Don’t fear the Prosperity Gospel, Just preach the Truth
Dear Fr. Zagloba,
I’ve been thinking about what you said about the dangers of sounding like a prosperity gospel preacher. That’s certainly not the model you want to follow. A bible story came to mind. Jesus sits in the temple watching people put their gifts into the treasure boxes. The Pharisees come in and present lavish gifts that are, no doubt, exactly what the law commands them to give. Then a widow comes in and put in two small coins… everything she’s got. Jesus points her out as giving more generously than all the rest. Her gift pleases Him.
My son got a beautiful picture Bible for Christmas this year. I’ve read the entire thing cover to cover at least twice now. When we got to this story, the picture affected me so powerfully that I started crying. Try explaining that to a four-year-old. The picture showed a young widow, face creased with grief, holding a child no older than my son. It really shook me.
I’ve always pictured the widow as a woman at the end of her life, but the image fleshed out the story in a totally unexpected way… A young woman just lost her husband, and now has no way to support her beloved child. She takes her offering to the Temple as if saying, “God, you have to DO something! Help Me! I cannot do this without You!” An act of giving, yes, but more importantly an act of faith. One that pleased Jesus so much that it is recorded for us to ponder 2,000 years later.
The measure with which we measure shall be measured out to us
At the Food Bank, we get lots of donations. One stands out in my mind because it has the same quality we see in the story of the widow. One envelope contained a $5 bill and a hand-written note. The donor wrote that they were out of work and just about out of money. They made the donation and asked us to pray that they would find a good job.
What’s amazing is that in this particular case, we heard the rest of the story. The person wrote a few weeks later to thank us for the prayers and let us know that they had gotten a new job out the blue. They thanked us for our prayers and praised the Lord that He had smiled upon their offering.
Now it’s certainly easy enough to say that you can’t make a direct connection between the donation and getting a new job. Especially if you have the bias that says that God doesn’t exist, or that He’s some distant watchmaker who never interferes in the lives of regular people. But this is not our faith. Our faith tells us that God hears the cry of the poor. That His loving-kindness is from generation. Jesus goes so far as to say that the poor are blessed because the Kingdom of God belongs to them.
The danger of ‘Prosperity’ theology
Now the danger in this is that there are wolves in sheep’s clothing that run around telling poor people, “Jesus wants you to live your best life now. If you give today, then you’ll get that new job, that fancy car, that big house.” Meanwhile, the wolves live high on the hog off those donations in big houses, with fancy cars, and even airplanes in some cases. Let’s face it, it one of the major criticisms from the Protestant Reformation. Fattened pastors with emaciated flocks cause terrible scandal in the Church and in the world. Always have, always will.
But this doesn’t take away from the truth of our faith that God does hear the cry of the poor and that the offering of the poor man is exceedingly pleasing to Him. God sees and, more importantly, He responds to our offerings, especially to the offerings to the poor. He taught us to ask for our daily bread. This means that He is prepared to give us daily bread. Not figuratively. Not ‘spiritual bread’ (though this is of course included). Real, sink your teeth into, fill your belly daily bread.
If you think I’m off base, go back to the Israelites. God literally provided them with daily bread. Has God changed? Has His willingness to feed His sheep vanished. Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Pasture means food!
Or even better, look at the encounter between the Prophet Elijah and the widow at Zarephath. Elijah tells her to use the last of her food to make him a cake but also tells her that God has said that the jar and flask will not be empty as long as the famine lasts. She trusts him and responds in faith, generously feeding the prophet with no guarantee that she wouldn’t starve afterward. Her gift to the prophet can be seen as analogous to the widow’s mite in the New Testament.
Preach tithing, but live like a saint
You have to tread a delicate line here. You can’t be afraid to preach tithing and why it’s good for us, but at the same time you can’t come across as a greedy wolf who’s just looking to add a jacuzzi to the rectory. In very concrete terms, this means YOU have to live simply.
I just read a biography of St. Jean-Marie Vianney to my son. He lived extremely simply, going so far as to wear the same tattered clothes for years. But… he did not spare expense on making his church glorious. Take a moment to look up some pictures of the Basilica in Ars. Isn’t it glorious? It still draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world. Do you think the gifts that built that glorious temple to the Most High God are well used? Of course, they are!
You have to keep in mind that the highest use of any material thing, money included, is the worship of God. Service to the poor comes in second, even as the love of neighbor is secondary to love of God. When you are inviting our parishioners to give for the building up of the Church, you are encouraging a virtuous act. An act of faith and an act of worship. And you can’t use the excuse that our parish is too poor to pay all of these maintenance costs. God will bless our parishioners when they choose to give sacrificially to make the House of God beautiful.
God will give them what they need physically, though not everything they want. But the primary error of the prosperity preacher is that it focuses on earthly rather than heavenly treasure. The riches that God pours out on His beloved are treasures that thieves cannot steal or rust devour. Faith, hope, love. Heavenly riches that so far exceed the value of anything earthly that it is foolish to try to compare them.
God responds to our prayers and our giving
Do you think that the widow in the temple was taken care of after Jesus witnessed her gift? I have no doubt. But more than providing for her material welfare, I bet God answered her prayer in a way that increased her store of heavenly treasure. That built her faith and filled her with love of God that overflowed into praise. Like the fellow who donated to the food bank. He had no doubt that God responded to our prayers and got him a new job. He wrote back just to praise the Lord.
Do you think he got a hundredfold return on his $5? Way more than that. God will always outdo us in generosity.
Nathan – The Almoner
P.S. To put this perspective into practice, pray about how to preach about heavenly treasure. To stir up people’s faith so they can see that the gifts that God wants to give us are more desirable than any earthly thing. Read some of St. Jean-Marie Vianney’s sermons. He had a real knack for it.
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