One of the things my best friend and I share is an interest in MLM documentaries or Multi Level Marketing Companies, particularly the stories of corruption, controversy and exploitation that have in recent years made for compelling television. Now an MLM, if you are not familiar with the term, refers to a business structure or practice in which an individual seller earns commissions both from direct sales and from the sales of the seller’s recruits, and of those recruited by the seller’s recruits, and so on. Perhaps you are familiar with Avon, or Tupperware parties, or one of the originators of this structure, Amway. In recent years MLM’s have exploded with the advent of social media. Social Media provides a direct way for those that sell for these companies to expand their reach, to show demonstration of products through live videos, et cetera. Perhaps you have had an old high school friend who has messaged you on Facebook about a new nail polish, or supplement or essential oil that will “change your life.”
One the reasons I am so interested in MLM’s is how they are this nexus of modern capitalism, religious like fervour, hope, false promise, and dreams. The MLM’s that have recently been in the spotlight for their business practices present a case of how people’s desire to be happy, successful, and feel productive can lead people to participate in an organization with less than good intentions. Soon after participants find themselves also engaging in morally dubious behaviour they later regret. While MLM’s in the grand scheme of life seem benign in comparison to other groups that recruit and use similar tactics, they provide a good case study of how something inoffensive, and on the surface good-intentioned, can actually have more, for lack of a better phrase – evil intentions. Groups and businesses (and chruches) like this prey upon people’s desires, and exploit those who have been marginalized by unequal systems, those who feel left behind, afraid, or angry. For many who join them, they get caught up in something that is not what they signed up for and they leave, or they become part of the fold, a loyal member. Understanding this human need and desire to belong has never been more important that today in what we are currently seeing unfold in our country and politics. And we need to understand that when this desire is manipulated and corrupted, it causes real harm.
With this as the backdrop, I turn this text from the gospel of Luke, (Luke 6:17-26) which speaks to our current reality and the exploitation of people’s desire to belong. This section of Luke is part of the beatitudes, also known as the sermon of the level place, similar to the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew. It is also sometimes titled “Blessings and Woes.” The idea of a level place is an interesting one, the word level in the biblical world is often the place of suffering, misery, hunger, mourning, and disgrace. Jesus comes down to speak in the midst of a world that is broken to teach about God’s kingdom of a coming and present renewal. Before he begins to teach, with a crowd of his disciples and multitudes of people hoping to be healed, we read:
“And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”Luke 6:19
Remember this as I will come back to why this is important later.
Then Jesus begins to teach about a world shaped by God and not human mores:
Blessed are the poor, hungry, those who weep,
Blessed when people hate you and exclude you on account of Jesus’ name.Luke 6:21
And then comes the woes:
Woe you who are rich, who are full, who are laughing.
Woe to you when all speak well of you for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.Luke 6:25-26
It is important to point out that Jesus is NOT implying that it is better to be poor and hungry than to be rich or that God only loves or blesses us when we are miserable. Rather this is a promise, as the Rev. Dr. Sarah Henrich points out,
“to those who are suffering in this world that God still sees them, loves them, and is intent on their thriving.”
It is also a call to live with attention and generosity toward our neighbours just as God is attentive and generous toward us. It is a call to live lives that are generous and attentive to the disparities in our economic and other systems – no matter how long it takes for God’s realm to fully manifest.
I could end this message here but there is another lesson which the Spirit has been poking me, found in the line about false prophets. In the midst of this call to generosity and hope for God’s realm, there is a warning about false prophets. The word is literally in the original Greek, “pseudo prophets.” The word “pseudo” in the English language has this sense of something that has the appearance of what is supposed to be but it is fake or false. In the biblical world, a prophet isn’t one who predicts the future but rather communicates and speaks God’s will. A prophet is one who “forth-tells,” who speaks to what is actually happening in the world. A false prophet then becomes one who claims to speak for God and seems as if they speak of what is actually happening but lies instead.
So why does Luke add this warning of false prophets? In some ways I think it is connected to where I started – the human desire to belong that is exploited – and how often the poor, the hungry, and the weeping are exploited for gain. One of the challenges of our modern society with social media and the internet is the sheer volume of noise that occurs and what I think is our growing inability to determine what is true, to determine the false prophets among us. How might these words from Luke help us? Well like many answers to Christian theological questions, when in doubt the answer is Jesus. Remember I said to keep in mind the part about the people being healed by Jesus? Let’s revisit that.
Jesus’ ministry is about healing people in a literal sense, however, his healing is not only about the physical ailment but also how his power restores relationship. Many people with ailments in the biblical world find themselves on the margins of society, cast aside for being unclean in the context of religious purity. When Jesus heals people he restores them into relationships, they are no longer on the outside.
How can we tell if an ideology, an MLM, a movement, an organization, a business, a religion, or a church is being led by a false prophet? If it separates you from others. If it encourages the breaking of relationships with friends and families because they don’t hold the same beliefs or values. If it isolates you from others who are different, or who aren’t “loyal.” Jesus came to reconcile the world not divide it. He teaches down at the level place. He engages people where there are, in and with the messiness of our human world. Jesus’ ministry is one of solidarity, not sales.
Another sign of a “false prophet,” is if they ask their followers to do the work but are not willing to do the same; they ask for sacrifices they are not willing to make. Being Christian and part of a community faith does require sacrifice, it means giving up time and money, being generous, and choosing to worship with others because you made a commitment. This sacrifice is always in the context of God who loves and acts and who loved and acted first. God was willing to become one of us and to sacrifice everything, in order to heal us – to restore relationship. God does this freely and we are made whole not because of our actions but because of God’s.
Any person, any organization, institution, ideology, church, or business that allows its people to suffer for the – often monetary – benefit of its leaders, fails the test of grace, and its profits both persons and money are lies. I write these words not to scare you, or to push you to start preaching in the streets about false prophets and coming doom. I say these words because even though there is much goodness in the world, we cannot be afraid to name the corruption and brokenness that abounds.
Even in the midst of our current world which seems so chaotic, and shrouded in murkiness, the power of God in Jesus to heal, to reconcile remains. What also remains is the promise of a world defined by radical generosity shaped by God’s will and desire. It is this promise that remains, a hope that Jesus preached and lived that can sustain and help us to see more clearly when the world is dim.
Featured image Carl Bloch – https://freechristimages.com/bible-stories/sermon-on-the-mount.html and Carl Bloch, p. 313, ISBN 9788798746591