Monday, September 26, 2011

On Poverty, Prosperity, and Pastor Mark's Parable

Warning up front.  This is long-ish.  Sorry, but I'm passionate about this, and it's not a topic that lends itself to brevity.

So, how fitting.  My last post talks about having grace for Christians, and on Saturday, @JesusNeedsNewPR brought my attention to a piece by Mark Driscoll on Poverty Theology.  Pastor Mark and I have a history.  Some of his offhanded comments about gender were what inspired my first post ever on this blog.  Anyway, when I saw this tweet come across, the precise use of scare-quoting set the tone as I began to read it, but my reaction wasn't what you might expect.  I expected to find myself flying off of the handle.

But in the end, it just made me profoundly sad.

For those of you who didn't click through and read it, I'll give you a general synopsis.  Father gives son a bike.  Son feels guilty about having the bike and wants to give it away.  Father tries to convince son to keep the bike (using a lot of tortured logic that we'll get into later).  Son gives the bike away (which is characterized as disobedience). Father is disappointed.

Disappointed.  That his son acknowledged the fact that it is better to give than to receive and acted accordingly.

I have to admit, had I read this post 3 years ago, before having a son of my own and before I had been convicted of my own excesses, my response would have been significantly different (and likely positive).  But alas, that was then, and this is now, and my heart, as it has been so prone to do lately, is breaking. 

It's breaking for a church that has been deceived into believing and pursuing the "Jesus wants me to have nice things" gospel at the expense of their (literally) God-given right to something greater.

It's breaking for a world of individuals so singularly self-interested that they miss out on the profound joy of giving.

But mostly, it's breaking for the poor, the naked, the hungry, the orphan and the widow, all who continue to suffer in anonymity and isolation while the Church enjoys Her nice things. (More examples of the nice things gospel here, here, here and here.) 

So what's so wrong with this particular parable?  Well, a lot, actually, but I've identified 3 key points that I think address the heart of what's wrong with it, and I'll walk you through them based on my own personal journey over the last few years.

It represents a distorted view of parenthood.

I haven't been a father all that long, but the proudest moments I have ever had as a father have been when I have seen my son giving and sharing, even when he's not aware that anyone is watching.  Those moments are still rare, as he's still learning, (he is only two, after all) but honestly, what kind of father would I be if I expressed disappointment in him in one of those moments?  What kind of twisted father would be "grieved" and disappointed in his child for wanting to share and to give?  And what kind of power-crazed authoritarian father would command his child to have fun or else, as is implied in the parable?

Additionally, the parable breaks down when other children are involved.  Say we add another child to the scenario, and the son wants to share the bike with his sister, would the father still be grieved and disappointed?  I have a hard time seeing how the storyteller would justify such a conclusion, and since our actions don't occur in a vacuum, the parable loses all of its explanatory force in the face of rampant inequality amongs the father's children.  In the same way, if we choose to give away what we do have in an attempt to better the lives of those we are called to serve, do we honestly think that a heavenly father would be grieved and disappointed?  Of course not.  Such a conclusion is absurd.  (MPT had another tweet that summarized this point quite nicely.)

If the father in the parable knows the truth, that giving is better that receiving, then in requiring his son to keep what is given to him, though his keeping it results in an inequality amongst his brothers and sisters, then the father is robbing the son of what is best and replacing it with what is "fun" and comfortable.  Such a father is worthy of neither love nor worship. 

It ignores the role of the church in living out love.

This passage exemplifies the error:

The Father asked the child what was wrong. The son replied, “Father, I cannot ride the bike. All around the world there are missionaries who do not have a bike. I would like to give them my bike so that they can ride it to unreached peoples and preach the gospel. The Father replied, “If you simply ask me, I am glad to also give you a second bike to give to a missionary.”
The last sentence typifies the justification for the all-too-common attitude of "someone else will do it," made more complex by Christians with the inclusion of "God" in the "someone else."  This attitude, in this context, says that "I can enjoy the nice things I have because someone somewhere else will take care of the Other."  We use God as a scapegoat for our own indulgences.  I know I did (and still do).  I would say, "Surely God will provide for those in need."  And when He didn't?  The justification came easily.  "Well, His ways are not my ways, and in His sovereignty He distributes resources as He see fit.  I'll give my 10% or whatever, and the rest will work itself out."

