I’ve always thought that the passage about the rich young man who came to Jesus asking how he could have eternal life was the death-knell for prosperity “gospel” preaching, so I was interested to see a preacher on some TBN-like channel shouting at his congregation about it today. I watched for a few minutes to see how he would deal with the words in verses 23-25 about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
First, I thought he did a good job explaining the concept of the “Kingdom of Heaven” to his congregation: that it’s God’s way of doing things, and that it involves seed (God’s incorruptible word), soil (human hearts), a farmer (Christ), and harvesters (believers). All right! I thought. Maybe this guy isn’t so bad! That’s a pretty good definition, and consistent with the testimony of the Gospels! I guess I can also say that he carefully (well, maybe not SO carefully) worked through the passage, which is always a good technique, however ill-applied in this circumstances. From there, however…
He grossly misinterpreted the rest of the passage, starting with verse 26. The disciples are amazed, he said, because “they ain’t broke.” Apparently, if they were broke, they would have been excited that it was tough for rich people to inherit the Kingdom! (This to a chorus of “Amens” from the audience.) The real reason they were astonished is that Jesus, in saying that it’s hard for rich people to enter the kingdom, was ringing the changes: the Jewish people themselves were caught up hopelessly in the idea that wealth proved God’s blessing and poverty proved God’s curse. Look at the ministry of Jesus, the classic iconoclast, throughout the Gospels. He continually called into question the accepted ideas of the day about who possessed God’s favor — not necessarily the Pharisees (the religious elite, or as my pastor calls them, “the religious right”), or the wealthy, or the prominent, because they trusted in their wealth or position, but rather the childlike, the poor, and the humble, because they saw their desperate need for God.
Then, he claimed that verse 27 proved that “with man (it) is impossible” for rich people to be saved, “but with God, all things are possible,” so everybody should have confidence that God wants them to be rich, since he likes to do things that are impossible for men. Whoa, whoa! What did Jesus just finish telling the rich man? “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me.” To assert that God wants us to be rich based on a verse just millimeters away from Jesus’ radical command for a person obsessed with wealth to break free from wealth is not only foolish, it’s misleading and irresponsible. Let John Gill explain it:
(God) can so influence and dispose (a man’s) mind, as to distribute his riches cheerfully among the poor, and largely, and liberally supply their wants, and even part with all, when necessity requires it: he can change his heart, and cause the desires of his soul to be after true riches of grace and glory; and bring him to see his own spiritual poverty, his need of Christ, and salvation by him; and to deny himself, take up the cross, and follow him, by submitting to his most despised ordinances, and by suffering the loss of all things for his sake; and he can carry him through a thousand snares safe to his kingdom and glory
Then this guy, who as I’m watching the program seems increasingly nutty, goes on to verses 29 and 30, which is where he really gets riled up. Everyone who gives up houses and brother and all that will receive it back a hundredfold in this life, he says, and Praise The Lord!! With persecutions? I’m already being persecuted, and so are you, he says, so tell the Lord to bring on the persecutions, because people are talking about you behind your back anyway, and wouldn’t you rather have a hundredfold of money and houses and lands (That you never gave up in the first place because you’re so obsessed with them, I thought) in addition to the persecution you’re already receiving? I’d rather have money than persecution any day! At this point I got so disgusted that I dove across the couch for the remote and changed the channel.
Oh, man… I hardly know where to start, this is so wrong. *Wading into the fray*
1. The passage says nothing, I repeat, nothing about money. Extrapolating from verses 29-30 that God wants you to have a hundredfold of money you never gave up shows that you may, in fact, be illiterate.
2. Jesus never promises his disciples, or us, worldly prosperity. Ever. Gill interprets this as a sweetening of our enjoyment of the temporal things that we do have, and a metaphor for the “house” of God — the mother and father and siblings we inherit in Christ. For crying out loud, do a word study of “house” and “land” in the whole of Scripture. They do not refer to a building with four walls, or a tract of geographical territory, but rather to the offspring of Christ (the chosen people), and the Kingdom of God in almost every instance! Duh!
3. Having people gossip about you is absolutely, incontrovertibly not persecution. Read about the violent deaths of believers under Nero and other brutal Roman emperors, and then you’ll have a taste of what persecution really means. Or study Darfur, Iran, or China. Or read the biography of Jim Eliot, or learn about the thousands currently in prison for their faith. But to say that you’re being persecuted when people talk bad about you is to spit on the testimonies of the millions who have suffered and died for the sake of the name of Christ.
4. The verses in this passage drive the reader inexorably toward the final phrase: “and in the age to come, eternal life.” Houses and lands and money will turn to dust, but the believer’s true inheritance is eternal life in the age to come!
All this craziness is just a glimpse of the problems with the prosperity “gospel.” Don’t be suckered into believing this nonsense, nor into believing that it’s a true likeness of the Gospel of Christ.