Prosperity teaching and the meaning of good news for the poor

Another divide the church should not have

Of every formulation and every telling of the Gospel, it must be asked: Is this good news for the poor? It is not arbitrary or incidental that Jesus commenced his entire earthly ministry by reading aloud Isaiah’s bold proclamation: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

This passage is exemplary of the Bible’s and Jesus’ striking tendency to prioritise and privilege the poor and the oppressed.

After all, why not say “Good news for everyone, rich and poor”? The Gospel is for all people. Despite being good news for everyone, the Bible presents God as being especially concerned with getting this universal good news to the poor specifically. And so whatever Gospel we preach, it must be good news for the poor.

But of course it must be asked, what does good news for the poor mean? Does it mean the good news of the assurance of eternal peace in the next life? Or does it have something to do with this life? Is the Kingdom of God here now, or is it coming? Well, I think the answer to that question is “yes” but many of us tend to emphasise one side more than the other.

This is the central matter being debated when we discuss what’s called “prosperity theology” – the idea, often derided as heretical, that prosperity should in some way accompany faith. What is remarkable (and yet rarely remarked on) is that, when we actually look at the distribution of theological belief across the global Church, we find that people’s answer to the question of whether God wants to bless you now or in the next life correlates strikingly with their level of wealth.

Prosperity theology has its roots in, and continues to overwhelmingly find its home among, poor and historically oppressed people groups. Parts of the developing world, places like Africa, parts of Asia and South America, as well as African American communities, are places where many traditions characterised by a comparative emphasis on the “nowness” of the Kingdom of God have flourished and/or originated. In contrast, theological traditions which emphasise more the post-mortem aspects of God’s blessings have historically been developed by very educated, relatively wealthy people living in the Western world with significant social power.

More locally in Australia, a kind of prosperity theology is mostly associated with some Pentecostals circles. Pentecostalism, as well as having a significant African American influence, has in Australia historically found its expression distinctively among the working class. This is in sharp comparison to the political, economic and social establishment of many other denominations in the country.

In short, prosperity theology comes from poor people. The people correcting their theology tend to be the rich and powerful. We have in the Church a theological divide that lines up strikingly with a socioeconomic divide.

Whom, then, should we expect to have gotten this right? Between the rich, powerful and educated, and the poor, marginalised and uneducated, who is better positioned to understand what Scripture is really saying?

This makes rather a lot of sense. The idea that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed, will one day deliver justice for them all, and invites us now to live as we will all live in the New Creation, a life that tends not towards destruction but towards creation, fruitfulness, and abundance, is far more resonant with the poor than it is with the rich.

A Gospel of delayed liberation is quite easy to accept as good news when you’re wealthy. It’s easy to wait for something you already have. But such a gospel doesn’t come as good news to the poor. They don’t have the luxury of saying that money doesn’t matter. (The only people for whom money doesn’t matter are those who have it.)

The poor’s need for greater material prosperity is far more urgent, immediate, and basic a need than it is for the rich who have the power, mobility, and authority to shape their world as they want it. It is all too easy for these rich to turn to the poor and proclaim, “Hope, justice, peace and prosperity – later.”

Whom, then, should we expect to have gotten this right? Between the rich, powerful and educated, and the poor, marginalised and uneducated, who is better positioned to understand what Scripture is really saying?

Many of us would assume, as I long did, that it is the lettered and trained custodians of our grand Western theological tradition that can be best relied upon to handle the Bible. But I no longer think this. For one thing, it fails to take into account the Bible’s warnings of the spiritual blindness that wealth can bring. It is questionable that the objectivity gained from an education is enough to make up for the biases and blind spots created by the riches that paid for that education.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that Jesus came preaching good news for the poor. The entire Bible was written by oppressed people, to oppressed people. Every word of it was written by people from a nation that was born out of slavery, and spent most of their existence being handed from one oppressive superpower to the next, constantly awaiting their day of liberation. Further, the writers of the New Testament were the rejects of that people group – an oppressed people within an oppressed people. That is who the message is from, and that is the message’s primary original audience.

Almost no line in the Bible, then, can be truly understood until we first ask of it, “How would poor, oppressed people understand this? What would this mean to them?”

And who do we think knows best how to answer that question?

It is the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised, the powerless, those who view society from the bottom, who have a vantage point from which they can see the Bible clearly. They can understand Scripture the way it was intended to be understood because it was written by people like them, to people like them. It is they, if anyone, who are best positioned for an accurate interpretation of Scripture, to know what to emphasise and what not to emphasise, to put all of its teachings into the proper, intended perspective and proportion for a balanced and full picture of the hope we have in the Gospel.

I’m trying, even, to start a conversation that hasn’t really started, and hasn’t started, I’m afraid, in part because of class arrogance.

We must, then, take pause when we realise that the perspective of the poor tends to include some kind of prosperity theology, some kind of greater emphasis on the nowness and immediacy of the Kingdom of God. In hastily dismissing prosperity theology, we have inadvertently dismissed the voice of the poor, and privileged the opinions of the rich. Perhaps there is more to what the poor are saying about prosperity than we have understood. Perhaps we need to confront our own vantage point, and how that might distort and unbalance our perceptions of prosperity, of hope and salvation. Perhaps, rather than dismissing the poor, we desperately need to hear their perspective of the world and the insight into Scripture this grants them. It should come as no surprise that it is the very people whose voice the world tends to ignore that the people of God ought to consult.

You may think that I am telling you to ignore the content of arguments, forget logic, reason, and historical methodology and simply believe everything poor people say because of who they are. Actually, I’m saying the opposite. Pay attention to arguments, remember logic, reason, and historical methodology, and don’t believe everything rich, powerful, educated people say, just because of who they are. I’m not trying to shut down discussion. I’m trying to stop us from shutting down discussion. I’m trying, even, to start a conversation that hasn’t really started, and hasn’t started, I’m afraid, in part because of class arrogance.

So, before crying “heresy” at “prosperity preachers”, let us stop, think, and listen to their perspective. Because it seems that, if anyone can, it is the poor who can see the full picture.

While everyone else sees it askew, from an angle that distorts its images such that things that are big appear small, and things that are small appear big, and some things aren’t visible at all, it is those at the bottom of society who see the whole picture square on. It turns out that this painting of the Gospel is, and has always been, facing towards the floor.

Lachlan McFarlane is a Sydney-based songwriter and musician (as Lachlan Vines), and a blogger. In his spare time, he co-hosts a podcast that holds Christian movies to the same standard as secular movies.