Saturday, October 13, 2007

On wealth and Prosperity Gospels

As an amateur actor who hasn't been on stage for a very long time, I like it when my wife and I are chosen to read the scripture lessons to the congregation. I prefer the "Old Testament" reading, particularly when it's from one of the prophets. The texts are so boldly dramatic. I usually talk my wife, a professional actress, into reading the Epistle, which generally calls for minutely nuanced handling of long convoluted sentences. (She's good; she's very good.)

Not long ago, when my turn to be a lector rolled around, the passage was from Ecclesiasticus (or the Book of Sirach), part of the Apocrypha. Not a canonical work in the Hebrew Bible, but still a satisfyingly brilliant tirade against arrogance, injustice, and wealth.

The passage started off strong at the 7th verse of chapter 10: "Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to mortals, and injustice is outrageous to both. Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence and wealth.* [New Revised Standard Version] (I tried to deliver "and wealth" as a quietly released bolt from a cross-bow, aimed at each forehead.)

But this isn't about personal sin; it's about the rise and fall of nations. This could be talking about us, right here in The Land Between The Oceans. People who are used to the Bible aren't surprised to hear injustice and pride condemned. But wealth? As the cause of the fall of a nation? What about all those passages that say if you do right, you will prosper?

Prosperity, however, is not just a personal thing. It's national. Again and again, prophets rail against the dire consequences to the whole people when the nation gets it wrong.

So, according to this Wisdom of Ben Sira, it must be that in a land of injustice and arrogance, great wealth moves to the hands of the avaricious, the deceitful, the loving idolators of wealth, the breakers of the laws of justice -- as well as to the hands of the merely clever and lucky. Riches in the hands of the few is very different from a well-distributed prosperity that comes from good crops, useful manufactures, and honest trade.

A real Prosperity Gospel would needs be a justice and humility gospel first: one that goes beyond looking for personal prosperity. Otherwise, the Wealth of Nations produces the fall of nations. Thus says the Wisdom of Ben Sira, for one. Among many Biblical writers.

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