Beloved Members of St. Martin’s,
Periodically in American Christianity, a theory known as the “prosperity gospel” or “the gospel of wealth” is preached. The basic idea is that, if you pray this prayer or give money to that preacher, you will receive wealth and blessings from God.
The obvious problem with belief systems like this is that they engage in what is called “magical thinking.” One type of magical thinking is called superstition—where you see a baseball player always eating chicken before a game, or avoiding stepping on the baseline, or not shaving during the play-offs, because he believes it will bring him luck. Sometimes this kind of thing is light-hearted.
Worse, magical thinking can be a form of idolatry and insubordination. It can lead to a refusal of humans to honor God as GOD, as more powerful than we are. Magical thinking can be the belief that if you do X, then God will do Y. Magical thinking assumes that humans can control God and figure God out so that God follows our earthly sense of “justice” and our earthly sense of “fairness.” That, my friends, makes God out to be at worst our puppet or at best Santa Claus. Even worse, magical thinking also leads to the belief that the rich and healthy are set aside as blessed by God, alongside the corresponding belief that the poor or sick are cursed. And this kind of thinking is one of the ideas that Jesus constantly challenged.
In the epistle we will hear this weekend, the author of this first letter of Timothy warns against beliefs like this, especially when it comes to money. The first attitude that is emphasized is contentment, and a form of this word appears twice in verse 6. Verse 7 reminds us of the saying, “You can’t take it with you.” There is also the famous saying included here in verse 10 that “money is the root of all evil.” However, we know that money can do great good or great evil. The last part of the reading turns toward intentional use of one’s gifts and position in society in order to advance the goals of living a good life that is centered not on the self but on doing God’s will (v. 17). Ultimately, God’s economy is not based on money but on generosity and doing good. If one’s hands and hearts are grasping for wealth, they are not open to reaching out to God and to brothers and sisters (vv 18-19).
As our gospel reading last week and this week reminded us, money is a tool. Tools can be used to build, or to destroy. What is important is not to let a tool get mastery over us, especially a tool with as much emotional and societal implication as money has always accrued. Money can make us feel intense stress, worry, and fear, and can set us to racing on a hamster wheel of constant acquisition. And this is deliberate: our economy only works if people constantly strive to consume more and more. If we remind ourselves of this, we can master the impulses that fear unleashes in us and instead make decisions not just wisely but from a place of calm and, indeed, contentment. Money can make us feel powerfully connected to others, to be active and engaged as participants and benefactors of causes larger than ourselves. The word “benefactor” is actually telling: it literally means “one who makes good” possible.
I hope we can all open our hearts to hearing God’s word for our own lives right now from these ancient texts, and be grateful for the illumination and self-examination to which Jesus is calling us out of love for us and concern for our mutual flourishing.