The Parable of the Busy Minister and the Inconvenient Situation

This is a sermon I did a few years ago. I am guessing it was done in seminary since it sounds like it targets ministers or seminarians… but I am not sure.

inconvenient

Here is a story from the Gospels you may remember.

A man was walking from Jericho to Jerusalem… a difficult road in a rugged and dry wilderness. He is tired and in a hurry, but he is still wary because he knows that the steeper sections of this road have a reputation of having highwaymen… bandits who will rob you and leave you not caring much whether you live or die. As he rounded the corner on one of the many hairpin turns of this path. he discovers a man injured and half naked. He feels sorry for the man. Surely, this man suffered the fate that he himself feared could happen to himself. Moved with pity, he says a prayer for this man, and then walks even faster to get to Jerusalem before dark.

How many here remember this story? Sure… it is the Parable of the Good Samaritan– or at least part of it. If you remember, there were five characters in the parable, not including the robbers. There was the man who was robbed and beaten, there was the Samaritan traveller, there was an innkeeper– and there was a priest and a levite…. the latter two both clergy within the Jewish faith.

The man in my story is one of them… it does not matter which one, because their roles are identical. That’s not surprising, because they were there, in part, to set the pattern– a literary device like what is used in the Three Little Pigs and countless other stories and jokes. Two occurrences establish a pattern and the third breaks the pattern. Let’s say he is the Levite

But even though they were there to set the pattern, that was not their only role. After all, Jesus gave them job titles. He could have said, “along came ‘this guy’ who saw the injured man and hurried along… and then along came ‘this other guy’ who…” well, you get the idea. No. They were given roles in Jewish society– respected roles. One was a priest, serving in the temple. The other was a Levite who may have worked in the temple, or taking care of liturgical duties elsewhere. These roles, add to the contrast and surprise. A priest… a man of God… one who may someday have the honor of entering one time in his life the “Holy of Holies” in the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The next, a Levite… a man of God as well. So having a Samaritan— seen as mixed race and mixed faith in the eyes of Jews who saw themselves as of pure race and pure faith— provides a stark contrast.

So what is Jesus trying to tell us? Could he be telling us that priests and Levites are mean and selfish?

It is possible, but I doubt it. He was talking about the Great Commandment…. Love God and Love Neighbor. This story is supposed to help us understand what it means to love one’s neighbor. It is probably true to say that Jesus is also telling us how to love God. The context makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t trying to separate the “Great Commandment” into the “Two Fairly Great Commandments.” You love God also in loving one’s neighbor. As Jesus said in Matthew 25, one loves Jesus, in part, in caring for the weak, the suffering.

Let’s go back to the story. Let’s assume that this Levite is not a mean, nasty, selfish person. Let’s suppose that he is a generally good person… one who seeks to keep the Law… and generally have a positive role in his faith, in his nation, and in his community. Someone you would generally be happy to have as your neighbor.

So this Levite comes upon the injured man. What was he thinking? I don’t know… but here are guesses:

Guess #1. Oh no, a dead body. How tragic. There is nothing I can do, and if I linger here more, I might be next. I will hurry on to Jerusalem. Maybe I can tell someone along the way who can take care of the body. I can’t since it would make me ritually unclean and I can’t carry out my religious duties.

That is one guess, but perhaps that is too easy. There is a pretty good chance that the Levite could see signs of breathing, and perhaps fresh blood. Maybe the injured man was calling out in a weak voice “Help me… please help me…” Maybe we can guess again.

Guess #2. Oh no… an injured man. What should I do? I am running late for my religious duties in Jerusalem. Do I have time to stop? And if I do stop, what could I do? I don’t know how to care for the injured. He might die in my arms and then I will be ritually unclean and cannot carry out my religious duties. And… maybe… this is a trap. Maybe this man was left here to draw foolish people in so they can be robbed and beaten as well. … and maybe, this man is not even injured at all… just faking to lure me in. I best hurry on. Maybe I can send help if I see someone along the way.

These are all possible rationalizations to not help.

  • It will get in the way of my regular job– even my ministry work.
  • I don’t have time.
  • I don’t know what to do
  • This could be a trick

The story does not interview the Levite for his reasons, but simply acknowledges that whatever his reasons were, the end result was less than what the Samaritan did.

