Swanky messiah not far-fetched in Prosperity Gospel
Christians gather around the world each Christmas to sing about “poor baby Jesus” asleep in the manger with no crib for his bed.
But the Rev. Creflo Dollar looks inside that manger, and he doesn’t see a poor baby at all.
He sees a baby born into wealth because the kings visiting him gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh. He sees a messiah with so much money that he needed an accountant to track it. He sees a savior who wore clothes so expensive that the Roman soldiers who crucified him gambled for them.
Dollar sees a rich Jesus.
“He was rich, he was whole, and I use those words interchangeably,” says Dollar, senior pastor of World Changers Church International, a 23,000-member College Park church, which broadcasts its services on six continents.
Dollar is part of a growing number of preachers who say that the traditional image of Jesus as a poor, itinerant preacher who “had no place to lay his head” is wrong.
“Did Jesus have money? Well, the Bible was clear. Kings brought him gold,” Dollar says. “Did Jesus have money? It’s clear. He had a treasurer to keep up with it.”
Yet many academic scholars say pastors like Dollar are inventing a rich Jesus for selfish reasons.
“You’re giving people divine sanctification to be greedy,” says Sondra Ely Wheeler, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. “You tell them what they want to hear: The reason you have a Mercedes is because God loves you.”
People have argued over their perception of Jesus for centuries. They’ve debated his politics, his race and more recently, his relationship with Mary Magdalene.
The new battleground: his economic status, because of the popularity of pastors like Dollar.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Dollar preaches the Prosperity Gospel, where the basic tenet is God rewards the faithful with wealth, spiritual power and debt-free living. And he is joined by a host of other nationally known preachers:
- Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the most popular televangelist in the United States, a best-selling author and star of MegaFest, one of the largest annual revivals in the country.
- Televangelist Oral Roberts, founder of Oral Roberts University.
- And Atlanta’s own Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of the city’s largest church, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, 25,000 strong.
Their teaching, once seen as a fringe theology championed by flamboyant characters like “Rev. Ike,” a prosperity televangelist with a pompadour who once boasted during his heyday in the 1970s that his “garages runneth over,” has now moved mainstream. In the 1970s and 1980s, the flamboyant Rev. Ike made millions by promising wealth to those who followed his unabashed emphasis on materialism.
Millions of people across the world watch prosperity preachers’ broadcasts and attend their crusades.
But preaching the Prosperity Gospel presents a snag in logic to its proponents: If God wants people to be prosperous, why was Jesus poor?
Well, he wasn’t, say many prosperity pastors. And although their claims appear to contradict 2,000 years of traditional Christianity, they say they can prove it through Scripture and history. They also invoke common sense: Jakes reportedly told a Dallas Observer reporter that Jesus had to be rich in order to support his disciples for three years.
Those who preach against a poor Jesus say they aren’t trying to justify personal greed. Prosperity preachers like Dollar say their teaching isn’t solely centered on money, but extends to other areas such as health and relationships. They say God will provide for the faithful in all areas of their life — just as he did for Jesus.
“When we are following God’s will with all of our hearts, if it takes us to a place where we need God’s supernatural provision to keep going, he will always provide it,” says the Rev. Dennis Rouse of Victory World Church, a 5,000-member church in Gwinnett County.
And when it comes to Jesus, that’s evident throughout his life, prosperity preachers say. How, for example, could Jesus have supported his mother when his father died early — unless he had ample money?
“It’s historically inaccurate to say that Jesus was poor,” says Bishop Johnathan Alvarado, senior pastor of Total Grace Christian Center in Decatur. Alvarado’s church has 4,000 members who worship at two locations.
Alvarado also disputes the notion that Jesus was homeless — traditionally believed because of the passage in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke where Jesus tells a would-be follower that he has “no place to lay his head.”
But Alvarado says Jesus was speaking metaphorically — the world was not his home. “How many carpenters do you know who haven’t built themselves a house?” he says.