Those words ring especially hollow in the midst of the abject failure of the Church to carry our Her charter in caring for the least of these.  God's sovereignty does not negate the need for my agency in caring for the Other.  If not me, then who?  The bottom line is, when I assume that someone else will do it, the bottom line is that no, "they" won't.  "They" haven't as of yet.  "They" are not likely to do it in the future.  It's up to me.  It's up to us.  When we abdicate our responsibility to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, the sad reality is that no one takes care of them.  So instead of the "someone else will do it" attitude, I've adopted the opposite "no one else will do it" position.

Put simply, I am the hands and feet of love, grace and compassion in this world.  If I'm not doing anything, no one else will either.

Finally, it is contrary to the teachings of Jesus... know, that guy who is nominally the head of our little religious movement.  Take this quote for example:

The Father replied, “You could also ride your bike as an act of worship to me, enjoying the gift I gave you to your joy and my glory. Once again, the problem is not the bicycle.”

I'm just curious how that meshes with this quote, which you will likely recognize:

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not invite me in,
I needed clothes and you did not clothe me,
I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me
In the context of this parable, when we ask, "When did we fail to do these things for you?" perhaps his answer would be, "You were busy...out riding your bike."


In the end, I think the underlying flaw in the argument is that it places an undue emphasis on the material as an avenue to wholeness.  The hyper-propertarian tone of the article is pretty typical of what we see coming out of most of our mainstream Commoditized™ American© Christianity® .

Blessings don't come in the form of stuff.  Blessing comes in realizing you don't need stuff.

But alas, this is a discussion for another day. 


  1. Very well said. Rather than post about this on my blog I'm just going to refer my readers here. You said all that I would've and you said it better. I've been so frustrated with this that I probably couldn't articulate very well, and certainly not very concisely at this point. :)

  2. I had a similar reaction to Driscoll's post. You nailed it: it made me "profoundly sad," too. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for being a good father!

  3. You're absolutely right - I am significantly happier when my kids want to share what they have with someone else. Don't get me wrong - I love seeing my kids enjoy the things they have. But when they see their abundance and want to give to someone else? That speaks to their heart.

    Mark calls that fear, but I have never seen that as a primary motivator of generosity. Never, ever, ever. Driscoll seemed to say that guilt is the main (only?) reason one could want to give everything away, while ignoring Jesus's message to give everything away. *sigh*

  4. Amen! Amen! If Jesus is our example of how we should live, how interestingly that His Father did not give him a nice home, an easy life - but rather sent him to have no home of his own and to die on a cross. How sad that a pastor would say that the Father is sad when we give our possessions to others!!! I agree that my proudest moments have been when I have seen my children give to others in need. And when Jesus talked about judging the nations at the end of time He did not say, "I rejoice that you enjoyed all my gifts." Rather He talks about those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison." Pastor Mark needs our prayers!

  5. My apologies for not commenting back sooner, but my wife gave birth to our second little boy the day after I wrote this, so time has been...a bit short. But everyone is napping now, so I finally have a free moment to respond.

    @Nikki - I understand your frustration, as I felt it too, though I tried to be graceful in venting it.

    @Elizabeth - Thanks for reading, and what say we turn our sadness into something more positive. :) As for the good father part, we'll see in 18 years or so. ;)

    @Alise - So true. I think you hit the distinction squarely between the good (enjoying what they have) and the best (having a giving heart). And I'm really not sure how we can look at the example of Christ and see anything but giving everything. *sigh* indeed, but this just goes to show the power of the narrative, and the need for a loving, graceful, but truthful counter-narrative. :)

    @Barbara - It's not just Pastor Mark who needs prayer, unfortunately. Indeed, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his post shows the level to which this kind of thinking permeates (especially western) Christendom. I know I still struggle with this kind of thinking regularly, though I'm praying that He will continue to make me into a CHEERFUL (not fearful, guilty, etc) giver.

  6. Saw this through Alise’s blog.

    I think I see what Driscoll’s trying to get at, but he certainly does use a poor example to do it.

    Ignoring many of the details, I see Driscoll encouraging Christians to obey the Father, not simply what we think is “good.” A more applicable example would probably be Peter’s issue with God telling him to eat of animals that he had been taught were unclean … animals that God said were unclean.

    Even there, though, we have a problem: obedience out of some legal issue compared to obedience out of love.