And that was important. The context of the story was more than simply who is my neighbor, and how do I love God and love my neighbor. Jesus stated regarding the Great Commandment, in Matthew 22:40 “All the law and the ·writings of the prophets depend on these two commands. “

Keeping that in mind, we find another reason that Jesus used the priest and Levite in contrast to the Samaritan. The priest and Levite were followers and experts in the Law… especially the ceremonial law. But if all of the Law and the Prophets is summed up with the Great Commandment… clearly, this Samaritan… a despised pereson (in the eyes of the Jews) who follow a despised religion… was doing a better job of keeping the Law, than were these Jewish ministers.

Of course, you can add an additional thing that the Jews and the Samaritans have been bad neighbors for perhaps 400 years. The Samaritans were hardly welcoming of the Jews returning from exile. They sought to hinder the building of the walls of Jerusalem. Frankly, if anything, the Jews were even worse. A couple hundred years before Christ… the Jews actually went to the Samaritans most holy site, Mt. Gerizim and destroyed their temple. NOT a neighborly thing to do. A Samaritan helping a Jew, adds contrast to Jewish religious leaders who would not even help out a fellow Jew.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a wonderful story with a strong message. But we almost always read it wrong. For most of us, when we read the story, we read it as the narrator, disconnected from the story. That is a mistake… it is a story that beckons us to place ourselves in the story. Some might place themselves into the role of the injured man, or perhaps the Samaritan. That is fine, but for most of us, this is not where we fit. Most of us in this room are the Levite.

Like the Levite, we are religious people. We see ourselves as chosen by God, and ones who try to do what is pleasing to God. But we are also rationalizers… people who substitute piety for godliness. People who are pretty good at rationalizing why we should not do things that are– inconvenient.

Now maybe I am wrong. This doesn’t describe you. You are not the Levite. Great. But I am. I am the Levite. Let me tell you a story, to demonstrate that point.

Many years ago, shortly after Celia and I were married, we lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia. A city built on the Atlantic Ocean. It had nice beaches– not as nice as some of the beaches here in the Philippines, but nice. Celia and I are not really beach people. We rarely went to the beach, but my sister and her husband would drive 800 kilometers to spend a few days with us and enjoy the warm weather. They come from a cold area… much colder than Baguio.

So we took them to the beach. The sun was out, the breeze off the ocean was wonderful, but the waves were a bit strong. Nevertheless, my brother-in-law and I went into the ocean. It was fun to dive into the waves as they crash onto the shore. It felt almost like one was in a washing machine– I’m guessing. After awhile, he and myself went back to join our wives on the sandy beach. It was a good time to relax and I lay there with my eyes closed about to drift off to sleep… when I heard a voice say,

“Excuse me. Uhhh excuse me. Could you help me?” Ugggghh. I didn’t come to the beach to be harrassed by someone trying to sell me something. That is the main reason I don’t like going to the beach here in the Philippines. People feel there need to sell me something is stronger than my need to relax in peace. Or maybe this guy is not trying to sell me something, but trying to sell me his religion. In the US, some do beach ministry… trying to convert people on the beach. I am not interested in being converted. I want to stay the faith that I already am, thank you very much.

So I ignored him, and pretended to be asleep. And he went away… success!! But maybe a half minute later I here some other sounds that I can’t figure out, so I take a peek.

In the water was a man who was struggling. He was trapped in a narrow area between deep water and rough breaking waves. Without help, he could easily drown…. But there was help. A group of volunteer rescuers had formed a human chain to go out to the man and bring him to shore safely. By the time I realized this, the chain was adequately long to save him.

The man who was trying to get my attention wasn’t trying to sell me something or convert me. He was asking if I could help save a man at risk of drowning.

And I could have. I wasn’t a particularly fast swimmer, but I was a strong swimmer, and had been swimming in the same place as the struggling man just minutes earlier. I also had been trained and certified in First Aid, CPR, and Basic Water Safety (all lapsed by now).

I could have saved that man. Maybe a reporter was in the area and as I saved that man, I would get interviewed and be on TV! Not likely. Or maybe this man was rich and in saving him, he gives a large reward. Even less likely. On the other hand, maybe as I tried to save him, he would strike out at me and try to drown me, not in malice, but in panic. This is actually quite likely since a drowning person in panic will do things that can potentially hurt himself as well as rescuers.

In the end, I don’t know what would have happened because when I was called to act, I pretended to be asleep.

