This week was the Country Time fall festival at church (we served 850 meals!), so there were only two worship services instead of the usual three.
The texts for this week are Luke 16:1-13 and Amos 8:4-7, as well as Psalm 113 for Sunday’s service.
Today’s readings are a good illustration of a simple fact about the Bible. Some parts are much easier to understand than others! This parable from Jesus about a dishonest, scheming manager is confusing. I’ve studied a lot of interpretations of it this week.
It could be about an oppressive practice of charging interest; it could be about a stereotype in Jewish literature of praising trickster figures. I’d love to hear your interpretations, because I think it’s one of the most confusing stories Jesus ever told!
The Amos reading, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. Last week, I began the sermon by asking how you might explain God, and we talked about God seeking out the lost. This week, we learn that God cares about justice.
Much of the Bible is concerned with the just treatment of the least of these. Several times recently, we’ve heard Jesus talk about paying special attention to those who are poor, crippled, lame, or blind. These are people the world says are not valuable. Our society says they don’t matter, that their voices don’t need to be heard. But throughout the Bible, we hear that God has a different idea. God says that all people matter.
Like we learned last week, God cares even for one missing sheep, for one lost coin. God seeks out those who are lost, who are suffering, those who are oppressed, or alone.
In Psalm 113, we hear that God is the one who raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap. The Lord gives the barren woman a home. These people, the ones that our world overlooks, God sees. God cares about justice.
What do you know about the book of Amos? Probably not much. It’s not one most people read a lot. Maybe we should, though.
Amos was a prophet during a time of prosperity for the kingdom of Israel. The farms were producing, and many were prospering. But people were starting to value money more than God, trusting in their wealth.
And when you start to trust in wealth, you realize that you don’t have enough of it. There’s never enough wealth to be satisfied.
So the rich got richer, and they mistreated the poor. They forgot about justice and treating others right, and instead only worried about getting wealthier.
Along comes Amos, who sees the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and he writes, “Hear this, you who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
These are people who are supposedly religious, and they celebrate the religious festivals, but not sincerely. In Jewish tradition at that time, the last day of the month was celebrated as a Sabbath day.
The point of a Sabbath day is for everyone to have a day of rest and worship, but it was also established as a tool for justice.
On a Sabbath day, no one works, not even the poor laborers. Having a Sabbath gives those who need it most a chance to breathe. It’s sad how much we’ve lost this Sabbath tradition.
Amos points out that for the rich, though, the Sabbath is an obstacle for their money-making. Instead of looking to help the poor as God desires and commands, they ask “When will the new moon – the end-of-month rest day – be over, so that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?”
There’s still a challenge to us today in this. Look at who has to work on the Sabbath in our society. Of course, we always need some people, like police, medical professionals, caregivers, and others to be at work around the clock, every day.
But other than that, look who else is working. Often it’s the poor, those who can’t afford to not work. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be able to have a job with vacation time, regular hours, and fair pay.
These aren’t problems that are easy to fix, but pay attention and notice who is exploited. We’ve come a long way since Amos’s day, yet love of money remains our biggest problem.
Amos goes on to accuse the rich of only caring only about money and profit, so much so that they’re willing to cheat. People are often at their most creative when money and profit are at stake.
They say, “We will make the ephah small, and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.” In a society based on trading, measures are really important. The only way fair trade happens if everyone knows how much a shekel is.
Today, we deal with this through government regulations, and say what you want about big government, I do appreciate the government checking that weights and measurements are accurate. When you go to the gas station, you can see the little sticker stating that the pump was checked by the Iowa Weights and Measures bureau. We need to know when we pay for a gallon of gas, we get a gallon of gas. Selling a bushel of corn only works if you can trust that you’re not being cheated on the size of a bushel.
That’s what these people in Amos’s day are doing. They’re looking for more ways to cheat the poor, because they don’t see them as people, but as profit sources.
And God doesn’t approve. Amos comes to give a warning, to call for the nation to repent. Within just a few decades of Amos speaking against these practices, the northern kingdom of Israel will fall to the Assyrian empire. Their actions have consequences.
This selfishness, only looking out for themselves rather than caring about the fortunes of their neighbors, ultimately leads to their downfall.
Does any of this sound familiar? Any of this sound like life today?
In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells this confusing parable about a corrupt manager who steals from his master, then comes up with a plan to save himself when he’s caught and getting fired. We miss some of the context of this story because it’s tied up in Jewish laws about charging interest and cultural differences, but the last verse, verse 13, is pretty clear.
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The old translation of this is you cannot serve both God and mammon. That old word “Mammon” means a personification of money, sort of the god of wealth. I think there’s something to that. Wealth can become a god.
The way we use our money reveals where our loyalties lie, what our priorities really are.
I heard an idea for a new funeral practice this week. Instead of reading the obituary at a funeral, maybe the pastor should start the funeral sermon by reading the dead person’s checkbook register out loud. That ought to reveal something about the way someone lived, right?
Of course, I would never do it, because God doesn’t value a person based on their actions, but isn’t it an interesting idea?
At the end of his story, Jesus comments that the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. What if we put as much energy into our relationship with God as we do into making money?
Now, the issue here is not that money itself is bad. Amos doesn’t say to stop buying and selling in the market, he just says to do it fairly. Elsewhere, we’ll read that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself, that’s just a tool, but the love of money.
Money can be used to do all kinds of good, as well as evil. What if we put as much creativity into how we use money to help the poor as these people do into finding ways to defraud them?
This weekend, we’re having this great big Country Time festival to raise money, so that we as a church can use it for good. I hope we can find ways to give much of that money away. Even though it’s a fundraising dinner, I really hope we wouldn’t turn away anyone who comes just needing a meal.
Don’t mishear me and think God will love you more if you give a bigger offering, or buy more Country Time raffle tickets or anything like that. This isn’t about that. Amos isn’t talking about salvation here. This is about how we live, how we spend our lives, our resources, and our time. Are we concerned about those in need?
God cares about justice, and protecting the poor. This should be a challenge to us today.
I trust you’re not counting down the minutes until the end of worship so you can go cheat someone, but I do hope this reading challenges you, maybe even makes you a little uncomfortable. It certainly challenges me.
Holy God, you care for each one of your people. You have given us unimaginable gifts. Show us how you would have us use our time and our resources to serve you and to bless our neighbors and all who are in need.
Remind us again and again what you have done for us, that our security and ultimate hope is in you, not in anything we do or own. Thank you for claiming us through baptism as your people, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord we pray.