PROPER 20, C
The parable from Luke that you just heard does not entirely make sense, no matter how closely you read it. The suspicion is that this has been amended, redacted, or otherwise messed with by people who were not the original author, in some vain attempt to make it make sense.
Knowing this is likely doesn’t really help a preacher trying to make sense of it. One thing I noticed is that if you take one statement of the Master as ironical, there is a certain sense to it. The Master says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Think of what you might say to your young son or daughter who is hanging with a bad crowd. “Well, what kind of friends will they be when the chips are down? Are they going to give you the keys to the kingdom? I don’t think so!”
The valid criticism of this interpretation is that we seldom see Jesus using irony. Nonetheless we can try to understand the attached sayings, but to do so we need to remind ourselves of the economics of Roman –occupied Galilee. As Barbara Rossing puts it, “Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or "lord" along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.”
While none of us can make sense of the parable itself, we could all agree on the final sentence of this reading. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot be a Christian if the central focus of your life is the accumulation of wealth rather than the pursuit of goodness or righteousness.
Jesus doesn’t say here that wealth is wicked in and of itself. Rather the issue is this: Do we spend as much time and effort on our spiritual growth as we do on our financial growth? What kind of person would I be today if I had even given them equal time? The answer is this: I’d be much further along in my journey to become a true child of God.
The Old Testament lesson from Amos gives us a clear and brilliant picture of what people who worship the accumulation of wealth become. They become people who prey on the poor rather than help them.
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land..” These are people who can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so they can get back to the business of making money. And how do they do that? Not only by buying and selling, but also by cheating.
“We shall make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances…and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The ephah was a small bowl used to measure an amount of grain. By denting the bowl, it could be made smaller to cheat the buyer of a small amount of grain. They could also cheat by using weights that were not correct and selling wheat that contained the sweepings from the threshing floor.
Each of us can probably think of similar scams from our own day. My first thought was about housing. While not so evident here in the Falls, in the big cities the actions of slum landlords parallels that of the merchants in Amos. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures or TV specials on city apartments that none of us would live in – with plumbing and heating that don’t work, halls that are filthy, rodents that are numerous and healthy. Yet the landlords often get substantial rent – equivalent to what we would expect to pay for a simple, but decent place to live.
If you’re at all like me, you can say to yourself “tsk, tsk” about people who behave this way – whether it’s landlords, or merchants, drug dealers or corrupt politicians – because that’s them – not me. I certainly don’t cheat people or do anything to ruin the poor.
Are you comfortable with that conclusion? I certainly was for many, many years. Then I moved to England. I noticed that prices for ordinary goods were much higher there than here (and this was not made up for by a comparable difference in salaries). In some parts of Europe, it was even worse. The European executives who worked for my company would travel to the US on business with empty suitcases, which they would fill with newly purchased items for the trip home. That’s how much difference there is!
I expected the relationship of prices and salaries to be different in the third world, but not in Europe, so I started asking questions and reading. The somewhat oversimplified answer is this: the US, both government and private enterprise, has so much money and buys so much of the world’s produce that we can demand lower prices. Sometimes we can even set the prices we will pay for raw materials or services. The European countries haven’t been able to do the same, although maybe the Common Market is changing this.
Let me give you a specific example. There’s a Gospel singing group of black women called Sweet Honey in the Rock. I’m going to read you the lyrics of one of their songs, written by one of their members and based on an article published by the Institute for Policy Studies. It’s called “Are My Hands Clean?”
“I wear garments touched by hands from all over the world, 35% cotton, 65% polyester. The journey begins in Central America in the cotton fields of El Salvador. In a province soaked in blood, pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun pulling cotton for two dollars a day.
Then we move on up to another rung—Cargill, a top forty trading conglomerate, takes the cotton thru the Panama Canal, up the Eastern seaboard, coming to the US of A for the first time. In South Carolina at the Burlington mills it joins a shipment of polyester filament courtesy of the New Jersey petro-chemical mills of Dupont.
Dupont strands of filament begin in the South American country of Venezuela, where oil riggers bring up oil from the earth for six dollars a day. Then Exxon, largest oil company in the world, upgrades the product in the country of Trinidad and Tobago. Then back into the Caribbean and Atlantic seas to the factories of Dupont on the way to the Burlington mills in South Carolina to meet the cotton from the blood-soaked fields of El Salvador.
In South Carolina Burlington factories hum with the business of weaving oil and cotton into miles of fabric for Sears, who takes this bounty back into the Caribbean Sea headed for Haiti this time ( May she one day soon be free).
Far from the Port-au-Prince palace, third world women toil doing piece work to Sears specifications. For three dollars a day my sisters make my blouse. It leaves the third world for the last time, coming back into the sea to be sealed in plastic for me, this third world sister. And I go to the Sears department store where I buy my blouse on sale for 20% discount.
Are my hands clean?”
When I ask myself that same question, “Are my hands clean?,” the answer has to be “NO”. Nearly every time I buy so-called American goods these days, even at full price, I’m getting a discount at someone else’s expense. And their lyrics didn’t even touch on the child labor that goes into so many of our goods.
It’s all too easy to say – I can’t help this or change the system. It’s easy to ignore it and shrug. It’s easy to go for the bargain and forget the reality behind it.
It’s hard to acknowledge our own involvement in false balances or selling the sweepings, especially when we had no intention to harm anyone, and had nothing to do with designing the system, at least not in any conscious way.
It’s important to recognize that there are things we can do. We can find out which companies use child labor, or manufacture in sweatshops, or abuse their employees. We can refuse to buy their products. We can choose to pass up bargains that clearly pass the expense to someone else. Or we can buy all the bargain goods offered by the worst companies around and donate the difference to an organization fighting for human rights or fair labor practices abroad. We can write letters of protest. We can buy fair trade coffee, chocolate, or hand made items.
It seems clear that in both the Old and New Testament lessons we are being told that we are accountable for our actions, both large and small. We are responsible for choosing each day what actions we will take: how we will spend our time, our talent and our money. Our life as Christians is not just measured on Sunday morning, but on all seven days of the week.
This week I hope you’ll ask yourself two questions: What are my assets? – and not just in terms of money. How am I using them? This is not meant as an exercise in guilt, but rather an opportunity for growth. If you don’t like the answers you get, you can make changes. You might also ask yourself, seriously, if it is possible to be wealthy without having shortchanged someone else?
Several years ago I read an article by Sister Rita Steinhagen, who was in prison for protesting the School of the Americas, a federal facility that trained Latin American soldiers, who so often ended up acting as death squads in their home countries. She closed the article with this blessing prayer:
“May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you will live deep in your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people and the earth, so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer, so you will reach out your hand to comfort them and change their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so you will go forth and do the things which others say cannot be done.”