    Keeping the details stripped, Driscoll’s “Father” continues to tell his “Son” that he is wrong, wrong, and wrong again. That does sound too much like earthly fathers, I’ll agree. There are so many examples, though, just within the parables of Christ of the analog to God being proud, or at least impressed, of things that wouldn’t match the Ten Commandments, let alone the more debatable laws in place in that day.

    I cannot see this even as you do, Luke, because I’m not a father, and I never had what I consider a good example of one. All I know is that, if I can disappoint my Heavenly Father as easily as Driscoll’s parabolic “Father” was, I’m not sure there’s much hope for me … or any of us, for that matter.

  7. Amen to this. Thank you for posting. I've read a couple of blog responses to Mark's post, but I really appreciated how you boiled down the points so succinctly and simply. My heart breaks too. That's all I can say. I am filled with sadness for this version of "Christianity."

  8. @Joe SewellJoe - Thanks so much for the comment.

    If we excuse the poor analogy, then I think your interpretation makes sense, and I would agree with you that such a lesson is one worth taking to heart. However, I think the context in this one is purposeful, and the use of "stuff" or material wealth as an object lesson is deliberate in this case, and as such need to be addressed as an integral part of the parable.

    However, even if we ignore the context, it leaves us with an uncomfortable dilemma. At issue is a question of whether God wants what is best, or whether he simply wants obedience (and more existentially, if obedience is, in fact, what is best regardless of the moral character of the actions required). Would a loving God require unquestioning obedience even if such a God knew that the actions required would result is a less-than-optimal outcome. Moreover, would a loving God command His child to do something that the Word says to be less than ideal?

    I think that's where I tend to get stuck.

  9. @even one sparrowI'm glad you found it helpful. Be encouraged. You're not alone in your frustration. There are plenty of others out here who see the world through the same lens of compassion you do.

  10. As others have already said, great job answering Pastor Mark succinctly and well. I've watched a couple of interactions between Driscoll and Francis Chan and also with David Platt where he pulls out his concern about "Poverty Theology". Especially the discussion between Driscoll and Chan was amazing. Chan talked about how excited and amazed he is at the privilege he's found in giving away the money that he's come into. His face radiates joy and a sense of blessed-ness as he talks about giving it away. It's a powerful testimony!

    I want to go find that conversation again and post it on my blog. Thanks for the reminder!

  11. I don't know the context, but I read Driscoll's blog as an encouragement to enjoy our privileges without constant guilt.

    There a point to that - Christians can feel that having anything nice or new is 'unspiritual'. (I've seen a women feel guilty about buying a new dress, for example.) I believe that Christianity doesn't necessarily mean we all ought to be impoverished. Jesus came to give us 'life in abundance' and Paul learned the secret of being content with plenty as well as in want. Folks like Aquilla and Priscilla served God with their wealth. For a few examples...

    However, it is a delicate balance between enjoying an abundant life and encouraging giving generously to others.

    I think this parable falls short in exploring this issue...

    Thanks for a thoughtful post,


  12. @Anonymous Eleanorjane - I agree that Jesus came to give us abundant life, but I would have to disagree that His version of abundance has anything to do with material possessions. That's really the crux of the issue, I think. We read John 10:10 through the lens of our materialistic 21st century culture, and we assume that abundant life means more more stuff, but given the whole of Jesus' message, it seems that such an assumption is unwarranted.

  13. It was an analogy that fell short of it's intended purpose perhaps? As Eleanor just said, his intention was probably to help Christians to not feel bad about success or where they came from but it ended up just......not working.

    As an ironic twist it still adds guilt. Guilt for being generous. How odd.

  14. @joysthoughtsonstuffThanks for the comment. If that was the purpose, I suppose my issue would then be that the last thing we affluent (relatively speaking) Christians (especially Americans) need is a parable to make us more comfortable with holding on to the trappings of our success. :)

    On a more serious note though, considering the abysmal rate at which the American church gives its wealth away (and I mean to the needy, not to building funds and church programs) perhaps we need some parables that illustrate the selfishness of our indulgences contrasted with the suffering we are called to alleviate instead?

  15. "the parable loses all of its explanatory force in the face of rampant inequality amongs the father's children."

    That says it all. Thank you.

  16. King David said, 'I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord of that which cost me nothing' (2 Samuel 24:24). Jesus commended the widow who put 'two mites' into the temple treasury because it was 'all that she had, her whole living' (Mark 12:42). I believe what changes the world is our heart in giving - not the amount - and its all about cost, its all about love. Unfortunately, 'the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears' (2 Timothy 4:3).


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