I attended a dinner party a few nights ago with a few couples from the neighborhood where I live in Philadelphia. One of the people there is a veteran of the Vietnam War (as is my father-in-law). He was very interested to hear of my own experiences of Vietnam, which I visited in 2005, leading a student group as I do every summer to some other country. He has not been back since he was deployed there in the ‘60s.
I told him what I found: a country whose government is holding fast to a communist political structure, while also trying to create more liberal economic structure. I am neither a political scientist nor an economist, but it was very interesting to see a communist government insist that, in the 21st century, communism can be spliced to afford an authoritarian style of government, while promoting a different, free-market economic system. I told my neighbor last Wednesday that the great impression upon me was the Vietnamese people’s desperation to get on the escalator of upward economic mobility. They understood that the sooner you got on that escalator, the better. The step you got onto was the one on which you would always stay. My tour guide was a young man from a rural rice-farming village. He was the eldest son. What he knew was that he could advance his whole family’s economic well being by going to university and studying English. He did that. It enabled him to become a tour guide, to share a one-room apartment in Ho Chin Minh City with 15 other young men like him, and send money home. But he had already realized that learning English was not the key to prosperity, it was actually fluency in computers and economics – it was working in banks – and that he would always be on a vastly inferior rung of that economic up-escalator. He knew his destiny, in terms of his family’s financial location. He had done his best, but others had better information. They were from families with political and economic connections. We all want our families, our selves, and our communities to thrive. We do not want to live with scarcity. The biblical texts assigned for today are about how Christians relate to money, to income, to the things we can purchase, and to the poor.
The people about whom Amos writes know all about that escalator. They say to one another, “Hey – we can rearrange all the financial rules, get lots more income for ourselves, and the poor will never see it for what it really is – or if they do, when it’s too late!” My Vietnamese friend knew he had put it together too late. People in power made the rules, they shared them with their close friends and family, and so the rules worked for them perfectly, and excluded the majority. He and his family would remain poor.
We hear lots today in the U.S. about “moral decay,” about how the sex lives of other people are causing the country to slip, to fail, to lose its moorings, to be displeasing to God. Amos says something else – he says that economic righteousness is God’s criterion for a faithful society, and that a society that fails in such righteousness will slip into true chaos. He says that the way to God’s heart is solidarity with the poor, the uplifting of the poor, the welfare of the poor – the ending of poverty. Amos is unsparing – he prophesies that any society built on injustice will collapse, inevitably. Any society’s treatment of the poor is no sideline concern, but critical to whether they are viewed as righteous in God’s sight.
Amos writes of those who are selling out the poor, who are thinking always of new ways of taking what scarce resources the poor have and transferring them to themselves, augmenting their existing wealth. Two days ago, I read the updated newspaper headlines on my computer with real alarm – the vote in the House of Representatives to defund food stamps, then hours later, a vote to defund the Affordable Care Act. Sadly, I don’t think Amos would be astonished – it was what was going on around him 2800 years ago. To think that those wealthy persons entrusted with making laws would take food away from the hungriest Americans, and deny health insurance to the poorest. If Amos could write to us today, what would he say? “You that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” He would be unsparing, and rightfully so. The way to God’s heart is through the uninsured, the hungry, the homeless, and those living paycheck to paycheck, if they get a paycheck. He would remind us that we refused to raise taxes on ourselves to pay for the Iraq war, the longest and most expensive in our nation’s history, and that making the poor pay our war debt is not pleasing to God. We are selling out the poor to the point of obscenity.
And all of this is contrary to God’s law for the treatment of the poor – that states that fields and orchards are to be left with healthy grains, fruits and vegetables for the poor to help themselves to. We are not to take away the food from the very mouths of the poor, but share gladly of our bounty. The taxes we pay that feed, educate, heal, and house the poor aren’t a violation of our holy economic rights, but a holy privilege to participate, since we do not live with scarcity, in the uplifting of our neighbors. Our national “moral” conversation has it all upside down.
I once received a postcard – unsigned, of course – from someone who objected to my reference in a sermon to the political enmity that Herod had for John the Baptist, whose head he ordered to be presented to him on a platter. The person wrote that sermons should only be “spiritual,” never political. Amos would not agree, and neither do any of the Bible’s contents. The sharp divide between a spiritual matter and an economic or political one is a modern, human construct. According to the prophets of the Old Testament and the New, and to Christ himself, God makes no such division into the spiritual and the secular. How we live is a mirror of what we believe and what we believe is the template for how we live. They are indivisible. This was Amos’s uncomfortable message to his contemporaries and to us – to we, who also sell out the poor.
In the Gospel According to Luke, we read today Christ’s confusing parable about a man who sells out himself – who resorts to corruption to maintain his standard of living. And then Christ commends him! What could this mean? Some interpreters understand Jesus to be grateful for the man’s sharing of his employer’s wealth, and his relief for those shackled by debt. What the steward got wrong – and what received the later recrimination – was that he actually did if for his own benefit, and not for the indebted. My own, perhaps unorthodox, interpretation is that God is the business owner who holds the debts of all. Jesus is the manager, who cooks the books of all of us who are indebted. The grace and forgiveness of Christ, our savior, revise our debts, for truly - which of us is worthy? We, who have been hearing the parable for 2000 years, are not to engage in financial crimes, but in forgiveness, love, and grace. We are to cook the books of the sinners around us, showing them mercy, pointing them Christ-wards.
We live in a time of so many financial crimes, so much sell-out behavior for personal gain, so much selling out of the poor and vulnerable. I appreciate greatly this paraphrase I found this week of the final verse of our passage from Luke: “You can either serve this present age and love its treasures, or you can love God and serve [God] in this present age. But you cannot do both. One leads to death. The other leads to life.” [Helen Montgomery Debevoise]
The right choice is obvious, but the path is difficult – to love and serve God in this present age. We are stewards, and we have our own choices to make – whether to use our gifts and privileges to enrich ourselves or to serve God’s purposes in our own day and time. The bottom line is the bottom line – the bottom verse of the parable; you cannot serve God and wealth.
It’s a hard message for those of us who are not poor, and also for the poor – there is always someone who could be selling them out. Even – or especially? – in a complex market society - the way to God’s heart is with the hungry, the uninsured, and the excluded. It is about our tax codes, which have been revised to potently reward those who already have much. It’s about the minimum wage. The line between our life of faith and our life of finances does not exist to God. We made it up. We created the field of “ethics,” and then created hermetically sealed sub-categories.
Christians are called by their prophets, their Messiah, and their God never to sell out themselves or another, and to sing and pray and speak together in ways that present the alternative to the commodification of other humans, the worship of material gods. So many are worried most about that escalator – about securing a place on their society’s upward conveyor belt that will bring them the most profit. And so the poor are trampled, ruined, sold out for a pair of sandals. If Amos and Christ were to join our society today, I think they would say, “Dismantle that man-made escalator.”
“Commentary on Amos 8:4-7” by Karl Jacobson, www.workingpreacher.org, 9/22/2013
“Commentary on Amos 8:1-12”, Feasting on the Word, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, Year C, Vol 3 (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 244-249
“Commentary on Luke 16: 1-13”, Feasting on the Word, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, Year C, Vol 3 (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 92-97