The Common Good
February 2008

The Gospel of Great News!

by Ed Spivey Jr. | February 2008

The Prosperity Gospel lets us have our cake and eat it, too. Also cookies. And donuts.

How was your Christmas? Did you experience God’s endless bounty in this, the greatest nation in the world? Did you gather around the tree in the morning and open all the gifts that Jesus had brought the night before, landing on the rooftop with his eight tiny disciples (or was it 12?), and squeezing down the chimney with his bag of brand-name products made at the North Pole, or at the very least, northern China?

Or am I thinking of Santa Claus? You know, the mythical figure based on Nicholas of Myra, a man of considerable inherited wealth who gave money to the needy. Not much is known of him, except that he probably did not dress in red, did not have cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry, nor did he have a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly. These attributes are what marketing people call “value added” characteristics when something—or someone—is in drastic need of an update.

Take Jesus, for example. As far as we know Jesus went around almost barefoot, a little thin, and spent a lot of time with poor people. I mean, please. Doesn’t sound like Son of God material to me. That’s why, in this season of getting, it might be better to look at a gospel message that’s more appropriate for our current cultural context.

I refer to the new, and much improved, Pros­perity Gospel. It’s the New Testament with a modern makeover, and it’s spreading like wildfire. (Oops. Sorry, California. Sore subject. How about ... um ... selling like hotcakes?)

And who better to explain this new phenomenon than Dr. Norman Robertson—or, if you prefer his formal title, normanrobertson.com—the best-selling author and renowned speaker who thinks that Christians should be rich and, judging by the pinstripe suit and flashy tie in his promotional photos, he practices what he preaches.

For the past 20 years, Robertson has been using his books, CDs, and lectures to debunk what he calls the myth of the “poor Jesus.” You know that one: the babe of low estate, born in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and, let’s be honest, he didn’t dress much better when he got older. Not really the kind of role model you want for today’s fashion-conscious Christians. Robertson claims that scripture itself challenges our assumptions of Jesus’ humble beginnings.

In Matthew 2:11, Robertson points out, regional monarchs bestowed expensive gifts on the baby Jesus. Frankincense, myrrh, and the Santa Maria, I think, all on the lavish end of the gift spectrum that today could only be found in the Neiman Marcus catalog. Of course, Dr. Robertson makes no mention of what the shepherds brought as tokens of their esteem, presumably a more modest gift, like maybe diaper service for a month; much more practical than frankincense, an aromatic resin whose subtle fragrance would get totally lost in your typical stable environment. (Regardless of what the song says, lowing is not the only thing the cattle do after a big meal.)

Robertson also cites Matthew 27:35—which tells of soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes as he hung on the cross—as another example of the rich Jesus. Centurions would not have competed for a poor man’s garments, he contends, but would more logically be expected to gamble for designer labels. (Pontius Hilfiger? Ralphius Lauren?)

Obviously, Dr. Norman knows his scripture. He’s probably a big fan of Matthew, the lawyer/disciple who wrote “blessed are the poor in spirit,” that great caveat that we Americans cling to, usually at the mall, when thinking about how best to max out our third credit card. (As opposed to that sourpuss Luke, the doctor/disciple who stopped at “blessed are the poor.” Liberal.)

My personal favorite is the verse where Jesus talks about the eye of the needle, and how hard it is for a rich man to get through it, especially if he is a camel. Or something like that. It turns out the eye of the needle was actually a small opening in the outer wall of Jerusalem, a door only large enough for individuals to pass through. Actually, it sounds like the perfect place for an ATM. I mean, if you have to leave your camel on the outside, you might need a little cash to pay someone to watch it while you shop. I’m just sayin’.

This whole Prosperity Gospel thing has certainly opened my eyes, and I look forward to hearing more of Dr. Robertson’s interpretations of scripture, like the verse where Jesus told the rich man to “sell all he has and give it to the poor.” (Probably a misprint.) Or Jesus’ story about the widow who only gave a little—no offense, but not even a tithe—while the rich Pharisee gave a lot. Jesus told his disciples that the widow actually gave more, although how he came up with that I’m not sure. (Jesus: Prince of Peace? Absolutely. Math whiz? Not so much.)

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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