Can We Offer a Better Theology? Banking on the Kingdom

Deuteronomy 8:10-19 

You shall eat your fill and bess the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God by failing to keep his commandments…When you have eaten your fill and have build fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, of it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.

 

Matthew 6:19-‐33

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and were thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…Therefore not worry saying, “what will we eat?” or “what will we wear?” For it is the gentiles who strive for these things…But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.

For nearly 8 years I taught at a seminary here in Brazil. Once, when we were looking at some of the characteristics of the early church in the book of Acts, and in particular the economic implications of those biblical texts, student raised his arm and said, “Professora, we can’t preach these things in our churches. There is too much poverty and the churches around us all preach prosperity, wealth and blessing – that is what the people want to hear. If we don’t preach wealth, they will go elsewhere because they hear hope in other churches, prosperity teaching gives them hope. No on who is poor wants to hear about self-sacrifice, self-giving and simple living”

Prosperity theology gives them hope. Well, to paraphrase John Stott and his legacy in both the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance, we must find ways to offer a better hope, a better theology.If fail in this, it won’t really matter how well we criticize the teachings of prosperity theology, how good our analyses are. The call on us  is great – to offer a truly biblical, truly evangelical theology of the hope that takes seriously what the Bible has to say both about God’s justice and God’s blessing.

To offer a better theology means reading the Scriptures in such a way that we are forced to think and rethink our practices, our lifestyles, our ways of being church, and in particular how these are shaped by misconception of wealth and the blessings of God.

In a nutshell, if we are to be a prophetic voice and a voice of hope an justice, we must recognize that God judges certain forms of life. There are many things that God judges and condemns, practices and doctrines throughout Christian history that the church has deemed unworthy of the gospel. But there is one thing throughout history, since the stories of ancient Israel to the present day that is judged most harshly: idolatry – you shall have no other gods before me. Idolatry is the sin of misplaced trust and the desire for something other than God.

I ask you who do you trust? what do you trust?

As I thought about this consultation and words of Scripture that speak to what we’ve been discussing this week, I could not avoid Jesus’ great sermon, recorded in both Matthew and Luke. I’d rather not have to speak on this text. Why? What is is about the Sermon on the Mount that raises uncomfortable feelings in us? These words cannot be spiritualized, they are not an ideal set up for the perfect person – quite the opposite – these words of Jesus deal with every day stuff: anger, marriage, how we eat, how we talk to one another, month and wealth. These texts are hard to read because they are so close to home.

Mountains, you will recall, figure prominently in Matthew’s gospel. These are the places of battles of prayer and vision and of great reminders. It is from the top of a very high mountain that the devil tempts Jesus for the third time, showing his all the kingdoms of this world and their splendor (ch. 4). It is at the top of a hight mountain where a little band of disciples are frightened and confused at the Transfiguration (ch. 17); it is at the tops of mountains that Jesus prays (ch. 14). Is is on a mount where he is crucified, and in Matthew 28 it is where he takes his disciples and reminds them of their mission and of all he has taught them. So when Matthew says something is happening on a mountain, it’s good to pay special attentions – these are key moments int he narrative.

What is the main theme of the Sermon on the Mount? I’d argue that it’s not love or repentance, or Christian ethics per se, though those certainly are important. But the broader theme is about the kingdom and learning to live in this kingdom that already exists in the very person of Jesus. an answer to the distorted teaching of prosperity theology has to be a theology of the kingdom and the hope that Jesus offers us as he invites us to this kingdom.  But Jesus’ call to join is more than an invitation. It’s about another way of sustaining life that doesn’t fall into the trap of idolatry – the way of life in the kingdom of God. It is an upside down kingdom. Too often we use its very upside-downness as an easy way to avoid the teachings, to ignore and dismiss this as something that reflects life in 1st century Palestine. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…pleases are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted…rejoice and be glad in persecution. We don’t want to be hungry, to be persecuted or to be poor. But we cannot ignore these tests. This is Jesus teaching us about what life looks like in this alternative kingdom for here and now, where people get angry, where marriages struggle, where people try to show off in church, where money is a master that enslaves and wealth is the new idol.

Paul Freston showed us how Prosperity Theology is viewed by those who receive the message, how for some it is a way to challenge market capitalism, how it empowers people by giving them the opportunity to be gift-givers rather than just receiving and thus being indebted to the giver. It gives them a sense of hope and a place to belong.  Prosperity Theology offers people something in which to place their trust.

There are two fundamental questions going on here:

  1. Who do you belong to?
  2. Who or what do you trust?

The questions are related. You have no other gods before. Idolatry is misplaced trust.

