So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:33)
I always had trouble with this verse. Scripture like this makes me realize why I was an agnostic for many years. Now that I am a Pastor who is committed to Christ, I still struggle with explaining these words to believers and nonbelievers. But I am equally puzzled by a sermon I heard several years ago when I attended a church with my daughter.
It was a large and growing congregation with a new church building that had a mortgage. There were several pastors, each in charge of different ministries. The Senior Pastor spoke on a series which have become a popular theme for modern growing and flourishing churches – the Prosperity Gospels.
It was my first awareness of such teaching and I found myself struggling with his interpretation of theology. According to the Bible, he claimed, God wants all of us to prosper. I thought he meant spiritual prosperity, by which we feel secure and safe in God’s love. Our lives were prosperous not because of wealth and possessions but due to the peace which comes only from salvation. Not so, he declared. By obedience and devotion to God we will be blessed with monetary abundance, material goods and social respectability. Earthly prosperity is the inevitable result of a life devoted to God. In Joshua 1 verse 8 it states, “Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do.
Thus those who are prosperous can claim that it is due to genuine devotion and adherence to God’s will. Those who are struggling financially are given hope that a dedicated spiritual life will eventually bestow prosperity. And if it doesn’t, then they are just not praying hard enough (or giving enough to the growing, dynamic church with the mortgage and five pastors!)
It was a wonderful church with joy-filled service, uplifting music, and spirit led prayers. I would have enjoyed it and even been a little envious of the service except for the message of prosperity. There seems to be a conflict between the “prosperity gospel” and the “Gospel of Jesus Christ”. If we follow Jesus, God will give back to us everything that Jesus says we need to get rid of if we want to follow him! There are many “gifts of salvation”. Material prosperity is not one of them. Maybe I do not understand this gospel of affluence and wealth. Can the presence of the Holy Spirit be proven by the size of our bank accounts, or opulence of our homes? Does God reward us for our devotion and servant hood with a new car or a bigger church? Micah 6:8 tells us what God’s desire is, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. It is reasonable to believe that God would reward our humbleness with material riches.
Perhaps the prosperity theologians feel that if we truly have the Holy Spirit then we cannot be corrupted by material wealth and power. Yet Jesus clearly resisted corruption, not by possessing control over them, but by rejecting earthly things. “ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Matthew 4:8-10)
The power of the spirit of Christ can help us resist sin but even Jesus understood that we are and will always be imperfect and captivated by earthly sins. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38)
No one but Jesus is so perfect in faith that they are immune to temptation. The idea that any of us can achieve such a state of grace rejects the suffering and death Jesus endured at the cross. Only Jesus had the strength to resist temptation and he did so by rejecting worldly control. It was God’s compassion for us that He sacrificed His Son on the cross and only Christ’s death and resurrection can save us from the sins of this world, not our own deeds of righteous and faithful living.The rewards for seeking sanctification (becoming like Christ) is not material possessions or wealth. It is the freedom in this life and the life to come given to us by forgiveness of sin. Our prosperity comes from how we share this gift with others and not an expectation of reward.
So what about what Jesus said in verse 33? If a banker had told me this I would have stormed out and gone to another bank. If a church leader had declared I turn over ALL of my possessions, I would look for another church, or stop going! My response would be an incredulous “You want what?” How can I serve God without the basic needs of life: food, shelter, transportation, and satellite TV?
The prosperity theologians will argue that by giving everything to God we will be awarded from God’s abundance, that what God gives he gives abundantly. “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) If we do not give all that we have we will receive nothing from God; ergo “So the last will be first, and the first last.( Matthew 20:16) Thus they are correct if abundance and prosperity are the same thing. But they aren’t. Prosperity is not demonstrated by large bank accounts any more than discipleship is achieved only by hungry and homeless Christians.Luke 14 verses 28 to 32 give a clearer meaning to Jesus’ words.“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.” Jesus made it known that we must be committed to following him to the point of death if necessary. Our Lord demonstrated his willingness to die on the cross for our sake and many of his followers did the same. However, a willingness to build a tower or engage in battle, means nothing if we are not committed to fulfilling the task. Jesus needs to be assured that our discipleship is real and fully entrusted to. Half-hearted devotion resting on a vague sense of obligation is not sufficient. Even worse when we pledge ourselves in expectation of earthly rewards we dishonor what Jesus said to Satan on the mountain, “For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Matthew 4:10)
Discipleship based on expectation is self-serving. Jesus demands and rightfully expects full devotion from his followers and his church. Discipleship is not something we do apart from our human routine and set aside when it causes inconvenience. It becomes the focus of our lives and gives meaning to everything we do. We no longer see giving up all our possessions as a sacrifice of our human comfort and security, but as an acknowledgement of God’s presence in our lives. Thus deep and real commitment is given with the knowledge that God has given us good gifts and salvation.
It is the depth of our devotion and willingness to carry on the task of discipleship in the face of difficulties and challenges that Jesus is addressing. His followers did not know that Jesus would go to the cross. Their culture taught them that sacrificing a lamb or doves would fulfill their missional obligation to God. We, on the other hand, are aware of what Christ did on the cross and do not have the excuse that ritual sacrifice will satisfy God. We are expected to have the same level of commitment as Jesus had at Calvary. Does this mean we have to make the same sacrifice that Christ made? No, because only Jesus could go to the cross and only our savior could die for our sake. But we share in the resurrection because we are committed to fulfilling the discipleship which Jesus calls us to follow.
Any prosperity from God is given as a spiritual gift, not a material reward. And discipleship is an expression of faith and thankfulness, not an expectation of either a heavenly or earthly reward. Jesus made it clear that the Father will not accept half-hearted gestures, insincere devotion or discipleship performed in expectation of material gifts. He did tell his followers that if they lived their lives intentionally committed to fulfilling God’s grace, they would be rewarded abundantly and free to serve God. 23 “And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)
In light of what Christ did for us at the cross and God’s redeeming love at the tomb, Jesus’ demands in Luke 14:33 are not unreasonable. Our expectation of an earthly reward or fear that there will be no reward is unwarranted. Both the expectation of prosperity and the unwillingness to commit demonstrate doubt and faithlessness in God’s Grace.
I believe the work of the Holy Spirit is to strengthen our relationship with God and guide us in sharing God’s love with others. Modern Christians received freedom from death at the empty tomb and have no barriers toward full and genuine commitment to fulfilling Jesus commandment, “ 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)