Prosperity Theology or the Prosperity Gospel is a religious belief among some Protestant Christians that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Interesting, as I was raised up to believe that God has a preference for the poor.
In Matthew’s story of the rich young man, Jesus responds to the question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” with another question (so typical of Jesus): “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The rich young man wants to know “which ones.” Lots of us would like an easy answer to that. Turns out all of them are important.
Jesus lists the short version: “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother; also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But the text continues, “When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Then the verse many forget, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
In Isaiah and the Psalms we are repeatedly reminded of God’s favor for the poor and downtrodden. Psalm 140:2 says, “I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor.” Yeah, yeah, I know, Karl Marx used this stuff to call Christianity the “opiate of the masses,” but hear me out. Leviticus says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
Preference for and protection of the poor is mentioned over 25 times in what we call the Old Testament. But this Prosperity Gospel stuff is from Christians, so that must be in the New Testament, right?
Beginning with the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And no, you can’t say, well, Jesus was talking about the poor “in spirit” so that’s not the same thing.
Jesus speaking of his ministry and the good news in Matthew 11: 5 tells us “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (my emphasis.)
Why might that be? Can’t the rich be good at philanthropy? Of course they can. People like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet give away tons of money every year.
Admirable, but then there are thousands more who worship at the well of American capitalism and seem to believe that wealth is a zero-sum game and if they don’t get it, someone else will and there won’t be enough for them, whatever they already have.
The sin is not so much the acquisition of wealth, it is believing that the poor are somehow deserving of their status. That they should follow the American dream (or myth) if you work hard you will be rewarded with wealth, so if you are poor it is your fault.
Applicable for us today, the Epistle of James says, “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?”
One of God’s desires for us is that we respect the dignity of every human being. There is no additional amendment to that which requires a financial audit.
The Rev. Dr. Mike Fay is rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Salida.