The Gospel of Wealth

The gospel of wealth, about which I wrote in the previous post, presents a case for religion as upward mobility. For those who have been left out of the material economy it has a magnetic attraction. But the lifestyle of extravagance typified in the globetrotting television evangelists in private jets that supposedly proves the point is, in fact, a blasphemous contradiction.

The Jesus who said he had no place to lay his head and who rode into town to his death on a donkey is unrecognizable in the gospel of wealth.

And those who have been most faithful in following his lead have likewise not been persons driven by economic gain. They have sought faithfulness through service to others and fidelity to a relationship with God.

I am reminded of John Wesley’s concern about his own movement. He feared his followers, whom he admonished to earn all they can, save all they can and give all they can, would ultimately become prosperous and lose their spiritual authenticity to their wealth. His concern was well-founded. Wesley probably would find it difficult to adjust to those who are in his movement today. It has moved from attracting people on the economic margin to the midst of the establishment.

Wesley said that when he died he wanted only enough in his pockets to pay for his death shroud and his pallbearers. He wanted to leave no estate and to accumulate no wealth. He gave it away to the poor and he was successful in carrying out this life plan, leaving no earthly wealth behind.

But Wesley did not call people to poverty, he called them to serve others, especially the poor. He also was progressive in recognizing that those who had given up careers to engage in preaching ministry needed financial support in their later years when they were “worn out preachers.” So he started a pension fund from the proceeds of books sold by the fledgling Methodist publishing concern. To this day proceeds from the publishing house in The United Methodist Church are divided and given to annual conference pension programs.

At the root of this concern was human dignity, not economic luxury. And this, it seems to me, is where the gospel of wealth goes haywire. It focuses on the economic gain that comes with frugality by putting on display lavish living. Jesus, Wesley and others taught that human beings as creatures of God are entitled to live in conditions of basic dignity and these include a economic well-being. Poverty is an indignity.

But excess was seen as symptomatic of a distortion of one’s relationship to God–a relationship that should rightly result in concern for the poor–and one’s relationship to the Creation. It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get to heaven was a statement about the human spirit and its capacity to hold to faithfulness when blessed with excess. It’s harder to give up comfort and excess than to give it all away as an act of faithfulness.

For Wesley, life took its meaning from service to God and others. There was no gospel of wealth for him, but a call to divest oneself of wealth in the quest for faithful servanthood.

Jesus or Wesley living in a mansion or flying the world in a private jet? I don’t think so.

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