Elaine Storkey explains that, while he never promised us financial prosperity, Jesus’ good news is far better
Study passages: Luke 15:8-10, Matthew 6:19-24
Having an early flight from Dulles Airport, Washington, I stayed over in an airport hotel the night before. Relaxing with a cup of hot chocolate before bed, I switched on the TV to get an update on what was happening across the world. The channel that confronted me happened to be that of a television evangelist. I settled back and listened. It took only a few minutes of passionate rhetoric for me to realise he was proclaiming a very dubious message. He was promoting the ‘prosperity gospel’, far away from the teachings of Jesus.
The lure of prosperity
His message, in a nutshell, was that God promises material and financial benefits for true believers. If people have real faith in Jesus, they will acquire tangible blessings, including great possessions, as their rightful inheritance in this life. We have to ‘name and claim’ the things we want from God because that’s the way material blessings come. These blessings can be financial, physical, emotional or whatever else we need. Deep faith can cure anything. We don’t have to be subject to the crippling effects of sickness and disease, or scavenges of poverty. For Jesus came to bring ‘good news’ to the poor and abundant life to his followers, not deprivation. If we exercise enough faith we will be lifted into health and prosperity. After many ‘namings’ we were invited to pray with the evangelist, bringing areas of life to God where we needed healing, financial improvement or other blessings. As we prayed and ‘claimed’, the subtext became evident. If we did not start to receive some measure of healing, prosperity or blessings it was due to lack of personal faith.
It wasn’t long before we were given biblical texts to back up the steps we had to take. He quoted Jesus in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” We were told that the way to gain blessing therefore was to give more money to the kingdom of God, especially by giving to the ministry of this onscreen evangelist.
The material and financial prosperity that we would receive was in direct proportion to what we gave, whatever our present financial state. Even if those watching had little money, giving to the ministry would make them rich, for God would honour their pledge and repay many times over what they entrusted to him. Links for payment flashed on to the screen; an app to download; testimonies from those whom God had prospered after giving. Then more prayers, more promises, more assurances and the programme was over.
Did this preacher believe what he was preaching? I don’t know. I do know it worked for him, because he had great wealth, and was reputed to own many houses – and his own ‘ministry aircraft’. He maintained this was because God had blessed his faith with prosperity. In reality, he had become rich because thousands of people were regularly diverting money to him, including money that could have been given to needier causes, or used by vulnerable, desperate followers to pay bills and feed their children.
How is this different from the real gospel? In Luke 4:17-19, Jesus unrolled the scroll and applied Isaiah’s prophecy to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” But that good news was not that they were going to become materially rich. It was that they were going to know the joy of salvation and blessings and resources from God that would bring hope and support, not despair.
And what about the other quote from Luke, where Jesus’ followers will receive in proportion to the measure that they give? We need to read the rest of the passage. For Jesus is talking about forgiveness and generosity. When we forgive people or show generosity towards others it is never wasted. The same measure of forgiveness and generosity in our hearts will be applied to us too by God. It is not about getting rich or giving to televangelists. It is about God urging in us a spirit of love, kindness and generosity; looking to the needs of others rather than ourselves.
What Jesus actually taught
Jesus had a lot to say about money. But his message was very different from the prosperity gospel. In Luke 15:8-10 he told a parable about a woman losing a silver coin, who looked everywhere for it and then asked her friends to rejoice with her when she found it. It’s a gentle little cameo, but not about celebrating affluence or promising prosperity; it’s about weeping over loss. Jesus’ empathy with the woman in the story is so obvious, for loss is painful and she’s distraught. But he also shares her delight and relief when, after all her efforts, she finds what she’s lost. The meaning of his story is in the last line. It’s a picture of rejoicing in heaven when God retrieves those of us who are lost, and we turn back to him.
Jesus never promises wealth and riches to those who follow him. Instead, he makes enormous demands and often offers financial insecurity. Whereas the televangelist promises affluence and luxury, Jesus in fact said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). The disciples he called when on earth were to “take up their cross” (Luke 9:23) and follow him in utter dependency. They became vulnerable and itinerant; they relied on others for their needs; they were sent out as “sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16). Jesus warned them constantly of difficulties and persecution coming their way. His promise to them was not prosperity but that in this world they would have tribulation.
How does Jesus’ teaching apply to us today?
The promise of trial and tribulation is for us today too. As followers of Jesus, we come against these things not by naming and claiming prosperity but by prayer and knowing peace in Christ. We live by Jesus’ prayer that we will not be removed from this world, but will be protected from the evil one (John 17:15). We learn to trust that whatever difficulties we go through in life, God will be there with us.
The hearts of these people were not in their wealth, but in God’s calling to serve him…whatever that service cost
We also take seriously Jesus’ warnings against longing for riches. Far from encouraging us into lives of prosperity, Jesus cautioned about being lured away by wanting more: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). Instead, we’re to store up treasures of heaven – those qualities of kindness, love, sharing, serving, welcoming strangers and trusting God. Longing for wealth can become addictive. It’s insatiable too. When one billionaire was asked how much money he needed to be really happy, his answer was “just a little bit more”. A longing for prosperity has a way of taking over our heart and our values. It can become an idol. That is why we should listen carefully to Jesus’ instruction that we “cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).
This does not mean, of course, that Christians should aim to be poor and live threadbare lives. There is nothing romantic or life-giving about poverty and we should do everything we can to avoid its burden and alleviate the hardship of those caught up in it. We live in a world where almost a billion people are dispossessed of a decent livelihood and basic necessities; deep injustices often lie beneath the inequalities of our world. Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) to point out our responsibilities to the poor. He also told a rich young man to sell everything and give it to the poor as a condition of his discipleship (Matthew 19:21). And yet Jesus did not demand that of everyone. His disciple Levi had been a tax collector and was still wealthy enough to open his home for Jesus and the other disciples to use as a place of hospitality and outreach (Mark 2:13-17). Jesus was supported financially by a group of women, including Joanna and Susanna, and a very rich man, Joseph of Arimathea provided the tomb for his burial. The key difference was that the hearts of these people were not in health, but in God’s calling to serve him…whatever that service cost.
Jesus told us that our treasure lies where our hearts are (Matthew 6:21). When we know the love of Jesus at the centre of our being, we already have prosperity in all its fullness.