a lesson in contrasts and a matter of balance
I was helping out a friend this weekend who works at a Catholic school here in Taiwan, as she was asked to undertake the difficult task of translating legal/doctrinal statements from English into Chinese. To make matters worse, they were originally written in Italian! But the interesting thing about it was how the document was relating the vow of poverty that nuns take to the financial administration of an institution. The idea is that if our own Savior emptied himself and took on the nature of a servant, if he had no place to lay his head, and if the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, shouldn't followers of Christ also choose to live a certain kind of lifestyle? To our modern way of thinking the idea of renouncing your rights and/or possessions, much less committing to never acquiring anything except as you plan to offer it for the good of the community, well it seems outdated, impossible, and maybe even crazy!
The next morning I went to a church where the speaker spent a great part of the sermon expounding on how much God wants to bless his followers with health and....prosperity. And this is something I've been hearing a LOT in the churches I've visited recently. God wants to bless your business. God is a God of abundance; ask you and you will receive. None of this is wrong...right? Yet somehow it doesn't always sit well with me. It's really easy for me to write a church or preacher off as "health and wealth" and not want to listen to anything else they have to say.
I worry that in our desperation to get people into church, we want to make promises that God himself never did. A reading of the gospel seems to show that Jesus wasn't nearly as eager to attract followers if they were half-hearted, even turning away people who had seemingly reasonable excuses for delayed commitment (I'm just going to go say goodbye to my family, then I'll come follow you....). I worry that those hearing this prosperity gospel are the very embodiment of the seed that falls among the thorns, who receive the message with joy (who doesn't want the God of the universe on their side? Healing their illness, helping them find good parking spots, etc....), but are soon choked out by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth... I want to see true discipleship happening instead.
The Jesus we are called to follow is the Jesus who said this:
Mark 8:34“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. 35 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.36 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? 37 Is anything worth more than your soul?
In contrast to today's church, He typically didn't have a lot of good things to say about wealth:
Mark 10:17 As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. 19 But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
21 Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!”24 This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God.25 In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
26 The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
27 Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”
So does that mean we should all be taking vows of poverty? Are the promises of riches only for heaven? Can't we use wealth to bless others? In my reaction against the seemingly false teaching of the prosperity gospel, I didn't finish reading the passage, I'll underline the part that gave me pause:
28 Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said.
29 “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, 30 will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. 31 But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”
In other translations it is even clearer - a hundred times more blessing in this present age (along with persecution lest we forget), and in the age to come, eternal life. The book of Proverbs and many other parts of the Old Testament are also clear that on principle, those who follow God's way are likely to be rewarded, whether it is the logical outcome of living wisely, or as blessings in response to obedience.
A student in my bible study shared what I think is a profound truth: all of the things we long for to provide us security in life (money, power, friends etc) things we NEED to ensure we have a comfortable life are actually an attempt to fill a deeper need for eternal life.
So where does that leave us? Are we to pursue blessings? Are we to expect them?
BUT we don't want to be like ungrateful children at Christmastime. We should never let our desire for these things outweigh our desire for the Giver.