The Gospel of Excess

The news media have been having their heyday with the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” It gives them a chance to mock religion, particularly Christianity, and to attack it at the same time.

It’s not that the “Gospel of excess” doesn’t deserve mockery or that it shouldn’t be aggressively attacked. There’s no question that it seriously taints authentic Christian faith and leaves the impression in the popular mind that all church leaders—pastors, priests, bishops, theologians, lay administrators—are “making money off the Cross,” accommodating their own interests and their own greed at the expense of those they purport to serve. The problem is that the established churches seem to have so little to say about it, shrugging it off as a typical and inevitable expression of American pop religion.

The movement began, it seems, with Texas preacher Kenneth Hagin in the middle of the last century. Its basic message holds that God desires that all of his children prosper as fully as they can, particularly with regard to the accumulation of material goods and other financial assets. It’s essentially a “gospel of greed” that places a religious veneer over the secular “greed is good” philosophy of a few years ago (a timeless philosophy, by the way, that predates the Fall—think of Lucifer—and motivates the symbolic woman of abominations to be destroyed in the endtime, Rev. 17-18). Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley, spurred on no doubt by the IRS, is finally investigating these organizations, whose leaders, in the name of the Gospel of Christ, have amassed obscene wealth at the expense of their faithful, if mind-bogglingly gullible, followers.

Particularly appalling is the use these charismatic charlatans make of Scripture. One of their favorite verses is 2 Corinthians 8:9. Here the apostle Paul declares, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The verse appears in the context of Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to contribute liberally to the needs of the “saints,” Christians living in poverty throughout the Mediterranean world, but particularly in Jerusalem. The churches in Macedonia, afflicted for unknown reasons with a significant degree of poverty themselves, had nevertheless contributed generously to others, as a sign of their loyalty to Paul, but also as a means of deepening their unity with the Mother Church of Jerusalem. The apostle’s appeal for liberal giving, then, was essentially “ecumenical”: to create a bond of unity, faithfulness and love between Jerusalem Christians and those, both Jews and Greeks, living in the diaspora.

More important, though, is the meaning of the words, “he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This can by no means be understood in financial terms, as though Christ’s purpose was to open the way for his followers to attain personal material wealth. His “poverty” can be properly understood only in light of St Paul’s “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus Christ, who shared fully the divinity of God the Father, “emptied himself,” taking the form of a servant. That is, he divested himself of divine prerogatives, in order to assume human nature and share in the human lot, even to the point of suffering death on the cross. It is by this act of total self-sacrifice, by his assuming a total “poverty” of nature and destiny, that he enables us to become “rich,” that is, to share in his own resurrected and glorified life. To interpret 2 Cor 8:9 as it has been exegeted by the Prosperity Gospel people is to deform the most basic sense of the apostle’s message and to distort it into self-serving grounds for celebrating the greed that for millennia has been appropriately classed as one of the seven deadly sins.

I recall how struck my wife and I were in the late 1960s, when we visited on many occasions the French Protestant (now heavily Catholic) community of Taizé. One of the brothers, Frère Pierre-Yves Emery, led retreatants in what was called a “révision de vie,” a reassessment of our material goods and our whole way of living. He urged the various groups in attendance to make a yearly survey of their possessions, in order to simplify as much as practically possible their style of life and to contribute any excess to those in need. His inspiration was St John Chrysostom, who, in his homilies on wealth and poverty, made the point that any possession we may have that does not serve our immediate and legitimate needs, belongs to our brother, to those less fortunate than we are, those who could benefit from our passing on material goods that, after all, had come to us only by the gracious generosity of God.

Greed remains a prime motivator in our life, perhaps more so in the United States than elsewhere. It is a universal problem, though, that knows no national or ethnic boundaries. We are all susceptible to it, without exception (affluence begets the need for ever greater affluence). And however much we may condemn the Prosperity Gospel aficionados, we are aware of how easily and subtly greed creeps into the workings of the Church. “Financial mismanagement” is a result not only of improper handling of corporate or institutional funds. It also pertains to all of us who feel somehow entitled to more, even at the expense of others.

One response to the Gospel of excess is to speak out and condemn it, as widely and publicly as we can. This is an urgent part of our witness in this money-drenched and money-obsessed culture of ours, particularly with the attacks made in general against the Christian faith, and the tendency of the media to lump all of us into the same category, both of faith and of practice (or malpractice).

Just as important, though, is for us to acquire a custom or habit that for most of us goes very much against the grain. That is to make our own “life revision,” to cull and eliminate as much as we can. Spiritual growth and attentiveness depend upon it, as does a capacity for authentic generosity. “Every good and perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights,” we declare at the close of the Liturgy, quoting from the Letter of James (1:17). We would do well to hear what this same letter has to say about the destructive influence of wealth; and to recall its promise, raised as a rhetorical question (2:5), “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?”