And Jesus and his followers lived “sacrificially” by helping the poor and not trusting in their riches, Alvarado said. “Sacrifice is contextual,” he says. ” I can afford a BMW or a Bentley, but I drive a Nissan. … It’s OK to have stuff so long as stuff doesn’t have you.”
Dollar doesn’t drive a Nissan. He drives a Rolls-Royce.
But he also believes that stories about Jesus being prejudiced against the rich have been misinterpreted. For example, he views the tale of the wealthy young ruler that Jesus confronts in the Gospel of Luke through different eyes.
In that encounter, the Gospels say Jesus told the man that it is “harder for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Dollar says, however, Jesus wasn’t saying wealth was a barrier to being accepted by God.
He says the “eye of the needle” was an ancient passageway entering Jerusalem that was so small that a camel had to drop to its knees to squeeze through. Jesus meant that a man who trusted in his riches would have similar difficulties adjusting to God’s way of handling riches, Dollar says.
“This guy had an opportunity to love God with his possessions, but he couldn’t do it because his possessions had him,” Dollar says.
That same passage also proves that Jesus’ disciples “were absolutely not poor,” Dollar says. (The Gospels report that the disciples were astonished when Jesus told them about the perils of riches.) “If the disciples were poor, why would they get astonished?” Dollar says. “If they were poor, they should have jumped up and said, ‘Whoopee, we’re on our way.’ ”
‘A lack of understanding’
However, if Jesus and his disciples weren’t poor — because God had blessed them — what does that say about the millions of faithful Christians who live throughout the world in brutal poverty?
Is that due to a failure of their character?
When asked this, Dollar says: “Part of it may be, first of all, a lack of understanding. You cannot do better until you know better. I used to be broke and poor just like all of those other people. I had to first change the way I think.”
Rick Hayes, a 14-year member of Dollar’s church, agrees.
He says he was “homeless and hopeless” until he attended World Changers. He learned there that Jesus preached to the poor so they wouldn’t be poor anymore. Today he is a medical supply salesman.
Hayes says he believes Jesus was rich because some biblical translations suggest Jesus — as a baby — was visited by a caravan of about 200 kings bearing gold, not three wise men. Jesus also needed wealth to pay travel expenses for his 12 disciples as they took the Gospel from city to city.
Hayes, quoting the ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes (“The words of a poor man are soon forgotten”), also says Jesus could not have attracted a devoted following if he was poor.
“Nobody is going to follow a broke man,” Hayes says.
‘By any means necessary’
Wheeler, the ethicist from Wesley seminary, sighs when she hears the arguments for Jesus being rich. She and other New Testament scholars say these pastors are distorting history and words and have no understanding of the socio-economic conditions of Jesus’ time.
Wheeler, author of “Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, $20), says most biblical scholars don’t even want to dignify the debate with a response.
She says that Dollar’s argument that Jesus started off wealthy because of the gold he received at birth is nonsense. Only one out of the four Gospels even mentions the gold he received from a king and that passage never gives the value of the gift.
“The notion that you would go from that to the assertion Jesus is wealthy passes credulity,” she says. “You have to want to get there by any means necessary.”
She also disputes Dollar’s interpretation of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. Jesus was being literal when he said it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
“What Jesus says is that it is rarer than teeth in chickens to find a person who can own many things and not be owned by them,” she says.
Similarly, Obery M. Hendricks Jr., author of “The Politics of Jesus” (Doubleday, $26), scoffs at the contention that Jesus had enough money to support himself and his disciples for three years. Hendricks says the eighth chapter in the Gospel of Luke paints a different picture: Women, using their own meager means, covered the bills for Jesus and his disciples.
“If Jesus was rich, why would he need women to support him?” Hendricks asks.
Eric Meyers, a professor of archaeology at Duke University, says he has never heard a single reputable scholar argue for a rich Jesus.
“It’s new to me,” he says at the beginning of the conversation. But as he listens to a litany of arguments on why Jesus was rich, he breaks in: “Now you’re getting me mad.”
Meyers, who personally excavated the village of Nazareth where Jesus lived during a 19-year-period, says there is absolutely no evidence of an “eye of the needle” gate in Jerusalem.
