Just before Easter this year, someone posted to Facebook a picture purported to be the Houston area mansion of Joel Osteen. Superimposed on the picture were the words “Jesus died so that Pastor Joel Osteen could purchase a $10.5 million home in Houston Texas.”
Needless to say, this post evoked a flurry of comments, among them,
Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook
You think that home is helping the homeless?
He’s not guiding them to salvation, he’s bleeding their bank accounts dry to line his own pockets. When will people wakeup to the biggest scam that has ever been perpetrated on mankind, by mankind…
A chart showing the six- and seven-figure salaries earned by Osteen and various other televangelists followed that post a few weeks later. I always find it interesting when this topic comes up. I also must admit to a degree of ambivalence when faced with the popularity of the many televangelists and their attempts to feed the insatiable appetite of the media for content. Further, many of the disparaging comments resonate with my own reactions to the high-profile ministries of the more well-know televangelists. However, I think it is time we give Joel a break. After all, behind the aforementioned comments are some assumptions that are interesting to unpack.
Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook
Is Joel a crook? Well, he was not one of the six televangelists targeted by Senator Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee investigation in 2007 – 2011. He does seem to be scrupulous in his handling the complexities of his finances and in navigating the subtleties of IRS regulations regarding the tax status of 501(c)(3) organizations. Further, it is not clear how profiting from the sale of his feel-good books constitutes “stealing form the poor.” In fact, the profit from the sale of his books is the source of his income, as he does not take a salary from the Lakewood Church. There remains a question of whether he inappropriately promotes his books on his telecasts; but that gets into some murky subtleties in tax law. So, a crook, I think not.
You think that home is helping the homeless?
This is perhaps the easiest of the allegations to dismiss. I dare say that few if any of us routinely share our homes with the homeless in our midst, so why might we expect Joel and Victoria to open their doors to the homeless of Houston?
He’s a thief stealing from the poor by using God
His telecasts stand apart from those of the televangelists that drew the attention of the Grassley investigation in that he never asks his television audience for money. In fact, he might be better thought of as a successful author and motivational speaker than as a Christian evangelist. In that light, I have never heard such criticism leveled at the likes of a Zig Ziglar or a Wayne Dyer. No one seems to care about the number of bathrooms in Zig’s house, nor of the amount of his net worth. No one accuses Dyer of stealing from the poor or of failing to help the homeless.
Who is Joel Osteen?
Joel studied radio and television production in college but dropped out before graduating. He got his start at Lakewood Church producing the television broadcasts of his father’s Sunday services. His father encouraged him to begin preaching at Lakewood shortly before his father’s untimely death from a heart attack. At his mother’s insistence, Joel took the reigns at Lakewood Church. If anything, Osteen is a dutiful son who took over the family business when his father died.
Joel hasn’t attended seminary and there was no mention in the articles I read of his ever being ordained. Parenthetically, historically among Baptists, neither college nor seminary attendance are prerequisites for ordination. Likewise, ordination is not a prerequisite for public preaching. So, if education and training are to be considered, Joel clearly has what it takes to oversee the production of a television broadcast, conduct an appealing Sunday experience, and run a profitable enterprise. He also has a talent for tuning into the zeitgeist and offering a message that soothes anxiety and inspires hope in his followers.
Lacking formal training or the ambition to be a minister, it is little wonder his sermons are often criticized for their lack of depth or theological content. He is usually lumped in with the preachers of the prosperity gospel (topic for a future post). In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, “Osteen agrees, offering his own definition of the prosperity gospel: ‘I never preach a message on money,’ he said. ‘I do believe that God wants us to be blessed, to have good marriages, to have peace in our minds, to have health, to have money to pay our bills. I think God wants us to excel. But everyone isn’t going to be rich — if we’re talking about money.’” (Nov 29, 2007)
Osteen does not preach the traditional “Jesus died for our sins” evangelical message. This fact makes the accusation that Jesus died so Joel could purchase a mansion ludicrous on the face of it. As a matter of fact and content, Joel has more in common with a motivational speaker than with a Christian evangelist. So what are we to make of Joel Osteen? I think it is clearly unfair to lump him in with the thousands of women and men who are out in the world doing God’s work in the churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and places of worship of the myriad religious traditions in this country and then criticize him for having an expensive house and a large net worth. In many significant ways, he has more in common with a best-selling self-help guru, a successful motivational speaker, or an Oscar/Emmy/Tony/Grammy award-winning entertainer. Judged by the standards of those icons in our culture, Joel looks rather modest and responsible in all aspects of his life.
