An extract from a sermon based on Amos 8.4-7 & Luke 16.1-13 (Principal service lectionary for Year C, Proper 20)
In the book of Amos we read a depressing tale of social injustice. Writing over two and a half thousand years ago, he paints a picture of a society distressingly like our own.
There is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor:
The rich live lives of idle decadence, building themselves big houses, taking bribes to pervert the course of justice.
The poor are brought to ruin and the needy are trampled.
What would Amos have made I wonder, of the bedroom tax? What would he have said about tax cuts for the wealthiest at the same time as benefit cuts for the poorest?
The Ephah was a measure for grain, so to make it small was to sell short measure. The shekel was a measure used to weigh out the silver or gold offered to buy goods so to make it great was to overcharge.
Amos would have recognised the tax-evasion of big corporations, the expenses swindling of MPs, and the bonuses for bankers whose failures were paid for by the public.
Then while the Israelite rulers and the wealthy pay lip service to the Sabbath, they actually resent the interruption to their own enrichment. The commandment which was intended as compassionate and life-giving – a chance for everyone to get proper rest, and time with loved ones – is under pressure.
So in our day, Sunday opening and 24 hour availability become the norm, with pressure to remove even the few remaining regulations. And those who suffer will be the poorest, who need the money, and whose health and relationships will suffer.
What would Amos have said about zero-hours contracts, and mandatory unpaid work for the unemployed?
Israel is a society which has lost touch with what should be binding it together, and is disintegrating into a heap of squabbling individuals all out for what they can get, by any means at their disposal.
It’s a society which has turned its back on God and put something else in his place. The symbol of this may have been the golden calf, but the reality of it was the quest for personal enrichment at the expense of others, especially the poor and powerless. They were serving money, not God.
Which brings us to our Gospel passage. If we read it too hastily, it might sound as if Jesus wants us to be like the dishonest manager.
But Jesus is not condoning the manager’s behaviour. The master commended the manager for being crafty, but even then didn’t give him his job back!
Jesus most certainly does not want his followers to be dishonest, and makes this patently clear elsewhere.
Once again the story is about trying to replace human, compassionate relationships with money. To replace covenant with contract. To reduce others to simply means to an end.
Jesus’ point here is that we must choose what is most important in our lives, because it’s impossible to serve both God and wealth. Even there we need to be careful: Jesus isn’t saying that wealth is bad. What he’s saying is it’s how we use our wealth that is important.
If we are slaves to our wealth, we will be seeking to increase it. Doing that will drag us away from God: it will lead us to neglect our human relationships and our own wellbeing for the sake of money.
We will find ourselves under pressure to make the ephah small, the shekel great, and to sell the sweepings of the wheat. We will lose touch with the human need for rest, and find our compassion for the unfortunate ebbing away.
If we have money, says Jesus, we should use it to buy things that last. Of course, we know that money can’t buy love, and so did Jesus. What he means is that the attitude of heart which treats money as a means to help others is pleasing to God.
If we faithfully serve God with our money, recognising that it is a gift from him, then he will faithfully give us a much more important treasure – his eternal life.
We can’t have it both ways: we must choose between being slaves to wealth, or to God.
Amos warns the people of Israel that their choices will all come crashing down on them, as indeed happened when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in the year 721BC.
There may not be an Assyrian empire waiting to sweep down and take us into exile, but when the unemployed, the disabled, the asylum seeker and poor are demonised by government and media, and systematically disadvantaged by regulation, our society is damaged far more than by military attack.
When people forget that they belong to God and each other, and instead enslave themselves to wealth, things fall apart and there’s no sense of common purpose to pull them back together.