Trust implies relationships.  It is that confidence that we hope our children have in us; it is that friendship through which the world is made a better place; it is knowing that these people, this family, is your little band and this is the place where you belong.

In the gospels, Jesus is teaching the disciples a new way to trust and therefore a new way to belong. Jesus calls Simon and Peter and his brother Andrew (4:18ff), James and John, fishermen, simple guys; hard working guys who were not at the top of the economic ladder. Who is the next person he calls? Matthew himself – the tax collector, the guy who worked for the empire, who received bribes and cheated people like the fishermen. There is no natural way for Peter and Matthew to be friends. It is upside down for Jesus to put Matthew the tax collector and Peter the fisherman in the same community. Yet this is exactly the type of living in the kingdom that is going on here.

Jesus makes possible a new way of belonging that is centered around himself. In following Jesus the disciples are not only joining their lives to the master, but to one another as well – this is part of what it means to follow Jesus. Discipleship is about being together and trying to follow Jesus together. The closer we get to Jesus, the closer we are to one anther.

Trusting Jesus calls for and makes possible trust in others. In the kingdom there are others around you – it is precisely about a new way of being, a new order of community life made possible through Jesus. If discipleship were merely about the individual in the kingdom, we wouldn’t need the Sermon on the Mount – who would care about how we live together or what we do with our money? But it’s not just about the individual, it’s about how we share life in this kingdom of Jesus. Jesus draws us to himself and so draws us to others and this is a promise that is offered to you and to me.

So what does all this new community and learning to trust have to do with money and wealth and worrying? – banking on the kingdom.

When we get to this text in Matthew 6, Jesus has just instructed his disciples about how to pray and how God can redeem even the worst motives. He has talked about anger, marriage, about piety, and now he gets on that which sustains the kingdoms of this earth: economics.

I’m currently living in the UK. The Brits know about kingdoms. They have a queen, a royal family. What are kingdoms built upon? What sustains them and keeps the going?  It’s money – the treasures of the crown. Deals are made, marriages arranged, wars are fought in order to keep the kingdom running. This kingdom can be England, the Roman Empire, Fifa, Microsoft or Unicef. Kingdoms are built for and sustained by money.

In these verses Jesus exposes the idolatrous power of money. The challenge is that money isn’t just a thing.  It’s a god. Jesus is not going to let you dismiss its importance by saying ‘ Oh, it’s just money’ because if you do that you fail to see its power over your life and mine. Money is not just an artifact, not just something neutral, out there. It exercises power over us. Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also; no one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth.

The Bible has a lot to say about money and wealth, whether it’s a poor widow, a rich king, or the search for a treasure. As one NY scholar put it there is overall, hostility to wealth in the gospels. What is tragic is that we either sentimentalize the parables of the kingdom or we misread them completely, thus forgetting Jesus’ words in this text, pretending to ourselves that we are not slaves to wealth.

The religious Jews amongst Jesus’ listeners would not have been surprised at Jesus’ words. They knew the law – the text from Deuteronomy that was read earlier:

“Do not say to yourself, ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ but remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…If you do not forget the Lord your God and follow others gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” What happened to Israel? What happened to Solomon after he gained all his wealth? The religious Jesus in Jesus’ day knew the consequences of forgetting God in the time of prosperity.

Jesus does not refer specifically to the law in this text as he has earlier in the sermon, but I think his intent is the same…

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’…but I say to you, do not even be angry.

You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’…but I say to you do not even look at a woman with lust.

You have heard it said, ‘give thanks to God for your prosperity’… but I say t you, do not even store up treasures on earth.” 

Jesus is getting to the heart of kingdoms – wealth corrupts and even if we have the best of intentions, money will win us over.  Whether one is poor and always desiring money or rich and worrying about what to do with the money – it dominates our thoughts. It isn’t an accident that the last part of this chapter in Matthew deals with anxiety, with the ways in which we worry about all sorts of things – most of them related to having money or having power to purchase what we don’t have or what we thing we need.

Think of the ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – it invites Frodo towards it, it has power over him and draws him in. It’s power isn’t just in pulling him towards evil, but in so doing, it draws him away from the hobbit he is meant to be and away from the friends with whom he belongs. Frodo knows he can get in serious trouble if he succumbs to the power of the ring. He knows he needs to destroy it before it destroys him. In his mind and in his heart he knows. But knowing isn’t good enough. Like the ring, wealth has a power that threatens even our dreams. It shapes our desires and twists our trust.

