Does God want you to be rich? Does God want you to be rich? It’s a straight question. When Time magazine asked the question, they found, 61 percent of those surveyed believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31 percent agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money…
Of the four largest megachurches in the USA, three—Joel Osteen’s Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers near Atlanta—are all Prosperity pulpits. For Osteen, the Prosperity Gospel isn’t a pejorative term: “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy.” The pastor of the fourth largest megachurch, Rick Warren, however, sees things differently. “There is a word for that” he says, “baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty.” Wealth is clearly controversial. Some Christians believe wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and poverty a sign of God’s curse. If you are poor its your own fault.
Other Christians believe poverty is mandatory, intrinsic to the gospel and wealth, therefore, a sign of moral corruption. In the middle are many Christians – tempted to get defensive about our life style, confused about how to live for Jesus in a materialist world, but keen to do God’s will. Lets evaluate these views, by Jesus teaching in our passage today from Luke 12:13-21.
1. The Prosperity Gospel
There are plenty of examples in the Old Testament of individuals who were blessed by God with material wealth. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job. The Lord promises Joshua, for example, “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you… then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:7-8). John Wesley observed that the accumulation of wealth is in one sense a natural consequence of the gospel. The question is what do we do with it? Wesley had a solution. “Gain all you can… save all you can… give all you can.” Prosperity gospel preachers go much further than Wesley though.
Denis Haack in “The Success Factor” describes how a TV preacher declared, as he pointed to his diamond rings and new Cadillac, that the difference between him and us is that “I have Cadillac faith and you have Volkswagen faith.” Haack says,
“By the end of his message I was led to believe that to own anything less than the most expensive was not only an indication of anaemic faith, but a slap at the dignity and generosity of the God of Abraham. And Abraham happened to be, by the way, a very wealthy man.”
So what’s so wrong with all this? Prosperity teaching undermines the cross of Jesus in three ways:
The Prosperity Gospel marginalises the cross
Jesus commands, “Whoever is not willing to take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27) Jesus wasn’t talking about a Calvin Klein gold cross with diamond studded nails. Taking up your cross, meant making your will. There was only one place you were heading carrying a cross.
The Prosperity Gospel reduces God to a means to an end
God becomes the source from which prosperity flows, rather than the sovereign to whom prosperity in this life is sacrificed. Faith becomes a technique, a key that unlocks guaranteed wealth. Belief in Jesus Christ becomes irrelevant.
The Prosperity Gospel focuses on this world not the next
Material possessions are seen as a sign of God’s approval and the means of God’s blessing. If you believe poverty is a curse or due to lack of faith, you will become deaf to the cries of the poor. Jesus condemns the prosperity gospel for idolising wealth. It subverts the demand of the cross for self denial. It reduces God to a means to an end. It is focussed on this world. But what about the opposite?
2. The Poverty Gospel
The poverty gospel appears to have a biblical basis as well.
“Looking at his disciples, Jesus said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”” (Luke 6:20).
Later he taught them,
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34).
What could be plainer? God is the God of the poor. Jesus was poor and his disciples are called to follow him. If we really submit to Christ’s lordship we will suffer as he did. How can we possibly indulge ourselves in the material things in life and follow Jesus? On the face of it living a simple lifestyle and taking the vow of poverty has its attractions. Jesus did say “How hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom” (Matthew 19:23). And didn’t the disciples believe in the poverty gospel when they rebuked the woman for wasting expensive ointment on Jesus feet?
“When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:8-9).
But Jesus didn’t agree. He rebuked them not her! If the prosperity Gospel turns God into a capitalist, the poverty gospel turns God into a communist. And here lies the weakness of both positions. Both measure people and spirituality by lifestyle or possessions.
So we look down on those poorer than ourselves, and sometimes feel guilty. And we judge those wealthier than ourselves, yet sometimes covet their lifestyle. The prosperity gospel and the poverty gospel. Is there an alternative? Yes there is. Wealth is neither intrinsic nor incongruous to the gospel. Lets turn back to the parable and consider,
3. The Lord’s Gospel
The context for this story about a rich fool is prompted by a man in the crowd who interrupted Jesus and asked Him to solve a family problem. Rabbis were expected to help settle legal matters, but Jesus refused to get involved. Why?
