Thursday, March 24, 2011

It Takes One To Know One and The Gospel of Wealth

Samson finally met his match in Delilah.  For once, he met a woman who was as selfish, destructive, and greedy as himself.  He wants sex; she wants sex.  He wants to make an easy buck; she wants to make an easy buck.  He practices trickery; she practices trickery.  He has no hesitation in leaving a woman behind, and she apparently has no hesitation in leaving a man behind.  He found someone just like him, the perfect match.  It got him killed.  Frankly, I don't feel much sympathy for him.  Samson was a judge of Israel, true, but a hero or example...not so much.  His death is a tragic, angry, vengeful one.  But then again, the words tragic, angry, and vengeful sort of sum up his whole life.

That having been said, after the story of Samson the book of Judges changes course.  Samson is actually the last judge listen in Judges.  The rest of the book deals with the quick decline of tribal relations and religious faithfulness in Israel.  It begins with the story of a man named Micah who had stolen a great deal of money from his mother.  She places a curse on the stolen money, which he hears, and so he decides to give it back.  I'm guessing it was quite a curse.  Anyhow, in gratitude for the returned money, the mother decides to dedicate it to the Lord by turning a portion of it into an idol.  I hope you see the irony of that decision.  Micah then decides to give the idol some company, so he makes other idols to Baal and Asherah.  After all, we wouldn't want God to get lonely, would we?  After the idols are ready to go, he sets one of his sons over the idols as priest.

Let's think about how many things are wrong with this story.  First, Micah is a crook.  Second, Micah's mother is trying to make God into an easily contained image.  Third, Israel was supposed to be monotheistic.  Forth, only descendants of Aaron were meant to be priests.  We might remember the last time people from another tribe decided to make themselves priests...the ground opened up and swallowed them whole.  But then the story gets better.

A Levite living with the tribe of Judah decides it's time for him to explore the world a little.  He sets off and eventually comes across Micah and his mini-Pantheon.  Micah offers to hire him as an official priest, after all, this young man is at least a Levite, the same as Aaron.  I'm assuming Micah's son was fired.  Micah then says this:

"Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest."

He has a Levite.  His little idol temple must be officially sanctioned by God!  Wow, what luck....  A long-present thorn in the side of American Christianity is prosperity theology, otherwise known as the Gospel of Wealth.  The gist of this theology is that God blesses those he loves with physical blessings (namely money).  Again, this is nothing new.  The Gospel of Wealth has been around in one form or another since the Industrial Revolution, and there are far too many theological and practical problems with it for me to summarize them all here.  Suffice it to say, it's all poppycock.  It ties to Micah's experience because the Gospel of Wealth suggests that if one is being blessed financially then one must be right with God.  It's a perfect, little circular argument.  Micah has silver.  He has gods.  He even has a priest from the right tribe.  He must be right with God!  Of course, from an outside perspective we know that he has been blinded by his own "success."

By the end of the story, Micah looses everything.  He is belittled in front of his own household, and the Danites walk off laughing at his expense, with his idols and his Levite.  In the end, the Gospel of Wealth is aptly named because wealth is what is worshiped, but wealth is a fickle thing.  It comes and it goes, and contrary to how secure it makes us feel, it is not God.  It keeps no promises.  It is not self-sustaining.  It has no loyalty.  Micah learned that the hard way.  Americans continue to learn that the hard way, and yet we still want so desperately to believe in our false, little gospel.  After all, if mega-churches can grow around such a gospel, it must be true!

Lord, save us from ourselves.

Stopping point: Judges 18


  1. I couldn't agree more. It's interesting how such a perverse doctrine could ever be incorporated into the church. I'm wondering if you've ever read Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." It argues that this phenomena arose from a need to solidify one's position with evidence that an individual was indeed part of God's elect. In short, predestination created uncertainty, and uncertainty lead to believers trying to demonstrate God's favor with them through wealth; inadvertently creating this massive economic system. How these men and women were able to overlook the dialogue between Jesus and the rich man or James for that matter, is beyond me. Anyways, good thoughts. Glad to see someone fighting against the mega-church epidemic. - Austin

  2. I haven't read "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," but the argument makes sense to me. American Religion is heavily influenced by Calvanistic ideology, even if it's in the form of trying to refute it. I've always found it ironic that Calvin first used the concept of predestination to try to calm the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the Reformation. In the end, it just ended up causing it's own uncertainty. Proof is always more desirable than trust, as far as dealing with uncertainty. So it doesn't surprise me that the Gospel of Wealth is so popular since wealth creates a sense of easily measured certainty. Thanks for the post, Austin.