Certain leaders, who claim to be religious, are dedicated to a greedy notion of Jesus who just wants one thing for his loyal followers: money, money and more money.
My interest in this exploitation of Jesus deepened after I met Costi Hinn. His uncle, Pastor Benny Hinn, claims God uses him as a conduit to cure disease: He simply "lays hands," Jesus-like, on a chronically ill person, pushes them to the ground and -- bam! -- the person bounces back to health.
Pastor Hinn also preaches the "prosperity gospel," a belief system that teaches followers that they can acquire wealth if they are devout Christians who give money, and lots of it, to his ministry.
In a 2016 YouTube video
, titled "Your Financial Miracle is at the Door," Pastor Hinn told viewers, "I'm talking to you that are facing a financial challenge. That money is already there for you. ... Abundance will come to you in the name of Jesus, the Son of Almighty God. You're going to stop living from paycheck to paycheck. But first you're going to sow a seed. For those who want abundance, $1,000. For those that want a new season, $120."
And people empty their pockets. Hinn is worth
tens of millions of dollars. "You put a guy on a platform in a real nice suit, in a beautiful auditorium," Costi told me, "you say God is like your magic genie; if you rub him right and do all the right things, your bank account's going to grow."
According to The Dallas Morning News, Pastor Hinn's ministry is currently under investigation
by the IRS. Pastor Hinn is unfazed. His organization posted on Facebook
, "The ministry has undergone intense scrutiny over the years, and we remain confident that there will again be a positive and speedy outcome in the days ahead."
HLN reached out to Hinn's ministry to talk about this matter further, but we got no response. To date, Pastor Hinn, who has been preaching the prosperity gospel for some time now, has not been charged with any crime.
That devil-may-care-attitude is consistent with that of a mafia don -- sans the killing of course. I use that descriptor because it's how Costi described the Hinn family empire.
"It has the lavishness of the royal family and the strict enforcement of a mafia type of family," he told me. "You keep to your own. You defend your own. You never ever, regardless of what the truth might be, do anything to harm or expose the family."
Yet Costi did just that. He questioned Uncle Benny's faith, publicly exposed the hypocrisy of the prosperity gospel. And, just like that, Costi says he was shunned by his family, excommunicated from all things Hinn. Costi told me he has yet to hear from his uncle and, as far as I can tell, Pastor Hinn has not publicly commented on his nephew's decision.
But that is fine with Costi.
"I was greedy," he told me. "We were exploiting the poor, using our greed, squeezing every last dollar out of people so we could live the way they never could."
And, he added, "We were using Jesus to do that."
Of course, Uncle Benny would argue Jesus would desire a lavish life for all, complete with private jets, palatial mansions and fancy cars. It's how, according to Costi, Pastor Hinn lives, along with his round-the-clock security and armored vehicles.
This prosperity gospel, with its distorted image of Jesus, makes me angry, but more than that, it makes me sad.
Organized religion can be wonderful. My Catholic faith centers me; it makes me want to be a kind, generous, loving person -- a person rich in spirit, not in material wealth.
And Costi gives me hope that more people will open their eyes and see a more loving God. After all, he sacrificed his family to embrace the authentic Jesus.
Today, he is the executive pastor at the Mission Bible Church in Orange County, California. He's the money man -- the CFO in charge of the church's finances. The irony tickles him and enables him to use donations to spread the word of the Lord. "Treasure on earth is not the be-all, end-all," he said. "It's the eternal life that Jesus offers us; it's not a mansion in Beverly Hills."
And lest he ever forget, the Bible he carries with him everywhere reminds him that Jesus loves him despite all his "mess" and all his "greed."
As we said goodbye, Costi added, "Jesus loves me just the way I am."