‘Does God Have Favorites?’
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
9 September, 2018
Homecoming Sunday
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, 14-17

Does God have favorites?

People have long thought that God obviously favors those with wealth, those who enjoy prosperity, as if those of us with material abundance are receiving signs of God’s preference. And although most prosperous people know otherwise, it’s even been suggested that those who have much are receiving God’s reward for their good behavior or faithfulness.

But what does that say about people who, despite their efforts to be righteous, have no hope for climbing out of their social circumstances—the poor whom Jesus acknowledges will always be with us? Those whose lack of access to education, or stability in their household or community, or even more fundamental nutrition, food and drink: does God despise them? Are they getting what God feels they deserve—and if so, what sort of God is like that?

Certainly not the God our Psalmist described, when he wrote (and we recited in our Call to Worship): “Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God . . . who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry . . . sets the prisoners free; . . . opens the eyes of the blind . . . lifts up those who are bowed down . . . loves the righteous . . . watches over the strangers . . . upholds the orphan and the widow[1] (the vulnerable and overlooked of society).

There’s a particular strain of Christian belief—one that has a long history in American culture, dating back at least a couple centuries—that equates Christian faith with material, and particularly financial, success. The Prosperity Gospel movement, as it’s called, grew out of the influence of several sources, including the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” as the sociologist Max Weber famously coined it, as well as the influence of a Pentecostal appropriation of a 19th-century spiritual movement called ‘New Thought’, which espoused the power of positive thinking, and culminated in the “quintessentially American idea that the individual was responsible for his or her own success, happiness, health, and situation in life, and that applying mental energy in the appropriate direction was sufficient to cure any ills.”[2] But it’s not a Biblically-grounded or theologically sound way of understanding our covenantal relationship with God and each other.

Still, a 2006 Time Magazine poll found that 17% of American Christians identified explicitly with the Prosperity Gospel movement, while 31% supported the idea that “if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.”[3] As if God is some sort of cosmic slot machine that always makes tithers big financial winners.

There’s no denying that there are a few passages in the Bible that can be used to bolster the argument that God intends for God’s faithful to be wealthy—but only when they’re taken out of their broader context, and other passages are ignored. It’s called “cherry picking” or “proof texting” when we select specific passages of scripture to help make the case for what’s usually a self-interested agenda or philosophy. Like when the three or four verses of Scripture appearing to condone slavery, which are certainly in the Bible (including sentences in New Testament epistles exhorting slaves to obey their earthly masters), were used to argue that slavery is acceptable to God.

But this approach to scripture breaks down very quickly if we take the whole of the Bible seriously as presenting us with God’s Word, and when we are truly striving to live according to Jesus’ teachings and personal example. I’m not sure what Prosperity Gospel proponents do, for example, with the deeply uncomfortable verses in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus tells his disciples how hard it is (one version even says flat out it’s impossible) for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or any of the many other verses in the gospels where Jesus cautions against the pursuit or adoration of wealth, or where he encourages his disciples not to engage in the accumulation of earthly goods, particularly because money and material things so quickly become an idol or false god for us, and we can’t serve two masters: the pursuit of worldly wealth easily trips us up in our pursuit of heavenly objectives.

I think the corrective response to the sort of theology that promises, “if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money” is this: If you commit your money and resources to God’s work in the world—the work of feeding the hungry, advocating for the vulnerable, welcoming the stranger and those seeking asylum/safety, the work of healing the afflicted, supporting and strengthening the weak, honoring all persons, any or all of the things Jesus did with his life—then yes: God will absolutely bless you. But God’s blessings are far richer than mere money. One of the greatest blessings will be a deep and abiding contentment in knowing that you are participating in God’s eternal life and purposes; you are helping to build something greater than yourself—the kingdom of heaven here on earth. You are living out your God-given calling, which always results in a joy and peace that money can’t buy.

The fact that human beings have long felt that money is the greatest blessing is an indication of our worship of money, more than it is an expression of our understanding of God’s true blessings. It’s easy for those who are bathed in an awareness of God’s love and delight in them, to see the deep unhappiness and insecurity of those who are driven primarily by their pursuit of wealth and worldly power, which in turn is driven by Ego. It is Ego who convinces us that our personal worth is determined by the world’s standards of value or importance, as opposed to God’s.

But it’s always been that way. We heard James trying to open his audience’s eyes to the disconnect between what they professed to believe, and the ways they were acting—the things they were doing (or not doing). He was trying to alert them to a double standard that has proven its staying power to this very day—that’s how deeply preferential treatment or prejudice is ingrained in our human condition!

“My beloved brothers and sisters,” the author writes, “listen. God has given a lot of faith to the poor people in this world. He has also promised them a share in his kingdom that he will give to everyone who loves him. But you have dishonored the poor. … My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? . . . If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, ‘I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.’ What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? So faith by itself, if it doesn’t lead us to do good deeds, is dead.”[4]

James reminded them of Jesus’ own teaching regarding the greatest law of all, saying: “You will do alright, if you obey the most important law in the Scriptures. It is the law that commands us to love others as much as we love ourselves. But if you treat some people better than others, you have done wrong, and the Scriptures teach that you have sinned.” [5]

Last week, when our New Testament lectionary text was from the first chapter of James, we were reminded that we are created in God’s own image—and God is Love. Our Psalm this morning reaffirmed that truth. Our temptation, maybe even our inclination, is to put our trust in princes, in the political figures or charismatic human leaders of this world we can see. But, we’re exhorted instead to trust in the power of the eternal God, who is always driven by purposes of love, and faithfulness to our mutual relationship.

Although there may be cherry-picked or proof-text verses used to suggest otherwise, the overarching theme and message of the Bible is clear: God loves each of us equally, infinitely—enough to become one of us and to submit to the worst we can serve up as human beings, in order to demonstrate that God’s love for us is even greater than our worst kinds of sin. Unlike human love on its own, God’s love and character is strong enough to rise again from the tomb of human hatred, fear, prejudice, and resistance. And that divine love is available for each and every person who ever was, or is, and who ever will be. Our deepest happiness as human beings is secured when we find our way back to God, when we rest in the assurance of our close resemblance and relationship with God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

So, the answer to the question, “Does God have favorites?” is: No; God does not have favorites. But too often, we do. And picking favorites will stunt our growth, especially when we deliberately or unconsciously exclude others from the community of welcome we’re called to extend to all of God’s beloved children. Prejudices make us smaller; they inhibit us from growing into the full measure God has hoped, envisioned, and intended for us to become.

As we venture forward into an exciting new program year of faith formation, of Christian cultivation here at the Congregational Church of Hollis, I hope each one of us will feel accepted and welcomed here. And, may each of us take time and care to welcome every other individual, every child of God (no matter how different they may be from us!) into this family of faith God is shaping us to be in our community. Amen.

[1] Psalm 145.

[2] https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/1/15951874/prosperity-gospel-explained-why-joel-osteen-believes-prayer-can-make-you-rich-trump

[3] http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1533448,00.html

[4] James 2:5-6, 14-17—a combination of NRSV and CEV translations.

[5] James 2:8-10, CEV.

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