When I was a journalism student at the University of Tennessee, I had this wonderful professor, Dr. Tony Spiva, for a class in macroeconomics, the study of how economics work on a national and international scale.
It sounds like a sleeper of a class when I describe it, but it was one of the highlights of my college education. Dr. Spiva had an illustration for every principle. Even today, when I think of monopolies I think of diamond mining in the 1970s and 1980s, and when I think of supply and demand I think of Sade records. (He pronounced her name SHAR-day, as in, “those SHAR-day records you all are buying.”)
In fact, Dr. Spiva made money and its impact on the world so exciting that I considered changing my major. I didn’t, but maybe now that I’m a pastor and, consequently, a theologian, I’m not that far from Dr. Spiva’s field of study.
After all, in our text today, the prophet Amos underlines that God seeks a holy economy. God looks to how we treat one another in the material world for evidence of what is in our hearts, and our creator then responds accordingly.
You may find economics a dry subject, even seemingly irrelevant, but it is one of the few worldly examples I can discuss that impacts every one of you every day. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, he kept a key message in mind, a message his adviser James Carville first wrote down: “The economy, stupid.” It was supposed to be an internal planning message, but it became a political mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In other words, remember the one issue affecting everyone.
On a large scale, economics heavily impact how well we live and how long we live. Of course God is interested in economics.
Amos speaks to the people of Israel at a time when there was great economic injustice. He begins with an image of a basket of summer fruit, something beautiful but very temporary, very perishable. Times can change quickly.
From there, he begins to predict disaster, all of it tied to how the people are treating one another as they go about the daily business of the world. In particular, he chastises the merchants.
Their hearts are so engrossed in profit they have come to not like the sabbaths and the religious feasts, the times set aside to draw closer to God rather than do business.
They cheat their customers with what amounts to tricky packaging and rigged scales, in the process exploiting the poor and needy. People have started seeing other people as commodities rather than human beings, and suffering has ensued.
The effects are to be quite terrible, Amos says. God will punish the land with famine, but not a famine of food or water. Instead, people will stop hearing from God, hungering for the word of God so much that they will go searching for God, but not find him.
It is an ancient situation, in this case one that happened thousands of years ago, but it also is a problem that crops up repeatedly throughout history. The people with primary control of a culture’s resources forget they are children of God, letting greed become their idol. And in the process, other people suffer, often from shortened lives.
The founder of Methodism, an Anglican priest named John Wesley, was a very vocal critic of the business practices in 18th century England. One example: He was deeply disturbed by the production of drinking liquor, but not for the reasons you might think. So much grain was being used for highly profitable liquor production that there was a shortage of grain to make bread and other basic food items. The price of these items went so high that poor people were starving to death in the alleyways.
A few years ago we as Americans actually made some similar economic decisions that had devastating effects globally. Many of those effects continue today. This is from the April 20, 2014 issue of Forbes:
In 2007, the global price of corn doubled as a result of an explosion in ethanol production in the U.S. Because corn is the most common animal feed and has many other uses in the food industry, the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, corn-based sweeteners and cereals increased as well. World grain reserves dwindled to less than two months, the lowest level in over 30 years.
Several world hunger groups began to report that people in the developing world, like people in Wesley’s day, were starving as the price of basic foods went out of the reach of their meager incomes.
Yes, Amos’ message is aimed at all of us. Certainly, if you run a business, you need to hear his words. Always consider God’s demand that we consider each other and care for each other as you make choices in how you do business.
If you’re a voter, ask the right questions of candidates and assess the answers in a godly way. Which policies promise life and love? Which candidates create fertile ground for the kingdom, and which candidates potentially poison the fields?
As a church member, be sure you’re doing all you can financially to help the church fulfill its mission to bring people into a growing relationship with Christ.
The early Methodists lived by what we call our General Rules. They are a good general guide for living, and they are certainly a good guide for participating in the economic world. They are:
- Do no harm. My own business experience causes me to think of the Enron scandal and the terrible damage it caused to individuals and the economy as a whole.
- Do good. In his sermon “The Use of Money,” John Wesley said: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” There is nothing wrong with providing for ourselves, our families and our ongoing enterprises, but we work and do business primarily to benefit God’s kingdom.
- Stay in love with God. (This is the modern way of saying Wesley’s third rule.) If we keep God before us, as our first and primary love, everything else will fall into place.
A prayer: God grant us holiness in all we do, and in particular in our economic lives, which have potential for either great good or great harm.
The featured image is William Powell Frith’s “Poverty and Wealth,” 1888.