Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
making the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver.
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Amos is telling it like it is. Amos came to the northern Kingdom of Israel because God had sent him. Life was great in Israel at the time. One might think that the king’s wealth and the lack of political conflicts implied God’s satisfaction with King Jeroboam II’s leadership. Jeroboam II lived in a palace in Samaria, reflecting the wealth and success of his leadership in bringing stability back to Israel. Yet, Amos came into his midst declaring that his palace of ivory carvings and inlays was to perish because of the social ills that this prosperity had brought to the land. For all of the prosperity there is injustice. The king has not taken care of God’s chosen people and their needs. Amos lets Jeroboam II know of these injustices before he declares God’s judgment upon Israel. But is sure sounds like it could be today…
The Mortgage Crisis with subprime predatory loans that were too good to be true, investors bilked out of their money by schemes fraudulently set up, companies that do anything to make sure they have their profits, (NY Times article) such as investment firms buying nursing homes to make a nice profit by cutting staff and programs, at the cost of the lives of those in the nursing homes…
Amos’ words are hard, they are tough, but they are as true then as they are today, with the rich richer and the poor poorer. God does not like our schemes, God will remember them and we are challenged to remember those in need and not to place our trust in wealth and status. Even in the hard parable that we heard today in the Gospel of Luke, we are told not to place our trust in material things.
Jesus talks about a dishonest manager in his parable, and at first the dishonesty seems to be OK with Jesus. But what is Jesus really getting at in this parable? Isn’t honesty a good thing? Think about the parable: A manager is summoned to his master who has found out that he is squandering his property. He is fired by the master but first he must make an accounting. The manager then meets with those who owe a debt to the master, he lowers their debt one by one, not because they have been over billed but he is reducing his take in their debts that he legally could take as a manager, a type of service fee. He lowers the costs to get in good with the debtors. And it works. The debtors are happy and so is the master. The master commends the manager for what he has done. So what are we to make of this parable?
I don’t think the question that Jesus asks and answers in this parable is about the manager. The manager’s dishonesty is not the point of the parable. Jesus seems to turn everything upside down by having this manager praised for acting shrewdly and commended as something for the children of light (his followers) to do, but there is more to it.
The manager acts to save himself, to be welcomed by others after he is thrown out of the master’s house. But he does it by cutting his take, his fee, so others would look upon him favorably. The possessions, the money he could make from the debts are no longer given priority. He has had a change of heart, and I think that is one message within this parable; the change of heart over possessions. He acts shrewdly by changing and making the debtors happy.
The children of light (the disciples of Jesus) need to worry less about possessions and to act more shrewdly with them, for they are mere things. Jesus has talked a lot about possessions in the Gospel of Luke and it is summed up by the last line from today’s Gospel: you cannot serve God and wealth.
Now, it almost sounds as if Jesus is telling the parable today with predatory lenders and others who are interested in profit over people, only to be called to account for their misdeeds & criminal acts. But if we are honest with ourselves, really honest, we know that is also true of us. We often put our wealth, our possessions, our status, many things in front of our Love of God, and in front of things that really matter in our lives.
I think of the movie The Family Man with Nicolas Cage, who as the movie begins is a successful businessman in investments but two days before the big merger, he wakes up to a new life. It is the road he didn’t travel, where he didn't leave his college girlfriend for a London trip. Now he's married to her, he and Kate, live in Jersey with their two kids, and is a tire salesman at Big Ed's. Everything has changed. At first, he doesn’t like this new life, but over time, he realizes how much he has missed out on by pursuing his career over relationships. We get ourselves in trouble when we buy into the images that say we have to do this or that to keep our status, our wealth, our possessions…what this society thrives on…like Nicholas Cage’s character.
Jesus tells us that we can’t serve two masters because he knows we can’t do it. We will fail. And the one thing that will be sacrificed is God, not the tangible things that are about us. Amos challenged Jeroboam and Jesus challenges the Pharisees and us. Jesus said, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Jesus challenges us to have our hearts centered on God, for our God who is love we lead us to greater joy than we could imagine. And our salvation belongs to God & not to anything here on earth. And we start with an honest look at ourselves. By seeing the role of God in our lives, and making sure God is not on the sidelines, but God is in the midst of our lives. It will take prayer. It will take effort to strive against the stuff all around us that tells us what success is & how to live our lives. And it will take time, for our lives will be filled with greater meaning, and a greater wholeness than we can imagine, if we look to God.
It reminds me of a verse from an 8th Century poem, that we often sing as a hymn, Be thou My Vision, and the verse says this…
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Be thou mine inheritance now and always;
Be thou and only the first in my heart;
O Sovereign of heaven, my treasure thou art.
Are we willing to change, to put our possessions in their proper place so to please and be faithful to our God, the first in our heart? For when we place God first in our hearts, when our treasure is not our possessions but our relationship with God, then we will be made complete and everything else in our lives, all of our relationships, will fall into line. Amen.