Whose gifts are we offering? And to whom? What is the mission plan God calls us to? Jesus’ alternative-intentional-community that he was forming, addressed, and came to serve, all people, including the poor. In the early church, according to the book of Acts, they made Jesus’ teaching a rule. Believers joined “the Way,” as it was called, and had to sell all their possessions and offer it back to the leaders of the Jesus movement, to be distributed equally amongst all as any had need.
For some, this will set off alarm bells of our national polemic on “class-warfare!” Jesus and the early church, it seems clear, are advocating for a redistribution of wealth, which most Americans polled today, say, they’re against. What’s clear, at least in this one gospel teaching, is that the barrier, the “one thing” that the rich man lacks, is sharing his possessions with the poor, according to Jesus. I doubt Jesus would name it “class-warfare,” as it has been, in our current cultural discourse. But Jesus weighs in heavily and often, on the issue of Mammon, or money, and comes down firmly on the side of, redistribution and sharing. In his big picture, money is a tool for increasing human relationships of healing and love – rather than, love of money. And in the Kingdom, or realm of God, that the rich man is interested in, true treasure is freedom from the want of privilege, and a joyous invitation to the egalitarian banquet celebration with the Messiah!
Yet many are drawn to the popular and growing theology, called The Prosperity Gospel, where the treasure of the kingdom and realm of God is found through thinking positively and doing good – just the opposite of the counter-cultural life of the Way Jesus invites us to.
The prosperity gospel, you could say, was alive and well in Jesus’ time, and long before him as well, in Hebrew culture. Abraham was a blessed man before being called by God, rich by every measure of the many flocks and herds of animals, and large extended family and clan, that belonged to him. This kind of wealth was a marker of a high status, being placed upon him. The rich man who “ran up and bowed downed before Jesus,” also was considered blessed by his great possessions.
The best, most popular proponent of the Prosperity Gospel today, is probably Joel Osteen. In Houston, he heads the largest congregation in the country, boasting 43,500 in weekly attendance, almost double the next biggest mega-church. So, who am I to criticize?! And, I have nothing against him personally, it’s just that, in his latest book, as one commentator says, there’s hardly any mention of the gospels at all from the #1 Prosperity Gospel teacher. Osteen’s idea is that “God wants to increase us financially,” which he illustrates in a personal story, how when
his father was “willing to go beyond the barriers of the past [by applying the principles found in his book], he broke that curse of poverty in his family. Now, his siblings and his children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, are all going to experience more of the goodness of God because of what one man did” (p. 25), says Osteen.
And a few pages later, even though there is no scriptural reference or theologian he refers to,
he is convinced [quote] “God wants to give you your own house” (p. 35). The U.S. government and the banking system seemed to agree with Osteen, right up until the [Great Recession hit]. Now they’re taking away many of those houses. But this doesn’t deter Osteen; [he’s sticking to his story, despite the many innocent victims who were following his script.] (http://www.svchapel.org/resources/articles/22-contemporary-issues/620-joel-osteen-and-the-prosperity-gospel)
Jesus however, siding with the prophets, undid this age-old temptation that riches are a sign of prosperity. When he wasn’t warning against the love of money and the unwillingness to share, he was lampooning it. He told his disciples: “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.” The contemporary artist, Charles McCollough, depicted this saying, using a simple baked-clay medium, which shows two men dressed like rich Monopoly game pieces, one at each end of a terrified looking camel, as the first tries to push, and the other tries to pull it, into somewhere it clearly doesn’t fit – hilariously capturing Jesus’ joke!
Jesus exposes the rich man’s status as being worth-less in the kingdom of God, who went away shocked and grieving, like a Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzy scheme came tumbling down. For this rich man, Jesus even added an 11th Commandment, “you shall not defraud,” capturing the warning and outrage of the prophet Amos before him, that the wealth of the rich rulers in Jerusalem was inherently corrupt because it was gained at the expense of poor. Jesus, who looked intently at the rich man, has nothing against him personally, indeed, loves him, it says, but sees the one thing he lacks, a self-awareness of his privilege to defraud others, which goes hand in hand with his unwillingness to share.
But, I also warn you from trusting me. I am probably no better than the rich man or Bernie, socking my wealth away in savings for retirement instead of selling it and giving it to the poor. I am rich, at least by any measure of the world’s standards. I have “in so many ways,” as our Confession says, “caused or suffer brokenness: [by] envy, ambition, conflict, boasting, [a] hard heart, lashing tongue, [and] dishonor for the poor.” Whose gifts are we offering? And to whom? What is the mission plan, God calls us to?
The cartoon that Jesus draws us, of a camel, the largest of animals in Palestine, being pushed through the eye of a needle, is disarmingly hilarious! “The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved’?” Well, exactly, says Jesus, that’s the point, none of us can save ourselves. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
We want to mitigate the shock of this “camel thru the eye of a needle” cartoon, desperately trying to find a way to get into Kingdom of God, but the truth is that we all fall short. Jesus disabuses us of the religious notion that we can earn our way into God’s good graces, either by our own hard work of doing good, or through our piously hanging on to honor and status before others. To me though, this seems like very freeing good news, doesn’t it? It relaxes us to be open enough to catch the vision and to see the egalitarian other-worldly pull of KoG.
Following Jesus will not make us rich in possessions, or, as Joel Osteen insists, “help you get a good parking spot” when you’re out shopping for more stuff! In Jesus’ alternative-egalitarian-banqueting movement, Jesus lifts up the poor, and brings low the rich, a most distressing counter-cultural message, and, I’m afraid, not what the American dream promises! Following Jesus and living in the kingdom and realm of God, we find that families are no longer ordered by Patriarchy, race or class, sexuality or gender. And trying to live that out in this interim time, may bring more push-back and persecution, than prosperity.
Never-the-less, for the sake of justice and peace, Jesus invites us on this journey, on the way, following him. The biggest shock is finding that it leads to the cross, of course, where Jesus backs up this teaching to the rich man, by giving up everything, his life, which births new life for us. The biggest joy, though, is letting go of our daily need to justify ourselves, dying to this world of increasing injustice masked in false-righteousness, to be raised with the Christ, the new being, and to be freed to live right now, already, as if paradise has already arrived and been given to us, dining at this banqueting table. Isn’t this the mission plan God calls us to!?!