A similar story comes up in the book of Esther. The king of Persia marries a Jewish woman named Esther, who was under the guardianship of her uncle Mordecai. Unfortunately, there is a bad man, a servant of the king,who hated the Jews and had convinced the king to have all of the Jews wiped out. Mordecai desires for Esther, a Jewess, to speak to the king on the behalf of her people. Esther is fearful because going to the king uninvited is dangerous… even for a queen. But Mordecai was very wise and he spoke to some messengers.

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther,

“Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” -Esther 4:13-14

What he was saying was this. You have two choices:

  1. You can act to try to save your people… even if it is risky or scary. After all, perhaps God has put you in this place as queen precisely for this purpose. To stand up and respond when the need arises.

  2. Or, you can do nothing. Just ignore the problem. And God will still save his people. God will find another person to save his people, because he is a promise-keeping God. But in this case you will suffer, and I will suffer and our family will suffer because we did not act when God called us to act.

This is pretty good theology. God promised to protect the Jews and so he would… with Esther’s help, or without it. If she did not help, she is the one who suffers.

In my story, it is pretty clear that it was God’s will that the man in the ocean would be rescued… whether I helped or not. Others responded and the man was rescued. The only one who suffered loss was me.

In the parable, the injured man was rescued. The Samaritan was the hero. The innkeeper was able to earn a little extra money. Even the robbers benefited because they now could not be charged with murder. The only ones to suffer loss were the Priest and the Levite. That loss, was a lost opportunity to respond to the call of God to be prepared to act, and to act when called.

I don’t know where God has placed you and what he has prepared for you to do. But he has prepared for you to do something. That something is not to sit in the pews. It is not even to pray… and then fail to act. None of us can do everything. Some things we have to say “No’ to… but there is some thing God has prepared for you to do… like myself on the beach… like Esther in the palace of a king… like a Levite on a lonely road. If you fail to respond, God can do it without you if he so desires. God can prepare another to take your place. Perhaps God doesn’t really need you… but he wants to use you… for the sake of His kingdom… and for your sake.

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Loving Thy Neighbor in a Different Culture

Read two things recently regarding Christian ministry in Buddhist countries. One was an interview one of my students had with a devout Buddhist from his own country. This person was fairly familiar with basic Christian doctrines and many of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. When my student asked her about what she thought about Christianity, she said that she thought TWO things.

She said the first thing was positive. She noted that Christians she knew tended to be kind. They helped people, and (working in the hospital as she does) she is impressed with how they demonstrate loving concern to fellow Christians, as well as to non-Christians. (I wish all Christians had such an outsider’s testimony.)

She said the second thing was negative. She noted that Christians acted like foreigners where she lives. They dress in foreign clothes. They listen to foreign music. They celebrate foreign holidays, and show little interest in local festivities or cultural values. They tend to look and act like the foreign missionaries who were or are among them, and like the colonizers who have now left.

 

Foreign and Friendly

In looking at the chart above, they would be in the Yellow Zone. The Christians in that region are F-F (Foreign but Friendly). That is not the worst place to be. Still, to this woman, to become a Christian, one needs to reject a lot of one’s cherished culture.

Figure 3.jpg

This is not a trivial thing. Going back to the “Human Trinity,” (as shown in the figure above) one aspect of our own personhood is our cultural identity. Becoming a Christian is supposed to be transformative, but it is not meant to “gut” our cultural identity— and certainly not by replacing one local identity with a different, foreign, cultural identity.

If one considers the Divine mandate that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself, certainly two aspects of such love are Kindness, and Cultural Respect. Jesus explained the love of one’s neighbor with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It showed such love as being expressed through human kindness that transcended cultural differences. Paul expressed love in terms of tearing down of cultural barriers as well, but the idea wasn’t via one culture subsuming another, but that cultures would be respected an honored. Paul would be a Greek to the Greeks and a Jew to the Jews. The church was wide open to all peoples regardless of their culture, and respecting of their cultures.

