Vail Daily column: Does Jesus promise prosperity?
Prosperity gospel preachers connect faith in Jesus to financial success. Jesus becomes their go-to-guy to monetarily leap ahead.
Donald Trump courts prosperity gospel’s hucksters. At his rallies, The Donald invites them to speak. He’s gotten the endorsement of television evangelist Paula White, whose large number of devotees believes the way of Jesus leads to luxury cars, pricey homes, lavish-paying jobs and a glitzy array of creature comforts.
This Jesus looks, sounds and acts a lot like Donald Trump.
The Rev. Mark Burns, little-known beyond his parish in Easley, South Carolina, before Trump invited him on the political stump, gives Trump a rousing pitch. He hosts conference calls in which supporters form prayer chains that will link Trump to the Oval Office.
“Jesus said, above all things, I pray that you prosper…” exclaims Burns. “It was never Jesus’ intention for us to be broke,” he declares, as if Christ erected golden palaces in ancient Palestine like Trump Tower. Burns assures listeners, “I think that is what Trump represents,” when this pastor pictures Jesus as an astute financial advisor who makes Christians rich.
In the 1950s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr railed against making Jesus look, sound and act like Liberace in a mink coat. No longer a house-hold name, Niebuhr caught the attention of presidents news anchors because he refused to make the gospel of the cross into a success story.
Teaching at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, he wrote books that applied Christ’s teachings to power-hungry politicking. If alive today, then he would put a public face on theology and judge the morality of controversial topics, such as immigration, affordable health care, wars in the Middle East, same-sex marriage, police profiling, Black Lives Matter and whether Trump’s brand of Christianity squares with Jesus’ authentic faith.
Tracing different ways that Jesus influences and shapes cultural trends, Niebuhr published the classic “Christ and Culture” in 1951. He excoriated gospel hucksters who manipulate Christian faith, twisting it into a contorted belief system Jesus wouldn’t endorse. Niebuhr rejected the Prosperity Gospel because it fit “into a utilitarian device of the attainment of personal prosperity …” through the creation of “some imagined idol” other than Jesus. Niebuhr rejected cashing in on Jesus, as if Christian faith were a winning lottery ticket to make us prosperous.
Picturing Jesus as a seller of prosperity contradicts his biblical identity. Jesus was an itinerant teacher who shared public ministry with 12 core followers for three years. It ended when religious and political authorities crucified him. His original company of disciples shrank rather than swelled — not a recipe for success.
Jesus’ creature comforts were minimal. He matter-of-factly said that foxes and birds are better off because nature houses them. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests,” he remarked, “but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Not an advertising jingle Trump Towers uses for a promotional blitz.
Did Jesus equate an ethic of accumulation as a sign of God’s blessing? Didn’t he flip the acquisitive spirit on its head? He sacrificed in his ministry a comfortable home, public endorsements and monetary gain.
Jesus taught, “If any person would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” How so? “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a person, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Such humble self-denial doesn’t sell on television. An American likes the last four letters of his name: “I can.” Preachers who sell I-cans of financial success grow the biggest audiences. None puts a smile on the gospel and makes it into a recipe for success more effectively than Joel Osteen, the cheery face of a publishing-TV empire that gives Trump Towers a run for its money. Located in Houston, Osteen’s Lakewood Church beams its worship services into American living rooms. Advertisers and Prosperity Gospel’s converts have made Osteen’s pulpit the nation’s biggest megachurch.
The Rev. Osteen doesn’t get political, at least officially. He’s savvy enough not to endorse any presidential candidate. But his actions and words show Trump’s a favorite. On a Fox News interview last fall, he fawned, “Mr. Trump, he’s an incredible communicator and brander. He’s been a friend to our ministry. He’s a good man.”
At the start of his Sirius XM radio show in 2014, Osteen showcased Donald Trump as his first guest. “You can’t find a more giving gracious person than Mr. Trump,” he gushed with a trade-mark aw-shucks mile-wide grin. “So we feel very blessed to have him as a friend.”
The Jesus prosperity gospel preachers promote is a roll-up your sleeves guy who advertises the American Way, striving for success measured in big bucks.
In contrast, the biblical Jesus is left behind. He dedicated his life to serving others, rather than grabbing more wealth and closing real estate deals. He didn’t chase prosperity. Jesus taught life’s purposes come from serving less-prosperous people.
This biblical Jesus is in short supply.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.