Because He was being asked to side with one brother against another. He knew that both had not recognised their real problem. The real problem was covetousness. (The “you” in Luke 12:14 is plural.) As long as both were greedy, no settlement would be satisfactory. Their greatest need was a change of heart. Like many people today, they wanted Jesus to serve them but not to save them. Jesus told this story to show the dangers that lurk in a covetous heart.
3.1 The Fool’s Dilemma
“The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ (Luke 12:16-17)
How would you respond to the wealthy farmer’s dilemma? Here was a man who had a problem with too much wealth! You may be thinking – I wish I had that kind of problem. If you won the Euro Lottery on Friday or inherited a fortune this week, you would no doubt ask the same question as this man, “What shall I do?” It was a good question to ask. What made him a fool was the way he answered it. There are perils to prosperity. Wealth can choke the Word of God as we see in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:22). It can, for example, give a false sense of security. “And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy…” Isn’t that the motivation behind many pension plans or saving schemes? People say that money does not satisfy, but it does satisfy if you want to live at that level. People who are satisfied only with the things that money can buy are in great danger of losing the things that money cannot. The Fool’s Dilemma.
3.2 The Fool’s Decision
‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ (Luke 12:18-19)
How do you respond to the decisions of the rich man? Are you saying, “Now that is shrewd business! Save and invest for the future!” But Jesus saw selfishness in all that the man did. Eleven times he uses the personal pronoun “I”. The world’s philosophy is “Take care of Number One!” But Jesus does not endorse this philosophy. There is certainly nothing wrong with following good business principles. It is wise to save for the future, to invest and be prepared for rainy days (1 Tim. 5:8). Jesus does not encourage waste (John 6:12). But neither does He encourage greed. The Fool’s Dilemma, the Fool’s Decision.
3.3 The Fool’s Destiny
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21)
How do you respond to the death of the farmer? “Too bad he died just when he had everything going for him!” But the greatest tragedy is not what the man left behind but what lay before him: eternity without God. The man lived without God and died without God, and his wealth was of no good to him. God is not impressed with our money. We cannot buy our way into heaven. Wealth cannot keep us alive when our time comes to die, nor can it buy back the opportunities we missed. What then is the right approach to wealth and possessions?
Jesus said, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21) Here is the answer to the question “Does God want you to be rich?”. Yes he does – most emphatically. “Rich toward God.” What does this mean? Jesus explains in the following verses: It means being,
Rich in Thankfulness
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes… consider the ravens… yet God feeds them” (Luke 12:22-24)
The fundamental error this fool made was to think his possessions were his own. That this exceptional crop was the result of his own hard work and all that mattered. If we would have a proper attitude to possessions then we must first acknowledge like the birds that all things come from God. We are to be grateful, thankful stewards of God’s good creation. Rich in thankfulness.
Rich in Simplicity
“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith..” (Luke 12:27-28)
The fool’s motive was “more is better”. Jesus says “learn to live simply so that others can simply live”. Even designer clothes cannot match the beauty of God’s creation and that includes you. Rich in thankfulness, rich in simplicity.
Rich in Generosity
“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well… Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:31-34)
So does God want us to be rich or does God want us to be poor? God wants us to be rich – rich toward him. Rich in thankfulness, rich in simplicity, rich in generosity.
Wealth can be enjoyed and employed at the same time if we are rich toward God. All that we are and all that we have is His.
We are his stewards of everything we have. He has entrusted to us this world for His purposes and His glory. That is why giving a proportion of our income to the Lord’s work in and through our church family is the norm. How much should be a matter for prayerful consideration and diligence.
In Second Corinthians, the Lord gives us a number of principles to follow based on the example of the Christians in Macedonia.
“Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-8)
Generously – “whoever sows generously will reap generously.”
Intentionally – “what you have decided in your heart to give”
Voluntarily – “not reluctantly or under compulsion”
Looking back over 40 years of full time ministry, I can say that God has always provided for our needs, just as he promises.
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)
Is not this the legacy worth giving your life for? Rich in thankfulness. Rich in simplicity. Rich in generosity. This is how it is possible to be rich. In fact it is the only way.
A sermon which relies heavily for inspiration on commentators like Warren Wiersbe and Michael Wilcox, delivered at St John’s Church, Maadi, Cairo. Title picture from Google and Calvary Church