So to love one’s neighbor in a different culture, demonstration of kindness is needed but so is contextualization/cultural respect and localization. Sadly, sometimes we can’t even get the first half right. I was reading an article about barriers to evangelism in a different Buddhist country. One of the barriers was aggressive evangelism. One might wonder on this point. We usually assume that evangelism is a good thing and so a barrier is a lack of evangelism. However, often the methods of so-call evangelism are very much “in-your-face” aggressive and argumentative. In many countries arguing is disrespectful— especially so if done with someone older. I recall listening to American short-term missionaries visiting my city here in the Philippines and hearing a very aggressive and noisy presentation of the gospel. One I recall especially well– a young woman screaming (not trying to be sexist here… “screaming” is the correct term) at a man perhaps 20 years older than herself, “YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!    YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!!” Of course, he doesn’t HAVE to be saved— and I suspect that “he did not feel the love” from the experience. Reading FB posts from Christians (often Christian friends of mine, frankly) I find it strange how angry, argumentative, and just plain unnice so many of the posts are. FB is hardly a private chatroom with people who agree with everything one says. It is a public forum. Why in the world make people happy that they have nothing to do with your God?

Anyway, if one wishes to share Christ effectively in a different culture… it should be L-F (local and friendly), rather than foreign and unfriendly (F-U). Other options are in-between but still failing on some level to express true love of neighbor.

“Dream Small” Video

In 2017, I wrote a blog that I like called “Dream Small.’ (Not all of my posts I like.)

Blog:  Dream SMALL!!

More recently, I added another post that follows the same theme but particularly as it relates to Christendom and Post-Modern perspective.

Blog:  Dreaming Small in a “post-Christian” World

Then the other day, I saw a Christian Song that came out in 2018 titled Dream Small, by Josh Wilson. It came out in 2018. Sadly, I figure there is probably approximately 0% chance that this song was inspired by my post. But I love the song. I think it expresses some great truth. BIGGER is not BETTER. God-sized Vision is as likely to be small as giant.

Blog What You Love or Blog What They Love?

I don’t spend too much time trying to figure out what people want to read about. Sure, if I find a topic that people are reading and sharing more, I at least consider the possibility of writing more on the topic. But I prefer to write what I prefer to write about.

the blog

Still, I decided to look at some tips online about better positioning oneself in the meat market that Internet browsing tends to become. I won’t name the particular sites since they were Page 1 on the Google Search results. They speak a LOT about finding the popular keywords, SEO, and writing on topics that people tend to focus on.

All of that is fine.  My problem with that is that I have minimal passion for the topics that are most common. I simply don’t really want to write about leadership or cooking.

Then there are a lot of aids in how to share one’s posts through social media, emails, and other conduits.

And that is fine as well. But this aspect works better with following the advice of the first part. If one researches to the topics typical readers are interested in, then it makes a lot of sense to advertize to typical readers. There are processes that allow one to connect to the narrow band of people I am typically writing to… but I am not sure, at this time, that I want to go through the grief of setting them up… especially ones that include a price tag.

Another direction is to spend less focus on the numbers. This does not mean ignore them. But it does mean that numbers don’t necessarily control the content, nor the evaluation of success.

Preachers often will say that don’t choose topics to “tickle the ears” of the congregation, but simply share the message that God has given them. I must say that I have a lot of doubts about this. I certainly can see how it is tempting to suggest that everything that comes out of one’s mouth is directly from God. Regardless if that is true, I am pretty sure this doesn’t apply to me. I feel that blogging (and perhaps preaching) is more about self-discipline than about prophecy. (I will admit that when a preacher tells me that he must preach twice as long as a typical sermon because he must “share what the Lord has put on his heart,” I suspect the preacher has not developed discipline.

I feel that for me, the following guidelines are best.  (Some of this I got from Carey Nieuwhof in partaining to blogging).

