Does God want us to be rich? Was Jesus an entrepreneur who taught us to line our pockets with big bucks? Is this what the adage means: "Plant a seed and reap a harvest?" Do we dig deeply into our psyche and bury a seed there which comes up roses financially?
Yes, promise many television preachers. They promote a "prosperity gospel." They urge us to substitute an acquisitive spirit for stuff to replace Jesus' challenge of personal sacrifice.
Gloria and Kenneth Copeland, Reverend Ike, Creflo Dollar, and Benny Hinn urge TV viewers to invest in a health and wealth gospel. They promise big dividends for those who bank their lives on Jesus.
George M. Marsden, an evangelical scholar, has traced the enormous influence the prosperity gospel has cashed in on since the 1970s when more Christians wanted preachers to stamp approval on greed. They bankrolled preachers who substituted success for sin.
Marsden observes, "Sin has almost disappeared from their outlooks (of prosperity gospel preachers), except perhaps talk of sins of liberals and secularists whom they deplore. No need to give up anything to be a Christian. The emphasis is on what you can get. The culture of consumption emphasizes a therapeutic style in which ethical issues are questions about relationships and fulfillment than about rules. Grace is cheap and forgiveness is little more than good manners."
A proponent of this "name it and claim it" way of contorting Jesus' message is Joel Osteen, whose church in Houston garners first place as the largest in America.
Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, in his book "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics," exposes the false gospel Osteen and other prosperity preachers sell. The health and wealth gospel ranks as the No. 1 heresy sweeping through the United States. It makes great inroads among believers in Third World countries, too. Those without much of anything need most everything.
Osteen offers biblical justification for fulfilling their financial dreams. His influence rides like a tsunami wave across the globe. Douthat believes he "comes as close to Billy Graham's level of popularity" and his "cultural empire is arguably larger drawing over 200 million people around the globe to his telecasts."
What's this gospel's allure? Opulence, opportunity and outlandish promises for financial success abound. The market for such a commercial gospel is appealing to people who want to cash in on the success God wants them to have.
Osteen tells listeners, "God wants to increase you financially by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, creativity. ... Think big, think increase. Think abundance. Think more than enough."
What's Ross Douthat's judgment of this slick gospel that boosts our ego and makes us money? He concludes, "God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next."
Osteen leads the way among health and wealth preachers, says Douthat, who are "enthusiastic to a fault, crassly materialistic, lachrymose (sickeningly sweet) and tacky."
It's a thin-mint gospel that avoids Jesus' judgments against the acquisitive spirit. He taught about personal sacrifice. Prosperity preachers promise a gospel of getting ahead.
Check out contrasts between Osteen and Jesus by reading the gospels as if for the first time.
Al Lewis, columnist for Dow Jones Newswires, tells what he found: "Love of money is the root of all evil. Blessed are the poor. Store your treasure in heaven. Give to Caesar what is Caesar's. Hand over your possessions to the poor and follow. Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. Don't lie. Don't cheat. Don't steal. Don't hit up your neighbor's wife. And my favorite: It is easier to shove a Fat Cat through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel to go to heaven, or something like that."
Those who want Jesus to make them healthy, wealthy and socially respectable might learn from Russian novelist Dostoevsky. He depicts an encounter between Jesus and his Grand Inquisitor. Poor Jesus returns to Earth after his resurrection and visits the cardinal-archbishop of Seville. This prelate grills Jesus on why he sided with the poor instead of investing in the rich who swell church coffers.
The archbishop lifts a line from Satan. The devil coached Jesus early in his public ministry on tips for rousing success. "If you are the Son of God, command these stones (in the wilderness) to become loaves of bread" (Matthew 4:3). Practicing this alchemy, the archbishop advises Jesus. Then crowds clawing their way to a financial ladder's top rung will "run after thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient."
Jesus refused this diabolical ruse to get rich quick.
He challenged us how to achieve significance in life rather than status. Give your life away, he advised, in order to find it. Die to wealth's gloss and rise to helping the helpless, even if it doesn't make you a nickel.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.