Celebrity, Fame, and the Eye of the Needle

What does Jesus say about pastors who seek money, power, and fame?

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” --Matthew 19:24 (RSVCE)

Like most other children growing up in the Southeast, religion and faith played a role in my upbringing; but apart from the family bible with the rose pressed between its pages, none of it really played a part in my day-to-day life. Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit were abstract ideas that felt more like superheroes than the Holy Trinity--that all changed when I turned ten years old. I was (and still am) very opinionated, and I never had a problem telling others exactly why I was right and they were wrong. My mother feared that I would be bullied, so she decided private school would be best for me.

There were several religious schools within a few minutes from home, and after several months of consideration, Mom finally decided on a small, non-denominational school about three miles away. We began attending church there regularly the summer before sixth grade. My late grandfather had been a lay preacher with the Church of Christ, and Mom was raised within that tradition, staying until (as she would later put it) “the hypocrites drove (sic) her out”. Understandably, she was taken aback after the first person “fell out in the Spirit”, but something new sparked in her. A new way of life had begun for us--one that would see us both fall into a deep religious mania that robbed me of a normal childhood and drove my mother to irreparably damage nearly all of her familial relationships.

Mom, like many other Christians during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, began to fall in line with the cults of personality surrounding televangelism. Benny Hinn, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland just to name a few. Trinity Broadcasting Network played nearly every waking moment, and we gave what little money we had, expecting some miracle, monetary blessing that never came. Our offerings were given in good faith; but sadly, men in million-dollar mansions, built by the good faith offerings of widows and orphans rarely care where the money comes from. Years later, my mother would die in my arms, penniless and broken, with no one from the ministries she supported beside her.

The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” has produced many stories like mine--people broken from empty promises from so-called “men and women of God”. And while many of the people my mother and I blindly followed have been exposed over the last two decades, there is a new breed of minister that eschews holiness for celebrity and piety for fame. Pastors driving luxury cars and having tailor made custom suits is really nothing new however, this new strain foregoes the stuffy attire of years gone by for sneakers gifted to them by rappers and fake glasses from Forever 21. These men and women may have once been sincere in their pursuit of God; but now they have lost the Way, preferring to increase their followers on TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter rather than focusing on the souls of those followers.

In my past time as a Protestant, I would often hear ministers say that, “We’re not changing the message, just the delivery” while trying to scare the literal Hell out of sinners at a “Christian haunted house” or before the laser light show that served as Sunday morning worship service. As I grew in my faith, studied the Bible, and looked to Church history, I found that those that had come before did not need human videos, concerts disguised as worship services, or the newest fad in clothing to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their piety, care for the poor and broken, and honest preaching won the hearts and minds of countless men, women, children. What happens when the delivery changes the message? What happens when the “gospel” presented becomes tainted with pursuits of power, wealth, and fame?

In Matthew 19, we read the story of the rich, young ruler’s encounter with Jesus. We are told that this young man had a retort for everything for that Our Lord told him, except when he was told to donate all his wealth to the poor, and follow Christ; at that point he turned away. Jesus then goes on to tell His disciples of the difficulty that those with great wealth have in following Him. Wealth in and of itself is not evil, but placing too much value in what we own can and does separate us from the Lord. When we seek the power that comes with wealth, we may find ourselves drifting away from the course set by the Gospel; and we may begin serving a master other than Jesus Christ. These celebrity pastors face the same dilemma as the rich, young ruler; but sadly, they gain their wealth out of the coffers of the churches they are meant to serve.

As Catholics, we are part of the Church that Christ founded nearly 2,000 years ago, one Church with many parishes. Whether we choose to attend mass at St. Annes’s in Las Vegas or St. Patrick’s in New York City, we all gather together as one at the Lord’s table. In stark contrast, each Protestant church seeks to expand its membership in a number of ways such as proselytizing, guerilla marketing, and a strong social media presence. With increased streaming platforms, these churches have found a way to reach people that would never darken the doors. While these efforts appear commendable, it is more often about numbers in the pews rather than disciples following Christ. As greater numbers attend, more tithes and offerings are passed down the aisle to be used for whatever the pastor or board of deacons/directors decides.

Jesus did not teach us that every Christian needs to be poor, just that as wealth accrues, we find ourselves turning our hearts away from what really matters--Him. It is a pretty simple principle that He gave us in Matthew 6: 21-24:

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." -- Matthew 6:21-24 (RSVCE)

This passage warns the Christian about the enslavement that comes with idolizing material wealth; also it reminds us that if we allow sin to creep into just a small area, it will infect our entire life. While it is not within our ability to see the intentions of others, we can see the fruit of their actions. If a man calls himself a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his obligation is to stay true to that message and not seek his own self-interest.

Jesus had a large audience wherever He went, and rightly so as the Messiah; but despite the great number of followers, He never sought to be famous. His words of life, actions towards sinners, and multiple miracles drew people to Him as He sincerely met them where they were. So often celebrity pastors draw great crowds by feel-good, self-help sermons rather than leading those attendees in feeding the poor, visiting the sick and imprisoned, or mentoring the fatherless as Jesus commanded us to do in Matthew 25: 31-46. Many of these men and women concentrate on seeking out global renown by publishing books on how to “be the best you” or “owning the moment”, raking in millions of dollars, while neglecting the local community they claim to serve. Far be it from me to deny a person the ability to make money for his/her family, but ministers are meant to lead people by example, not merely by words. When Jesus spoke of “the eye of the needle”, He gave an impossible situation--a camel simply cannot squeeze through the eye of a needle. For those who use their positions as ministers of the Gospel to seek celebrity, fame, and wealth, place themselves into the same position, caught between two masters.

We can all learn a lesson in humility from Christ’s time in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he told His disciples:

“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” -- Matthew 26:41 (RSVCE)

In context, this verse warns us to remain vigilant in prayer so that we will not betray our Lord in word or in deed. We all have temptations that beset us, but we should seek to further the Kingdom of God through humble acts of mercy and self-sacrifice, rather than seeking our own personal gain.