Lectionary 96
Zec 12:10-11; 13:1
Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Gal 3:26-29
Lk 9:18-24

The prosperity gospel, popularized by preachers like Joel Osteen and Bruce Wilkinson, teaches that Christianity is the ticket to physical health and economic prosperity. Wealth and health are God’s blessing on his children and Christians should expect no less than to be showered by such blessings as we pray boldly to God to answer our prayers. The campus minister where I teach calls this view, which has captured the hold of even Catholics, the “cosmic coke machine” perspective–I put my two quarters of prayer in and out comes the answer. The basic idea is that Christ is there to give us what we want.

Now, there is nothing wrong with praying boldly and petitioning God for those things we want and need. But Christianity does not promise us abundant blessings in this life. In fact, as our Gospel reading this week reveals, Christianity often promises exactly the opposite. Jesus tells his disciples

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Doesn’t sound like Jesus got the memo on the prosperity gospel here. Discipleship, rather than bringing wealth, health, and power, leads to the cross. This is what Jesus’ disciples just don’t get, even when acknowledging he is the Messiah (a story repeated in all three synoptic gospels). They think the Messiah, the long-awaited king, savior, and leader of the Jewish people, is a figure of power and success. They do not expect a suffering messiah, and much less even a Messiah who will fulfill the prophecy of our first reading from Zechariah:

[T]hey shall look on him whom they have pierced,
and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son,
and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn.

If we think being Christian makes us entitled to success and prosperity, we miss the point. Christianity promises not things but a person. It offers a relationship with the living God whereby we become adopted children of God, as Paul shows in our reading from Galatians. Christianity is the incorporation into a family and a body. Christianity does make us heirs to God, but what we inherit is God himself, the greatest good, truest truth, most beautiful beauty.

The family metaphor is a good one for making sense of Christianity and the desire for worldly blessings. Think about the different ways that marriage plays out for different people. Some people marry and everything works out great. They are blessed with good children, financial security, great friends, and minimal tragedy. And some are given such crosses to bear: infertility, disease, handicap, the loss of a child, abuse, job loss, poverty, shame.

The same is true in the Christian family. Some of us are thankfully given light crosses while others are heavily burdened. It makes little sense to try and figure out why such differences exist among God’s beloved children based on the strength of one’s faith, confession, or hope. We must remember that some of the greatest Christians have been martyrs. We must also remember that Christ came to suffer and die.

However, this fact should not let us grow slack in addressing suffering. Jesus tells his disciples to give up of themselves, to lose their lives for him. The moral imperative here is not, I think, to expect that God will miraculously provide for all our needs, but rather that God will miraculously inspire the body to give with confidence, to not count the costs, to pick up the crosses of those who suffer, and to joyfully march forward in solidarity with our poor and suffering brethren toward eternal life.