Prosperity and the Gospel

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, 6

18 Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward. 19 Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.

This passage makes us feel good, doesn’t it?  Alone, it tells us to enjoy life, spend all our money and consume all we can.  Wait a second, didn’t Solomon JUST tell us in the previous passage that we should give away all we have and live for God?  Man, I’m confused!

I have been learning more and more about the prosperity gospel.  Quite frankly, some recorded sermons I have seen baffle me by what some preachers and teachers are encouraging their congregations with.  I can easily see that today’s passage, taken way out of context, can fuel such a campaign to become rich and foolish, striving after the things of this world and try to validate it with the Word of God.  Secondly, I can also see how this passage can be translated to mean that God purposely gives people riches and glory on earth to distract them, for this is their reward.  In other words, if we are rich and enjoy the fruitfulness of it, it’s all we’re gonna get: do not pass go, go directly to hell!  I know I might seem like I am taking these two viewpoints to extremes…but it happens!  Let’s try to dig into what is really being said here.

First, we need to recognize that this is but a snippet of a much longer letter.  I’d like to introduce to you Ecclesiastes chapter 6, which immediately follows after what we have read above:

There is an evil which I have seen under the sun and it is prevalent among men— a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires; yet God has not empowered him to eat from them, for a foreigner enjoys them. This is vanity and a severe affliction. If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things—do not all go to one place?” All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living? What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility and a striving after wind. 10 Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is. 11 For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man? 12 For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?

Solomon seems almost schizophrenic doesn’t he?  He is back and forth about enjoying the plentifulness of God but then says that it is all pointless and striving after wind.  So, what is God telling us through the words of Solomon?  Are we supposed to enjoy what God has given us or not?  Are we supposed to sell all we have and give to the poor or not?  Are we supposed to be rich or take a vow of poverty?  My favorite answer to these double-sided brain teasers as always been a resounding: YES!

We are very materialistic.  We are constantly looking at the physical side of things.  Yet, we have to remember that when we are reading the bible, we must always consider the spiritual realm.  It is the realm of God and if we are going to look at just physical things, then we are not just on the wrong page but also in the wrong book.  We aren’t in left field; we are playing the wrong game.  It isn’t about what we do or not do, it’s why we do it.  It isn’t about following the Ten Commandments; it’s about having a heart of unconditional compassion and love.  It isn’t about how much money is in your bank account it is about why you do what you do with it.  We (especially as Christians) are very critical of how others spend money, aren’t we?  Last year there was a “billboard war” between Atheists and Christians and many sat back and shook their heads at how the money was being spent (I was one of them).  In reading today’s scripture it hit me: who am I to judge how others spend their money?  It is exactly the same as judging someone else in how they raise their kids, talk to their parents, or spend their free time.  It’s judging: something that Jesus told us to leave to him.  Why?  Because we don’t know from where their motivation is coming?  Is it pride?  Is it honoring God?  Is it to flaunt how much money they have or was it a sacrificial action of worship that the Holy Spirit urged them to do?  We don’t know and therefore should keep our mouths shut.

At this point, I would like to point out that some things are obvious.  As I see some of what the prosperity gospel promotes, it is quite easy to see a blatant contradiction with the teachings of God in His word.  In fat, Solomon’s words we are reading today combat exactly that.  Secondly, I’m calling us to look past the physical.  Search past what we think we see Solomon saying here and ask the Holy Spirit to see what is really going on.  I have talked a lot about our godly or holy purposes, that God calls us to worship Him in a way that we were specifically designed to do.  When I read the initial passage from chapter 5 today I immediately pictured some fat king with concubines sitting in an all gold plated room being fed grapes while someone fanned him with a pterodactyl feather (gimme a break, it was my imagination and I can imagine a pterodactyl feather if I want).  Yet why didn’t I immediately think of someone “enjoying the fruit of their labor” by giving it to a local charity or buying a really nice birthday gift for their child?  Why didn’t I picture someone going on a short-term missions trip or funding a school’s reconstruction efforts to provide a better learning environment for their community? It is because our society has conditioned us to think of wealth as an abundance of material possessions.

Solomon is telling us about the vanity in chasing after material possessions in chapter 6 (as he has been previously) in order to gain status and respect in this world.  He isn’t just telling us, he is warning us that we shouldn’t waste our resources on it because it results in more and more emptiness.  He is telling us that God has a plan for where we are right this second in time.  He has a plan for our money, our possessions, our relationships, our time, our mental capacity, our psychological state, our emotional status, even down to what we look like and our physical capabilities.  THIS is what Solomon is telling us is the gift from God that we are to enjoy.  Have you ever read Genesis 2 that describes what the Garden of Eden looked like?  It was beautiful!  What did God tell Adam to do with it?  15 Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.  This chapter was before “the fall”.  Adam’s cultivation and keeping of the garden was God’s specific task for him to enjoy.  It wasn’t so that Adam would be a slave or that God didn’t want to do it himself.  It was what Adam was designed to do!  Adam enjoyed cultivating and keeping the garden because it was his specific purpose!  You and I are designed with a purpose to cultivate and keep too, but we are all unique in that which we cultivate and keep.

It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the heart.  This works in both ways.  Some people think a rich person cannot be a Christian.  Others think that the poor cannot be Christian because if they were true followers, they would be rich.  The views are conflicting because of a difference of purpose (and most likely theology).  This was Jesus’ point at the end of John 21 when John is trying to compare notes with Jesus’ other followers.  He tells his disciple not to worry about it, but to solely follow Him.  Are we worried how others compare to us or how we compare to them?  Jesus doesn’t tell us to measure ourselves against others, but rather to measure ourselves to Him.

If you’re wondering why I picked this song today, check out this little “behind the music” about it.

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