Most of us, when we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24 ESV), think, “I guess that sounds about right.” Some of us with a more radical streak might even add, “That’s right! Get those rascal rich!”
But for Jesus’ original listeners, that statement would have blown their minds. Here’s what Jesus was saying, in a quasi-mathematical format:
Earthly Riches ≠ God’s Blessing
Jesus’ original hearers assumed the opposite. Having been steeped in the book of Proverbs, they would have assumed that wisdom, blessing, and wealth—more often than not—all come as a package deal. The righteous are blessed, not just spiritually but materially. That’s certainly a key theme in Proverbs. But as Jesus reminds us, it’s clearly not the only thing the Bible says about money.
The more we assume that riches = blessing, the more we tend to approach God like he’s a means to an end. I’ve seen this happen in two “money heresies,” both of which are rampant in the church today:
1. The Poverty Gospel
This is the belief that it’s inherently virtuous to be poor and, essentially, a sin to be rich. If you automatically look at a rich person with suspicion, this is you. Remember: The book of Proverbs teaches that wisdom often leads to wealth and that an abundance of material things can be part of how God blesses someone. God is generous, and all that we enjoy comes from his hand.
2. The Prosperity Gospel
This is the belief that an abundance of possessions is the essence of, and proof of, God’s blessing. It takes a general truth (which the “poverty gospel” overlooks) and expands it to become the entire truth. The prosperity gospel promises that if you do things right, God will reward your faith with financial success and a great career.
And here’s where the prosperity gospel gets really dangerous: If you aren’t thriving materially, it’s because something has gone wrong with you spiritually.
People who buy into the prosperity gospel say things like, “Well, God promises to give me the desires of my heart, and what I desired was this car, this house, and this raise. Because I believed, God gave it to me.” The prosperity gospel cannot conceive of serving God faithfully and experiencing suffering or poverty. The two are mutually exclusive for them.
There are two major problems with the prosperity gospel. First, there are plenty of examples in the Bible of people doing things God’s way and experiencing suffering and poverty—Job, Joseph, David, the apostles. And, to think of the most obvious example—Jesus. He served God perfectly, yet had “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) and ended up on a cross. Then he told his followers to expect to experience what he experienced.
The prosperity gospel makes you an adulterer who seeks to use God, not to worship him.
So biblically, the prosperity gospel just doesn’t hold up. But the bigger problem I’ve encountered is a pastoral one. The prosperity gospel grows out of idolatry, treating God like a means to an end. It whispers insidiously: If you serve God, you can have what you really want—material blessings.
When you serve God so that you can get material blessings, you’ve essentially turned God into a divine pimp. Sound offensive? That’s because it is. The prosperity gospel makes you an adulterer who seeks to use God, not to worship him.
But God shouldn’t be a means to anything else. The greatest blessing of God is—God. And anything else you’re seeking God for as a means of ultimate happiness is idolatrous.
Which is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor”! Not because poor people are inherently more virtuous or lovely—but because they are more likely to yearn for God. So if poverty is what it takes to put you in a place where you’re ready to seek God with all your heart, that’s a trade you should welcome.
In everything, seek blessing in God more than you seek it from him.