Monday, August 17, 2009

Getting Rich with Jesus

There's an article in this past week's NY Times that quickly made its way through a circle of colleagues and acquaintances: The opening paragraph reads:  "Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God."

As I continued reading the article, my frustration and anger grew. This is all so very wrong.

Keep in mind that there are multiple manifestations of the Christian faith.  With the Bible widely available, and study tools accessible to anyone, people can, and generally do, pick and choose which parts of it to emphasize and which parts to ignore.  The Bible is a complex book, written thousands of years ago with multiple authors and in cultures and contexts radically different from our own.  

The longer I study the Bible, however, the more convinced I am that this book does open to us the way to God.  Also, the deeper I move into the Scriptures, the more I become aware that I am capable of understanding very little about the mystery and magnificence of that which we call God, or Creator, or Divine, or The Holy One or any other term we use.  My finite mind cannot wrap itself around that which is infinite.

As my humility has grown--for in my early years I was sure I had all the answers--so has my willingness to admit that I might be wrong about some things. Viewpoints of others, even when radically differing from mine, may have a solid foundation in biblical truth and should be treated with holy generosity.

Nonetheless, on this point I take my stand:  the "prosperity gospel" described in that article is not just a travesty of what is taught in the Bible, but I believe it that it cannot be properly called "Christian."  These few very, very rich "evangelists" (an evangelist is one who announces the Good News of Jesus Christ) systematically prey upon the poor and disadvantaged, sucking funds from them in order to maintain lifestyles that can only be described as gluttonous in their materialistic excess.  All this talk of private jets and expensive clothes and jewels and lavishly decorated estates and fancy automobiles finds no basis in the life of God's people as described in the Bible. 

How can those who function as spiritual black holes, feeding their unending greed for material things by preying upon the financially precarious and vulnerable, possibly be loving others the way they love themselves?  

My own life contains considerable luxury.  After all, a flip of the faucet gives me hot and hold running water; thermostats keep the house and workplace at comfortable temperatures; toilets flush on demand and toilet paper is soft and plentiful; food spills out of my cupboards, partly because of the overflow from the garden, which I can keep watered without having any rain fall. A machine washes my clothes, another washes my dishes.  My mobile phone and laptop computer mean instant connection to pretty well anyone anywhere.  And just about everyone reading this column has those same luxuries. 

However, the moment I see these luxuries as evidence that God loves me more and is blessing me more than someone who doesn't have them, or that I have more faith than the "less blessed" person does, I tread on shaky theological ground. Instead, my luxuries give me a different obligation. I must recognize to those who have much given to them also have much expected of them.  Any response other than gratefulness to God and generosity to others in the light of such blessings will quickly destroy the soul.

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