While his sermons may not be intellectually rigorous, or particularly Biblical, I’d rather his be the public face of Christianity than a hate monger such as the late Fred Phelps or a fear monger like Pat Robertson. And although his lifestyle may have more in common with oligarchs, celebrities, and the 1% of capitalists than with the majority of his followers; he does seem to stand for marital fidelity, hope, optimism, and positive aspiration.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather go skinny dipping in a lake of burning sulfur than to attend one of Joel’s feel good rallies he calls a worship service. That said, I am keenly aware of the Biblical admonition not to judge and condemn others. For, who of us can say with certainty who is and who is not doing God’s work in the world (see Matthew 25)? After all, in a time of declining church membership and attendance, he has managed to put church on the weekly agendas of 16,000 Houstonians, and that can’t be all bad. Further, what tends to happen in mega-churches is that they experience rapid growth then settle onto a plateau. New members continue to arrive, while others leave in search of a deeper and more fulfilling experience. So if Joel is nothing more than a gateway into the Christian conversation, he is indeed doing God’s work. So, lest that burning lake of sulfur become my eternal destiny, I say, “Let’s give Joel a break.”
Recently, I posted two somewhat provocative statements on my Facebook wall. I was a bit disappointed by the relatively few comments generated by the following:
The poor are not a problem to be solved.
The opposite of poverty is not wealth,
The opposite of poverty is justice.
The first statement was conveyed to me in a conversation with my Spiritual Director several years ago. Regrettably, I did not note the source of the second (Probably a Facebook post).
It is not a topic we like to discuss. Haven’t we all been annoyed by panhandlers asking for money as we enter the grocery store? Pastors and parishioners alike are vexed by how to handle the person stopping by on Sunday morning asking for gas money so he can make it home to his family, buy medication for his children, or complete an emergency car repair. After hearing enough of these requests, it is easy to slip into cynicism and conclude that it is all one big con game.
Advice to the troubled parishioner or the harassed shopper sometimes alludes to Jesus telling his disciples “for the poor you have with you always” in an attempt to mollify their discomfort with ignoring these requests. Politicians often cite this passage to give their plans to cut welfare programs an air of respectability. I also hear it used in fatalistic resignation to the enormity of the task of assisting the poor.
The statement, in fact, comes from the narrative of the anointing in Bethany found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12. Judas asks, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”… But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”(John 12:5,7-8, NRSV)
Far from dismissing the plight of the poor, Jesus is saying that concern for the poor is not the only agenda for his followers. This passage foreshadows his death and burial and affirms that the disciples have responsibility for both the immediate concerns of Jesus and his followers, as well as an on-going ministry that clearly includes concern for the welfare of the poor.
Looking at the ethics and teaching of all three Abrahamic Traditions, we find that hospitality to the stranger; protection of the sojourner; and care for the widow and the orphan are foundational ethical teachings of the prophets of each tradition.
So, in response to statements such as “the poor are not a problem to be solved” and “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice,” I would say that we dare not appeal to Jesus (“for the poor you always have with you”) and say that the plight of the poor is a constant in society, regardless of the political and economic system of the day.
On the contrary, I challenge people of faith to be critics of the status quo. Follow the lead of the prophets and bring the highest principles of your tradition, not the values and structures of the status quo, to the debate. Rather than try to “solve the problem of poverty” acknowledge that whatever political/economic system is in place, some will be poor, some will be prosperous, and some will rise to the top and enjoy wealth.
The challenge of the faithful is to continue to examine the structures and dynamics of the status quo for the ways, intended and unintended, that confer advantages on some and disadvantages on others. See if the economic system of the day is designed to form and perpetuate a permanent underclass whose labor is available for exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. And finally, ensure that the political process gives equal access and equal voice to the concerns and needs of poor, the prosperous, and the wealthy.
A postscript for the church: For those of us called to ministry, it can be a subtle, but real temptation to be caught in the trap of trying to solve the problems of the poor. See Henri Nouwen’s treatment of the Temptations of Jesus (Downward Mobility, The Selfless Way of Christ, Sojourners Magazine). He finds in Jesus’ response to the temptations to do something relevant, something spectacular, and something powerful and influential, the true calling of Christians: to be faithful to the highest calling of our tradition.
As we try to find ways to respond to the panhandler at our door, I think much wisdom can be found in the narrative of Acts 3 in which a beggar confronts Saint Peter at the temple asking for alms. Peter says “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” (Acts 3:6, KJV) It may be tempting to think that preaching the Gospel and maintaining a prophetic critique of the status quo isn’t “doing” anything about the plight of the poor. On the contrary, keeping the ethics of our tradition in the forefront of the minds of the people and constantly looking for ways to make a more just society is “silver and gold” enough. It is “doing” what we are called and uniquely qualified to do.