  1.  Write what you are passionate about. Sure… if you are a chef, you need to cook what people want rather than what you want. However, unless you are financially dependent on your hitcount… you may as well write about what you are passionate about. Ultimately, blogging for most of us is a hobby. “A hobby is something you are willing to do badly.” That doesn’t mean you must do it badly. Neither does it excuse doing it badly.
  2. Discipline MAY be more important than passion. Ideally, you have both. But passion without discipline tends to end up with blogs that are left empty, often after a quick and active start. Discipline without passion is not ideal… but it establishes a pattern from which passion can grow and bear fruit.
  3. Writing inspires more writing rather than leading one to run dry. Writing more makes one better at writing, and aids thought and inspires new ideas.
  4. Let it flow. I must admit that although I mentioned the importance of a level of discipline, I don’t force a strict schedule. I do go 4, 5, or even 6 days without a post at times. But then sometimes, I suddenly have many ideas that hit me at the same time. Essentially, discipline is important, but discipline should not take away that fun. As the saying goes… “Moderation in all things, including moderation.’ Okay, I suppose that I am not using that saying in the right context… but it feels right, and sometimes that is enough. Let it flow.
  5. Discuss what people are asking more than what clever thing you have thought of. I am guilty of this. I think of something really clever… and I put it in to a post—- and it just lies there. Later on a read it again, and I wonder why I thought it was so fantastic. Instead, it is better to discuss questions that have come up in class. If some students think it is a good question, it is likely others do as well.
  6. Periodically read your old posts, and edit. Grammar is important (you probably would not guess I believe it from the way I write at times), so it is good to reread it, not just before publishing, but even months later. One reason for rereading is to learn. Things worth writing down once may be worth reviewing and relearning. I have read some of my old posts and feel very inspired by them. Some, well, do not. Review and reediting is part of the iterative learning process.
  7. Don’t write to be popular, famous, or rich. Write because you want to help others… including yourself.

PTSD and the Bible

This is a bit off-track as far as topics I normally put on this blog, but I have never sought to define appropriate topics too narrowly.

Years ago, I wrote a little article for our counseling center’s journal entitled, “Divine Intervention: The Flight of Elijah in Dialogue with Crisis Care.” You can see the article HERE.

I noted the story of God’s dealing with Elijah in his escape from Samaria to Mount Horeb. I noted the similarity between God’s response and the three step process used in crisis care, especially the NOVA system (Safety & Security, Validation & Ventilation, and Planning & Preparation).  But part of the paper was also suggesting that Elijah’s flight was not an act of faithlessness, or of weakness. Rather it was a stress-overload, such as in burnout. (I don’t feel the need to justify people’s actions in the Bible. Many “heroes of the faith” act in ways quite sinful or foolish. I don’t however, see that being true of Elijah in this case. Elisha, the youths, and the bear— well, think that is a different matter.)

Recently, Fr. Ernesto Obregon wrote an article. Actually it is part of a doctoral course project. He quoted me quite a bit in it (which is always nice… at least when it is done in a positive way). His thesis is related, but a bit different. He is looking at the diagnosis of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). He suggested that the story of Elijah here could be seen as an account of PTSD.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter. However, PTSD has only being a formal diagnosis since 1980, and earlier iterations (Battle Fatigue or Shell Shock) only go back to around 1915). As such, the question can come up as to whether it is a valid condition to speak of at all.

Some Christians question any condition that is not specifically noted in the Bible. This may not make a lot of sense (does one have to find reference to cell phones in the Bible before believing they exist?). Regardless though, being able to identify the condition in antiquity places the condition more firmly as a part of the human condition, rather than simply as a culthural phenomenon.

Anyway, it is an interesting read, I think.  You can read it HERE

(Don’t be thrown off by his referencing the book of Third Kings (III Kings). He comes from the tradition of Orthodox Christianity.)

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Business as Missions

I was reading an article on Lausanne.org.  I must Image result for BAMadmit that the reason for me reading it was because they referenced an article I wrote years ago. I have never really written on Business as Missions. However, I wrote on the use of merchant traders on the Silk Road, who were used by Nestorian mission teams in the funding of missions, and the spreading of the Christian faith across Asia in the first millenium. This early implementation of (intentional) use of business for missions has inspired some to see this as an important inroad to “Creative Access Countries.” But the article also goes on to suggest that there are other benefits to “BAM” than simply a platform.

I don’t plan to rehash the Lausanne article. You can read the article HERE

Additionally, if you want to read my article on Nestorian Missions, you can read it THERE.

But I would like to hit on a couple of minor things.

FIRST.  What is “Wealth”? The article came as the result of a gathering  The Role of Wealth Creation for Holistic Transformation. The “wealth creation” language would appeal to business, and Christians associated with business. It also can appeal to those who embrace Prosperity Gospel.  However, the article clarifies what it means by wealth.

First, we must define wealth creation and wealth creators. Creating wealth today is often seen as some people getting obscenely rich while others remaining desperately poor. Is wealth creation just about making money, investing in the stock market, for instance, and passively watching your money grow? Maybe, but our definition of wealth creation is broader than one person or one family earning money. Creating wealth typically begins with the family, transmitting values of work and creativeness that result in unique and salable products or services. Human ingenuity and creativeness, as well as natural resources, create wealth. But wealth is more than having a surplus of money. True wealth is the ability to fully embrace our Creator’s world complete with relationships, helping others to create wealth and having a sustainable and scalable wealth creation model. Deuteronomy 8:18 reminds us that it is our God who gives us the capacity to create wealth. God intends material blessing for us, but we must remember him in the midst of all our creating.

