Last week my colleagues and I gathered for our Spring Seminar in Paarl. The theme was: Faith and Finance: Towards a Christ-like Theology of Money. It took the form of 15 TEDx-like presentations, followed by group discussions. Motivated by at least two reasons: 1) In the Gospels Jesus speaks more about money matters than just about any other topic, yet very often the only time ‘the church’ speaks about money is when it needs/wants money – as opposed to helping people live justly and mercifully with money, as was the focus of Jesus’ teaching. 2) We live in the most unequal country in all the world and a country where corruption – the theft of astronomical amounts of money is endemic – by people, it must be said, who are not strangers to the pews within our churches. No doubt 1) and 2) are somehow related.
The seminar was both an enlightening and a startling experience to hear how diverse our theology of money is – and this from a group of 50 odd clergy from within the same denomination. One of the troubling unquestioned assumptions that underpinned many presentations was that giving to God = giving to church. This is a dangerous equation – whether implicitly or explicitly stated. It is simplistic and potentially a very manipulative teaching that has more to do with the sustainability of a religious institution (and pastor’s income) than the practice of Jesus’ justice and mercy. We certainly have work to do as the Methodist Church of Southern Africa to develop a Christ-shaped theology of economics for justice and mercy to be more fully known within the church and society at large.
Little wonder then that John Wesley – the founder of the Methodist Movement – emphasised money matters as Jesus did. It was a consistent theme of his preaching and personal practice. Sadly, when it came to money and Methodists, Wesley was concerned. The conundrum for Wesley was: “… the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently, they increase in goods. Hence, they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.”
It was with this conundrum in mind that Wesley lamented: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (Aug. 4, 1786).
Wesley further lamented that even his sermon on “The Use of Money” that he had preached (and re-preached) had been ignored, if not totally misinterpreted. The sermon included the following catchy points: “Gain all you can, save all you can and give all you can”.
Not one to mince his words, Wesley later wrote: “Of the three rules which are laid down … you may find many that observe the first rule, namely, ‘Gain all you can.’ You may find a few that observe the second, ‘Save all you can.’ But how many have you found that observe the third rule, ‘Give all you can’? Have you reason to believe that 500 of these are to be found among 50,000 Methodists? And yet nothing can be more plain than that all who observe the first rules without the third will be twofold more the children of hell than ever they were before.”
Remembering that to give to God is not to be equated to giving to Church, we must therefore not reduce “Give all you can” – to what we contribute to the Sunday offertory. Rather, to give to God is to give in such a way that the poor will hear good news. This means the focus of all our generosity is to bend the structures of society towards justice while at the same time mercifully caring for those wounded and marginalised within society. There are many avenues that invite our contributions to do justice and love mercifully within society at large. I believe one of the most Godly avenues of ‘give all you can’ is education – starting with pre-school education all the way through to university. Education gives life! Education really is a gift that keeps on giving – for generations! Here is a prayer we can pray: “Jesus, give me opportunities to give towards a person’s education. Amen.”
P.S. In today’s sermon we will reflect on one of the many parables Jesus shared about economics. We will see how this parable alone was enough to get Jesus killed by the authorities. We will see how Luke’s Gospel (and I would argue – the entire Bible) is best understood as an economic textbook rather than a religious book.