And Meyers, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, says simply put, Jesus was poor — like virtually all the people around him.
“He didn’t even have his own tomb,” Meyers says. “He had to get it from a friend.”
But Dollar says his interpretation of Jesus’ ministry is just as valid as any scholar. His own prosperity is proof that God wants to bless his followers with financial and spiritual blessings — just as he did for baby Jesus.
“God didn’t give the Bible just to theologians and scholars, he gave it to poor people,” Dollar says. “He gave it to farmers, sheep-herders — we don’t need somebody to help us misunderstand the Bible. If we just read the Book, things will begin to happen, and you’ll see.”
Two schools of thought: Rich vs. poor
JESUS WAS RICH
The wise men from the East made Jesus wealthy at his birth: The Rev. Creflo Dollar, senior pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park, says the Gospel of Matthew proves that Jesus was the recipient of wealth at his birth.
“In the book of Matthew in Chapter 2, the kings came to him, and they bought him gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
Jesus had so much money that he needed a treasurer: The New Testament describes Judas as the “treasurer” for Jesus’ disciples. “Why would a band of 12 men need a treasurer if they didn’t have some treasures,” says Bishop Johnathan Alvarado of Total Grace Christian Center in Decatur. “You need a treasurer when you have surplus.”
Jesus wore expensive clothes: In the 19th chapter of John’s Gospel, the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus are depicted gambling for his “seamless” undergarment. Alvarado says Jesus wore garments that were a “nobleman’s garments.” “If his clothes were a poor man’s clothes, why would centurions gamble for it?” Alvarado asks.
Jesus was an entrepreneur because he was a carpenter: Jesus had a well-paying job and could afford to build his own home.
The disciples didn’t think of themselves as poor, either: The disciples had lucrative careers and didn’t regard themselves as impoverished. “The disciples were absolutely not poor,” Dollar says. “Peter had an overflowing boatload of fish that came in when Jesus called him. You’re looking at a doctor, a tax collector — you’re looking at guys who had jobs.”
People wouldn’t follow a poor man: Jesus couldn’t have attracted the crowds to follow him unless he had wealth. They would not have respected a poor man.
JESUS WAS POOR
Most New Testament scholars don’t believe the wise men from the East story is literally true: Biblical scholars say the story about the wise men from the East giving treasure to baby Jesus appears in only one of the four Gospels. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan says the story “is absolutely parabolic.”
Roman soldiers gambled for the clothes of many condemned criminals:
“It was ordinary for prisoners to be stripped naked and looted by soldiers,” says Sondra Ely Wheeler, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and author of “Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, $20). Wheeler says the soldiers also were gambling for the robe Herod placed on Jesus to mock him. “I’m sure that was expensive — he got it from Herod.”
The text doesn’t say that Judas was a treasurer, only that he held the common purse: Neither the King James nor the New International Version of the Bible calls Judas the “treasurer.” The NIV calls him the “keeper of the money bag,” and the King James says he “had the bag.” Scholars say he held the money not for Jesus but for all the disciples, a common custom of the time for itinerant preachers. “To call Judas a treasurer is like looking at two kids who go to the movies and calling the one who holds the money the treasurer,” Wheeler says.
Jesus did not have a lucrative occupation: Crossan says the Greek word in Matthew for Jesus’ occupation has been translated into carpenter, but a more accurate translation would change the word to a laborer.
Jesus and his disciples were poor, according to archaeological evidence: Eric Meyers, a professor of archaeology at Duke University and editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, says he has personally excavated the village of Nazareth where Jesus lived. He pointed out that the Bible says Jesus was so poor that he couldn’t afford his own tomb for his burial. “There is no way to speak of wealth in that context,” he says. “This is living at the margins of society, eking out an agricultural existence.”
Wealthy people were viewed with hostility: Obery M. Hendricks Jr., author of “The Politics of Jesus” (Doubleday, $26), says wealthy people of Jesus’ time were people who preyed upon the poor or collaborated with the Romans.
“To have a whole lot meant that I stole it from somewhere else,” he says. “The only way you could really become rich was by exploiting others.”