Amos 8:11-13 – Not Just Some

We all do better when we all do better.

“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
    “when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
    but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it.

“In that day the lovely young women and strong young men
    will faint because of thirst.
(New International Version)

Global Ears

Christians are presently in the season of Eastertide. It is a time of celebrating resurrection and new life… for all, not just some.

A Christian vision of the world is concerned with the common good of all persons, not just some. God is concerned for the entire planet, not just some of it. The Lord calls people from everywhere, all nations, every ethnicity and race of humanity, not just some.

Somewhere along the line, the people of God began hearing God’s voice, as if it were Charlie Brown’s teacher just saying, “Blah, blah… blah, blah.” Smug in their positions of power, and ever-expanding in their desire for more money and possessions, they stopped up their ears to the cries of the poor, needy, and indigent surrounding them.

Self-Centered Ears

Whenever we cease listening to others, we then construct stories in our heads about why they’re the way they are. “The poor? I’ll tell you why they are poor,” says the person with no significant interaction with anyone struggling in poverty. “Those people are lazy. They don’t like to work. They’re only looking for a free handout. Well, believe you me, they aren’t getting a thing from me! I work hard for what I have,” the satisfied person insists.

Then, with a callous disregard for who and what is right under their noses, the privileged person turns to his wife and says, “What’s for supper?” Food aplenty. Clothing galore. Fresh water with no worries. And no thought to helping fellow humanity with even the dignity of listening to the poor person’s plight.

And God will have none of it from the smug self-justifying person. There won’t be a famine of food. It will be a famine of God’s voice, God’s Word. Those who do not listen will not be listened to.

Individualist Ears

For four-hundred years there was a famine of God’s Word, the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Holy Scripture. No voice from God. No divine words for anybody, not just some.

As a human community, what one person or one group of people do, effects everyone else. Our individualism doesn’t like that. We chafe at the thought that other people’s actions influence us.

As a young couple, my wife and I rented an apartment. When I contacted the utility company, they informed me I needed to put an exorbitant amount of money down to begin electrical service in our apartment. It turns out, an older gentleman lived alone in the apartment before us. The neighbors said he always kept all the lights on, and that he had high watt bulbs in everything.

So, when the electric company gave me a figure for a down payment, it was based on the apartment’s average usage over the past year. One man’s single solitary decision about lighting impacted a struggling young couple trying to get through school with a new baby in tow.

Just because we don’t see the impact of our decisions, doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

God sees them all. And he hears the cries of the poor who must fork out the precious little cash they have on things not of their own doing.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some.

Biblical Ears

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

Worshiping at the altar of capitalism or any other economic system is idolatry. Although I do not believe capitalism is inherently bad, it does have a shadow side to it which we need to see and acknowledge. Private ownership is a good thing. Yet, capitalism benefits only some, not all. We have class divisions and unequal access to goods and resources. A few control a lot. However, in the kingdom of God, all benefit, not just some.

Capitalist Ears

Capitalism is a good motivator to work. It is also the best motivator there is for greed. What’s more, people are viewed and treated more as commodities than human beings. We are not “giving units” to be exploited for our labor or our resources. We are persons. So, we need to be treated as such. Operating a sweat shop, failing to pay workers a living wage, and turning a blind eye to safety, just to make an extra buck, comes under the condemnation of Amos’ prophecy.

A capitalist approach really ends up bringing needless complexity and an exorbitant amount of goods and services, rather than a simple lifestyle which can care for people – instead of maintaining a bunch of stuff. The insatiable desire for more only causes deafness to both neighbor and God.

Common Good Ears

Our way of being together as one human family is vital. Even lovely young women and strong young men – people who have everything going for them – will be resource-less without any word from God. That is, unless we take the biblical prophets seriously. Then, perhaps we will squarely face our collective shadow side and seek the words of God so that we can love all our neighbors as ourselves, and not just some of them.

Do we have ears to hear?

Creator God of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. We ask for the grace to see the abundant resources of our world, to have enough awareness of the dark places of our hearts to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain. We intercede on behalf of every person who is hungry for earthly food and hungry for the Word of God. We pray in the name of our compassionate Savior who hears every cry, and not just some. Amen.

Amos 8:1-7 – A Prophet’s Perspective on the Powerful and the Poor

This is what the Almighty Lord showed me: a basket of ripe summer fruit.

He asked, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A basket of ripe summer fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “My people Israel are now ripe. I will no longer overlook what they have done. On that day, the songs of the temple will become loud cries,” declares the Almighty Lord. “There will be dead bodies scattered everywhere. Hush!”

