(Sermon for Sunday, September 19, 2010 || Proper 20, Year C, RCL || Amos 8:4-7)
Imagine with me a fellow of no particular consequence, an Israelite who lives in the capital city of Samaria. The year is 752 BCE, thirty years before the Assyrians conquer Israel. Through the words of prophets such as Amos, however, we know that the people of Israel lost themselves long before the Assyrians came. Our fellow of no particular consequence knows first hand the truth behind Amos’s words. His name is Dallim. This is his story.
He said I was free. He said I had paid my debt. He said I no longer had to work for him. The steward said these things as he walked me to the front of the estate. He opened a postern door in the baked clay walls and gestured to me. I shuffled through the small doorway, and without another word, the steward began walking back to the main house. I was about to call out to him when the guard shut the door in my face. I slumped against the warm, looming wall. He said I was free. But as I crouch here…now…on another forsaken threshing floor, searching for scraps of wheat to lessen my hunger, I know one thing for certain. I may no longer be indebted to his master, but I am unquestionably not free.
It all started six years ago. I wasn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. But I wasn’t poor either – not like the beggars in the street. I got by. We got by – my wife and I. I ran a small stall in the marketplace selling whatever I could get my hands on. I called my stall a “specialty” store; everyone else called it “Dallim’s Junk Shoppe.” But I did a fair bit of business. I was the guy who could find things – a scrounger.
The day my wife told me she was pregnant was the happiest day of my life. I started trading for all of the things I imagined new parents would need – swaddling clothes and wooden toys and a woven bassinet. Then one day, something went wrong. She shouldn’t have gone into labor for three more months. She delivered our little girl on the floor of our hut. The baby never opened her eyes. My wife took to bed and a week later closed her eyes for the last time. For months, I didn’t leave the hut.
When I finally came back to myself, I had next to nothing. My family was gone. My landlord kicked me out of the hut. I went to the stall in the marketplace and found that my “specialty” store had truly become the junk shop. The thieves left a few baubles and trinkets, the things not worth stealing. They took everything else, including my scales, a gift from my wife’s father. That made me miss her all over again. Those scales were priceless, and not just for the memory. They were weighted perfectly – my father-in-law was no cheat. I used the scales so much that I nearly stopped needing them: I could weigh a shekel in my hand.
As the shock of the theft of my merchandise subsided, I realized how badly I needed food. I had been subsisting on dust and grief for too long. I put the worthless trinkets in a sack and slung it over my shoulder. I walked through the marketplace until I found a grain merchant. I tried to trade him the trinkets for some grain, but he would have none of that. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you an ephah of grain and you can pay me next week, eh?” I was amazed. How generous he was. He handed me a sack of grain and asked for my sandals as surety that I would come back. You can’t eat sandals, so I readily agreed. I was so relieved that I didn’t notice how small this merchant’s ephah really was.
The week went by, and I still had no money to pay him. “No problem,” he said. “You can pay next week.” I went away with another sack of grain. This happened several more times – I’m not quite sure how many. I planned to sell my stall to repay him, but I just couldn’t find a buyer. The last time I went to see the merchant for grain, I told him my plight. His smile faded from his face. “You have no money. Then I will take your stall.” Again I was relieved. “But your stall,” he continued, “is not nearly enough. No. No. I will take you, as well.”
The genial merchant was gone. He was a hard, grim man from that moment on. I was indebted to him, and I worked and I worked. But I rarely saw him, and he didn’t even know my name. The steward gave me my orders. I filled the grain sacks and noticed them shrink year after year. The moment the sun set every Sabbath day, I hitched the horses to the grain carts so my master could immediately go back to market – no doubt to seduce more helpless people like me. What’s a few sacks of grain to half a dozen years of free labor?
In those years, I often thought of the life I could have had – with a wife and children and a small, successful business. That was my dream, and I woke to my nightmare. I was a nameless drone, a slave to a corrupt man, whose corruption seemed to be rewarded at every turn.
I lost count of the days working in that estate. They ran into each other and made weeks. The weeks made months and the months years. So I was surprised the day the steward walked me to the postern door. The guard shut the door in my face, and I slumped against the warm, looming wall. I thanked God for giving me my life back. I was Dallim again, not the grain merchant’s debt-slave. I was free.
At least, I thought I was free. But I had nothing. The beggars had more than I – they had begging bowls. But I promised myself I would not fall into debt again. I used to be good at finding things. I used to be a scrounger. I could do that again. But oh, I felt the darkness creeping in, the same heaviness that gripped me after the deaths of my wife and baby girl. I started sleeping in doorways and alleys. I could not make myself get up. My world shrank to the space within reach of my prone position. I wasted away.
When I finally came back to myself, I was beyond hunger. In my reflection I could see where each of my ribs met my breastbone. I went to a windswept hill near my old master’s holdings to find a threshing floor. The floor was bare. I went to another. It, too, was bare. And here I am now – crouching on a third bare floor, swept clean of the scraps of wheat that are supposed to belong to the poor. And driving away I see the distinctive cart to which I hitched the horses for so many years. My old master: stealing the poor by loaning them the very grain that is rightfully theirs. Ours. Mine.
I’m trying to muster some righteous anger or indignant surprise. But I simply feel…ragged. I will never be free while the threshing floors stay bare, while I’m stuck in this soul-rending poverty. How can I exist in a world where corrupt men like my old master trample on the needy? How can I live when they bring to ruin the poor of the land? How can I find a morsel of food when they sell the sweepings of the wheat? They move through life making collateral damage out of everyone that can’t afford to get out of their way. They see only what they want to see and the poor fade into the scenery. They consume and consume with no regard for the welfare of those that they have taught themselves to ignore.
But God: you know I’m not collateral damage, don’t you? In your eyes, the merchant and I are the same, right? You won’t ignore me like they do. God: you still know my name. My name is Dallim. And I matter.