September 22, 2013

Proper 20, Year C

Amos 8:4-7

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

I'd like to say that I always get instinctively and passionately angry about injustice, just like the prophet Amos.  In today's first reading, Amos has severe warnings for all of the people who "trample on the needy" and who lead the poor into ruin.

But if I'm really honest with myself, the place where I connect most with Amos is his fury at the small ways that merchants deceive their customers.  If I'm brutally honest, almost nothing gets me more personally and viscerally angry than getting ripped off.  I wonder what Amos would say about the tricks and traps of the 21st-century marketplace.

For example, what's the modern equivalent of selling "the sweepings of the wheat"?  In the eighth century BC, some merchants would mix inedible chaff in with the edible part of the grain that they were selling.   Today, I suppose that a bag of wheat mixed with chaff is like a bag of potato chips that's mostly air, or a jar of mixed nuts that's mostly peanuts, or a pint of berries that look great on the top layer but are all moldy underneath.  Some food manufacturers and distributors do a great job of passing off sweepings as wheat.  

We also have modern equivalents to a practice that Amos calls "mak[ing] the ephah small and the shekel great."  An "ephah" was a unit of volume, and a shekel was a unit of money.  Using a false measure, merchants would misrepresent the volume of goods they were selling—offering less product and making more money.  

It's no different today, of course.  One infuriating example is shampoo or hand soap bottles that look a certain size, but maybe the bottle is hollowed out underneath, so that it appears to hold more than it does.  Worst of all, the hand-pump dispenser is too short to get out the last ounce or so of soap.  You just got sold less than you'll actually be able to use.

I recently had this experience of misrepresented volume with a bag of chocolate chips.  The label said that a serving size was a quarter cup, and that there were "approximately" eight servings in the package.  So, you'd expect the bag to have 2 cups of chocolate chips.  But really, it had just one-and-three-quarters of a cup, leaving my cookies less chocolaty than I wanted them to be.  That's the kind of thing that I'm sure would get Amos really fired up if he were prophesying today.

In all seriousness, there is a commonality between practices that result in trace amounts of stinginess and practices that drive people slowly but surely into poverty and debt.  Their root is the same: deception.  And Amos directs his prophetic wrath against those who "practice deceit using false balances."  People who used false balances—or who tampered with their scales—were rigging an economic system in their favor.

It's very hard to defend ourselves against deceptive techniques in our contemporary marketplace, even when you try to do the right thing.  I found myself up against a system that I couldn't fight a few years ago when I was incorrectly charged a credit card fine of $30.  In the scheme of things, $30 won't drive me into destitution . . . but I was still furious.  The bank that issued the credit card couldn't remove the charge, because an entirely separate company manages their credit cards.  That company doesn't allow you to contact customer service by phone.  You have to mail them a written complaint.  I sent a letter, and a few months later I got a form letter that didn't respond to any of my questions and objections.  It just said that the $30 had been "properly charged."  There was nothing I could do without a lawyer, and those cost just a bit more than $30.  If only I had had a prophet.

I admit that I'm definitely not among the needy and the poor who Amos defends.  None of my run-ins with an exploitative marketplace have trampled me or brought me to ruin.  These examples come from my own middle-class context.  But they are my starting point for connecting with the anger that Amos feels on behalf of others.  

Most of us can connect at some level with the anger that Amos directs at a world that rips people off, driving some of them deep into debt and destitution.  And our gospel this morning speaks even more directly to where most of us are: somewhere in the middle.  

The gospel today is about someone in middle-management.  He manages the property of his rich master, and he distributes goods and takes payment from several of the rich man's debtors.  Unfortunately, the manager in today's gospel is doing a pretty bad job.  Maybe he's not keeping accurate, up-to-date records.  Maybe he's not sending invoices on time.  Maybe he's skimming too much off the top for himself.  In any case, the master finds out that the manger has been "squandering his property," and he says to the manager, "Give me an accounting of your management."

The manager's response is shrewd, calculating, and self-protective.  Since he's going to be fired, he immediately makes plans for his future.  He isn't strong enough for physical labor, and he would be too humiliated to beg.  So, he decides to make friends with all of his boss's debtors so that they'll take him in when he loses his job.  For the man who owes a hundred jugs of olive oil, the manager reduces the debt to fifty.  For the man who owes a hundred containers of wheat, the manager reduces the debt to eighty.

Here's how the manager changes his life and his fate: he reverses his sense of who he is ultimately accountable to.  Instead of worrying about giving an accounting to his master, he tries to cut a good deal for his master's debtors.  By reversing our own sense of who we're accountable to, we can change our own lives as well as the social structures that reward deception.

Sometimes, we get used to understanding ourselves as accountable to someone who is superior to us: our bosses and supervisors, our boards of directors, our coaches and teachers, our donors and shareholders, and even our God.  But in the kingdom of God, we're ultimately accountable to those we serve—our students and employees, our clients and customers, our friends and families, our neighbors in need, our God in Christ, and Christ in the poor and imprisoned and hungry and thirsty.  

The manager in today's gospel may be shrewd and calculating, but he realizes who he's accountable to—who holds the key to his future.  On the one hand, this is just good business.  Many wise managers know that when you excel in customer service, the results are often positive by worldly standards.

But this message is not only good business; it's also integral to the gospel's good news.  Jesus tells us, "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."  In other words, figure out who we are ultimately accountable to, and invest there for eternal returns.

Our economic structure and our consumer society is full of outrages.  Some of these injustices touch our lives directly; others do not.  But no matter where we locate ourselves in that economic structure, we all have a place in the kingdom of God.  And as inhabitants of the kingdom of God, we're ultimately accountable not to our masters, but to the needy, to the poor, and to the indebted.  Amos prophesies this.  The gospel proclaims it.  It's not just good business.  It's also the good news.