-From “Wealth Creators’ Contribution to Holistic Transformation” Section 1 in the webarticle referenced above at Lausanne.org

I don’t have a problem with the definition, except that I personally prefer terms that are not so easy read as “MONEY.” It would be nice if there was an English word that embraced this concept better. Wealth and Prosperity sound too much like they relate to MONEY and STUFF. On the other hand, well-being, flourishing, and shalom, seem a bit too far to the other extreme— kind of abstract. Christians struggle with abstract constructs, but they also struggle with terms that sound like they mean something different than they are being defined as. I hate the theological expression “Total Depravity of Man.” not because it doesn’t have some theological, but because it seems to say something very different.

As far as “wealth,” I am not sure the answer. But Christians need to be educated what wealth is and is not as far as a theologically, Biblically responsible understanding is concerned.

Second, I found a quote on missions in Albania interesting:

Many Albanians embraced the gospel, but the work of the missionaries did not include business. The West typically supported new pastors and the church was vulnerable to social changes. In 1997 during a period of extreme civil unrest bordering on civil war, all the Christian organizations except Catholic Relief Society left Albania. The only other NGO that was continuing to work in the country was the Albanian Education Development Project of Soros. That gap left people feeling abandoned by the church and the West. There were a few local pastors, but they had no income. The church that is dependent upon foreign money is a weak church both for its own structure and also for its ability to affect its community for Christ.

It has often been a concern as to what to do when things get difficult. Do missionaries stay with the people… or run away. This is not an easy question to answer. While it may sound correct to demonstrate God’s love by maintaining a ministry of presence during times of trouble, it may prove unconscionable for a mission organization to tell its workers to stay in a place of great danger.

But this section pointed out a second concern. Much of the help was either spiritualistic without addressing social concerns (Bible production, discipling, preaching, churchplanting) or relief work. The problem was that much of that work was ill-prepared for the missionaries’ absence.

They come from an amazing number of countries; Australia, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, Brazil, South Africa, Finland, Greece, Norway, Sweden, England, the United States, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Holland and Mexico. Besides evangelism and church-planting they engage in medical work, orphanages, publications, Bible translation, literature distribution, student work, agricultural counseling, school repairs and relief work. This is all so very incredible!

In the case of Albania, work was not done to ensure the Christians there were self-governing, self-propogating, and self-sufficient. Missionaries must always be assumed to be temporary. As such, one of the most important roles of a missionary is to prepare for their absence, and the absence of whatever support they give.

Some Thoughts on Prosperity Gospel

I know this is a hot topic right now, and I have less to say about it than many others do… but as one who is in missions, it is a concern.

  • I see speakers from the US, Korea and other countries come over here to the Philippines and preach Prosperity Gospel.  Others, including some that have hardly deserved a cup and string, use microphones and cameras to beam their messages all over the world.
  • On one occasion we did a ministry project with a full-blown stereotypical Prosperity church, who saw our team as their way to God’s material blessing. It soon became quite obvious that we could not work with them ever again. More common than this type of church are the churches that are a bit schizophrenic. One day will say that we can name and claim any promise we want, and God will do it. Then on another day, will they will talk about endurance in difficult times and God’s sovereignty to bless or not bless. I used to be a member of such a church here in the Philippines. I recall one time my plan to preach on suffering (our call to follow in the example of Christ’s suffering). The senior pastor suggested I choose a different topic because “Here in the Philippines, people don’t want to hear messages like that.” While I am not a great preacher, my experience is that people want to hear messages that are true and hopeful, and also resonate with the world they experience.
  • Missionaries have been charged with promoting Prosperity Gospel, sometimes unwittingly, in places like Sub-Saharan Africa as well as some places in Asia. The tendency of past missionaries to connect (Western) Civilization with Christianity led many to see economic prosperity as tied to Christianity. The Cargo Cults of Papua New Guinea are perhaps the most obvious example of this. Additionally, there is often a tendency to OVERSELL SALVATION. This sounds crazy…. but if you listen to some evangelizers, you get this sort of message…. “All you got to do is accept Christ… just this one little thing… and EVERYTHING will be better.” Some Muslim evangelizers do the same thing. But what does “everything” mean? Hardly surprising if some think they will have more stuff.

