“We will make the ephah small and the shekel great.” That is the cry of the dishonest in the marketplace according to Amos. We will cheat those who come to us for food, selling them the sweepings; essentially dirt as well as fallen grain and we will make the ephah small and the shekel great.
An ephah, for those of you who don’t know, is a tenth of a homer. Does that simplify it for you? No? How about an ephah is about a bushel, and for those of you who are wondering how much a bushel is, (I know I was) it is four pecks; it is also about 64 US pints, dry measure or eight dry gallons. Think of one of those decorative tubs they sell at Costco for staging iced drinks, roughly a bushel, roughly an ephah.
What it means to make the Ephah small and the shekel great is twofold. On the one hand it means to literally cheat, to shorten the amount of grain that you give in return for money, a small ephah for the price of a shekel. On the other hand it also means that you will value one more highly than the other, making the ephah small, the provision of the land and the gift of a beneficent and loving God small in your eyes and in your heart; while making the shekel, something not made by God but minted by the hand of man great in your eyes and in your heart.
Falling prey, say, to the love of money, which is the root of all evil; not money itself, but the love of it.
That is the frame into which we will fit the rest of this morning’s scriptures, it comes first and for those churches that try and shorten the service so that you can all make it home in time for the Niner’s game and skip over this piece of scripture, there is something missing in their proclamation. They are building on sinking sand.
Because while the Gospel this morning does not tell us that the dishonest manager is practicing this particular type of deceit, this type of deceit is emblematic of all types, it is a marker to guide us when we think of doing what is right in the eyes of God and doing what is wrong.
Sure, the manager could have practiced a hundred kinds of deceit but they would all add up to the same thing: dismissing the provision of God and counting it as little, while valuing the works of man more highly so that you would do anything to achieve them.
From that kernel comes all manner of deceits. We will lie to achieve the money, we will cheat, we will flatter and we will kill because somewhere along the way we have lost sight of what money is, what the fruit of creation is, what we are and to whom we owe everything.
Like Abraham lying to the King, telling him that Sarah was his sister so that he might not be killed so that the king could have her; like Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts who sold a piece of land but instead of following the custom and bringing the price to the church they held some back and then lied about it; like the little lies we tell ourselves when we buy a pair of Nike’s, saying, “well, the conditions in the factories in China are just the price we have to pay if we want $40 tennis shoes instead of $140 ones.”
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great.
So we do not know what the dishonest manager did to deserve being let go, all we have are the words “squandering his property” but we can be pretty sure that it had something to do with the love of money, and by extension the love of the things that money can buy.
So when he is caught up in his deceits and is told that he will be sacked after he makes an account of himself and his management he decides that he will use the little time he has left to build for himself a soft landing, a couple of cheaply bought friends who will welcome him into their homes once he is homeless. And he sets about making these friends again by cheating his master.
You see, during his employment he was not even enriching himself. He has no reserves, no savings account. When he is put out into the street he will be destitute, him, a man who once ran his master’s empire. He has no wealth to care for himself and so he makes use of the only wealth he does have access to, that of his master.
He was cheating others with his master’s abundant wealth, and now he must conspire to make friends with that same wealth, this time cheating his master.
And here’s the weird part, the part that trips up so many of us when we read it.
His master approves. His master commends him for his shrewdness.
I’m going to take a speculative leap here and say that the manager has been cheating the people out of their money in the course of trade; he needed no friends since he had his master’s house to live in and his master’s wealth at his command. When he goes and tries to make friends, he simply returns the ill-gotten booty to those he has cheated and they think of him as generous and wise and reward him with cheap friendship and his master approves of this whole procedure.
After all, the cheating must have given the master a bad name among the people, his manager gave the worst deals, made the ephah small and the shekel great in all that he did. So the returning of the money is a great boon to the master, it restores his reputation in the marketplace and harms him not a bit while simultaneously relieving him of the burden of the dishonest manager. It’s a win-win.
I mention this only in order to say that it is in my mind exactly the wrong interpretation of the situation. It still falls into the pit of thinking that the things that we make with our hands and the things that we acquire to ourselves in the course of making those things are more important than the things we receive at the hands of our master, the gracious provisions that flow from above.
We do not use the word Master very often. It is not a word a society with egalitarian aspirations like ours deals with very well. But the Bible uses it a lot, and a lot of the time it uses it in this very context. The master in the story: is God.
Think of the manager for a minute. He lives in the generosity and embrace of his master, all his needs are taken care of and into his hands are given the master’s wealth, goods and servants and the ability to do with them what you want, I mean clearly the master was not keeping close tabs on the guy or he never would have been able to get away with his shenanigans for so long.
