A Heart for the Poor — September 18, 2016
Holy God, we praise You for the grace with which You call us back to Yourself. You enfold us in times of peace and sustain us when we are in need. Open our hearts to Your presence, that we may come rejoicing to meet You in Scripture, in bread and wine, and in one another. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Through our reading of Scripture this morning, two prophets have joined us in this beautiful sanctuary. Amos and Luke are here—and that is cause for gladness! Prophets are truth-tellers. Prophets celebrate what is true and deplore what is distorted. They know what breaks the heart of God and what causes the angels to sing for joy. The prophets teach us to seek God, and they teach us to face what we’d rather not know about ourselves. We need the prophets—even the scary ones: Jeremiah and Ezekiel … and Hosea and Joel … and Nahum … and little frightening Zephaniah … okay, fine, they’re all alarming. But we need them! We’re called to love God and neighbor—and how can we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength if we don’t know who God is? How can we love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t know who we are?
The 8th-century b.c. prophet Amos calls us continually back to the God who created us and saves us from ourselves. Amos is a genius at helping us see the terrifying drama of God. God made the beautiful stars above and redeemed Israel from slavery,[i] sure. But the Almighty also treads on the high places of the earth, Amos reminds us, and “makes destruction flash out against the strong.”[ii] Amos warns that God’s hand can seize us no matter where we run—there is nowhere we can hide from God’s justice![iii]
So for all who might like to domesticate God, to make God into a haloed hand-puppet of benign goodwill that we get to manipulate—well, sorry, but Amos is here! None of that domesticating God for this congregation—not today. Today we bow before the mighty Creator of the Universe who unleashed the Flood in the days of Noah,[iv] a God who knows the ruin we wreak on our communities and who holds us accountable.[v]
Amos is all about ironic reversals of what the powerful expect. Israel is God’s chosen people? Fine: Israel has been “chosen” to be more accountable than anyone else![vi]
Oppressive leaders enjoy being first in social status? Excellent: they’ll be “first in line” as Israelites go into captivity![vii]
Amos rages that we need to stop trading on privilege; instead, we should share God’s heart for the poor. When we grow impatient with the holiness that re-centers our lives, when we trample the poor in the race to get what we want, God knows, and we will not escape judgment.
The impoverished and powerless are so often overlooked … but not by Amos. This prophet thunders that the very foundations of the world are shaken when we ignore the poor![viii] Think of Amos as the “enforcer” arm of liberation theology: God stands with the poor, and Amos is here to make sure we don’t forget that.
Luke, too, is a prophet who cares deeply about the poor. Luke’s Gospel tells us right from the start that God is a God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly—no other Evangelist does that.[ix] Luke lives and breathes the prophetic tradition, from the first chapter of his Gospel to the last.[x]
Now, Luke’s prophetic vision in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, our lesson this morning, is so ironic that it’s a little hard to understand. There are endless, complicated debates among New Testament scholars about how the rich master could commend a steward who was defrauding him by reducing debts owed to him. Well, voluntary debt reduction was a practice in the ancient world, just as debt restructuring happens today. It does benefit the master if overwhelmed debtors stay engaged in paying off a smaller debt rather than just giving up and defaulting because their debt is too massive.[xi]
But more important, I think, is who is at the heart of Luke’s Gospel: the poor, the struggling, and the forgotten. They’re the ones who will be at the heavenly banquet, according to Luke 15.[xii] The unjust steward wanted to get the debtors on his side so that they’d show him hospitality when he’s unemployed—he’s about to be fired, he’s too weak for manual labor, and he’s unwilling to beg, so he’ll have to rely on these new friendships forged through his dishonesty. The irony is that by showing compassion to the debtors, the unjust steward is modeling how believers can be welcomed into the “eternal homes”—that is, into heaven. Serve God by caring for the poor, using resources that don’t matter, and you’ll demonstrate the heart of compassion that does matter to God, even if that’s not what you meant to do!
Luke and Amos insistently draw us back to a God who never abandons the poor. Even if you show mercy for the wrong reasons, it’s still mercy, and it still delights God. Every time.
These prophets call us to know ourselves, to recognize our obsession with power and security, to move beyond denial and complicity in doing harm. The prophets re-focus our gaze on those most cherished by God.
Can you see them?
The exhausted young mother trying to feed a family of four with what she gets at the food pantry. The homeless teen who has reached the limits of his resilience. The gifted artist struggling with mental illness and no insurance. The little kid in a Norwalk school who gets only one hot meal a day. The elderly widow on a fixed income who can barely pay her bills.
The prophets see them.
The prophets invite us into a vision spanning the Old and New Testaments a Gospel vision in which God’s love for the poor triumphs over every moment of callousness, every wrong, every arrogant assertion of privilege.
Amos and Luke show us that in decrying injustice and showing compassion, we stand with none other than the Lord of Life! It’s simple: God loves the poor. In every decision we make with our time, our gifts, and our energy, we are called to go and do likewise. Amen.
[i] Amos 2:10, 5:8.
[ii] Amos 4:13, 5:9.
[iii] Amos 9:2-3.
[iv] Amos 5:8.
[v] I can’t resist noting that the prophets Amos and Jeremiah were among the first to speak of people as “baskets of deplorables.” Amos has a vision of a basket of summer figs that stands for the horrific end that the Lord will bring on sinful Israel (Amos 8:1-3, the passage just before our Old Testament lesson for this morning). Jeremiah sees two baskets of figs, the fruit in one so rotten as to be inedible; the spoiled fruit symbolizes Zedekiah, those who stayed behind in Judah, and those who fled to Egypt after a first group had been deported to Babylon (Jeremiah 24).
[vi] See Amos 3.
[vii] See Amos 6.
[viii] Amos 8:8.
[ix] Luke begins his Gospel with a number of crucially important prophecies about John the Baptist and Jesus. In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel prophesies to Zechariah about the birth and mission of his son John (the Baptist), citing the charism of the “spirit and power of Elijah” as John’s inheritance; Gabriel also prophesies to Mary about the birth of Jesus and his coming kingdom; Zechariah prophesies when John is born; and in the same chapter, Mary’s “Magnificat” lays robust claim to the prophetic theology of God as Savior of the poor and the oppressed. In Luke 2, the devout Simeon recognizes the baby Jesus as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and the Temple prophet Anna speaks about Jesus as redeemer. Luke is the Evangelist who tells us that Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah as a prophecy about Jesus’ own ministry (see Luke 4).
[x] In Luke 24, Jesus becomes recognizable to two disciples after the Crucifixion when he interprets the Scriptures, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” as prophesying about him.
[xi] John K. Goodrich provides a helpful review of scholarly arguments about this parable, then lays out the evidence from ancient Roman texts for the point that reducing debt can be beneficial for the creditor. See his “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13),” Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (2012): 547-66.
[xii] Connecting Luke 15 and 16 in this way has been suggested by homiletician Thomas G. Long, among other wise readers. Note that later in Luke 16 the desperately poor Lazarus, upon his death, is found at the heavenly banquet table, reclining in the bosom of Abraham himself. For a clearly written piece on Luke’s economic parables and implications for contemporary believers, see Karen M. Hatcher’s “In Gold We Trust: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31),” Review and Expositor 109 (2012): 277-88.