Rev. David Yonggi Cho, founder of the world’s largest church, a congregation in South Korea with close to 800,000 members, said: “We must rethink our misguided thoughts considering material wealth as being equated with sin. We must drive out our subconsciously rooted thoughts of poverty, condemnation and despair. God acts in concordance with our conscience; If our thoughts are filled with poverty and despair, God cannot bless us with material blessing.” This was before he was found guilty of embezzling $12 million in church funds. The elders of the church brought the charges, which included far more than the $12 million they convicted him of. He “borrowed” and never returned large amounts of money, acquired enormous church donations without disclosing what they were being used for and took an $18 million severance pay when he stepped down as head pastor in 2008.
These are the kind of churches that are growing the fastest in the world. The problem is, the form of Christianity that they teach is a false one. There is just enough truth mixed in to deceive. Genuine biblical teaching is blended in with the heady and enthralling lure of abundance and blessings.
Prosperity teaching may have begun in the United States, but it is now a worldwide phenomenon, endangering genuine Christianity. These churches are designed to manipulate. The worship is exciting. Emotions are whipped up, and critical thinking walks right out the door. From Lagos to Singapore to South Korea, Africa and South America, people are being conned into believing that God will reward them with material prosperity, and if they’re poor, they just don’t have enough faith. When “name it and claim it” doesn’t work, when giving every last penny to the pastor for his new airplane doesn’t result in our own personal wealth, well then clearly we need to try harder.
Those in Jesus’ day did not believe in the prosperity gospel, but they did link prosperity with God’s favor. They did this despite the obvious evidence that there were a lot of evil rich people running around. Jesus’ teaching that it would be harder for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God came as a shock.
Our story begins with an earnest young man seeking Jesus out. He comes to him humbly. He even falls to his knees. He asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus responds with a question of his own. “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one—God.” Although he appears to be testing the young man’s sincerity, he then chooses the parts of the ten commandments that concern our treatment of others and says, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” The man responded, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Now we would object, “Really? Perfectly?” but this young man seems sincere. He’s been very careful. He’s done his best. Jesus looked at him with love and said, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
The man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. And
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
This young man may have gone through life up to this point believing that his financial prosperity was an indication of God’s favor. He was used to being on the top. He had never experienced the dark underbelly of life. He did not know need. His money brought him security and status, which he may have assumed was his by right. When suddenly challenged to give this up and share all of his resources out among the poor, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. His worldview said, “But God gave me all this because I’m a good person. I deserve it!” His instinct for self-preservation said, “I don’t want to be helpless and powerless. My wealth is my security. It gives me my standing in the community. Without it I’d be nothing.”
This is the only case in scripture where Jesus called someone to give up their possessions. Although the disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus, the boats and fishing gear presumably stayed in the family. He didn’t tell them to sell everything. Mary, Martha and Lazarus had a home and land. Jesus did not tell them to sell it. Simon and Andrew still kept a house in Capernaum. Although tax collectors were called to give up ill-gotten gains, they did not give up everything. And people with homes and resources supplied the needs of others. So why did Jesus make this extraordinary request of this young man?
The answer may lie in the question as much as the young man himself. The question he asked is not one we would ask. We would ask, “What must I do to GET eternal life?” He asks, “What must I do to INHERIT eternal life?” For this man in this culture wealth comes through inheritance, and he would know how that works in other matters. The law is clear. The firstborn son inherits two shares of the property, and each of the other sons inherits one share (Deuteronomy 21:17). The firstborn son gets twice as much as his brothers. If there are no sons, daughters could receive the inheritance (Numbers 27:8-11), but most of the time a daughter would only receive a dowry when she married. So if these are the laws of inheritance with regard to property, what are the laws of inheritance with regard to eternal life? Does the oldest son get twice as much as anyone else and the women of the family a token? He is asking what the requirements are and what he must do.
What can anyone do to inherit something? To inherit, generally speaking, you have to be part of the family, but we’ve all heard about the rich little old lady playing one part of the family against the other because they all want her money, and in the end it all gets left to the poodle. But regardless of the quirks of who gets left out of the will in our day and age, it was uncommon to dispossess rightful heirs at that time. They had to do something really bad. And for the very poor who made up the majority of the population the subject never came up, because there was nothing to inherit.
Essentially what this young man was asking was “How can I be a son in good standing in God’s family so my blessings continue into eternity?” He assumed that being a son in good standing in God’s family meant being blessed by prosperity and security here. He was looking for it in the hereafter. But what Jesus told him didn’t fit at all. It was contrary to everything he had been raised to believe. Jesus said if you truly want to follow God, God alone must be the source of your security and status in the world. As long as money comes first, God will come second. Jesus defined God’s family as those who do the will of God, and those who do the will of God do not always have an easy time of it. The will of God includes advocating for economic justice and mercy, and it can include persecution.
This young man was doing all the right things for the wrong reasons. He wanted to ensure his own well-being and security. His faith was self-centered. He had the same type of faith promoted by the prosperity teachers. But before we get all high and mighty and pass judgment on him, we do the same thing. How many of us sitting here today would have walked away too? The disciples were flabbergasted, assuming that if this were the standard, no one could be saved, to which Jesus replied, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Getting ahead in the world is not the same thing as getting ahead in the kingdom of God. There is a divine reversal going on. The wealth that might make us highly respected and powerful in society is worthless in the kingdom of God, and worse than worthless if we count on it to give our life meaning. It can become a weight that drags us down. To gain eternal life, we have to surrender this life.
Jesus calls us to follow him. Whatever claims our allegiance must come second to our allegiance to God. And this is something that is very, very hard for us to do. And the more we have it seems the harder it is for us. By the standards of the world we are all wealthy beyond imagining. We have a roof over our head, clothes to wear, and food to eat. But if we gain our sense of self-worth and identity from our income or job, we are most to be pitied. These things are all temporary. It’s not that God wants us to all be poor or that poverty is a virtue, but a hurricane can sweep everything away in an instant. What God wants is to be first in our lives.
If we’re honest, I think most of us would fail this test. We too would walk away, unable to let go of family and social approval and financial security. And we don’t know what happened to this young man—if he ever came back. But we do know that whatever is impossible for us, is made possible by God, because all things are possible through God’s grace. We can strive to place God first. The Holy Spirit can free our hearts to do it. Amen.
10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth.
11 You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. 13 Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.
14 Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. 15 Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”