Sound like anybody you know? Sound like everybody you know?
There’s a not that old joke that tells of a time, in the not so distant future when the level of man’s greatness achieves unbelievable heights. Diseases are cured and the lifespan increases to 200 years and every one of those years is productive and happy and mankind issues a challenge, the gather their very best and brightest and they challenge God almighty, saying that they have achieved parity and anything God can do, they can do better.
For the first time in quite some while, God actually appears, as a column of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night to be sure, after all, beholding the face of God will most certainly slay all those in attendance and God is kind.
The challenge goes out, that Mankind has achieved so much that they think of themselves as gods and to prove it, they are going to create life.
The column of smoke replies, “knock yourselves out.”
The lead scientist begins, “First we take fifty gallons of water in this glass vessel.”
An “ahem” issues from the column of smoke and the people turn toward it and the voice of God speaks, “If you want to create something, start from scratch like I did. I made the water, you can’t use it.”
At the core it is not just the ephah that is the gracious provision of God, but the shekel that we use to buy and sell it also. The latter has no value unless the former is there and so all that we have, whether or not we made it, or grew it, or mined it, or found it on the side of the road; at its core, it is the provision of God since it is a part of the creation that has been given over into our hands.
The point of the Gospel this morning is, will we see that and act accordingly?
Will we take our master’s wealth, all of the whole world given over to us to tend and care for, to nurture and to steward, and will we use it like a club or a sword, cutting down those around us so that we can stand atop the pile of wealth like a king until we are cast down by our master?
Will we live the lie that the things we make, the profits and the increase that comes from our own labors are solely ours and to be valued more than what has been given to us? Will we make the ephah small and the shekel great and use the wealth of our master against our neighbors?
When the dishonest manager begins spending his master’s wealth to try and make friends and we are all confused because the master commends him for it, we miss something when we do not remember that the master in this parable is God, and we miss something when we forget what it is that God wants from us.
Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.
All of the commandments and all of the instructions and all of the rest of the scriptures point to God’s will for us, that we grow and live and love our God and our neighbor as ourselves so that our days might be long in the land if you mash a bunch of those wishes together. Trying to make our own way through the world is no part of that, trying to use God’s creation against one another is no part of that and so the manager trying to find a way through the mess he has made stumbles upon the very first step in his journey towards wisdom.
Use what god has given you to build for yourself a home that cannot be taken away. Real relationship with God and with your neighbors cannot be built on exploitation, but real relationship with God and your neighbors is a treasure you can never spend all of, there is always more for the provision of our God is a magnificent treasure.
And even so, is a rubbish heap compared to the Gospel.
That too has been given over to you, a resource for living every bit as vital and as real as the wheat and the barley, the fish in the sea and the gold in the mines. It is a part of creation, the promise of God that from the very beginning, God has been on our side, rooting for us yet all the while letting us grow up, letting us make mistakes, letting us use or misuse the gifts of creation.
The gift of the Gospel is the large thing, the thing that if misused will truly thwart the will of God and so we have been given the small thing, that’d be the whole world to you and to me, to practice on. If we learn to use the small thing, then the large thing will be no problem, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”
And the lesson is, as it usually is, that our master wants good things for us and so has provided us with wealth to use and to exploit. Nowhere does it say that the master in this parable is concerned about losing all of his wealth, only in how it is used. And like the wealth of this world, we can also misuse the gospel, using it to separate and divide us. I saw a sign on a local church that read, “religion points to the cross, discipleship climbs up on it” and I wanted to hop out and have a discussion with their pastor, asking why they felt it necessary to play the “we’re better than you” game and using the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the stick he used to whack the faithful.
It has nothing to do with the fact that I think the sentiment is mistaken, and entirely to do with sowing division, of hoarding righteousness to yourself instead of letting it cascade out of you, the righteousness of Christ that like the wealth of this world has been specifically and pointedly given to you on the cross, letting that flow from you and in so doing, building for yourselves homes that cannot be taken away from you.
You cannot serve two masters; you have to favor one over the other because that is the way we are made. Love God and serve only God and you may have all the wealth that you acquire because you know it can all be taken away from you at any moment and you will still have wealth beyond measure.
Love money and serve only money and no matter how much you amass, no matter how wise you are in the ways of this world, it will not save you when it all disappears.
Everything has been given to you, the little and the much. Will the will of God or the wisdom of Man be your guide going forward?