It was an odd experience all around. I had just come from a large worship service in Moscow, and my host Sasha Tsoutserov was telling me about this prosperity Gospel preacher in Moscow claiming that Jesus and the disciples were all rich and that God intended for all who had enough faith to be rich. What was especially odd to me about this Gospel is that it is so clearly an American Gospel, one that has been born and nurtured in America where our cultural desires and our religion regularly get confused and fused. It was alarming to see this Gospel being transplanted to Russia in so flagrant a way.
So perhaps a few words about money and lifestyle and the basic of what the Bible says about these matters is in order. In the first place lets deal with historical facts--- it is simply not true that Jesus and most of his followers were well to do. No doubt some were, but they were in the minority and they were expected to provide the houses and hospitality for Jesus' followers so they could meet. To whom more is given, more is expected. And furthermore, there is no subject about which Jesus has more warnings than the dangers of wealth, and Paul is not far behind him.
For example, of course there is the famous story of the rich young man whom Jesus tells to sell everything, give to the poor and come and follow him (Mk. 10.17-31). When the man fails to follow Jesus instructions Jesus then serves up the famous aphorism about how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The reason for this is simple--- you cannot serve two masters--- God and money. God alone needs to be lord in the Christian's life whether they are rich or poor.
And in any case the proper place to start a conversation like this is to point out that as the psalmist says "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof". Put bluntly this means that human beings do not own anything, they are only stewards of God's property. There is no such thing as an affirmation of private property in the Bible. Indeed, we are often warned about the dangers of much possessions (see Lk. 12 the parable of the rich fool or Lk. 16 and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). Jesus even says Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom (Lk. 6.20).
This hardly comports with a Gospel of conspicuous consumption, or even the assumption that if one is wealthy it must necessarily be a blessing of God and proof one has true faith. While sometimes wealth is a gift from God the real issue is what one does with it, and what one does with money reveals a lot about one's character. Paul made clear it was a matter of character and heart when he stressed that the "love of money is a root of all sorts of evil" (1. Tim. 6.10). In that same context Paul stresses that godliness with contentment should be our attitude, not the avaricious desire for more and more.
Since it is the case that Americans make up less than 15% of the world's population and yet we consume over 60% of the world's resources, and having things like obesity and heart disease caused by obesity as leading causes of death, what preachers in our country really ought to be stressing instead of a prosperity Gospel is a Gospel of simplifying one's lifestyle, as Jesus' early followers did, and generous giving to others, taking care of the least, last and the lost. What a country does with its most vulnerable and weakest members of its society most reveals that nation's character.
In my own faith tradition John Wesley took this matter very seriously. I would urge every Christian to read his famous sermon "On the Use of Money". It has three main points: 1) make all you can by moral means (not engaging in non-Christian ways of making money such as gambling, selling harmful products like cigrarettes etc.); 2) save all you can; and 3) give all you can. Wesley says if you do the first two but not the third, you may be a living person but you are a dead Christian. He would be urging us to de-enculturate ourselves from the values of our society when it comes to wealth and conspicuous consumption.
It is hard for me to imagine Jesus encouraging anyone to live in luxury while there are people starving right in our own nation. How is this a good witness to the world? I can't imagine any real Christian rationale for luxury cars, SUVs, luxry houses, luxury clothes etc. The basic Christian principle is simple--- another person's necessities should take priority over my luxuries.
For those looking for a good book that has often helped Christians work through this important issue I would urge reading Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger-- a classic treatment.