Prosperity Gospel? (Luke 15 and 16)

The fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel recounts three parables. We read them at Mass two Sundays ago… Lost sheep. Lost coin. Prodigal son. Images of Divine Mercy. Comforting, and not difficult to understand. Luke 15. [Spanish]

But Luke 16, on the other hand… First, the parable of the Dishonest Steward, which we heard at Mass last Sunday. And the painful tale of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Lazarus Dives dogs feast

Dogs licking the poor man’s sores in this world. The rich man dying of thirst in the next life. A chasm between heaven and hell that no one can cross.

Lord Jesus addressed last Sunday’s parable of the Dishonest Steward, the first part of Luke 16, to His own disciples. But the Pharisees overheard Him. So then the Lord told the story of Lazarus and the rich man for their benefit, the Pharisees’ benefit.

It’s no accident that, in the story, the bosom on which Lazarus comes to rest belongs to Abraham. One way for us to understand all of Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees is to grasp the fundamental question in dispute.

Namely: What does it mean to be a child of Abraham? God Almighty chose the children of Abraham as His own, His people. But what precisely makes you a child of Abraham, one of the Chosen?

Abraham lived before the ancient written law came down to Moses on Mount Sinai. Abraham lived way before Solomon built the Temple. But what Abraham had was: true humility, true faith in the Providence of God.

Now, most people know that life in this world isn’t fair. Bad luck can hit good people, and the wicked often prosper. The ancient pagans expressed this by inventing a special goddess, the goddess of Fortune. She spins the wheel of arbitrary and unfair fate.

Anyone ever heard of the “Prosperity Gospel?” If God loves you, and you’re good, then you will have a comfortable house, a shiny car, a well-padded bank account, and good teeth.  On the other hand, if you’re a loser, and can’t pay your bills, it’s your own fault.

Fortuna and wheel
the goddess Fortuna

The Prosperity Gospel lets comfortable, self-centered people like the rich man in the parable sit at their tables, while a neighbor starves–without thinking twice about it.

But the arbitrary spinning of Fortune’s wheel does not deal out justice on earth. That’s not what believing in God’s Providence means. Material prosperity does not measure interior virtue. Being wealthy doesn’t make you one of God’s Chosen.

God has given us sinners a means by which to purify our selfish hearts. We have to do battle with something. The concept of “mine.”

What did the rich man discover, when he went to meet God? He learned that all the stuff he thought was his was only temporarily his. He didn’t own his wealth. He had the stewardship of it, for a time.

scales_of_justiceHe thought he had enjoyed his money thoroughly. Turns out he stewarded it very poorly. He actually owed some of it to the poor man Lazarus. And Lazarus didn’t ask much; he would have been happy with the scraps that fell from the table. But the rich man loved his sumptuous lifestyle so much that he did not even know that Lazarus existed.

We conquer our selfishness by giving things away. In this fallen world, the children of Abraham, the children of God, learn to forget the word “mine” by giving away stuff, giving away time and energy for other people’s benefit.

I think the most haunting part of the gospel passage is the end. The rich man, suffering in hell for his selfishness and gluttony, begs Abraham to send Lazarus back. ‘Let him warn my selfish, gluttonous brothers!’

Abraham answers: ‘But they already have the words of the prophets to warn them. They should know better. Just like you should have known better.’

‘No, no,’ cried the rich man in hell: ‘They will listen; they will repent; they will turn to God and live generous lives—if someone rises from the dead. If someone comes back from the dead and teaches them that only self-sacrificing love can get you to heaven!’

The thing is: It happened. That teacher has risen from the dead. The poor man of Nazareth.

4 thoughts on “Prosperity Gospel? (Luke 15 and 16)

  1. Question re Elizabeth’s comment: Does the gift have to be sincere to be acceptable? If you give something because you’re following Christ’s command but you hate the giving, or the giving annoys you, or a tiny little bit of you wants to keep what you’ve given — does that make your gift unacceptable?

  2. Good question (if I could butt in)…maybe it’s a matter of degrees. Jesus scolded the Pharisees for their obsession with ritual rules obedience, but sighed, “….their hearts are far from me.” Maybe the gift is more or less acceptable depending on how much our hearts are in the giving. Cain gave an offering (of leftovers?) that displeased God, but Abel gave his very best selections, and that did please God. The widow gave a tiny bit – but it was all she had – and Jesus praised her for giving the most. Was that sincerity more acceptable? Is the thoughtfulness of the gift the key? As in, did I really think about the person in how and what I gave, or did I just run to Walmart and buy a gift card?

  3. It seems to me that a gift may be “unacceptable to God” spiritually when given reluctantly or grudgingly, yet still help others.

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