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The wealth we must give away

MoneyIn a recent sermon to Chapelfield Road Methodist church to mark the Week for Christian Unity, Quaker John Myhill considers the meaning of a challenging verse in scripture: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor” Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:22.

George Fox and Charles Wesley had many things in common.  Neither intended to set up a new denomination, but both began with difficult questions from scripture, which the inner Light told them were inadequately answered by the established church. 
This text “Sell everything you have and give to the poor” was one of the difficult questions for me.  Why were so many wealthy Christians failing to give their wealth away?  Priests would say: “Of course, this does not apply to everyone, it was very specific advice to one particular person”.  But that did not satisfy me.
I have been doing a series of interviews with important people in Norfolk for this website, Network Norfolk.  Being a steward of property or organisations can be an excuse for not giving to the poor – the steward I think of in the New Testament is “the unjust steward”.
Are we living through the decline and fall of Britain? To answer this question we need to look at how Britain rose to power through the Protestant Ethic, through industry, thrift and confidence in the Grace of God. By 1700 Protestant countries had become more prosperous than Catholic ones, and by 1940 Catholic countries were 40% worse off.
Wesley  said “Having gained all you can, by honest wisdom and unwearied diligence, the second rule of Christian prudence is “Save all you can”. Insistence on reading the Bible led to greater literacy, and thus a more capable workforce. Missionaries spreading the Gospel led to more educated colonies and higher productivity. School enrolments were 4 to 5 times higher in British colonies.           
BUT, now the work ethic appears to have gone:

  • Longer time is spent in education and earlier retirement. Statistics for those over 15 in work are :  Britain 55%  USA 65%  China 74%.
  • Shorter working days and longer holidays mean 16% less hours per year working in UK than the US, whilst those in South Korea work 39% more hours than in the US.
I have spent some of my life working with long term unemployed, so I know how hard it is to get back to work after a year or more of unemployment.
The loss of work ethic has been matched by loss of Faith:
  • Fewer than one in four people say that God is important in Britain, whereas in USA it is one in two.
  • Christian research study in 2005 of nearly 19,000 churches showed that Sunday attendance was only 6.3% of population. Two out of every three people said they had no moral rules to follow.
People have lost hope: fewer people vote, fewer people join organisations of all kinds. They believe they cannot change themselves or the world.
Ecumenism is not a tea party, but an opportunity to understand our differences. Diversity is wonderful and it produces more Church goers.
In USA the competition between churches can be as fierce as the competition between car dealerships or fast food outlets.  Revealing the world of God is like revealing the latest hand held computer device:  the i-God perhaps! This consumer Christianity, an entertainment complete with soft drinks and Starbucks, makes few demands on believers.  However, it does seem that Church- going may still be producing longer hours of work in US, although household savings in the USA went below zero when the housing bubble burst. The 2008 economic crash was produced by over consumption and lack of thrift.
In China it is quite different: Little private debt, houses bought outright or with small mortgages, little consumer credit, long hours of work and large savings. There was no financial crash. Unsurprisingly, Christianity is increasing in China from less than half a million Christians in 1949 to over 40 million official Protestants now. The total Christian population there may well be over 100 million.
Why is this? Trust is in short supply in China: We hear stories of corrupt government officials, Cheating businesses, Workers stealing from their employers, Young women marrying and then vanishing with hard-saved dowries, baby food with toxins, school buildings with defective materials.
But you CAN trust your fellow Christians. This fits with my personal experience of working with addicts, ex-prisoners and those suffering mental distress.  They find they can trust Christians, and their lives are transformed beyond recognition.  Here are the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3 v1-10), and when they repent it is as In Corinthians (7 v29). There is no “Yellow peril”- China is not a threat, for Christianity gives us the key to material success.
We do not live in a fatalistic, mechanical world. The future is not inevitable, but can be changed by Faith. Looking at the rise of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth I to Queen Elizabeth II, and at Chinese Christianity in the last 30years we see, that where Christians:
  • Believe that hard work is God’s gift,
  • Save rather than spend,
  • Educate themselves in new skills inspired by Bible literacy,
  • Work closely with other Christians whom we can trust,
  • Tell all our non-Christian friends what our church has done to transform our lives.

Then there is no decline and fall but rise in prosperity and real wealth.
That is the easy part: it is the parable of the Talents.
It is how Methodists and Quakers moved from being “ranters”  on the edge of society, often imprisoned and rejected, to wealthy business people, entrepreneurs and bankers in the nineteenth century.
But only then are we ready to be the Good Samaritan (who had money to pay the Inn keeper.                      Only then have we wealth to give to the poor. It is then that we must not build bigger barns;  must not become Dives with poor Lazarus at his gate; as Nineveh before repentance. It is then that we are able to give the poor more than money:
We give away also what we have learnt.
We give the gift of being able to work hard and the desire to share the pleasure of work.
We give the gift of saving not spending, just as did the great Victorian philanthropists.
Education is part of the wealth that we will give away and so is Trust.
But most important of all : Our lives have been transformed through Grace and Love.
That is the wealth we must give away.
As Wesley said: “Give all you have as well as all ye are, a spiritual sacrifice to him who withheld not from you his Son, his only Son; so laying up in store for yourselves a good foundation against the time to come, that ye may attain eternal life.”

JohnMyhill450John Myhill is a Norwich Quaker, retired magistrate and author. His blog is at http://johnmyhill.wordpress.com/

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