by Bekki Lohrmann
Hear this, you who trample on the needy…
This is a harsh word from the prophet Amos. Using broad-brush strokes he paints a picture of humanity. He paints a picture of people who step on the poor in order to climb the ladder of success. He sketches the contours of figures who try to make a buck off of anything, even the sweepings of the wheat. He draws for us a reality where we claw and scratch our way to the top, using any means necessary to get to get there.
Amos draws this picture about the chosen people of God. A people stuck, entrenched in a mentality of self-interest, self-preservation and self-defense.
As I hear these words of Amos, I feel like Clyde Green, an old man in my senior citizen Bible study on internship would say… “Sometimes, it seems like nothing has changed.”
We’ve all experienced the world that Amos is describing. We live in a world where it’s perfectly acceptable to buy a pair of shoes for cheap at the expense of the factory workers in Bangledesh who made them, all the while making pittance for a wage. We live in a world where it’s normal to buy food at a low cost because it was tilled by immigrant workers who are threatened on every side by laws and regulations that leave them high and dry. The other night in constructive theology the senior class looked our country’s history of lynching. We probed our history of victimizing, raping, pillaging, of trampling. We looked at post cards that were made by white southerners showing pictures of mutilated, black bodies hanging from trees with white men, women, and children huddled around, smiling…proud, like cats, of their latest kill. We are a culture who has been tragically fooled into eating and serving up the sweepings of the wheat, thinking we’re making out good.
The picture that Amos paints for us is one where the characters are static, unchanging, entrenched. As we see our own story within his accusation, we recognize our own stagnation and ask ourselves, “Will we ever become more than those who trample?”
We recognize this same world when we flip the page to meet the shrewd manager and his rich master. When we meet these two, entirely baffling characters, a relationship unfolds that is completely utilitarian. The manager has been ratted out for squandering his master’s wealth, the master asks him to give an account of his poor performance and then gives him the boot. That’s just good business.
But the end of the story does not jive with the beginning. The rules of business are tweaked and somewhere along the lines, this static world goes live and becomes dynamic. The characters become wily and wiggly and we can’t pin them down.
It's an incredibly difficult parable to understand.
But here’s what we do know:
We know that when the manager is up against the wall, his response is to do the same thing that got him in trouble in the first place…to squanders some more wealth…probably his own and his master’s.
However, we also know that all of a sudden, this act of squandering is commended as shrewd, or translated differently…this act is commended as wise. The master affirms it as good business. One minute its bad business, the next its commendable.
We know that one of these characters is consistent and unchanging. And one is inconsistent. The manager begins the story as a squanderer and ends it as a squanderer. The master, on the other hand, flips a switch and embraces the squandering half way through.
The story begs the question: What in the world was going on in the mind of that rich master to initiate such a radical change? I mean, come on, this room full of seminarians, staff and professors knows full well from our systems theory that change takes time…a lot of time…in a congregation- we’re talking up to 5-7 years worth of time… so what are we to make of this bizarre change of heart by the master?
What I can say to this question is this: we live in a static world, where all the characters seem to be moving in the same direction…up, up, up…trample, trample, trample. But there are characters who come along and match our consistency, but they’re moving in the opposite direction and they challenge the system. They have the power to create enough friction to break through and open our eyes…transforming us from life in a static world, to life in a dynamic world where the plot is not so nicely tied up, but where characters finally come to life.
Maybe the rich master was entranced by the movement of the manager who, when backed up against the wall, opened his hands and slashed debts rather than jack up the price. Maybe he was entranced by the manager’s risk of losing himself, and his confidence that this loss would somehow lead him to being found? Maybe he recognized that this manager was operating out of a different set of rules, and when comparing and contrasting the manager’s rules to his own, he recognized that the end of his rules would land him alone, atop a pile of money and the trampled poor. And his manager’s rules landed him in an eternal home, eating oh so much more than the sweepings of the wheat.
Jesus is blowing the door open to the possibility that we might come alive and become dynamic characters, transformed by an encounter with him, with the one who consistently and persistently squandered his life, giving it over to an angry mob that would hang him on a tree.
Jesus is pointing us to a reality that centers on the wisdom of the kingdom, the good business of God’s realm, which looks like squandering to this world…
There are characters in our lives who every so often come along and upset the static nature of our existence. We like to tell the stories of these people here at LSTC. And to be honest, these are the stories that I cling to…
One story that gets told an awful lot here is the story of Martin Luther King Jr. This year alone, in just four weeks of classes, I have watched part of Martin’s story in a movie for constructive theology, I have read about him in Cone’s, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”, I have studied pieces of his own writing and theology in my ethics class and we even heard a piece of his writing in chapel just this past Monday.
The story of Martin King is a story that mimics this squandering manager. As Martin and his fellow black Americans were pushed up against the wall, in a culture obsessed with white supremacy, in a culture that had been trampling black people for years…Martin King opened his hands and began squandering his words, his actions, his life. The security that he could have had if he’d have just kept his head down, he squandered. The home he had acquired… squandered as a bomb landed on his front porch. The long life he could have lived, he gave up knowing that his persistent squandering would get him killed.
In a utilitarian world, where people are a means to an end and where the goal is ME and my personal success…King’s life looked like squandering.
But through such action, our static country, full of lynchers, rapists, pillagers and tramplers was cracked open and took on a new, dynamic existence. It’s been wily and wiggly and hard to pin down since, but because of this historical, squandering steward, history was opened up and a new reality was possible for this country.
The gospel story for today is confusing. Its maddeningly difficult…but it’s a story where the characters are no longer stuck or entrenched. They are no longer people who trample. It’s a story about a manager who squanders his life and his boss's money and is received into the homes of others. And a master whose encounter with this manager changes him from a static character to a dynamic one.
Jesus told this story to his disciples, to those walking with him, day in and day out, to those studying his words and actions. And the message they got was, watch out…getting wrapped up in this story means strange things are going to happen. There WILL be plot twists. As this world meets God’s reign there is going to be friction and its going to transform us from static poor trampling, bottom feeding wheat eaters…to dynamic characters, who join together in the eternal homes, or maybe even this big black, window filled school, sharing together in a real meal…Like the rich master, we can come alive. Amen.