Given his hyper-concerns with money, had Wesley found himself more at home in the pages of Revelation, he would undoubtedly have challenged his audiences with Revelation’s thoroughgoing analysis of the idolatry of wealth. Here we find an unrelenting barrage of critical assessment (p. 163).
An unrelenting barrage, indeed. So much focus on interpreting Revelation as a kind of radar for eschatological weather forecasting determining the signs of the times has muted the clear message about the destructive and oppressive nature of wealth. After idolatry, greed is the sin most often condemned in the Bible. Indeed, greed is referred to as idolatry (Colossians 3:5). It is so much easier pointing to the sins of others while ignoring or minimizing our own. Jesus reminded us that we need to take the two-by-four out of our eye before we point out the sliver in someone else’s (Matthew 7:5). Green notes,
The much-exalted Pax Romana, “Roman peace,” was oriented toward this: developing and using the economy of the entire civilized world in the service of Rome. Within John’s Revelation is a critique of the empire. Rome is a mistress harlot, a city whose luxurious lifestyle is maintained at its lovers’ expense (see 17:1-6; 18:3, 9, 16). Rome’s network of economic interests includes those who enjoy the celebrated benefits of Pax Romana—unity, security, and stability—and who gain from Rome’s economic dominance—kings, merchants, mariners (see 18:9-19). Here is the problem: Rome’s economic luxuriousness is built on the back of Rome’s own subjects who participate in, even embrace, their own exploitation (p. 164)How is it possible to read Revelation 18 and not see the prosperous countries of the Western world, including, of course, the United States? Rome, referred to by John as Babylon (another notoriously oppressive empire), represents all empires down through history whose wealth is achieved at the expense of others. Such exploitation is seen in those who work for less than a living wage and who simply can’t make ends meet. Such exploitation is revealed in the labor of tenant farmers in countries growing coffee and rice that those of us in the first world enjoy cheaply, while those who produce such products can hardly feed their children. Such exploitation is viewed when young children must go to factories in faraway countries to work so that we can wear discounted clothing. Such exploitation is seen in oppressive taxes the government hides in all kinds of places (e.g. court fees, late fees for license plate registration) that the poor can least afford.
But it is not only the empire that is guilty, the church is guilty for its participation in the idolatrous greed of empire as well. John condemns the church at Laodicea for its “wealth-centered existence” in 3:14-22 (p. 164), whereas the congregation at Smyrna is “comforted for its lack in 2:8-11 (p. 164). The sad irony for the church in the West is how often its members view their wealth as a blessing from God rather than as an expression of idolatry. But a serious reading of Revelation will not allow God’s people to implicate God in their sin.
But there is hope. John knows that the oppressive wealth of empire is a temporary condition. At the end of history “faithful followers of Christ will experience true wealth, God’s own bounty. Theirs will be a wedding celebration (19:7, 9, 17-18), the water of life will be available without cost (21:6), and heaven itself will have a glory and radiance beyond what even Rome at the height of its splendor could ever have imagined (21:11-21). (p. 164).