SJF • Proper 20 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.+
In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, the prophet Amos describes a stampede of greedy merchants who are ready to trample on the needy. So eager are they to sell their wares that they can hardly wait for the new moon to be over or the Sabbath to end, so that they can offer their goods for sale. And even once they begin to sell, they cheat — with false measures and false weights, and doctoring their grain with the sweepings off the floor.
This short passage evokes many memories for me. The first, brought to mind by the verse about the sweepings of the wheat, is of my grandmother’s refusal ever to buy tea in tea-bags — she would only buy loose tea — because she insisted that the people who made tea-bags only used the sweepings off the floor instead of good quality tea. I can vividly recall her shaking her head and clucking her tongue at this minor villainy by the tea-merchants of the world. So it was always loose tea in her home! The irony is that she really didn’t drink that much tea, and far preferred coffee. And the further irony is that the brand of coffee she preferred was actually a mix of coffee and chicory — which itself was originally a root roasted by those who couldn’t afford coffee, and later as a cheap way to stretch your coffee budget! My grandmother, it seems, rejected one economical adulteration only to embrace another.
Second, and more importantly, I have lived in New York long enough to remember the day when stores decided to remain open on Sunday; under the Blue Laws dating back to colonial times — and I don’t go back quite that far! — the merchants were not allowed to trade on the sabbath; fancy that! It was in the early 70s that one of the big department stores — I think it was Macy’s — until then like all stores except pharmacies closed on Sunday, announced that they would be open for half a day on Sunday. The other department stores expressed indignation — but they quickly followed suit — and shirt, and tie, and a second pair of pants! In very short order all of the stores were open on Sunday; and not just for half a day, either. And now, 40 years later, you will even find liquor stores open on Sunday — the last of the old Blue Laws has faded like a pair of old jeans, colorless and threadbare, and torn at the knees — and I can guarantee you not from praying.
The third memory I have is not of merchants but of customers — not sellers but buyers. And here it turns really serious: a matter of life and death. It is the image of that crowd of over-eager shoppers who trampled someone to death a few years ago when a big Costco or Wal-Mart opened its doors for a sale — in this case it wasn’t the merchants who were in a stampede, but the customers trampling on each other — you would have thought they were refugees in flood-ravaged Pakistan fighting over a bag of rice, to see those people desperate to get the latest sale item off those well-stocked shelves in the big box store.
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Now, what do all of these — from the prophet’s curse on wicked merchants, through my grandmother’s rather milder distaste for the cheapness of the tea-companies, to the impatient sabbath-breaking retailers, and the mad rush of customers trampled and trampling in that big box store— have in common? The key is our gospel text, which speaks to the impossibility of trying to serve two masters, and that pointed aphorism, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The way I pose the question today is, Who is your master? By “master” I don’t man a literal slave-owner — though some of the forces at work in this fallen world can practically enslave us if we let them. What I’m getting at is, “Who or What controls your life?” What person or institution or entity do you find yourself spending your time serving? “Whom do you serve?” Let’s look at the examples I cited earlier.
Starting with the Scripture: the wicked merchants cursed by Amos are only interested in serving themselves. They care nothing for the poor, from whom they will squeeze the last penny they can get, and sell them adulterated goods at that. They worship at the shrine of the false god wealth, or to use the old Aramaic name, Mammon. Surely, the true God, holy and righteous, will never forget their deeds, as Amos says, nor forget whom they chose to serve instead of God.
And my grandmother, God bless her, whom did she serve with her somewhat unreasonable belief that tea in bags was necessarily inferior to tea in a tin, or that coffee dosed with chicory was better than coffee pure and simple. Was she a slave to these mistaken notions, these fears of being cheated, and by paying a premium price both for tea and supposedly “fancy” French coffee (which was really part coffee and part chicory, and went back to the days of the Franco-Prussian war when the French couldn’t get coffee imports and so roasted the roots of chicory plants instead) in the long run wasn’t she only serving the tea and coffee companies?
And those department stores that first dared to break the Sabbath — of course they might have said they were merely serving their customers; of which they certainly had plenty! But weren’t they in fact serving themselves, by creating more opportunities to reach into the pockets of those customers? Remember, the classic pitch of the con-artist or the scammer isn’t, “I can help you” but rather “You can help me. I need your help.” As indeed you can, if you fall for the scam-artist who tells you she is a poor widow stuck with millions of dollars from her late husband in Ivory Coast and needs your help to transfer the funds!
And what of those who trample each other to death in that mad rush in the big-box store? Who were they serving but the merchants, almost literally human sacrifices to the great god Discount, the golden calf of the cut-rate special — and that cost-cutting yellow Smiley Face begins to look more and more like a leering skull smiling down on the chaos and rampage below?
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“Whom do you serve?” You cannot serve both God and money, God and wealth, Jesus assures us, as a simple statement of fact. A life fixed on bargains, a life spent worrying and being anxious about the things that are passing away, as the collect says: attaching your heart to the things that are passing away; a life spent worrying, “am I being cheated,” even worse a life spent cheating in order to amass gain at the expense of others, or being so cheated, or so set on capturing the last toy on the shelf or the biggest flat-screen TV that you don’t care that you crush another person to death under your feet — what kind of life is that? Whom do you serve? Who is your master?
Ask yourself that question every day of your life, every step of your journey. Whom do you serve, who is your master? Whom do you serve with all your heart and mind and soul and strength? Into whose hands do you want to commit your life, your future, and your hopes? To whom do you owe your very life, your soul, your being, and your strength? Such a one is worthy of your service, and will, at the end of days welcome you, you who have been faithful, even in little things, into the eternal homes.+