It’s the Economy, Stupid

Amos 8:1-12

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Beatitudes II: Kingdom Desires

Matthew 5:1-12

Let’s continue with our series on the Beatitudes.

Remember a couple of key points: First, we’re seeing characteristics of citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Second, these aren’t really characteristics we can strive for; instead, we simply open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s work, what Methodists call his “sanctifying grace,” and we find ourselves more like those whom Jesus calls blessed.

The verses we’ll look at today have a lot to do with holy desires. What do citizens of the kingdom truly want?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Righteousness” isn’t too hard to understand. If something is righteous, it is aligned with God, approved by God. In understanding this verse, what the modern world has is a problem of context.

Jesus is describing a kind of hunger and thirst we seldom experience in developed nations. In his day, the typical worker was seldom getting enough calories. Clean water was scarce, too, and it was easy to end up in a situation where you could be without one or both for days.

He’s talking about desiring righteousness the way a dying man might want food or water. Nothing else takes precedence.

This understanding helps us grasp another difficult teaching, the “camel through the eye of a needle” story found in Matthew 19:23-26. It’s likely the rich young man’s possessions, which sheltered him from the typical experience of others, kept him from feeling the desire he really needed to feel to be a disciple of Jesus.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

To understand the concept of mercy, you also have to understand the underlying concepts for the Greek and associated Hebrew words. To show mercy, a person had to also have a deep sympathy for the motivations and situation of the person receiving mercy.

A science fiction example would be Counselor Troi on Star Trek, whose telepathic abilities let her actually feel another person’s emotions and motivations. The Bible isn’t science fiction, however. We don’t have telepathy, but we do have the Holy Spirit binding us together and enhancing our compassion for one another.

Again, we have to let the Holy Spirit work. We have to be patient; we have to listen, even when we’re really angry with someone. Showing mercy takes time.

And of course, we need to remember we are all recipients of mercy. Because God took on flesh and dwelled among us, even suffering like us, we are forgiven the sins that should result in eternal separation from God. We’re given eternity and asked to show a little temporal mercy to others in return.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

The idea of purity here is rooted in the concept of something unmixed: William Barclay uses examples of grain sifted of all its chaff, an army purged of the discontented and the cowardly, milk or wine unmixed with water, or a metal like gold with no “tinge of alloy.”

We of course are being called to be fully holy, our sin refined out of us. And of course, we cannot do it ourselves. Self-examination through prayer, study, worship and participation in the sacraments opens new aspects of our being to God.

Again, we’re talking about sanctification, God’s continuing work after we are saved, a concept Methodists love to emphasize.

The reward is particularly enticing. We see God now. We’re reminded again the kingdom is present now, that we live in eternity now, its joy available to us in this life.