But I want to make different points here.

First Point. My argument is that Prosperity Gospel (PG) tends to promote Wealth Disparity. After all, if PG states that Christians are more materially blessed than non-Christians, and Good Christians over Bad, then things break down if Wealth is pretty evenly distributed. Suppose, for example, that owning a cellphone is evidence of prosperity (God’s special favor), this view fails if everyone owns a cellphone.

You may think that it would also break down if there is a wealth disparity that does not line up with the tenets of PG. That can be true in some cases, but in many cases the disparity reinforces PG. I will get to that in the second point. But for now, PG really needs Wealth Disparity. As such, it can, at its worst, promote a certain “survival of the fittest” mindset where people who fail economically are getting what they deserve— the ugly side of unregulated Capitalism. Such a view make officially disparage it, but in practice support the quote from the movie, Wall Street, “Greed is Good.”

Point Two. As long as there is Wealth Disparity (and if one chooses to take Jesus statement in Matthew 26:11 prophetically, not just rhetorically, I suppose wealth disparity will always be with us) PG can be supported and justified as a Bed of Procrustes. That is, if good people become rich materially, materially rich people must be good. Yes, not all PG groups take it quite that far, but I have had many utilize their own success as evidence of their righteousness, and their rightness.

However, PG can break down when it comes to non-Christians. A rich Christian can be argued to have deserved their wealth over a less rich Christian. But how can one argue that a non-Christian who is rich is more “deserving” than a Christian (in this theological pespective).

Point Three. In its extremes, PG shows itself in ugly ways in addressing the issue of non-Christians having greater wealth than Christians. An interesting case study is in Spain in the early years of the Inquisition. When the last Moorish stronghold was driven out of the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, Spain had to come to terms with its identity as a (governmentally) Christian people. Leon Poliakov in “The History of Anti-Semitism” in Volume 1 speaks of this time. Jews and Moors (Muslims) were discriminated against, and eventually expelled or forced to convert. Noble ranks were given to “Old Christians,” people who have no known non-Christians in their ancestry, while “New Christians,” people who converted to Christianity or have non-Christians in their family tree, were granted no such honor. In Spain, as well as its colonies, the land-distribution was done so as to ensure that people in power were Christians, not non-Christians.

Jews in Europe commonly could not be landowners because of their oppressive laws, so they went into trades that did not require land— particularly mercantile. And the mercantile business became the parent to banking. Since mercantile and banking are typically better at creating wealth than agriculture, it was hardly surprising that this form of discrimination actually resulted in many Jews doing quite well in Europe. This triggered new laws and discrimination that, as we know, grew rather in hatred and violence that is, frankly, hard to fathom.

Christians are not the only one’s to do this. Many Muslim countries have utilized the tax on non-Muslims. While, this is actually a matter of doctrine, it serves also as a way to work against the power of non-Muslims. In some Muslim countries, non-Muslims were required to dress in a certain way, or maintain a certain lifestyle that stigmatized them. Frankly, however, it is not my task here to convince you that, “They are worse than us.” I am concerned with how we as Christians live out our faith here and now, while learning from the past.

The point here is that the underlying theology of Prosperity Gospel:

  • Needs disparity of wealth for it to mean anything, and so often does little to promote a more economically just society. (I must note than many non-PG conservative Christians also do little because of the presumption that unregulated capitalism is part of the Christian faith. But that is a different conversation for a different time.)
  • Deals comfortably with seeming discrepancies when it comes to Christians. The wealth evidences their deservedness of that wealth. (“Trump has power, so he must deserve to have that power.”)
  • Struggles sometimes with discrepancies between Christians and non-Christians. Historically, and I would argue today as well, rich non-Christians has been an area of struggle for many of these people, and there is the temptation to “set things right” through bigoted laws, behaviors, and social structures.

I would argue that the Bible starts from the presumption that Christians are more likely to be poor and powerless than rich and powerful. That hardly means that it has to be normative. However, it seems like the doctrine of Common Grace, and the understanding of Genesis 12:1-3 that shows Abraham’s seed is responsible to act as a blessing to all peoples, serves as a better understanding. We bless as we are blessed.