Listen to this, those who trample on the needy
and ruin those who are oppressed in the world.
You say to yourselves,
“When will the New Moon Festival be over
so that we can sell more grain?
When will the day of rest—a holy day, be over
so that we can sell more wheat?
We can shrink the size of the bushel baskets,
increase the cost,
and cheat with dishonest scales.
We can buy the poor with money
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
We can sell the husks mixed in with the wheat.”

The Lord has sworn an oath by Jacob’s pride:
“I will never forget anything that they have done.” (God’s Word Translation)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them. The books of the prophets make it quite plain that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

“Extreme poverty anywhere is a threat to human security everywhere.”

Kofi Annan

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.

The bald fact of the matter is that few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

Oh, my, perhaps we have an answer as to why there is no revival in the land. God shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore him.  No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening.  For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all.  Amen.

James 2:8-13 – On Mercy and Against Favoritism

“Benevolent Mercy” by Iowa artist William Butler

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (NIV)

One of my bedrock foundational unshakable beliefs is that God’s big world spins on the axis of grace. Without grace we would all be living in some nightmarish dystopian novel just trying to survive. Grace is the force which overwhelms and overcomes everything. 

When I was growing up, we had a dog named Sam. Sam loved being on the farm. More than once he tussled with a skunk. In those times, I could barely get close enough to clean him up because he stunk so badly.  Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. God is going to clean us up when smelling the stench of discrimination on us.

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence the dog is running away from the bath of grace. To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice. Favoring the rich over the poor stinks because God cares about those trapped in poverty. When Jesus began his ministry, he lifted-up the importance of poor folk by placing himself in the position of extending grace to them:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18, NIV)

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor” because poverty was a pervasive reality (and still is!). The various reasons for poverty range from being born into poverty, being lazy, or being oppressed and/or in slavery. The types of poor persons run the gamut from simple beggars to the pious and humble poor.  These spiritual poor persons were called in biblical times the anawim” (Hebrew עֲנָוִ֣ים). The anawim are humble and gentle folk caught in grinding poverty with no other option but to put their trust in God.

The mistreatment, exploitation, and inattention to the needs of the poor are a chief reason why Holy Scripture is filled with references about how to treat them. The anawim are dear and near to the heart of God:

“Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, CEB)

“If you hire poor people to work for you, don’t hold back their pay whether they are Israelites or foreigners who live in your town. Pay them their wages at the end of each day because they live in poverty and need the money to survive. If you do not pay them on time, they will complain about you to the Lord, and he will punish you.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEV)

Listen to this, you who rob the poor
    and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
    and the religious festivals to end
    so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
    and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
    with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
    for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.

Now the Lord has sworn this oath
    by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
    the wicked things you have done!” (Amos 8:4-7, NLT)

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy by Unknown Dutch artist, 1580.

Nothing gets God’s hackles up more than unjust and unfair favoritism which is devoid of mercy and grace toward the poor. It all stinks to high heaven, and when God smells it, divine egalitarian power is not far behind.

It is the poor in spirit with no trust in stuff and ingenuity who will enter the kingdom of heaven. The humble person gives grace to another even though the person cannot offer something in return. It is easy to be merciful to people who have a deal with you about scratching each other’s backs. However, it is altogether a different thing to be gracious simply because it is the right thing to do and pleases the heart of God. 

God cares about the condition of our souls and not the balance of our bank accounts. Inattention to the poor and needy only betrays a heart of unjust favoritism – a materialistic heart full of greed. A 2012 Boston Globe article asked the following question: Does money change you?

The Globe article stated, “most people are convinced that gaining a lot of money … wouldn’t change who they are as people. Yet, a mounting body of research is showing, wealth can actually change how we think and behave—and not for the better. Rich people have a harder time connecting with others, showing less empathy to the extent of dehumanizing those who are different from them. They are less charitable and generous. They are less likely to help someone in trouble. And they are more likely to defend an unfair status quo. If you think you would behave differently in their place, meanwhile, you are probably wrong: These are not just inherited traits but developed ones. Money, in other words, changes who you are.”

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found in their research that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to view some groups of people as inferior to others.  Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate toward others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds. Their research concluded, “If you win the lottery and you want to avoid becoming an insensitive jerk, there is a simple solution: Give at least half the money away.” 

Some poor people, as in the days of the Apostle James, are willing to put up with being treated unfairly so they might get a piece of the rich person’s pie. Favoritism ignores the sin in others to gain something from them. God says that is stinking thinking.

Favoritism is flat out a violation of God’s law. The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God and love neighbor. Favoritism violates our neighbor, and therefore, is sinful disobedience of God. Any needy human we encounter is our neighbor – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, or anything that identifies them as different. They are to be helped when we can do so.

