The real prosperity gospel

Hundreds of thousands of American Christians believe in the prosperity gospel. One prosperity gospel preacher, Mac Hammond, memorably teaches that “God wants you to be a winner in every area of life” and emphasizes biblical principles to help you win financially. He regards wealth as “both a tool for wielding righteous influence and a reward for righteous living.”[1] In its crudest version, the prosperity gospel says that God blesses Christians with wealth proportionate to the seed they plant, that is, to their financial gift to the preacher’s ministry. Don’t worry. Although Holy Nativity’s stewardship campaign is currently underway, my message this morning is not that God will bless you in proportion to your pledge.

Haggai is one of the twelve minor prophets, minor connoting the length of the Old Testament books (two chapters in the case of Haggai) and not the importance of their message. All we know about Haggai is that he prophesied for three months in 520 B.C.E., the second year of Darius of Persia’s reign.[2]

By 520, the Promised Land, Israel, had shrunk to about twenty square miles. The land lay in ruins; the Jews whom Nebuchadnezzar had not deported lived in extreme poverty. These peasants, the am Haaretz or people of the land, naturally resented the recently returned exiles, who after an absence of fifty years, insisted on reoccupying the land and buildings they had previously owned.[3]

Not only were the people deeply divided, but the governor, Zerubbabel, and the high priest, Joshua, had undertaken the immensely daunting task of rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. The few elderly persons who remembered the glories and size of Solomon’s temple scoffed at the idea of rebuilding.[4] Progress was slow; resources, including labor, appeared insufficient. Meanwhile, droughts and failed harvests caused famine, poverty, and inflation impeding construction.[5] Also, returnees understandably prioritized rebuilding their own homes, farms and businesses over rebuilding the temple. As an aside, that situation has striking parallels in the present: raising money and recruiting volunteers to serve in a church can be agonizingly difficult; people are often too busy with worthwhile personal endeavors to feel able to contribute much money or time to the church.

Haggai preached hope and courage. God wants to fill Israel with well-being, he said.[6] The Hebrew word is shalom, frequently translated as peace but actually denoting complete well-being. Haggai emphasized that the people are not too poor to rebuild the temple. Indeed, they are poor precisely because they have not rebuilt the temple. This may sound like the prosperity gospel but there are two key differences. First, he is not soliciting money for himself. Second, the promise of peace and prosperity, both in Haggai and throughout the Old Testament, is not to individuals but to the community, ultimately a universal community that includes all people.[7] The Temple symbolizes God's presence and rule. Until the community rebuilds the temple, and submits to God's rule, neither Israel nor the world will enjoy the glorious future God promised.[8]

Biblical scholars and theologians are unclear whether Haggai expected fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for universal redemption in the present or in the future.[9] Biblical scholars and theologians similarly dispute whether Jesus taught that God's kingdom comes in the present or the future. Perhaps the correct interpretation is unimportant. God calls us to act in the present, to work at building an earth that is truly God's temple, one in which everyone fully respects the dignity and worth of all people and one in which we care for all creation. As in Haggai’s day, negative thinking may be the biggest obstacle to personal and social transformation. Only as we act, do “we leave open the door for a more marvelous work of God.”[10]

This week, the longtime homeless community of more than two hundred people living at a Waianae boat harbor, led by Twinkle Borge, announced that they have agreed to purchase twenty acres on which to build a permanent home and accumulated $800,000 of the $1.4 million purchase price.[11] This amazing achievement required the larger community’s assistance. This development also exemplifies the true prosperity gospel, the good news Haggai preached of God's commitment to peace, prosperity and well-being for all people.

A doctor was making the rounds in a ward of terminally ill patients. He asked each of them whether he or she had any final requests. One older lady replied, "Yes, I'd like to see my immediate family one more time." "Of course," said the doctor. "We'll arrange it." He asked a second patient for his wishes. "I'm a Catholic," murmured the man. "I'd like to see a priest for confession and the last rites." "Certainly," replied the doctor. Then he approached a third patient: "Have you any last wish, sir?" he inquired. "Yes," gasped the old man. "My last wish is to see another doctor." This old man was not yet ready to give up on life.

Our doctor is Jesus. We cannot find a better physician. Sadly, Christians do not consistently hear and obey his teachings. We frequently, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes intentionally, interpret the Bible in ways exclusively focused on individuals and personal gain.

Never forget, Jesus was a Jew. Our Old Testament was his Bible. His outlook was primarily communal not individualistic. He knew and taught that peace for one person is never complete until all enjoy the same peace. We can achieve the seemingly impossible. Israel finished rebuilding its temple in 515 B.C.E., five years after Haggai prophesied. Jesus rose from the dead. The Waianae homeless community will soon have a permanent home. When we join God's team, we can achieve the impossible. Universal peace and prosperity is not an impossible dream. Amen.

Sermon preached the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019
Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Robert D. Putnam and David E Campbell, American Grace (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4980-86.
[2] Rex Mason, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford, 1993), pp. 266-267.
[3] Carroll Stuhlmueller, “Haggai,” Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, et. al. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p.387-389.
[4] Mason, pp. 266-267.
[5] Mason, p. 266.
[6] Carol Myers and Eric M. Myers, “Haggai, Book of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. III, p. 22.
[7] Stuhlmueller, pp. 388-389.
[8] Peter C. Craigie, Daily Study Bible, “Haggai” (Juneau, AK: Software Sharing Ministries, 1998), Ch. 2.
[9] Stuhlmueller, p. 389.
[10] Craigie, Ch. 2.


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