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When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks, was go to a new church, even though he had to move his wife and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston, to do it. Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood, the home church of megapastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen.What do you think? The article clearly notes that this is NOT all the gospels say about money. It notes Jesus' references to self-denial(2) and his question asking, "What good will it be for [someone] if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"(3) But a growing number of Christians like George Adams, want to restate the question and ask, "Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?" This is not a brand new phenomenon. The Pentecostal televangelists of the 80's preached a gospel of "Health and Wealth," or "Name It and Claim It," or some such appellation. It is "Prosperity Theology" - in a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke, and its signature verse could be John 10:10: "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly."
Sounds very appealing. In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they believed precisely that, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31% agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.
I doubt that that would have been the thinking of the young man in our lesson this morning. He was apparently a pretty sharp fellow, a first-in-the-class, wildly successful, model citizen type, even sincerely religious - the kind that Galilean mothers would want their babies to look up to. He came running. He threw himself at Jesus' feet. "Good teacher!" he began.
Quickly Jesus answered back, "No flattery! Don't call me good! Keep that word for God!" It is almost as if Jesus were trying to curb his enthusiasm.
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"
"Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy."
Jesus looked at him and loved him. Something must have been very winsome about this fellow because this is the only place in the synoptic gospels that indicates Jesus' love for an individual. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
Of all the texts about discipleship that we find in the pages of scripture, none of them is quite as clear as this one that respectability is not the whole story. Jesus quoted the commandments which were the basis of the decent life. Without hesitation the young man said he had kept them all. He had never harmed anyone. Wonderful. But what GOOD had he done? Well... Then the word says, "At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth."
So the TIME magazine question comes again: "Does God Want You To Be Rich?" Well, apparently, the answer for this young fellow is NO.
This Prosperity Gospel movement has bothered a number of prominent pastors and theologians. Rick Warren, who is the pastor of another mega-church in southern California and the author of the wildly popular book, The Purpose Driven Life, finds the very basis of Prosperity laughable. "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?", he snorts. "There is a word for that: baloney. It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn't everyone in the church a millionaire?"
Well, scripture has the answer to that. Right here in this lesson. "Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!' The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, 'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.'"
By the way, I am sure you have heard a fair amount of preaching through the years explaining that "camel through the eye of a needle" phrase. One is that the "Needle's Eye" was the name of a small gate into the city of Jerusalem, the way one had to enter after the main gates were closed. In order for someone to get a camel through this small gate, the camel would have to be unloaded and bow down to get through the small door. Sounds good, but unfortunately, there is no evidence that such a small door was ever called "the needle's eye." One commentator says, "...worse than the lack of evidence for this conjecture is its effect in actually undermining the point of the proverb. That which Jesus presented as ludicrously impossible is turned into a remote possibility: the rich person, given sufficient unloading and humility, might just possibly be able to squeeze in. That was not what Jesus' proverb meant, and it was not how the disciples understood it."(4)
According to the text, they were "amazed" to hear what Jesus said. After all, their culture assumed that the wealthy were closer to God and their wealth was a visible expression of God's pleasure with them. For that matter, they had learned early on that those who kept the commandments were God's special friends. But the young man who seemed to be the perfect candidate, based on his wealth and his faithful obedience, was now no longer here.
The disciples' question to Jesus makes sense. "Who then can be saved?"
"Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.'"
So the question of the morning returns: "Does God Want You To Be Rich?" Well, if it takes nothing less than a miracle from heaven to get a rich person into the kingdom, what do you think the answer is?
The TIME article again:
"Jesus' words about money don't make us very comfortable, and people don't want to hear about it," notes Collin Hansen, an editor at the evangelical monthly Christianity Today. Pastors are happy to discuss from the pulpit hot-button topics like sex and even politics. But the relative absence of sermons about money--which the Bible mentions several thousand times--is one of the more stunning omissions in American religion, especially among its white middle-class precincts. Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow says much of the U.S. church "talks about giving but does not talk about the broader financial concerns people have, or the pressures at work. There has long been a taboo on talking candidly about money."Sad but true. We ought to preach more about money if for no other reason than to keep folks from being misguided by some of this unbiblical justification of our culture's take-no-prisoners pursuit of prosperity. STUFF does not equate to happiness.
