For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 2 Timothy 4:2-4 (NRSV)
Urban legend has it that P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Whether this quote can actually be credited to Barnum or not, sadly it is true that human beings can be gullible. We like quick fixes and instant gratification. We like to look good and appear to be free of any problems or struggles.
In the early 1500s there was a Franciscan friar named Johann Tetzel who was exceedingly well known for selling indulgences, which were special “get out of purgatory free” notes, to anyone who had the cash to spring their dead relatives out of purgatory, or to purchase their own speed pass to heaven.
“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”- Johann Tetzel
Tetzel worked for the archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop- Tetzel’s boss- had gotten to his position by culling expensive favors from friends in high places. He needed money to repay his debts, as well as money to send to the Pope in Rome for the expensive construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. What better way to raise money than to appeal to the fears of the masses, who had never heard the real message of the Gospel? The saddest thing about these shady deals- selling indulgences and saint’s bones and other supposed relics- is that the Pope was all for it. The Pope was behind the charlatans and hucksters, and the money they brought in. Keeping the average person ignorant and failing to teach the true Christian message ensured a ready-made clientele for the indulgence and relic trade.
Tetzel and those like him were instrumental in firing up the ire of those who wanted reformation and restoration in the Church- most notably Martin Luther, who detested the sale of indulgences and who was determined to stop the fleecing of the flock.
The sale of indulgences capitalized on the man-made myth of purgatory, which is a concept in which we have to contribute to good works and/or do penance to “clean us up” completely so we can get into heaven. The good news of Scripture is that our salvation and life are in found in the Three Solas- or three “Onlys:”- Christ alone, Faith alone, and Scripture alone- and we can’t earn or deserve our way into heaven. But human beings are stubborn and sometimes we don’t get- or don’t want to believe- the right messages. We have modern equivalents to Johann Tetzel and his fellow religious snake oil salesmen today in televangelists and charlatans who try to sell a prosperity Gospel. Who hasn’t tuned in to early morning televangelism and heard phrases such as, “Just buy this prayer cloth and God will send you a miracle!” or “Send us ‘seed money’ for your financial breakthrough!”?
God isn’t a vending machine. He answers prayer in His own way and time, and buying prayer cloths or giving money to a fly by night televangelist isn’t going to influence God in the least. There is only one way to salvation, life and peace, which is the way of the Cross. The way that Jesus took for us, the way that only Jesus was qualified to take.
The real message of the Gospel is radical. It brings us to the Cross. It takes us to the heart of Jesus. It leaves no room for profiteering or personal graft. We give to God and others in response to all that God has already freely given us, and we trust that He provides for our every need.