It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine a televangelist or popular preacher declaring:
“Jesus wants you to be secure, and he promises that, if you give up your house, your investments, and your family ties in order to follow him, he will give you back 100 times as much. Just give up what you’ve got now, and soon you’ll get back a lot more–100 times as much!”
But isn’t this what Jesus himself says?
“…no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.” (Mark 10:29-30)
Here “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields” is a collective way of referring to one’s social and economic support network, one’s socio-economic portfolio, so to speak.
Not bad. So where’s the catch?
Well, there really isn’t one. There is one significant addition that Jesus makes that probably wouldn’t be found in most “prosperity” gospel messages. Jesus says that persons who have “left home or brothers or sisters…” will receive “a hundred times as much in this present age”–and he then gives the list again: such persons will receive…
“…homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields–along with persecutions….”
So Jesus promises “prosperity” but sprinkled with persecution. Well, so some people don’t like rich people, I guess (?).
Jesus is here addressing the significant socio-economic risk of following him: as in many places in the world today, in an agricultural, subsistence society, family was everything. And who owned the “houses” and “fields” except one’s immediate and extended family? Therefore, a person’s own welfare–his or her present and future social and economic security–depended upon their good standing within their family.
And few things could risk that standing like leaving the family’s religion for another one.
So, then, Jesus is here addressing the socioeconomic risk of following him. And he doesn’t merely mitigate that risk but completely removes it. Indeed, he turns it into an incentive for following him. In short, if a person is faced with the involuntary loss of their socio-economic security, it shouldn’t be a concern: following Jesus may be the best socio-economic decision they ever made.
Ever heard that from an American Evangelical preacher?
But this involuntary loss of socio-economic security isn’t the only scenario that Jesus has in mind. Jesus’ statements are prompted by his interaction with a wealthy (young?) man. Out of love for this man, Jesus gives him the following famous ultimatum:
“Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Here Jesus is asking–well, demanding–that this man voluntarily “lose” his wealth. But the man, while wanting eternal life, considers this to be too great a cost (ironically?), and he leaves grieved (or shocked–I’m uncertain of the verb’s exact meaning).
So for those who would follow Jesus, there will be some who will involuntarily suffer the loss of their socio-economic security–like the disciples (?? — see v. 28); and there will be some who will voluntarily sacrifice this loss–like the rich man. Interestingly, to the latter he promises “treasures in heaven” (v. 21), while to the former–to those who suffer the loss of socio-economic security, he promises “one hundred times as much in this present age.”
How are to understand Jesus’ (selective?) prosperity gospel?
The answer is hinted at in the list of the things that are lost. The list is given twice:
First time: “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields” (v. 29)
This, of course, refers to one’s biological family (nuclear but extended is probably implied), along with their possessions (a house and fields).
Second time: “…houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields–along with persecutions.”
[The observant reader will notice the absence of “fathers” in this list. Is that because in the family of God there is only one Father? See Mt. 23.9.]
Earlier in Mark’s gospel Jesus is teaching in a house, and his “mother and brothers arrived,” wanting to take charge of him (it seems they were embarrassed by him–see 3.21). His famous response:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus subversively employs the sacred bond of kinship: the supreme allegiance that family members were to give to one another is redirected to “whoever does God’s will.” Incredibly, they now form a new family. And it is precisely “those who do God’s will” who become “the brothers and sisters and mothers and children” who are to welcome the new convert in as a family member.
They invite the new convert, who has suffered the involuntary loss of their socio-economic stability, not merely into their “fellowship” or “community” but into their family and, thus, into their shared socio-economic destiny “in this present age,” saying, “Mi casa es su casa.”
Jesus, then, envisions the community of his followers as a true family, in which each and every member regards his/her belongings as not exclusively their own but to be used for the security of the whole. Thus, followers of Jesus–especially those in positions of leadership–must take notice of Jesus’ promise to new converts–a promise that they (or, we, I should say) have a responsibility to fulfill on Jesus’ behalf.
With the “breakdown” of the nuclear family in the West, the application of Jesus’ promise may look somewhat different, and yet it is no less relevant. For example, a highly successful 20-something professes faith in Christ, only to realize that their current socio-economic support structure is their extremely unhealthy work environment: they work, eat, drink, party and (of course) have sex with their co-workers; supervisors have become like mentors, even surrogate parents, and they vacation not with their biological family members (from whom they are estranged) but with their co-workers.
The new convert realizes that they cannot hope to follow Christ in view of the pre-existing relationships and patterns of behavior in their work environment. So they realize that, in obedience to Christ, they must leave.
Here is where the church is in every way to respond with arms wide open just like family, offering housing options, immediate financial support and sustained hands-on assistance in looking for a new position.
Such an embrace is not merely an ancillary responsibility–the icing on the cake. It is rather a fundamental part of Jesus’ gospel–the genuine here-and-now prosperity gospel. Supremely, the gospel that Jesus preached offered life in the hereafter. But it also offered family in the here and now.