Having the right perspective or having good intention about wealth isn’t going to be good enough. Jesus exposes this. The danger is that too quickly  money will blind us.   Frodo had the best of intentions but the ring had such power over him, that for all he tried it drew him away so that he is blinded even to the true friend he has in Samwise.

You cannot serve two masters. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life… Seek first the kingdom and its justice and all these things will be given to you.

This has everything to do with the trust and the types of community that the gospel makes possible. Part of being in Jesus is the capacity to share life and to learn to trust in ways that keep us from worrying. This is what Jesus creates in the community of disciples, it is what we see in Peter and Cornelius, it is what we see in the little band that gathered by the river in Philippi: a slave girl, a merchant, a jailer. There are people who would otherwise not be friends.

The alternative to the promise of wealth, hope and belonging that Prosperity teaching offers is actual shared life, it is the belonging and the trust that are only possible because Jesus himself has brought us together.

We’ve talked about poverty, the ned to listen to the poor, the challenge of talking about simplicity and humility in the contexts of poverty. Listening to the poor? I don’t think so. That’s not good enough. The upside-downness of Jesus’ kingdom isn’t so much about listening, it’s about being, it’s about sharing life. This is radical stuff – the alternative to which Jesus calls us is to be and to live with the poor. Literally. Being present in the world in ways that show the upside-downness of the gospel. Literally sharing life, and life in its fullness – sharing food, resources, struggles, joys, mourning. As we are drawn closer to Jesus we are drawn closer to one another – those who would not naturally be friends “in the real world” actually share life “in the real world.”

The economics of the kingdom cannot be dismissed as something other-worldly or as something for an ideal time for a world without stock markets. you cannot say of these texts “yeah, but in the real world this is how things work…” The New Testament’s reply to that line is, in the real world, Peter and Matthew are enemies who despise one another. The New Testament reply (and there are plenty of echoes in the OT) is: another world is not only possible but it is here and now in Jesus.

I asked who do you trust?

Trust involves risk – there is no guarantee that being in this new community means things will work out in the end. The community is fragile. There can be betrayal – there was for Jesus. Think of those disciples. Judas’ love of money exposes the power of those 30 pieces of silver. His betrayal of Jesus wasn’t just that it led to the crucifixion, but it tore apart that community that had build itself around Jesus. The community is fragile, but not impossible.

After the shock and trauma of that betrayal, Jesus returns resurrected, drawing again to himself these disparate characters and then sending them out in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is as practical as it gets. It is in and through this upside down kingdom community that we share good and clothing; it is in this kingdom that we seek justice and mercy. Because we are together we learn not to worry. If our church models are such that we cannot share life, it will be very hard to counter the teachings of Prosperity Theology.

Confidence in the good news of Jesus frees him from worrying. We don’t have to save the world. Jesus has already come and done that. We are called to obey, to live lives that bring us closer to Jesus and to one another. If we keep our eyes on Jesus we are not only freed from worrying and the power of wealth, but we draw others to Jesus as well.

Perhaps in these texts Jesus is trying to teach to ask not, “where will my food come from?” but, “with whom do I share life and how do I see Jesus? How do I share real life – the stuff of planing gardens, praying and healing the sick, caring for the poor and the widows.

In Acts we have stories of those early Christians trying to live out in their contexts the various things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s pretty practical stuff, from theological education to breaking bread. In Paul’s letters, again you’ve got these people trying to live out the gospel in very messy ways with all its economic and political implications. Rich and poor in Corinth, Jew and Gentile in Rome – people who would not naturally be together “in the real world” are brought together by the power of the gospel and so must work out together what this new life means “in the real world.”

C.S. Lewis isn’t my favorite theologian, but he captures well the hope and the possibility that we have to offer a better theology, a theology for shared life, for learning to trust God, to trust one another because of God, and so not to fall into the idolatries of wealth. He writes this about the first disciples:

“They met him again after they had seen him killed. And then after they had been formed into a little society, or community, they found God somehow inside them the well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before.”

After they shared life together, they found God in them. Banking on the kingdom is seeing the ways we can do things we could not do before. It’s recognizing the power that wealth has over us, and repenting.   The alternative to prosperity theology isn’t an alternative wealth, another idol or independence, but is in the inter-dependence made possible by sharing life. It is living in such a way that the world will see that another world is possible.

 

This is a paper presented by the author at the 2014 Lausanne Global Consultation on Prosperity Theology, Poverty, and the Gospel. You may find a video version of this paper in the Content Library. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the personal viewpoints of Lausanne Movement leaders or networks. For the official Lausanne Statement from this consultation, please see ‘The Atibaia Statement on Prosperity Theology‘.

 

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