Time magazine recently ran a cover story that asked the question: "Does God want you to be Rich?" Apparently a growing number of preachers are giving this question an affirmative answer. Houston’s Joel Osteen is just the latest preacher to promise prosperity to those who will just believe. But, the question is: What am I supposed to believe in? God or money? I remember going to a rally at a church many years ago for a certain unnamed soap distributor. The organizers hoped to get us all jazzed up to sell and buy products by promising us more material blessings. And so we shouted out words of praise to money.
So what does God want for us? Apparently 61% of us think God wants us to be rich and prosperous, which may be why Osteen and his fellow preachers are so popular. Just believe and you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Now, I believe that attitude is important and that a positive attitude will take you a long way in life, but that’s different from equating belief in God and material prosperity.
God wants good things for us. Why? Because that’s God’s nature. God isn’t some kind of despot sitting on his heavenly throne looking for ways to spite us. The problem with prosperity teaching isn’t the promise of happiness or blessing. The problem is the assumption that if we believe the right things we’ll be healthy and wealthy. My experience tells me that it takes hard work, some natural ability, and a whole lot of breaks along the way to achieve success in life.
There’s another problem with this message and that’s the message it gives to the poor and marginalized of society. What it says is simple: Because things aren’t going well for you, God is either punishing you or God doesn’t care about you. During Katrina did God care less about the people who lived in the 9th Ward? Did God care more about the patients in the upscale private hospital who were airlifted out, while the poor patients in a neighboring public hospital were left behind?
Though the Time poll says that most people reject the idea that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, if God want’s me to prosper then poverty must say something about God’s priorities. Although I’ve heard prosperity teachers tell people they didn’t get what they wanted because they didn’t have enough faith, I don’t remember hearing Jesus say that.
The Rich Man’s Question
Jesus dealt with this issue of prosperity, but I don’t think you’ll like his answer. One day a devout but wealthy man came up to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered by pointing him to the commandments, and more specifically the commands that deal with the way we deal with family and neighbors and not the ones that deal with our relationship with God. I don’t know about you, but I find that interesting.
The man answered: I’ve kept them all from childhood. Just when he thought he was safe, Jesus dropped the other shoe: "Well, you lack just one thing, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor." Now, I don’t think that’s what he expected to hear, because it’s not what we expect to hear. This seems a bit drastic – to inherit eternal life you have to become poor. Jesus isn’t just saying that you can’t take it with you, he’s saying you can’t have it now if you want to be his disciple. When the man heard this, he realized that the demands of following Jesus were more than he could accept. Turning around, he sadly walked away, his head hung low, all because he had so many possessions.
The Hold of our Possessions
Though the pharaohs thought they could take it with them, I think most of us know we can’t do it. Still, that doesn’t keep us from trying.
Although 61% of us believe that God wants us to be prosperous, I think many of us have a suspicion that this might not be true. It seems that 48% of us recognize that Jesus wasn’t rich and that Jesus wants us to follow his example. It seems that many of us are a bit conflicted about this question. We want it all, but we realize that our material possessions tend to get in the way of following Jesus. Still, like the rich man our possessions have a strong hold on us.The Eye of the Needle
The disciples were dumbfounded when they heard Jesus saying that it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. If the rich can’t make it, who can? I mean, if God want’s us to be rich what do we do with Jesus?
There have been many attempts at explaining this difficult saying away. One story suggests that there was once a gate in Jerusalem called the "eye of a needle" gate. It was said that a camel could only get through it if it was relieved of its burden and then crawled on its knees through the gate. In other words, you can have everything you want in this life, but you can’t take it with you. Unfortunately that gate never existed, so we’re left with a message about rich people not making it into the kingdom. Now, fortunately for me, I’m not rich, so I should be safe. Or am I?
I may not be rich by Donald Trump standards, but I sure have a lot of possessions. If you don’t believe me, ask Cheryl and she’ll tell you all about the boxes of books in the garage. If only I had a bigger house, I could put in more shelves and have room for them and more. Though I want to believe that I’m part of the kingdom of God, am I ready to give it all up for him?
Are there any Practical Implications?
And yet, there are some important practical implications to this call to poverty. In fact, there's a huge flaw in Jesus' argument, because if we take Jesus at his word and give everything to the poor, then we’ll be poor and that will make us a burden on society. St. Francis took this literally and gave up everything and became a beggar, but if everyone becomes a beggar, that could be a problem!
I don’t know how to cut through this Gordian knot, but I think Jesus is reminding us that where we put our treasure, we also put our hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about "costly grace," and maybe this is what he was talking about. God’s grace does come at a cost, to God and to us. The passage softens all this by promising blessings in this life to those who give up everything and follow Jesus. I appreciate this promise, but I’m still wrestling with this other issue about giving everything to the poor. Does that mean that God wants me to do something about poverty? Is there something to Jesus’ statement that where we put our treasure we also put our hearts? Muhammad Yunus just won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to set up a micro-lending bank that has lifted millions of poor out of abject poverty. Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about.
Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 15, 2006