September 18, 2016
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
Each one of us has an anxiety switch inside. It gets thrown when our worst fears meet up with our daily life, when something we have only feared in our dreams finally hits home. I know my anxiety switch is tripped when I look at my bank account and find a huge charge I wasn’t expecting. It can go off when we are worried about a loved one or when our connecting flight gets canceled. Anxiety crops up when we feel like we’ve lost control of a situation, as if we are simply being pushed around by circumstances rather than living life on purpose. Our response to anxiety can unfold in two opposing ways. On the one hand, we can run to God in trust and faith, believing in his promises. On the other hand, we can start to hoard money, supplies and power so that we can stay in control—or at least try to stay in control.
Complaining About Holidays
In this Sunday’s reading from Amos, we find the prophet criticizing people who “trample upon the needy” (8:4 RSV). Now of course we know this is a metaphor—no one was literally walking on top of poor people—but it is a powerful one. What are these “tramplers” doing? Well, first of all, they are complaining about holidays. That might sound odd, I mean, who doesn’t like a day off? But in fact the “tramplers” have so allowed their anxieties to overwhelm them, to control them, that they can’t stand the thought of having a day without profit. They are chomping at the bit at the end of every Sabbath, when work and trading were prohibited, because they are eager to get back to doing the one thing that matters to them: making money! In addition, they complain about the New Moon festival, which took place at the beginning of each month and involved sacrifices and a suspension of labor and trading.
What Holidays Teach Us
These holy days, the weekly Sabbath and the monthly new moon festival, were times set aside for God. Every week, on the Sabbath, every family could rejoice over the blessings of the week coming to a close and dedicate the new week to God. Every month, the new month was dedicated to God through the seemingly profligate worship of sacrificing animals. These important holy days were a kind of pause button on life that God’s people pressed at regular intervals. The holidays teach us about money, love and the meaning of life. We have all heard of people who work so hard and so much that they never develop solid relationships with their children or they never even have time to enjoy their wealth because they are so busy amassing more of it. Holidays ward off such mistakes by reintroducing us to the meaning of our whole experience: rest. That is, the Sabbath rest of God on the seventh day, which we participate in through Sabbath observance (or Sunday observance for us Catholics), somehow constitutes the meaning of life, the point of it all, the destiny of each one of us. The Letter to the Hebrews points us in this direction: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his” (Heb 4:9-10 RSV). Holidays teach us a level of detachment from money, a release from the anxiety of life and they hint at the greater rest, which we strive to enter into forever in Heaven.
Follow the Money
The “tramplers” whom Amos criticizes are not just giving in to anxiety, but they are allowing their anxious greed to hurt other people. The “needy” and the “poor” are their principle targets, primarily because the poor are disproportionately affected by unfair dealings. To understand what they are doing we have to follow the money. They are shrinking the size of the ephah (8:5). An ephah was a measure of dry grain like the bushel. By making the measuring device smaller than usual, the seller would gain unfair profit. In addition, they were making the shekel big—that is, the unit of measure for weighing out coins. If they increased the weight of the shekel, the sellers would again gain unfair profit. Beyond that, the tramplers are also fixing the scales that weigh the money in their own favor. So in fact, they are dealing falsely three times in the same transaction—by making the measure of grain illicitly small and the measure of money illicitly big, and by tweaking the scales. It reminds me of a time I came back from overseas and wanted to trade in my foreign currency. I went to one of those exchange desks at the airport and after all the fees, charges and so on, I ended up losing a huge percentage of my money!
Greed and Desperation
To emphasize the extremes to which the tramplers allow their excessive anxiety to drive them, Amos accuses them of buying “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (8:6). That is, they are buying and selling slaves—likely Hebrew slaves, which is against the explicit teaching of the Torah (Lev 25:42). In response to their actions of greed, God condemns their behavior and promises to remember it. The point of Amos’ depiction of these unjust, greedy people who engage in unfair dealings is simple. It reveals how toxic greed can be. When we allow ourselves to overwhelmed by anxiety, to hate holidays, to grasp at profit no matter the personal costs, to prioritize the seeking of money above all else, we become desperate and our moral compass starts to falter. Placing profit as the highest value above all else causes us to lose sight of the real meaning of life, which is hidden in practices like the Sabbath rest. Fear and anxiety can so obscure our vision that we lose the meaning of everything and get trapped in a petty and unjust profit-seeking that hurts other people.
Notice that God does not command these “tramplers” to give away their grain. He just wants them to sell it fairly, to deal with their customers justly. He is not condemning profitable activities, but rather the problematic attitude of desperate greed on which these people are acting. In fact, their greedy attitude is probably hurting their chances for wealth—who likes buying a car from a salesman desperate to make a sale? The “tramplers” have misunderstood the meaning of life and of money. Money has a way of expressing our interior spiritual attitude. Money indicates and magnifies the intentions of our heart: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21 RSV). Dealing with other people fairly, working for an honest profit and taking time off to reflect on the ultimate meaning of life are essential to the correct attitude toward money and others. If we are greedy, exacting and dishonest with others, we can expect they will treat us similarly. But if we are open, generous and honest with others, then we can expect them to be gracious to us as well. Generosity with others, and the money through which that generosity is often expressed, is embodied in giving, dealing fairly and honestly with others.
Jesus asks us, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?” (Matt 6:27 RSV) It’s a fair question. It is so easy for us to fall into anxiety and fear and allow it to drive our behavior and our relationships with other people. In fact, however, God does not want us operating out of fear, but out of love: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 RSV). Money has a way of beguiling us into anxiety and stress. Yet if we live out of that fear, we will struggle in our relationships with others because we’ll be trapped in a selfish cycle of trying to grab things for ourselves like Amos’ “tramplers.” Instead, if we live a life of generosity, fair-dealing, honesty and love, we can truly live for God and for others rather than for ourselves. Our happiness will be found in connecting with other people in joyful giving rather than in taking from others in dishonest dealing.