Over the past few decades, what has come to be called the "Prosperity Gospel" has gained popularity among televangelists. Anyone who has ever watched programs featuring Joel Osteen or Creflo Dollar will have heard various forms of it. The Prosperity Gospel states that following Christ should result in increased financial success for the believer as well as improved health and well-being. For those who follow such a doctrine, religion is a way to win friends and influence people. The Word of God becomes a means to reach our goals and fulfill our potential.
Now there is no doubt that Jesus wants us to be happy. He came to give us an abundant life. And there's no doubt that a life of faith gives us the discipline which can also translate into success in our relationships and other endeavors. However, there are many problems with interpreting Christianity as a program for material prosperity or psychological well-being. First and foremost, it is not the example that Jesus left for us. He did not come to earth to fill himself with wealth, but to empty himself for us. He did not come to claim places of honor for himself, but to take the lowest place. If Jesus' primary concern was his well-being, he would never have accepted the humiliation of the cross, and we would never have been forgiven our sins.
In today's second reading, Saint Paul tells us that we should follow the example of Christ. Biblical scholars tell us that he is quoting from an ancient hymn celebrating the humility of Jesus. Unlike Adam who, in the garden of Eden, tasted the fruit so that he could be like God, Jesus did not cling to his equality to God, but willingly took on our human flesh. Being the Son of God, he could have been born into the family of a powerful king or a wealthy landowner, but rather he chose to be born to peasants of humble means. Though he was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, he chose not to use that power to enrich himself but to enrich us. And he did not use that power to save himself from the shame of the cross, but willingly gave himself up to death to save us. Why did he endure all this? So that God the Father would glorify him. As Saint Paul writes, because of what he suffered "God highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above all other names." Jesus was not after the glory that the world gives. Rather, he was after something greater, a glory that could only come from God. And the only way to reach that glory was to suffer the humiliation of the cross.
Paul's message to us is that if Jesus is humble and puts our needs before his own, then we must do the same. As we contemplate his death for our sins, we must ask ourselves whether we are too concerned with living a prosperous and comfortable life to pick up our own cross and follow Jesus. And as we hold in our hands these palm branches symbolic of the coming of our Savior, we must reflect whether we have welcomed him in the needy, in the poor and in the sorrowful whom we meet everyday. Whose needs are we called upon to help God meet? Whom are we ignoring in our everyday life who could use a friendly smile or a helping hand. Those people are Jesus who comes into our midst in the disguise of the distraught.
If we have learned anything during the financial crisis of the past year, it is that the security that money promises to give us is an illusion. God wants to offer us something more permanent than riches, power or popularity. He wants to give us his very life. He wants to give us his love.
Each of us has a need to be loved. And we each want to be loved for the person we are, not for what we have. God is no different from us in that respect. He does not want us to love him because he gives us things. He wants to be loved because he is our Creator and our Father. He wants to be loved because he is love itself. This is the mystery of the cross. That God has nothing greater to give than his very self. And he wants to offer us nothing less than his life. What good is gold or silver in comparison to the knowledge of the love of God?
On this Palm Sunday, we commemorate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He comes as a king to take the throne of David. But he is no earthly king. He does not enter on a muscular steed, but on a lowly donkey. It is not a well equipped army that escorts him through the gates of the royal city but a band of peasants. And he does not enter the city to take it by force but to surrender himself to a sentence of death. Jesus is not at all what we would expect from someone who claims to be the Son of God and Savior of the World. If we are to be his followers then we cannot live only for our own comfort and well-being but for his glory. But if we do take up our cross and follow him, we will know a joy and a peace which no one can ever take from us. And we will have treasure in heaven more glorious than we could ever hope for or imagine.