So what do we do with the words of the prophet Amos we find as the Hebrew scripture lesson for Pentecost 15 Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary this week (Amos 8:4-7)? It’s a pretty damning indictment:
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
Amos isn’t a member of the priestly class, nor is he a professional prophet. He’s a farmer and goat herder, but he knows corruption and income inequality when he sees it. This average guy from Judah confronts the leaders of the Northern Kingdom of Israel at a time when their economy seems to be booming and tells them that they’re sinning—they’re getting rich by ripping off the poor. 2,700 years after the time of Amos, the rich are still trying to get richer, and still doing it on the backs of the poor.
And God still doesn’t like it.
The cry of Amos resonates in America today. The rich have found a way to make the ephah small and the shekel great. They invented a load of fecal matter called “supply-side economics,” and for over thirty years they’ve been feeding it to us and telling us it’s chocolate ice cream. It works like this: Tell John Q. Public that our government needs to quit stifling the market. If we just cut the suffocating regulations on business and industry (like requiring that they don’t pollute the environment or pay their workers decent wages and benefits) and give them and their wealthy owners huge tax breaks, businesses will have more capital to spend so they can expand and hire more workers. This will boost the overall economy, increase the tax base, and (in the immortal words of the late Merl Haggard) we’ll all be drinkin’ free Bubble-Up and eating rainbow stew[i].
Sounds good, right? The only problem is it doesn’t work. First, businesses only expand when the bulk of people have money to spend to buy the goods and services they produce. Second, there’s never been a requirement that the businesses use their extra capital to pay workers more. Third, the reduced tax income from the tax cuts means our government must borrow more money or cut more services or both. Those dependent on government services (that would be the poor) end up getting less while the rich get more. A child of five could tell you that a government can’t increase its revenue by cutting its source of income. This whole business is a cynical ploy by the rich and powerful to get richer and more powerful. According to the Bible, it’s a sin.
But I won’t be preaching any of the above on Sunday morning because some folks in my congregation don’t like it when I get political. So I’ll just hold my tongue.
Anyway, there’s a good deal to be said about the Gospel lesson (Luke 16:1-13). You must admit, it’s a tricky little parable Jesus gives us about this dishonest steward. The steward is accused of squandering the boss’s money, so he’s either a crook or a screw-up. Either way, he’s about to get sacked. This is a pretty scary proposition. I remember as a kid when my dad got laid off from his job and had to go on unemployment. It was a tough time. To this day I fear unemployment more than I fear cancer.
What’s this poor slob to do? The commentaries I’ve read make two good suggestions to explain the parable. The first is that the steward cuts his own commission, thereby greatly reducing the debtors’ bills. His act of selflessness—maybe the only one he’s ever done in his life—benefits the poor folks who are indebted to the master and wins their gratitude and friendship. The other suggestion is that he just reduces their debt to a manageable size so they can pay the master something. This is actually an act of liberation for the debtors. The master figures out that a partial (and, perhaps, immediate) payment is better than no payment at all, so he commends the steward.
So what’s the point? Jesus says in verse 8 that the worldly folks seem to be better money managers than the Godly folks. They always seem to be working a scheme of some sort. What’s our scheme? What do we do with that which is entrusted to us? Maybe the first thing we ought to do is evaluate our attitude towards wealth. There’s a great line in the classic film Citizen Kane which sums it all up for me: “It’s not hard to make a lot of money—if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we’re really about?
Our wealth, that which the Lord has blessed us with, needs to be a tool for our lives and not a goal. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” meaning “Give us that which we need.” I find that God is actually pretty good at answering this prayer, don’t you? So, when I think about it, I feel that my focus needs to be on using the gifts I have, monetary and otherwise, to the glory of God.
This past week I got a call from this guy named Harry. He’s sixty-five years old, and life just never seems to break his way. About once or twice a year he comes by the church and needs a hand. His stories always check out. This week he needed carfare to get him back to New Jersey where he has a place to stay after losing his home in Philly. I told him I’d give him fifty bucks out of the church’s Discretionary Fund. Unfortunately, when I got to the bank to withdraw the cash, I found that nothing had been transferred to this fund. So—I’m ashamed to admit it was somewhat reluctantly—I gave him all the cash I had on me, about thirty-one dollars.
“God bless you, Pastor” Harry said. “I thank you for being there for me. You know the Bible says, ‘He who is faithful in little will be faithful also in much.’”
Truth be told, I won’t miss those thirty-one bucks, and if I did a good turn for Harry, so much the better. If I use my resources for the Harrys of this world, I guess I’m using them for the Master, too. Like the dishonest steward in the parable, I recognize it’s not about what I have but how and for whom it is used. When I turn my eyes away from my own interests, I’m able to learn both trust and gratitude. And trust and gratitude are treasures truly worth having.
God bless, my friend. Enjoy your week and stop in again!