When Money Rules the Heart
“When will the new moon be over,”
you ask, “that we may sell our grain,
and the Sabbath that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scale for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
Even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Never will I forget a thing they have done!
The eloquent condemnation of the oppression of the poor by dishonest means, by making the measure ever smaller and the price ever higher and selling even the refuse of the wheat, illustrates the temptations that always lurk at the margins of commerce. These injustices do not so much affect the rich, but they make the life of the poor hard. Great merchants were able “to buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals,” and the poor had no recourse. It is ever thus. Here the prophet Amos is not condemning slavery, which in Israel, at least in theory, was never a permanent condition, but the omnipresent pressure that the unjust rich can exercise to control the existence of those less able to muster their own resources against such oppression.
But prophetic condemnation of the specific ways in which the rich and the powerful can control the economically unprotected presupposes a deeper evil. For the sellers of worthless wheat and masters of cheating scales have what might be called a hierarchy of values that considers the Sabbath, the religious obligations of Israel, a mere diversion from the real business of life, which is buying and selling. Presumably in the wilderness there was no money economy, or a very fragile one, when God gave the tenth commandment: Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife or field or anything that is his. But when life became the settled existence of the city and villages, when the shekel was no longer a unit of measure but a coin, when the money changers and the market-place became common features of existence, there came also the temptation to be grasping, to deny the poor the right to what is left in the corners of the field, to entertain the soul-destroying possibility that the heart could properly be preoccupied with money.
This preoccupation is always with humankind, which is why the Gospel insists that the love of money is the root of evil (I Timothy 6:10). The Sabbath, be it noted, resented as it was in Amos’s day, provided a check to the tendency of buying and selling to occupy all the space of life. And just so Christianity provided a challenge to the domination of imagination by money, with its defense of the poor and of poverty and its insistence on generosity and detachment as essential qualities in those who would be saved.
But to the degree that Christianity began in the fifteenth century to become increasingly a private rather than a public culture, the great theme of political life has been money. The complaint of the merchants of Amos’s day that Sabbath worship interfered with the business of buying and selling was finally recognized and the hallowing of Sunday, made law by Constantine the great in the 330s, was undone to make the day a day of commerce. It is symptomatic that in a world in which culture is defined by wealth, those who would rule do not propose to help the ruled be wiser or better but richer, and hasten to minster effectively to that incipient sense of grievance that natural man finds when facing the difficulties of life. This dominance of imagination by money is a nexus of moral and theological error. It assumes, like the barn-builder of the parable, that money can bring security on that day when our souls are required by God (Luke 12:18-19). It rests on the half-truth that wealth is the result of one’s own effort and superior insight, when it is in fact the Providence of God that makes rich and poor. Under the regime of money the temptation to believe that the wealthy are wise is endemic. The conviction that any human failure be cured by money becomes omnipresent. If the school had more money, teaching and learning would improve, a claim difficult to sustain in the face of the evidence that within certain limits money as a variable seems not to influence the quality of education significantly.
All these ideas float to the surface of life when the space that should be occupied by the Sabbath is occupied by money matters. It was endemic to American origins. The colonies were populated by those who wanted a better life, but better soon came to mean wealthier. In old age Adams and Jefferson took up the friendship that had been interrupted by years of political controversy to reflect on what they had accomplished, and their letters take an elegiac note because as readers of Cicero and Aristotle what they had hoped to found was a republic of virtue, but what had emerged from their efforts was a commercial republic.
And so it has continued, with politics reduced to a texture of economic promises, and the two great economic systems agreed that what matters most is money, differing only in how it should be controlled and distributed, with one scheme yielding, willingly or no, to the practical monopoly of the rich, the other intent on securing for government a monopoly of power on behalf of what is represented as economic justice. The results of these systems are incommensurate. The simple avarice of the ordinary sinner, harmful as it must be, is less damaging than the pursuit of power that lies at the heart of socialism, but even the best economic system cannot be healed merely by better economic arguments but by must be put in its proper place by restoring the Sabbath with all its implications for life to the place of honor, and allowing the hold that money exercises on the thoughts of fallen mankind to be elevated and tempered by the Sabbath reality that lies above and beyond economics.
No wheel turns without the power for good that money represents. Paul pointed out that one of the purposes of our labor is the securing of our independence, another so that we could have the ability to be charitable, and the apostle spent much time and effort collecting an offering for the poor in Jerusalem. But like every other aspect of life, our desires, our thoughts, if our money is not offered to God, the blessing may become a curse. When it becomes a curse it damages both those who practice injustice and those who suffer under unjust practices. And of those who make buying and selling the primary good of life, and who scorn the Sabbath as an interference, God says: “Never will I forget a thing they have done” (4:7).