Review of John Wesley’s “On Worldly Folly” (1790)

This is a sermon about the parable of the rich fool. His opening text is Luke 12:20: “But God said to him, ‘You fool!’” He elaborates on how the rich farmer was financially planning for his whole life ahead of him; and in this obsession with retirement planning, he entertained Epicurean views and forgot about the sufferings of the poor, widows, and orphans. All of which could have benefited from some charitable giving on his part. But instead, he decided to hoard his wealth: “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry’” (Luke 12:18-19). At night, no doubt when he was likely in his bed, in that sacred incubator for the spirit of prophecy, God comes to him in a vision and says, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20). God was angry with this man for more than not giving to the poor: it was his covetousness, materialism, and self-centered Epicurean philosophy that God detested. Earlier Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Materialism, hedonism, and Epicureanism are all of the notion that happiness and fulfillment in life, can only be found in the abundance of possessions. But the rich fool’s lack of philanthropic thought is apparently what angered God the most. Especially since, on account of all his hoarding, once he died, apparently nobody was available to sell his grain or give it to the poor. Wesley was so delightfully harsh when commenting on this: “‘Soul, take thy ease; eat, drink, and be merry!’ How replete with folly and madness is every part of this wonderful soliloquy! ‘Eat and drink?’ Will thy spirit then eat and drink? Yea, but not of earthly food. Thou wilt soon eat livid flame, and drink of the lake of fire burning with brimstone. But wilt thou then drink and be merry? ‘Nay, there will be no mirth in those horrid shades; those caverns will resound with no music, but weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth!’” (2.2).

Jesus ends the parable: “this is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). In other words, the rich man who hoards his riches and hedonistically only spends his riches on his leisure; and has not a penny’s thought given to the poor, destitute, and needy…such a man is not rich in Christian faith and holiness, he is not rich toward God. Such a man is Hell bound. Wesley asks, “Art thou laboring to be rich toward God, or to lay up earthly goods? which takes up the greater part of thy thoughts?” (2.9). Here you have the dichotomy of serving God or Mammon once again (Matt. 6:24): such a spirit of greed, materialism, and hedonism, without any thought given towards faith and righteousness. Let it not be understood: this is not an unreasonable dichotomy that’s being set: this is not about theology versus economics, the Bible versus business books, or volleyball nets versus the St. Vincent de Paul Society. All of these things can be useful in a Christian’s life: theology, faith, holiness, economics, Bible study, business activity, leisure, and charitable giving. All things in moderation. But it is far better to study godly soteriology, and mystical theology, than to study all of the business and economics books in the world. In other words, it is better to overdose on theology always. This would make a man more rich towards God and less like the rich fool. The God or Mammon dichotomy in Matthew 6:24 is about the spiritually blinding accumulation of treasures and riches, and as Wesley suggested in his other sermons, probably the hoarding of millions for yourself. Some scholars believe that Mammon was a demonic god of riches in Biblical times; but if not, it is clear that riches can blind a man from understanding Biblical principles. Psalm 62:10: “If riches increase, set not your heart upon them.” God intends that our financial growth, and financial planning, should always include a generous benevolence fund which is calculated from our monthly surplus; and definitely not involve any massive hoarding or funding a hedonistic lifestyle. The rich fool fell into the same trap that was described in Deuteronomy 8:11-14: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God.”

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