What Truly Matters
The Message translation of the end of today’s Gospel text reads: 8-9 “Now here’s a surprise: The [wealthy landowner] praised the crooked [steward]! And why? Because [the steward] knew how to look after [their self]. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
Live, really live.
Not complacently get by. Not mindlessly go through the motions.
Like the merchants are doing in the Amos text. On the Sabbath day intended for rest, the merchants mind wander as they contrive ways to achieve the largest profit margin possible.
Physically they are present during the Sabbath but mentally they are checked out – dreaming up ways to sell small portions of wheat at higher prices.
Restless, the merchants search for angles to make their dream a reality. Cleverly, they decide to sell even the worst part of grain, a part which God had commanded them to leave behind to feed the widow, the orphan and the foreigner.
The money the merchants make come at the cost of their neighbors, who they no longer saw as friends but as: competition, threats, and commodities.
They go through the motion of worship but their thoughts are elsewhere, because they have forgotten. They have forgotten why they honor the Sabbath. They have forgotten the exodus from Egypt, where Pharaoh had enslaved them.
Like the Israelites, actually only months after being freed from Egypt, also forgot.
We talk so often about the Pharaoh and how he kept the Israelites working at all hours of the day and night making bricks. We talk about how Pharaoh served the insatiable gods of Egypt who always wanted more. We talk about how God heard the cry of the Israelites and how God called Moses to lead the people from Egypt to the Promised Land and say, let my people go. Yet, how often do we talk about what comes after this exodus? We might expect this idyllic period of freedom, but instead the Israelites – like the rest of us – keep forgetting, and fall back into patterns of fear and worry
We see this only three months after the Israelites have left Egypt, when they arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses had first seen a burning bush and heard God’s call. Upon arriving, God speaks to Moses and invites the people to prepare their mind, body and heart to receive the Word of God.
As they prepare, Moses hikes up the mountain, where he receives the ten commandments, commandments to honor God and our neighbors and most of all to honor the Sabbath which puts God’s Love at the center of all things.
God says to Moses, I give you a new way of living and loving. Before, you served the gods of Egypt who had at their center fear, anxiety and scarcity. There was never enough – enough bricks, enough time, enough people, enough prosperity. But now, you are called to rest on the Sabbath, to stop, to trust in my providence, to choose to have another center of gravity, one that prioritizes the well-being of all over the rat race of life.
Come to me, God is saying, and I will give you rest, a life where you can really live.
While Moses is having this lengthy soul-soothing conversation with the Holy One, the people at the foot of the mountain become restless and the fear starts seeping into their souls. “Why is this taking so long? What happens if Moses never comes back down? Who will happen?”
Both the questions and the anxiety mount.
“We have to do something!” the Israelites declare and then, falling back on the only thing they know, they say to each other: “Let us make an idol out of gold.” With that, the Israelites take all the gold they have among themselves and melt it down, and make a golden calf and began to worship it.
They say the calf is supposed to symbolize the Holy One but in reality this golden object skews their reality. It focuses their attention on gold, wealth and displays of power. It makes them forget God’s call on their lives and instead awakens a hunger in them for more, more, more.
And just like that, the Israelites, like the merchants, become restless.
At that very moment, Moses begins his hike down the mountainside, carefully navigating the rocks and scree as he clutches the two tablets containing the commandments. Reaching the base of the mountain, Moses sees the people dancing wildly around the golden calf.
Exhausted from the difficult rock scramble, Moses feels his body fill with rage … after everything they had been through? Their entire journey …. They were back here … again??? Without thinking, Moses takes his two precious tablets, which he had so carefully carried down the mountain and he raises them over his head and throws them down, smashing them on the rocks.
There they lie, broken on the ground like God’s own broken heart. God’s heart is broken because it has only been three months since God liberated the people from the Egyptians, only hours from the time that God had called the people to a new way of living and loving, and yet they had already forgotten. God’s heart is broken because God desperately wishes and hungers for well-being for God’s own people and yet somehow, even on the eve of their own redemption, they keep turning away, they keep worshipping other gods, they keep choosing … poorly.
Just like the merchants that the prophet Amos tells us about.
Just like the steward who has mismanaged the landowner’s land.
When God sees how people treat each other, God’s own heart is broken open. God feels a tenderness for God’s people. In the story with Moses, God does not say, well that’s it. God doesn’t say well I tried and they didn’t listen so it’s on them now. God says: let’s do this again, let’s try this again. God says to Moses, come up again to receive the tablets, to try again this new way of living and loving because it will heal what is broken inside of you and inside the world. I know it is scary and that it doesn’t always come naturally but it is what will give you the deepest sense of peace.
God invites the Israelites again into relationship, again into Sabbath, again into the practice of remembering, because it is so easy to forget.
Okay, Moses consents, and hikes back up the mountain and comes back again with the whole tablets and the whole invitation and this time the Israelites say: Yes. Yes, we trust you to lead us from the land of fear to the one of healing, from the land of anxiety to the one of liberation, from the desert of objectification to the oasis of valuing of each and every human being as a child of God, from land of Pharaoh to the land of promise. Yes, we will go. That’s not to say we think the journey will be easy or without difficulties. That is to say that, at the end of the journey, we know will arrive at the Promised Land, that we ourselves will walk to the mountain top and see what you have prepared for us.
This is the same invitation that the prophet Amos offers to the merchants.
Amos says to them: let’s do this again, let’s try this again, because this new way of living and loving will heal what is broken inside of you and inside the world. At the end of the book, through Amos, God says, “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel. They will build the ruined cities and live in them, plant vineyards and drink the wine, dig their gardens and eat the produce. I will plant them in their own land, and they will never again be uprooted from the land I have given them.”
Broken tablets can be made whole.
That is the truth that we discover in the story of the landowner and the steward. The steward who has long prioritized dishonesty and extortion and her actions break the heart of the landowner. In return, the words of landowner speak to the steward’s heart as the landowner calls out her deceit. The steward realizes that she will lose her job. Shaken up, the steward wonders, “After all this, what truly matters?” “Maybe,” she thinks to herself, “what matters most are not the things and objects I so prize but the way that I treat the people around me. Those people are what will matter when I lose my job. Maybe I can use my gifts of management, finances and intelligence to care for them instead of taking advantage of.” With that, the steward turns around forgives parts of the debts from the debtors she has ripped her. In her actions, the steward shifts her center of gravity from commodity to compassion, from profit to people, from golden calf worship to a journey toward healing, a journey toward the Promised Land.
Like the Israelites, the steward is invited to begin again, to try out this new way of live and loving, to discover that there is no limit to the number of times God will come looking for us and forgive out debts. Even when we wander, or worship a golden calf or squander our gifts, God comes that we might live, fully live, and that our hearts, like our world, might be made whole.