley also recognized that we had different traits that made us suitable for particular jobs. Wesley wrote of himself “I could not study to any degree of perfection either mathematics, arithmetic, or algebra, without being a deist, if not an atheist.” Yet, others he said could do so without any apparent harm. I think I can see that in myself.
A third condition Wesley placed on to gain all you can is that we could not in any way harm our neighbor in order to gain all we can. This would stand directly against the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves given to us by Jesus. Wesley condemned those who over-billed for services as well as those who sold their goods at prices under the market price in order to ruin another’s trade. Modern market competition most certainly would have grieved the soul of Wesley.
An element of this concern for the neighbor’s well-being is related to gain by hurting the health of the neighbor. For Wesley this was particularly aimed at the distillery business which sold distilled alcohol products for no other purpose than to make money. I am certain that Wesley would find many similar instances in our current economy where companies make great profits from the sale of products that ultimately harm our health, and their only purpose for doing so is to make money to feed voracious greed.
Finally in this same respect we should not gain all we can at the expense of the soul of our neighbor. Wesley argues that any venture which benefits the soul of the neighbor is good, however, if any venture is sinful in itself, or leads to sinful behavior, those so employed in such ventures should be fearful of the day of judgment when the Lord comes.
So to Wesley it was Christian duty to gain all that one can within the boundaries he set above. It is our duty to gain all we can through “honest industry”; being diligent in our care of ourselves and others. He also warned of wasting time, for every business should keep us fully employed “every day and every hour.” I think that for Wesley every gain, in health, spiritual, and wealth was for the glory of God, and anything else was wasted time lost to the work of Satan. In the 18th century Wesley saw the hand of Satan in such activities as “taverns, vitualling-houses, opreahouses, playhouses, or any other places of public, fashionable diversion.” I feel certain that Wesley would be quite dismayed at the abundance of such “fashionable diversion” available in the 21st century.
Next week we will reflect on what Wesley had to say concerning save all you can. I can assure you that we will be challenged by Wesley’s thoughts.