Matthew 19:16-26 – And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”  He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,  Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, 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.”  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”  But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The Prosperity Gospel says that God wants people rich and healthy and that if the right kind and right amount of faith is released in the proper manner then the money and health is guaranteed to follow. It is heresy. It is heresy because it is idolatry. It is the worship of money dressed up to look like the worship of God. It is a love for gifts more than the Giver. And even though many of us are not afraid to call it the heresy that it is, many of the same people who hate the prosperity Gospel hold to something similar, although I hesitate to call it heresy, maybe because it is so ubiquitous. It is reflected in the phrase “help the poor”. “Help the poor” is uttered from pulpits in one form or another and leads to all kinds of good projects designed to alleviate the suffering of impoverished people both in our neighbourhoods and around the world. They are not wrong. God blesses people materially for the purpose of sharing with those who have less (Ephesians 4:28). But the problem with “Help the poor” is that most of the time it can be said in the church with no fear that it applies to anyone in the building. The poor are out there – somewhere. They live where people in the church are not. They shop where people in the church would not. They end up on wards in the hospital where people in the church will not. And sadly, quite often they worship where the rest of us do not. The poor are “out there” – some place. We are concerned that they are so hard pressed. But they are not in our churches. We seem to have great pity for the poor on the other side of the planet but not much for those in the same Area Code. This is because we reason that the poor across the ocean are far worse off than our poor. It may also be because $20.00 in Africa will buy a lot more there than $20.00 here will.
But why are the poor not in our churches? Sometimes, I suppose, it is because the church does not exist where the poor people do. Sometimes this is just the natural way that things are. We evangelize our communities and they have no poor in them. The poor cannot afford to live where we do. It could be that we do not want to plant churches where the poor live. As the Baptist denomination president said to me when I was planting a church in a community full of government housing “It’s good that you are working here but they will never give much money to your church”. What was he telling me? Sometimes we have no poor in our churches because the church moves away to a place that the poor cannot get to without getting up very early to take public transport that the current regular attenders have never needed to use. I attended a conference last year at a well known mega church. It struck me that while the building is close to a major city it is far enough away that no one could ever walk there. Who can attend there? No one, I would guess, who doesn’t have a good set of wheels. Why do we move so far outside our cities? Sometimes because the places in the city where the church is located start to become poor and the church, made up of people who no longer live in the community, moves to accommodate them. When the church was built it was a hub of up and coming industry. The people who attended the church lived a walking distance from the church. But as time and economics changed and prosperity moved away, so did the people of the church. It just made better sense for the church to follow where the people were leading them. As inner cities deteriorated, so did the places of worship and people left.
Sometimes there are no poor people in our churches because they just can’t reach “those people”. This seems a little odd to me because Jesus said that it is the rich who are harder to reach. Not for most of North American evangelicalism apparently. Why?
Historically, the old fundamentalist/modernist wars contribute to the absence of the poor among us. When theological liberals grabbed a hold of helping the less fortunate at the expense of the Gospel, or as a substitute Gospel itself, evangelicals rightly emphasized the Gospel of Jesus Christ come into the world to save sinners from their sin and all its consequences. What, after all, does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Part of the legacy of that war was a separation of social ministries from the Gospel. And a church that does not do much to help the neighbourhood needy because it is felt to be too theologically liberal is not going to attract many poor people. I wonder sometimes if we don’t hold to an evangelical prosperity Gospel. We would never say that coming to Jesus will make a person wealthy and healthy, but we believe deep down that the reason poor people are poor is because of laziness (sometimes it is), lack of drive (sometimes it is) or other things that could be rectified with some good old fashioned drive. (And sometimes it might be the solution). Bring up the subject of helping the poor and the topic will almost inevitably turn to stories about people who lied to get help or who drove up to ask for help in a fancy car or some such thing. As if poor people will be immune to lying and cheating like the rest of the world. The poor, it seems, aren’t allowed to sin like the rest of us. I was taught in seminary that when people get saved they will cease to be poor. They will cease to be poor because they will cease to want things for nothing. They will become entrepreneurial, energetic, industrious. We know that the Gospel won’t make you rich and healthy. But we also “know” that if the poor found Jesus they would become more industrious and therefore more prosperous and therefore the church will not contain many of them. We believe that poverty is due to the particular sins of poor people. Poor people are not stupid. They detect such attitudes from us and do us the favour of not hanging around. James didn’t believe that the faith made people more industrious, or at least he believed that even after their salvation they remained poor. The Macedonian churches of Paul’s day were extremely poor (II Corinthians 8:2).
James 2:5 – Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
It is a type of prosperity Gospel to believe that coming to Jesus will get you out of poverty.
I know many poor people. Some of them lie to me, steal from me, from my church. They feel like they have to tell long complicated stories in order to get something from me. Some of them sleep in until noon. Some of them are very rude. I lectured a poor man in our church last Sunday because he lied to me. He always lies to me. His psychiatrist says he cannot tell the truth. He got mad at me when I lectured him about his rudeness. I hope I wasn’t rude in my lecture. He’ll be back and when he comes I may apologize to him if I conclude that I was rude to him. I know many non-poor people. Some of them lie to me. Some of them steal from me. Some of them are lazy, but that’s OK because they have a lot of money and laziness is only a sin when you are receiving tax payer money. Well, we all receive tax payer money. It just doesn’t get doled out from a welfare office.
Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Sometimes the sins that people commit, or the sins that others commit, make them very poor. Sometimes the sins they commit, or the sins that others commit, make them very rich. Sometimes the poverty they live in was inherited from their parents, just like the wealth of the more well to do was. They both need the Gospel. Jesus said that it is harder for the rich to get into heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The major theological point to make from that statement is that salvation is impossible except for God. But Jesus was talking to people who thought that the rich would get in easier than others. “Who then can be saved?” is their response to Jesus’ unbelievable comment.
It is probably true that the church worldwide is comprised mostly of unhealthy, poor, persecuted, believers. It doesn’t seem that such is the case in North America. Well, I have been rich and I have been poor. Rich is better. Poverty is no sure sign of the blessing of God. It is a providence, just like wealth is. I just wish when we say “help the poor” there were people in our churches who would be among those we intend to help. I remain unconvinced that their absence doesn’t have something to do with the cultures of North American churches.