A number of years ago, during what I now refer to as my “wilderness years” my husband and I were driving down to visit my sister who lived in Fayetteville, GA. We decided not to take the Interstate and used some of the major roads in south Atlanta instead to reach our destination.
While stopped for a traffic light, I noticed an enormous black limousine pull up beside us on the driver’s side of our car. What caught my attention was the license plate. It read “Holy 1”. Although not a Christian believer at the time (not reference to “wilderness years”) I was appalled. I also knew that we were not that far from the location of Creflo Dollar’s World Changers International Church, one of the earliest and largest proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel.”
I also remembered Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who leveraged their televangelism to new levels, and vast personal wealth for themselves. I also remembered my grandmother, who at the time was one of the true Christians that I knew. She live joyfully on the pittance she received from Social Security in public housing in Gadsden, Alabama.
We continued to follow this limousine until it turned into what I can only describe as a gigantic estate. The gatehouse alone was larger that the house we lived in. My anger intensified as I thought about those people, who in the name of Jesus Christ, prey on the innocent, the aged, and the desperate, for the purpose of self-enrichment. I sat fuming in the passenger seat until I recalled a casual comment my sister had once made.
She had told me once that if we took this particular route to her house we would drive right past Evander Holyfield’s house. Okay, the joke was on me that day. But after I returned to the church, studied the Bible, attended seminary courses on spiritual formation, my anger at those who preach that Jesus came to make us rich (as in money) has only intensified.
Perhaps one of the best-remembered saying of Jesus comes from his Sermon on the Mount, as described in Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew. They are called the Beatitudes and are worth remembering here.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called the sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In case you missed it, let me point out the obvious. There are no blessings for the wealthy. There are no blessings for the powerful. I have read, but not verified, that the topic Jesus spoke about the most was not sin, not sex, not even prayer. It was money. Listen to some of what he had to say about it:
Luke 21:1-2 “And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasure, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said ‘Truly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all, for all of these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood she had.”
It’s not the dollar amount that matters. It is the sacrifice that is pleasing to God.
In Luke Chapter 18, Jesus counsels a young ruler who came to him asking how to achieve eternal life. Despite all his good works and good intentions Jesus told him “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow me. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful He said “How hard it is for those have riches to enter the kingdom of heaven. For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy, the love of money is the root of all evil.
Now it is true that Jesus taught us not to be worried about the things of the world. That God would provide for our needs. That’s what the Gentiles worried about. But he never said that would include a new house, a fancy car, or an extensive wardrobe. Instead, in Matthew 6:33 he said “But first seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
I think back again on my grandmother. My grandfather died when my dad, her youngest of five children, was only seven years old. She told me once that she thought she had basically a third-grade education because she could only go to school during the summer. The rest of the year she was needed to work the farm along with her 10 brothers and sisters. But she could read, write, and do basic arithmetic.
She raised those children doing whatever work came to hand. She raised them to be wonderful people. And I never, never heard her complain once about her life. She had a roof over her head, food on the table, and clothes on her back. She was one of the happiest people I knew.
It sickens me to think that there are people out there who preach that if you are a “good” Christian, then God will somehow reward you financially. What they are saying is that if you are poor, then you are somehow not good. And these proponents of prosperity gospel somehow think they prove this by becoming filthy rich themselves.
If you ever need a contrast to these charlatans – look at Billy Graham. He only took a small salary from his ministry. He lives in a nice home in the mountains of North Carolina but he has neither a limousine or a private plane.
Go back and read the Beatitudes again. The reward is comfort when mourning, seeing the face of God, receiving mercy, obtaining the kingdom of God – not riches while on earth.
I try to always keep in mind the following verse from Psalm 62:
“If riches increase,
Do not set your heart on them.”