Rev. Yme Woensdregt
In the last three weeks, I’ve sketched out an emerging portrait of Jesus. We saw the human Jesus, a peasant living among other peasants under the brutal rule of the Roman Empire in 1st century Palestine.
Given that kind of portrait, it should come as no surprise that in my opinion (humble or not!), the so–called prosperity gospel is a corrupt and repugnant mis–reading of the gospel. It is completely incompatible with the teaching of Jesus.
It is true that there are hints of it in the Old Testament, and particularly in Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 7:12–14 reads, “If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Lord your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you. You shall be the most blessed of peoples.”
That passage, and others like it, seem to draw a straight line between obedience to God and blessings for God’s obedient people. But we need to be careful about such readings. There are other words in Deuteronomy such as, “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” (15:10) In other words, God’s blessings are not meant to be hoarded; they are to be shared liberally, cheerfully, ungrudgingly.
But this kind of thinking is not found in Jesus’ teachings. Jesus said things like “You cannot serve both God and money” or “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” or “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor”.
The so–called prosperity gospel is an insipid heresy which has, regrettably, grown in popularity among Christians in North America. It teaches that God blesses those whom God favours with material wealth. It is not surprising that it has boomed in recent years. Simply put, it fuels human greed.
Three televangelists are commonly viewed as founders of the prosperity gospel movement—Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland and Frederick K.C. Price. This movement took hold in the 1970’s and 1980’s (how recent it is!). Oral Roberts was one of the best–known proponents of prosperity theology. In 1987 he told his television flock that God would call him home if he didn’t raise $8 million in a matter of weeks. He raised $9.1 million.
The trend continues with hucksters like Joel Osteen, the 53–year–old head of Lakewood Church in Houston. His TV ministry reaches more than 7 million viewers; his books have sold millions of copies. “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us,” Osteen wrote in a 2005 letter to his flock.
As crass as that may sound, Osteen’s version of the prosperity gospel is more gentle (and decidedly less sweaty) than those preached by such co–religionists as Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes and the appropriately named Creflo Dollar (I swear, I’m not making this up.)
Teaching the faithful to store up treasures on earth as a primary goal of faithful living is completely at odds with the teaching of Jesus. The prosperity gospel turns Christian faith into a vapid club which blesses greed with a doctrine that amounts to little more than a spiritual Magic 8 Ball: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.
But if you’re not rich, then what? Does that mean God has cursed the poor? Have they somehow been less faithful than the rich? And if God were so concerned about Mercedes and mansions and material gain, why would God’s son have been born into poverty? Why would Jesus have been a peasant?
Nowhere has the prosperity gospel flourished more than among the poor and the working class. Told that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and favor, followers strive for trappings of luxury they can little afford in an effort to prove that they are blessed spiritually. Some critics have gone so far as to place part of the blame for the past decade’s spending binge and foreclosure crisis at the foot of the prosperity gospel’s altar.
Jesus was born poor, and he died poor. During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook