Apparently a reaction against the so-called “gospel of health and wealth” or “gospel of prosperity” championed by far too many of my Pentecostal brothers and sisters, poverty theology moves in the opposite direction. It sees deep value in rejecting riches and, in the words of one Dr. Gerry Breshears, “…considers those who are poor to be more righteous than those who are rich; it honors those who choose to live in poverty as particularly devoted to God.”
Popular rejection of prosperity teachings has been voluminous, but what worries me is the assumption that poverty theology is just as bad. Take a look at this little parable, wherein a father tries to give a child a bicycle. The child rejects it, apparently out of fear or false humility. The child is portrayed as wounding the father and, in the end, being somewhat selfish.
In other news, Francis Chan was critiqued for leaving his megachurch for a more simple life. Those who questioned him felt he was buying into the suspect poverty of theology, that “sanctification comes through simplicity, poverty, suffering.” This is, apparently, seen as a great problem.
Nonsense, I say. Nonsense. There is no way that poverty theology is anywhere near as damaging as the prosperity gospel. The case can actually be made that it is a deeply authentic expression of the best of scriptural teaching.
For a while now theologians have spoken of God’s preferential option for the poor, and in general I’m on board with them. God looks out for the “fatherless and the widow” in Scripture. Jesus tells us the last shall be first. The poor, he says, are blessed. Jesus directs the rich man to sell all that all he has and give it to the poor. But, of course, as we know…it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (i.e. impossible) than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.
With so much discussion of the matter in Scripture, it isn’t surprising that someone had to write a NEW parable to outline the “dangers” of poverty theology. Turns out matters aren’t so clear when we turn to the Bible or Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, I understand what critics of so-called poverty theology are getting at. They feel that we shouldn’t reject things just to prove something. I get that. But things DO get in the way. Those who have been closest to God have often been those called to give up the most. They have done this not out of false humility, but in truth and love. I suspect they will continue to do so until the end of time.
How convenient, though, that we in the West now decide that “poverty theology” isn’t for us. How convenient that rejecting it allows us to keep all our stuff. Disturbing. Despite whatever dangers it may bring, we need some more poverty theology.
Because America, we need to get it in our heads: when Jesus talks to the rich, he’s talking to us.
If poverty theology is a heresy, it is my kind of heresy.