Monday, January 31, 2011

Sermon Remnants: Prophet and Profit

Pretty much every Sunday, there are dozens of possible sermons that can be preached on any given passage.  Unfortunately, many pastors preach three or four of them all at once, oblivious to the principle of, you know, sticking to a theme and making a manageable number of points. 

I can't stand rambling, unstructured preaching, but I still find myself surfacing competing concepts as I try to cobble together fifteen-to-seventeen minutes of Sunday God Talk.  So something invariably gets discarded.

In my current context, I try to keep to basic bible teaching, core concepts and context, lightly seasoned with personal anecdotes and cultural references.  It's what folks want...and, frankly, need.  So this week, macroeconomics and ethics got dropped by the wayside.  Clutter, dontcha know.

This week's passage was a ferocious social commentary, a radical prophetic indictment of the concentration of wealth among the social and economic elite of Jerusalem.   The word Micah receives from God powerfully resonates in our current context, and seems a standard against which to assess the morality of the global marketplace.

As I was reviewing the broader context of Micah, one thing that struck me again was the phrase in Micah 6:10, where the "short ephah" is declared accursed.   As the ephah is a unit of measure by which a dry good or product is measured, providing a "short ephah" means that you are giving someone less than what they pay for.  It's an indictment of those Jerusalem merchants who would use scales weighted in their favor, giving people less so they could profit more.

But the core ethic of capitalism is profit maximization.  The purpose of any corporate or profit-seeking entity is, or so we are told, to maximize returns.  Period.  Market entities serve no other purpose.

Which leads me to wonder...what constitutes the ethic of the "short ephah?"  Is it simply false measures?  Or can it be any effort to bleed out every last shekel from the guy on the other end of the exchange?   What is the ethical distinction between profit maximizing and profiteering?

Making a profit just doesn't seem inherently evil That can be simple success founded in hard work, the sort of thing that comes with a bountiful harvest.  But profit maximization as a goal, while it may have worked for Milton Friedman, just has never seemed compatible with the basic principles of ethics laid out in Torah.  Or the prophets. 

Or by Jesus, if we get down to it.


  1. Yes, the 'short ephah' is deception. False advertising.

    But frankly, the key idea here is the idea of the well-preached sermon being part of integral teaching to individual people; such that an idea is communicated, illustrated, and taught. Presentation is not teaching. Just because material is presented doesn't mean anything was actually taught.

    So, yes, I affirm the Beloved Spear in his desire to stick to one point. In fact, he should probably come around to the same point several weeks in a row, and come up with measurable goals to see if people have absorbed it and started to live it.

  2. @ Ben: Was yesterday "avoid the second person" day? I must have missed that on my calendar. ;)

    I'd extend that, of course, to any predatory commercial behavior. Seducing an elderly couple into a reverse mortgage that relieves them of their home. Pitching subprime mortgages. Upselling a young man into taking out a loan for a fast car he can't afford. It's an ethos that's being indicted here, a worldview that opposed...and still opposes...the intent of YHWH for human beings.

    The key here, as I see it, is not just to teach it, but to preach it. In that, I'm not engaged in an academic exercise, although what I convey should have intellectual integrity. In preaching, the idea is to convey the core message in a way that connects, convicts, and persuades, rather than just dumping data and/or anecdotes on people as they scribble notes.

    I find, honestly, that I make some variant on the same point every week. The metrics of whether or not my congregation has grasped the essence of it are straightforward. Is there less whispering and gossip? Is there less complaining? Are hearts warmed to neighbor and stranger, and filled with a desire to express God's love in the world? Is there a passion for spreading the Good News?

  3. Deceptive, yes. Simply selling food to a glutton isn't deceptive, however; so I'm not so sure about the young man with the fast car.

    I also agree with your metrics. So, rubber meet road - do you actually go out and measure the gossip after you preach against it? I haven't yet found a minister or pastor who takes it to that logical conclusion. Relatively few teachers do, either. However, it makes sense: teach to the test, and first design the test to evaluate what you intend to teach.

  4. @ Ben: Enticing someone to do something that will cause them harm and benefit you is a clear violation of the Great Commandment. Their desire for it or their vulnerability to it is immaterial. If I were to play on the insecurities of a married woman and seduce her into an affair that destroyed her marriage and shattered her family, her vulnerability would not justify my behavior.

    And yes. I do. It's more qualitative a metric than quantitative, and isn't measured in the same way you measure worship attendance or giving. But it is, to my sensibility, at least as important.

    I listen to the chatter, to the hum, to what the character of the congregation is. If the Word seems to register, you both hear and see it in the community. If it doesn't register, you seek ways to express it that seem more promising. You also resist it, whereever you hear it.