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.