We are to speak and act with mercy because we will eventually have to face the Judge. God is always watching us – every word and every action. Judge Jesus will respond to how we have treated each person we encountered and how we talked about other people when they were not around. We will all appear before Christ at the end of the age and must give an account of ourselves. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Words are important, so they ought to be full of grace, seasoned with salt. Showing mercy instead of favoritism is the way love expresses itself.  Mercy is best given when we have first received it ourselves from God. A heart touched by the grace of the Lord Jesus is one which will stand in the judgment.

We rid ourselves of favoritism’s stench through the cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  There is grace available if we will receive it. God is the expert in transforming lives, renewing minds, and putting to death the pride of favoritism. The work is done with needed grace and compassionate mercy.

So, we are to make it our goal to be a grace-givers, to have willing hearts which seek to emulate the mercy of Christ. The bath of mercy and grace takes away the stank of prideful favoritism and leaves us with the sweet aroma of love, justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

May it be so to the glory of God.

Matthew 17:22-27 – Because We Can

When they came together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (NIV)

In ancient times, the Jerusalem Temple was designed to serve as the bridge between God and humanity. It was the place where God “came down” and accepted the offerings of the priests on behalf of the people. In Christian theology, Jesus came to this world to become the permanent bridge and the eternal temple.

Jesus saw himself as the ultimate connector who spans the great expanse between God and people. Christ ascended to heaven and gave the Spirit to his people, the Body of Christ. Basic Christian ecclesiology recognizes the Church (both individual Christians and the Church universal) as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth. Jesus, Spirit, and Church are inextricably bonded with divine superglue to engage in the mission of being God’s Temple – the place of connection between the human and the divine.

Jesus used the situation of a question asked about taxes and the Temple to speak and illustrate the value and import of connecting with both God and others.

Why did Jesus pay the temple tax?

A “drachma” was about a day’s wage. In the time of Christ, there was a two-drachma tax which was levied by the Jewish authorities on every male Jew between the ages of 20-50. The tax was implemented to support the temple building and all the services that went into it.

The temple tax was not compulsory, so typically, the tax collectors did not impose it on the poor – which is why the collectors asked Peter whether Jesus pays the tax or not, because Jesus was poor. Jesus paid the temple tax out of humility, even though he was exempt, so to not offend and cause unnecessary scandal. Said another way, Jesus and his disciples did not have to pay the tax but instead chose to use their freedom for the benefit of others.

There is freedom in Christ. Yet, because of love, and a focus on need instead of rights, we can choose to use our freedom to serve larger purposes than just our own interests. The Apostle Paul later framed it this way:

It is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:5-8, NIV)  

We exist to serve more than ourselves. God has purchased and adopted us through the death of Christ; we are now the Temple of the Spirit. We can emulate the Savior and choose humility to serve others. A logical question arises about all this: If I do this and focus on responsible service instead of rights, then how am I going to make ends meet?  Is any of this realistic or practical?

How did Jesus pay the temple tax?

Jesus cares about supplying needs. Jesus can and does take care of people who choose to give for the benefit of others. Jesus told Peter the fisherman to go out and fish. A crazy thing happened – Peter found not only a two-drachma coin to cover the annual tax but a four-drachma coin to cover both Jesus and Peter’s tax!  This was a powerful lesson about God’s abundant grace. 

As God’s people, we not only believe in the miraculous; we depend on miracles. We can bank on Jesus supplying our need. This is not a health and wealth gospel. Jesus was monetarily poor, so I am not sure how anyone can justify that God wants all believers to be financially rich.

There was once a man I knew who only had $100 to his name. He got to know another man who needed a suit for his job. The man with a $100 gave it all to the man who needed the suit. That man is alive and well today with all his needs met. He is not rich. However, he is quite happy. If we never need a miracle, we have never given of ourselves enough to need one.

Peter was a fisherman, so Jesus told him to fish and there was a miracle. Sometimes we might get the wrongheaded notion we must do something way outside of our given giftedness. God created each person with a unique intellect, abilities, and strengths and so, we are to use them to affect a miracle – just as Peter did.

We can have a big picture view of our shared humanity without narrow provincial views which are unable to see the vast scope of human need. And so, we can trust God to use us for divine purposes. We can exercise faith in the miraculous for both ourselves and others. We can embrace Christ’s mission in this world to such a degree that we would never consider living any other way. May we do it because we can.

God of all abundance and grace, help us to find firm ground in a shaky economy. Provide jobs for the unemployed; give us strength and peace when anxiety and worry come knocking; grant us patience when things look bleak; and, bring us the serenity of your presence so that we can do your will for the salvation of others through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.