John Wesley preached a lot about money. And with probably the highest earned income in England, he had the opportunities to put his ideas into practice. What did he say about money? And what did he do with his own?
John Wesley knew poverty as a child. His father, Samuel Wesley, was the Anglican priest in one of England’s lowest-paying parishes. He had nine children to support and was rarely out of debt. Once John saw his father being marched off to debtors’ prison. So when John followed his father into the ministry, he had no illusions about the financial rewards.
It probably came as a surprise to John Wesley that while God had called him to follow his father’s vocation, he had not called him to be poor like his father. Instead of being a parish priest, John felt God’s direction to teach at Oxford University. There he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, and his financial status changed dramatically. His position usually paid him at least thirty pounds a year, more than enough money for a single man to live on. John seems to have enjoyed his relative prosperity.
While at Oxford, an incident changed his perspective on money. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately, the thought struck him that God was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward?” Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?
This has always been one of those stories which convicts me of my own habits of generosity.
Without fear, Jesus easily approaches the subject of generosity and giving as revolutionary outcomes of a life transformed by God. Jesus connects a person’s righteousness with generosity. Righteousness is a significant word here in the Sermon on the Mount. In Mt. 5:20 Jesus says, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees…you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” When it comes to generosity there are high standards; but are the standards based upon quantity or character?
How did the Pharisees express their generosity? (v.2) They loved to be noticed and honored for their greatness in giving. Some historical evidence suggests that that the boxes used to collect money in the Temple were in the shape of a twisted ram’s horn (shofar). Money was inserted at the top of the box – the large opening of the trumpet and roll down through the horn and fall into the box. If someone wanted to make a spectacle of themselves they would slowly drop their offering, one coin at a time, through the trumpet and the coins would rattle all the way down – sounding the trumpet. And so they would receive the praise of people. They would appear very righteous for their giving. And so Jesus says to his followers who are now part of the Kingdom of God that their righteousness must surpass the Pharisees. What’s he mean? Because in 6:1, Jesus says “be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others.” Let’s look at this word “righteous.”
Righteous is a theological word. Righteous literally means “to be made right.” And what that implies is that somewhere along the way persons were not right; people were wrong (sinful). You and I were out of relationship with God; the primary lifestyle of the person who is out of a relationship with God is selfishness. The person out of relationship with God likes to call attention to themselves; look good; self-centered. Does that sound like anyone in the Scripture today? Often they are self-righteous. But Jesus/Scripture describe righteousness differently. In Scripture righteousness is being made right in the eyes of God. Righteousness is about forgiveness of sin; about rebirth; about a life that is lived in God and for God.
Righteousness does not originate from within you. Righteousness happens when we are made brand new by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Righteousness suggests that the Spirit of God is living in and through you. And righteousness will affect generosity. In fact my generosity flows from God’s righteousness. As God lives through me, God will reveal his generosity through my life. And my righteousness will surpass self-centeredness or personal reward.
Rather than sounding trumpets to announce how great and generous I am a revolutionary generosity initiated by relationship with God is done for an audience of one. Any righteous generosity is never for our glory but for the glory of God. Revolutionary generosity is an attitude of the heart. Is our generosity done simply to receive attention from other people or are we generous to bring honor and glory to God? For Jesus, that is the righteousness which surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees.
If you think this problem was only about the Pharisees, lets take a look at Acts 5:1-5 (Ananias/Sapphira). The problem wasn’t that Ananias and Sapphira kept back a portion of the sale for themselves – there was nothing wrong with that. The land was his possession. He could do with it what he wanted. He was his decision regarding what, if any, to give. The problem was that they had lied about the amount they received for the sale of the land. They tried to make others believe that they were giving ALL they had received in the sale. And Sapphira colluded. Wrong motive – they were trying to look righteous and receive honor and applause. And their relationship with the community of faith died.
The Church must come to understand generosity and giving in light of a life made right with God. The death and resurrection of Jesus frees God’s people to practice revolutionary generosity. A generosity deeply connected with our relationship to God in Jesus.
What we believe about God will ultimately determine what my generosity looks like. If I believe that God has blessed me and that my wealth must first honor God – then I will be a generous person. But if I believe that what I have earned is mine and should be used for my own pleasure that is what will be reflected in my life.
The question of revolutionary generosity is never “what is my fair share?” The question is always a question of righteousness. If God has changed my life and if I belong to Jesus and his Kingdom – how can all that I have be used to honor God and save souls?