Do you remember the name H. Ross Perot? That's right, the billionaire who ran for president as an independent in 1992. Fortune magazine once quoted him as saying, "Guys, just remember, if you get lucky, if you make a lot of money, if you get out and buy a lot of stuff--it's gonna break. You got your biggest, fanciest mansion in the world. It has air conditioning. It's got a pool. Just think of all the pumps that are going to go out. Or go to a yacht basin any place in the world. Nobody is smiling, and I'll tell you why. Something broke that morning. The generator's out; the microwave oven doesn't work...Things just don't mean happiness."(5)
Harvard Medical School psychologist Steven Berglas has written a book called The Success Syndrome. He has found that individuals who in his word "suffer" from success have arrogance and a sense of aloneness. Insider trader Dennis Levine was asked by his wife why he needed the money from insider trading and he really had no answer. Levine says that when his income was $100,000, he hungered for $200,000, and when he was making $1 million, he hungered for $3 million. Berglas says that oddly enough people who find that $200,000 did not make them happy never asked themselves why they thought $300,000 would make them happy.(6)
Last week, the program Marketplace(7) on National Public Radio had an intriguing story. Ihsan Khan was raised by subsistence farmers in a hut in the impoverished Himalayan town of Battagram. But when he was 18, he scored his first break: a visa to America. He went to Chicago and later, Washington, D.C. For the next twenty years, he scraped together a living as a security guard and a cab driver. And then, one night, he had a very American dream. He says, "This was something that I saw too many beautiful things. Like rubies, diamonds...And then I'm speaking to a lot of people, way too big of a crowd. And then this number: 246 1725. Powerball 31. He played those numbers for ten years. And then it paid off - the Pakistani taxi driver hit a $55 million Powerball jackpot. When he found out, he gave one last cab ride...for free. Then he bought himself a Mercedes 600, and a couple million dollar mansions, one in Virginia and one in Islamabad.
Khan's next move was less predictable. He went back to his hometown and ran for mayor. His electoral opponents tried to cut him down by dubbing him the "American Dollar Man." But, if anything, the dollar value helped and he was elected last October.
Two days later, a devastating earthquake hit Pakistan. It killed 3,000 citizens of Battagram. Mayor Khan rose to the occasion. He was able to bypass the government's inefficient bureaucracy by dipping directly into his jackpot. He handed out $300,000 worth of medicine and roofing materials. Khan went to a camp for earthquake survivors in Battagram. He is not happy with the thin plastic sheets that serve as home for the thousands stranded here. But other than giving away cash, he is powerless to improve things. So it frustrates him when earthquake victims demand more help. As Khan tries to leave the camp, he is literally mobbed by survivors. One man blocks him from getting into his Landcruiser. He asks, "What's the government going to give us when we go back?" Kahn responds: food, shelter, stove, blanket, mattresses. The man is not satisfied.
Khan says that before he was a multimillionaire mayor, he did not think much of welfare. But now that he is loaded, he says he has realized two things about money: that everyone is greedy for it, and that it cannot always fix everything.
So, one more time: Does God Want You To Be Rich? You can answer for yourself. I will leave you with the answer of one Bonnie Jean Comazzi of Sonora, California whose letter to the editor in response to the article reads, "Without a doubt, God wants us to enjoy abundance. But [God] wants us to be rich in love, mercy, forgiveness, hope and faith. Earthly riches are temporary. Godly riches are eternal."(8)
1. Article by David Van Biema & Jeff Chu, September 18, 2006, pp. 48-56
2. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23
3. Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:26; Luke 9:25
4. Brian Stoffregen via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #13334, 10/8/06
8. TIME, 10/8/06, p. 10