While there are a lot of very mindless TV shows out there these days, there are actually some with hidden deeper insight. “The Good Place” is an example. It’s a comedy - based on the question of what happens to people when we die. How do we get to “The Good Place.” It’s a long story, but essentially with this particular cast of characters, they found out they were experiments of sorts - and whether they should have gone to the “good place” or the “bad place” is debated throughout the episodes. All of these decisions are based on a point system of the good and bad things people did while living on earth.
Fast forward three seasons and a spiritual “architect” Michael is pleading their case to the “head judge.” He says he has figured out the flaw in the point system! He says it’s impossible to win the point system because “Just buying a tomato at a grocery store means you are supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to global warming.” There’s no way humans can crush the point system when even small decisions apparently have huge impacts. The judge disagrees with his argument and says people should just do the research and buy another tomato.
Thank God (literally!) that our worth as human beings is not determined by a point system! However, this scene does speak some truth. Aside from any wonderings about what happens to our spirits once our bodies stop working, we can’t deny that our choices in life do have a ripple effect...just like how Michael talks about the simple act of buying the tomato!
I don’t know about you, but I get overwhelmed with those thoughts often - some purchases and decisions in life leave me thinking “I can’t win for losing.” For me, it’s often money versus ethics. Maybe you’ve had similar conversations in your head. Do I buy the food that is better for my wallet or better for the environment? Do I buy the clothes that are cheaper or the ones I know were ethically made? (Really, I’m a big proponent of consignment shops.)
In the end, you do the best you can do; and those decisions are going to be different for different people at different points in life. I believe it’s good to wrestle with these topics, though, so that we are mindful of our presence in this world. We can, bit by bit, make different decisions here and there. Maybe you take your own coffee cup into the cafe so that you don’t need to use a disposable one. Maybe you start buying produce from a local farm.
These types of decisions aren’t new, particularly when it comes to doing business with one another. The Scripture from Amos specifically highlights the disruption of ethical business practices.
Similar to last week, the selected verses open with an image - a basket of summer fruit. That seemed odd to me at first. “Here’s a gift basket, now let me hit you upside the head with some hard truth.” So, I knew the image had to have a deeper meaning.
According to Blake Couey (workingpreaching.org), it’s actually a Hebrew pun! Apparently, the word for “summer fruit” (qayits) and “end” (qets) would sound quite similar. The New International Version of the Bible actually translates these words as “The time is ripe for my people Israel.” So, this image is essentially showing fruit at its end...just as the people would meet their end, if they didn’t heed warning.
What did they need warning against? Ethical dealings with one another. All the talk in these verses about making “the ephah small and the shekel great, and ...buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat" is describing unethical business practices in order to increase profit.
God says “Shall not the land tremble ... and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?” Shall not the land tremble and the waters rise? In other words, won’t our actions have consequences that we can see in the land?
Couey insightfully states, “Many contemporary readers of the Bible [may] find the claim that God causes natural disasters to punish human sins unhelpful. At the same time, this verse makes a crucial point about connections between economic and environmental exploitation. Corporate fraud, exploitation of the poor, and ecological disruption are all consequences of the drive to maximize profit at any costs. People who live on the margins often suffer disproportionately from environmental abuse.”
I am one of those “contemporary readers of the Bible” that has a hard time believing God would cause a hurricane or earthquake, for example, specifically because a region was “sinful” in God’s eyes. I was so bothered by the comments when New Orleans was hit hard with flood waters by the hurricane, saying that the town was being punished for its sinful behavior. No, that was just science - levees that couldn’t hold back water when the land is already under sea level.
However, as Couey points out, our economic decisions can turn into environmental harm, consequences, which often most directly affects people who live in lower economic regions. When we (collectively) overuse the land for our profit (whether through deforestation or home developments or food production), that land declines in quality, which can lead to a decline in food production, along with a shortage of wood for fuel, which can contribute to inflation. (https://www.voicesofyouth.org/blog/relationship-between-poverty-and-environment) These are not things that happen overnight; however, the point is that our economics and our environment and our people do feel the consequences of our actions.
Please do NOT hear me saying that economics or money or working in business is bad! Quite honestly, we ask you for money here - to complete projects of the church - whether it’s our capital campaign of maintaining our sanctuary or supporting service to the community through our food pantry or backpack drive.
So, when you leave here, do not think “Pastor Kim said that working in a consumer industry and making money is horrible.” That is NOT what I am saying! After all, the Bible says “the LOVE of money is the root of evil,” not “money” is the root of evil.
What I AM saying is that doing UNETHICAL business dealings - exchanges where a person or company is being intentionally deceitful only to gain profit - THAT has harmful ripple effects. Aside from hurting people’s wallets, it hardens people’s hearts against one another. And, yes, it can trickle down to effect the land we live on.
What I AM saying is that when we put the gathering of money ahead of doing God’s will, we may experience a famine of hearing God in our lives, as well. Like our Psalm today says, "See the one who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth!" The end of the Amos verses is God stating that the true famine will come in the form of not hearing from God. We cannot be surprised if we don’t hear or feel or experience God’s message in our life, if we decide to turn away from it.
For the people during Amos’ time, they really listened for prophecy from God. “In ancient Israelite religion, prophecy was the primary channel through which God was expected to communicate.” (Couey, workingpreacher.org) So, to experience the silent treatment from God would certainly get the message across.
Friends, we make a lot of decisions in day to day life. From buying tomatoes to signing contracts to how we approach conversations with other people. It is hard to make all the exact right decisions. Yet, we can do our part to spread the good. Be honest with each other. Put yourselves in their place. Don’t be spiteful.
Basically, don’t be a jerk - whether in business or in personal relationships or in line at the grocery store. You don’t have to be best friends, but you also don’t have to intentionally put out into the universe more deceit or more hate.
Do your best in making daily decisions, knowing that life is complicated and layered. And rest in knowing that the Divine knows your intentions, even when buying that tomato earns you a couple negative points.
Scripture: Psalm 52; Amos 8:1-12