Content with the Gospel of Christ

Sermon Preached on September 30, 2007
at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church
Proper 21C

There’s a gospel being preached outside these walls that promises God’s favor if you just ask for it. And God’s favor is clearly spelled out as material success – God will give you all kinds of advantages - the right car, the right house, the right teachers for your children in school, and all the finances you need to ensure that your life will be easier – if you just ask for it and believe that it is what you deserve as a child of God. Critics of this gospel refer to it as the “prosperity Gospel” because it teaches that God wants us to be financially prosperous.

Joel Osteen is the pastor at Lakewood – a mega-church in Houston, Texas and he is considered to be a leading proponent of the “prosperity Gospel.”[1] In a sermon he calls “The Favor of God,” he preaches:

“God wants to make your life easier, he wants to assist you and give you special advantages. That’s what his favor does. . . . When you really learn how to tap into God’s favor, you’ll have a tremendous advantage. God’s favor will cause you to be promoted even though you weren’t the most qualified. . . . God’s favor will cause our children to get the best teachers in school. All kinds of advantages come when we learn to walk in God’s favor. . . . God’s favor is bringing . . . . promotion, increase, success . . . The more you thank God for his favor, the more of his favor you’ll see. . . . God has favor coming your way. . . . He wants to help you get the best deals in life . . . the best sale, the right house, the right car. . .”[2]
and his sermon continues along this line for quite awhile. In addition to “The Favor of God,” Osteen has preached sermons with titles like “Financial Prosperity,” “Living a Life of Excellence,” “The Power of Right Associations,” and “Going from Believing to Expecting.”[3] Now I’m not drawing your attention to Joel Osteen because I think he needs to be exposed for some wrong-doing; though already it should be clear that I do not agree with his theology. Instead, I want you to explore with me the gospel we read this morning and discover for yourselves some of the dangers of a prosperity gospel and the hope in the Gospel of Christ.

In the first part of today’s gospel, we are introduced to two characters – a rich man and Lazarus. First, the rich man: the rich man is not just “kind of rich” but “really, really rich”.
We are told he wears fine linen and is dressed in purple – a color of clothing that the Roman government limited to people of high status. The more purple you wore, the higher your social status.[4] He lives in a gated home. One wonders if this gate was to keep him safely inside or to keep those, like Lazarus, safely outside. He eats well. And now, Lazarus: this poor man is not just “kind of poor,” but “really, really poor.” Instead of living in a home, we learn that he lays outside the rich man’s gate. Instead of eating well, he longs “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” – he is not asking for a sumptuous feast for himself; he simply wants the scraps from the table. Instead of being told about his clothing, we are told he is covered with sores and, as if to add insult to injury, we learn that the dogs come and lick his sores. One commentary wondered if these same dogs did, in fact, eat the scraps from the rich man’s table.[5]

Now, the prosperity Gospel would preach that the rich man was rich because he had God’s favor and Lazarus was poor and covered with sores because he had somehow displeased God. The Old Testament book of Numbers might support this understanding because of a passage that reads, “you will undergo punishment for your wrongdoing.”[6] And, in fact, about 2000 years ago when Jesus first told this story, many of his listeners would have thought precisely the same thing. Certain then that the rich man will be in heaven and Lazarus in hell, what a surprise Jesus’ listeners must have had when they discovered Lazarus “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” and the rich man “being tormented” in Hades.[7] And what a puzzle for the prosperity Gospel for how do we reconcile the God who will promote us even if we are not the most qualified with the God who condemns the rich man to an afterlife of perpetual torment and raises up the outcast, Lazarus to spend eternity in the bosom of Abraham? My friends, the answer is simple: we cannot.

Now I want to be cautious at this point, because the take home message is not that having money is a bad thing. To be sure, the letter to Timothy says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (note: it does not say, “money is the root of all evil.” – a subtle but important difference: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”). The love of money is the problem. The passage from the letter to Timothy began this way, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”[8] Contentment - being satisfied, having enough, being full. The Greek word for contentment (au-TAR-keai) is a word that carries with it a sense of cherishing simplicity and accepting the hand that has been dealt to you by nature or by fortune.[9] And the rest of this morning’s reading from the letter to Timothy expounds upon what this means. Those who do not have a great deal are called to be satisfied – content – with what they do have – food and clothing. They are not to pine after riches; instead they are to “take hold of the eternal life.”[10]

For those who already have money – “those who in the present age are rich” – the message is much as it was in last week’s Gospel. Last week we heard, “no slave can serve two masters.”[11] Having money is not a bad thing; however, in order to safeguard against the temptations of worshipping – of loving - money, we are encouraged to use our money to further God’s work in the world.[12] By using the gifts God has given us to further God’s work in the world, we are pleasing God. We have Moses and the prophets. We have the story of Lazarus and the rich man. And, we have the cross and the resurrection. What more do we need in order to turn our lives toward God? “Grant us the fullness of your grace, O God, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.”[13] Amen.

[1] “Meet the Prosperity Preacher,” Interview of Joel Osteen by William C. Symonds, Boston Bureau Chief of BusinessWeek, May 23, 2005 accessed online on September 29, 2007.
[2] Joel Osteen, “God’s Favor,” Streaming Video (#354) accessed online on September 29, 2007.
[3] Jackie Alnor, “Joel Osteen: The Prosperity Gospel’s Coverboy,” The Christian Sentinel (June 2003) accessed online on September 29, 2007 and Joel Osteen Streaming Video Quicklink accessed online on September 29, 2007.
[4] Culpepper, 316.
[5] Culpepper, 316.
[6] Numbers 14:34.
[7] Luke 16:22, 23.
[8] I Timothy 6:6.
[9] James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. XI (2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1& 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon), (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), 828.
[10] I Timothy 6:8, 12.
[11] I Timothy 6:17, Luke 16:13a.
[12] I Timothy 6:18.
[13] From The Collect for Proper 21.