4Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
The problem of poetry is that you can rarely retain the rhythm and sound of the text or the power created by a play on words in the original language. Still, there is no escaping the force of this prophet’s words, no escaping God’s rage at a nation that sees God’s commands as nothing more than an archaic barrier to their profitmaking. They chomp at the bit to be free of God’s command for a monthly festival at the new moon and a weekly day of rest for all workers. They have learned the fine art of the finger on the scale to inflate the price of the produce they sell in the market. God forbids the use of shaved weights – a heavy one so that when you purchase a pound of wheat from the farmer you get a little more than a pound, and a light one so that when you sell a pound you are giving a little less. Such practices are universal. The quart of ice cream looks the same and costs the same but now has less than a quart. “Same Low Price!” advertises a product that weighs 10% less. And I always wonder whether the gas station with that great low price has tweaked their pumps so that each gallon is slightly less – within the margin of error allowed by the state, perhaps, but who checks? And why does the bank pay the biggest check, so that all the little ones bounce, each with their own $35 fee, rather than pay the little checks and bounce the one big one? And what shall we say of Wall Streets cleverness with mortgages and derivatives and micro-trading?
God’s law was a gift to Israel to halt that inevitable slide towards greed and to be sure the poor were not left behind. You were commanded not to harvest to the edge of your field, but to leave the perimeter for the poor to come harvest for themselves. The land belonged to God, after all, and was only entrusted into their hands. It had not belonged to them in the beginning. It had been divided equally among them all. They were not allowed to sell it outright, but only to purchase the number of harvests before the next jubilee, when debts were lifted and lands restored so that everyone had a chance to provide for their families. Israel was not to become a nation like those around it – not to become a nation like ours where the top 1 percent own 42% of the financial wealth and the top 5% own 72%. In the last 30 years 96% of the income gains have gone to the top 10% (all income growth in the past 10 years, while the income of the 90% has declined).
The task God gave to Israel was to protect the weak and vulnerable. The command was to love your neighbor as yourself. Instructions were given for the care of the poor, for the well-being of each was linked to the well-being of all.
At the end of the 8th century in the northern kingdom of Israel, as the nation is on its death spiral of arrogance, greed and the worship of false gods, the economy is booming and the wealthy leadership of the nation is casting off those ancient restraints given at Sinai. So God speaks: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” Within a few years the northern kingdom of Israel, ten of the original twelve tribes, was gone and its people scattered among the nations.
So, back to the poetry, in case the prophet’s words still need more weight to speak to us – the word translated “bring to ruin” is a form of the word Sabbath. They cause the poor “to cease” (meaning they destroyed the poor) because they no longer honor the command that all should cease from work one day. The accumulation of wealth reigns triumphant until Israel itself is measured in God’s balances – and those who destroy others end with their own destruction.