Elsewhere: the wealthy Christian

Remaining on the topic of wealth this week (see the wealthy Church from Tuesday), today’s topic is the wealthy Christian – or more precisely what some Christians teach to become prosperous.

Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) Poor in spirit is detachment from material things. Prosperity gospel (a/k/a prosperity theology or the “health and wealth” gospel) teaches something quite different. Not only are you promised material wealth and other non-spiritual happiness in this life, but it is an end in itself. This would be the opposite of detachment. It is also false – just another of the thousands of different Protestant interpretations of Holy Scripture.

When you have no Magisterium and lack authority protected by the Holy Spirit, almost anything is possible. In this case, the claim is that prosperity (material, physical and spiritual) is God’s promise to you and the earthly fruit of your true faith. Millions of people believe this stuff.

It seems reasonable to me to conclude that if you happen to be poor then it is a result of your weak faith. Conversely, extremely wealthy people must be the truly holy among us (sorry Catholic clergy and religious, you don’t make the grade!). Frankly, this is absurd. Holiness and wealth are independent of each other.

Father Robert Barron addressed this topic at The Integrated Catholic Life:

To give the prosperity gospellers their due, there is some biblical warrant for their position. The book of Deuteronomy consistently promises Israel that, if it remains faithful to God’s commands, it will receive numerous benefits in this world. The psalmist too assures us, “delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And Jesus himself counsels: “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) will be added unto you.” And there is no doubt that the Bible consistently urges people to trust in the providence of God at all times. Jesus’ reminder that the birds, who neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns but who are nevertheless fed by their heavenly Father, is a summation of the Scriptural confidence in God’s care for those who have faith in him.

However, we must be attentive to the very subtle way that the Bible itself nuances and specifies these claims. The great counterpoise to the book of Deuteronomy is the book of Job, which tells the story of a thoroughly righteous man who, in one fell swoop, suffers the loss of all of his material prosperity. Job’s friends, operating out of a standard Deuteronomistic (or prosperity Gospel) point of view, argue that he must have grievously offended God, but Job – and God himself – protest against this simplistic interpretation. The deepest reason for Job’s suffering, we learn, is lost in the infinite abyss of God’s permissive will and is by no means easily correlatable to Job’s virtue or lack thereof. And Jesus himself, the very archetype of the faithful Israelite, experiences not earthly prosperity, but a life of simplicity and death on a brutal instrument of torture. If Joel Osteen and Oral Roberts were right, we would expect Jesus to have been the richest man in Nazareth and a darling of Jerusalem high society.

The resolution of this issue turns on a distinction between a conventional understanding and a divine understanding of the successful life. Deuteronomy is indeed right when it says that “prosperity” will follow from obedience to God’s will, but the prosperity in question is spiritual flourishing, and not necessarily worldly success. Obeying the divine commands does indeed lead to the right ordering of the self, and therefore to an increase in joy, even if that very obedience leads, in worldly terms, to abject suffering or failure. St. Thomas More followed the voice of his conscience and this led to the loss of his home, his family, his considerable fortune, his high political status, and eventually his life. But he died, spiritually speaking, a successful man, a saint. St. Thomas Aquinas endeavored to answer a question that many of us ask: why do the wicked often prosper and the righteous suffer? Thomas turned the question on its head by introducing the wider context of God’s purposes. Perhaps, he suggested, the good person who is deprived of material goods is actually being rewarded, since that deprivation opens him more and more to the spiritual dimension; and perhaps the wicked person who has every worldly benefit is actually being punished, since those material preoccupations close him to the only good that finally matters.

Read the Father Barrons’s whole piece: The Dangers of the Prosperity Gospel. Alternatively, Father presents generally the same content in this video:

Two other good articles on this topic are The Problem for the Prosperity Gospel at Beliefnet and The Worst Ideas of the Decade published in The Washington Post.

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