Eye of the needle
In 1744, Wesley wrote,
“[When I die] if I leave behind me ten pounds … you and all mankind [may] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.”
This is countercultural to good sense today. We are responsible to plan for the future, make sure we can take care of ourselves so as to not burden others, and to show our ultimate value to the universe – leave some dollar bills behind for the kids (something else Wesley urged his followers not to do).
It seems that money makes the world go around. There are debates about who has it and who does not. There are strategies to get as much of it as you can, there are plans to take it, plans to save it, and plans to give it away. It seems to be the universal language and the most divisive thing all at the same time. We know money can’t buy love or happiness, and yet it doesn’t stop us from trying to do so. We know money can’t stop us from dying, yet we pursue all kinds of ways to stay alive. Money can effectively keep power centralized and therefore continue dehumanization of others. Money, at its best, gets us power.
So, Wesley saw the accumulation of wealth as peril and obligation. You were obliged to use wealth to better the condition of your neighbor, or risk finding yourself in the way of God’s peril. This is fundamentally why it is easier for the proverbial camel to go through the eye of the needle.
But, lest we use Wesley as a reason to venerate poverty, he also said, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” He saw poverty as an evil and lived with the mission to benefit those living under the pressure of class systems. Reverend Run and his crew give another thought on the reality: they see money as a necessity to our place and being in society. Money can’t buy love – but love can’t buy your clothes. What a dilemma we find ourselves in as it relates to money.
Money is the key to end all your woes
Your ups and your downs, your highs and your lows
Won’t you tell me last time that love bought you clothes?
It’s like that, and that’s the way it is
– Run DMC
In our day, materialism and hoarding are the two greatest threats to the balance of Wesley’s financial injunctions. Materialism is the finding of significance through, and addiction to, personal possessions. The Notorious B.I.G. shared his thoughts on money in the song “Mo Money Mo Problems”:
I don’t know what they want from me
It’s like the more money we come across
The more problems we see
– Notorious B.I.G.
These men are from two very different times, and both give us a prophetic look at cash and its shadows.
In the U.S. the primary identity and identifier of the citizen is ‘consumer.’ We are judged by our ability to contribute to the consumer economy. This system runs our lives at the obvious expense of the planet, those below us on the class hierarchy, and entire third world cultures and people. We are all complicit in the materialism that is the water in the fish tank in which we swim. Indeed, it may be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a U.S. citizen to escape the sin of materialism.
However, nothing erodes the soul quite like hoarding wealth. This was Wesley’s critique to the aristocracy of his day. He knew that the answer to opulence was generosity. It is one thing to benefit from a system that produces goods on the backs of the planet and those in factories around the world that we cannot see – it is quite another to see poverty face to face and choose to keep personal wealth. Jesus was clear about the responsibility of having two tunics.
But, in the sermon, Wesley was not addressing personal finance when he talked about making, saving, and giving all that you can. He was addressing his movement. He was addressing the organization and community that was developing around him in his influence. They were at the beginning stages of setting a foundation for the ongoing influence of the movement. All movements need organization to set the foundation for future work. Throughout the history of Christianity, movements that start as groundswells often lose aspects of their identity when they have to organize for their sustainability.
But are we helpless to the reality that sustaining our movements will cause us to hoard wealth for our organization to succeed? We use language like “stewardship” or “financial security” to justify making our organization’s survival our primary objective over its mission. We have to name the hoarding we see in ourselves, and our fears we have that our organizations may face becoming obsolete.
Could hoarding look like a 21-billion-dollar pension plan?
How about needing multiple years of finances through cash on hand?
What about the property and wealth of real estate in cities that are gentrifying?
Can we trust God with these things?
Fear is often behind our materialism and hoarding. Wesley had a sense that the money in his pockets provided less security than the God who looks after the lilies in the field. This should make us wonder if our hoarding and materialism makes impossible one of Wesley’s other injunctions:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
Rev. Dr Leroy Barber
Dr. Jess Bielman
Director Innovation for Engaged Church Assoc.Director for Engaged Church
Greater NW Area United Methodist Church Greater NW Area UMC