What Would Jesus Say About the Prosperity Gospel?
I recently read an article in Time Magazine entitled, "Does God Want You to be Rich?" The article begins by telling the story of a guy named George Adams, who lost his job in Ohio. He immediately moved his family to Houston Texas where he attended Joel Osteen's church Lakewood. He said that Osteen boasted his confidence and he went out and got a job selling cars. He sold his first vehicle in four days. He now says he is on his way to a six figure income and when he achieves it, he is going to build his dream house on 25 acres of land. He believes he owes all this to God because God promised prosperity to the person who believes. He concludes,
I'm dreaming big--because all of heaven is dreaming big," Adams continues. "Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us," he says. "But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It's Joel Osteen's ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?"
The Time Magazine Article goes on to say that Prosperity Theology places an emphasis on wanting people to be happy and wealthy. 31% of Christians believe that if you give money, God will give you money in return and 17% of Christians claimed they were followers of Prosperity Theology.
Of the four largest churches in America, three of them would claim this type of theology. These churches are pastured by Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and TD Jakes. The article went on to mention several pastors who preach that God wants to give people wealth and prosperity. For example, Joyce Meyer is quoted in this article as saying, "Who would want to get in on something where you're miserable, poor, broke, and ugly, and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven. I believe God wants to give you nice things."
The question I want to pose today is this: What would Jesus say about the Prosperity Gospel. When taking a broad sweep of the gospels teaching, we see that Jesus told his followers to pick up their cross and follow him. He told the rich young ruler to sell all his processions and follow him. He also tells his followers that God will provide all they need if they will trust him.
Today I want to look at one text in particular from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 6 of Matthew, Jesus has warned his listeners against showing their piety by publicly displaying their giving, their prayers, and their fasting. Jesus then says,
19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, [a] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, [b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.
When we read this piece of Jesus' sermon in context, verses 19-21 can be seen as a conclusion to the previous material in which he says that his followers should store up treasures in heaven by pleasing God, not treasures on earth by showing off to other people. It also provides a transition to the material that follows. Jesus tells his listeners to store up treasures in heaven where nothing can destroy it. He then says that where your treasure is, your heart will be there as well.
Verses 22 and 23 seem to be awkward at first, but in a 1st century context, flow nicely. Jesus says the eyes are the lamp of the body. In the first century it was believed that the eyes could show what was in a person's heart. If there was light in the eyes, it meant that good was in the heart. Darkness meant there was evil in the heart. (Evil Eyes) When we put these two sections together, Jesus seems to be suggesting that when a person seeks treasures on earth, it causes their heart to be evil. Contrast this with a passage later on in this chapter when Jesus says to seek God's kingdom first and then God will provide. It is as if Jesus is saying that when a person seeks treasures in this life, it will consume them, causing their heart to be darkened, but when a person seeks God's kingdom, then, in John Wesley's words, "will soon come to seek this only."
Jesus then summarizes the importance of seeking after God in verse 24. He concludes that it is impossible to serve both God and wealth. The Greek word for wealth is "mammon" which really means wealth. It is only used in two places in the Bible, this passage and in the story of the unjust steward in Luke 16.
Jesus on Prosperity
From this passage, I think Jesus would say a couple of things about "The Prosperity Gospel." First, I think Jesus may agree fundamentally with the theology that actually drives Prosperity Gospel. Fundamentally, I those who believe and preach prosperity believe that God's salvation in Jesus is about more than dying and going to heaven. They believe that Jesus came to bring God's kingdom to this world and wants people to experience his love, grace, and blessing now.
In Matthew 6, Jesus tells his followers to store up treasures in heaven, not on earth, which seems to imply that God wants us to think nothing about this world and all about heaven. I agree with NT Wright, who suggests that Jesus is talking about setting out mindset on God's kingdom, which Jesus believed had come. God was doing things here and now and Jesus wanted his followers to place their value in them now. Jesus goes on to say later in this chapter that if people will focus on God's kingdom, they will have all things given to them as well. In other words, when Jesus' followers focus on God and his kingdom, God will provide for them.
I believe Jesus would commend those who preach prosperity gospel for calling people to trust that God will provide for our needs that God will forgive us, heal us, and transform us.
Secondly, while I believe God will provide for our needs, Jesus would never suggest that our material processions are evidence of our spiritual maturity. In other words, I never see Jesus tell folks that is they will follow Jesus; they will become rich or have a nice home, a good job, and a healthy family.
Notice that Jesus moves from placing our treasures in things of God to examining what is in our hearts by the light of our eyes. In other words, the things our eyes look at reveal our true heart. I believe Jesus would say that God is not fooled by outward appearances, but looks at our hearts. I believe he would warn us not to be too caught up in how much money people make, asks us to look at the heart of the person.
Finally, I believe Jesus would say that the greatest problem with prosperity gospel theology is that it makes money and possessions our focus rather than God. Jesus warns his listeners that they cannot serve God and mammon; they will love one and hate the other. If someone's primary goal is to be wealthy and they believe God will enable that, and then they are really using God as a means to worship money. Jesus calls us to worship God regardless of the benefits we may get from it.
I am planning to loose some serious weight in the next several months after Caleb is born, but I often struggle with loosing weight because you have to eat healthy and exercise. For some people, this is easy, but with diet and exercise there are serious compromises that must be made.
For example, the benefit of exercising is that I will feel better, I can loose weight, and hopefully live longer. However, in order to exercise I will have to give us some things like sleep, which I hate doing. The same is true for eating healthy. While it will bring some good benefits, I cannot have fries and Buffalo wings every time I eat.
Just so we can all be honest with ourselves, I think we sometimes have similar issues with our spiritual lives as the prosperity gospel folks. If you are anything like me, you at times have played Cost- Analysis Discipleship. What I mean by this is that we weight the benefits of following Jesus verses the benefits of not. For example, sometimes we follow God because we think it will somehow make our better in the long run or sometimes will accept Jesus to keep us from going to hell.
I want to suggest that Jesus is telling us in this passage that we ought to love and worship God for God's sake. If we allow God to be our treasure and worship him regardless of what may happen in the future, I believe we can trust him to care for us. I know that oftentimes we do choose God for some benefit, but I believe Jesus is asking his followers to move to a deeper place and to allow God to be our treasure.