The Scales and The Packet

Sunday 19th September 2010
Year C, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Amos 8:4-7

When I was a boy growing up in Todmorden on the border between Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, Tod' market was a source of joy and wonder, the best for many miles around, only surpassed by Burnley market which was not only much bigger but which offered hot black pudding and day glow yellow mustard on chipped saucers. But such places of joy had their perils. I might be fascinated and 'taken in' by the artistically arranged heaps of fruit and the displays of fish and meat; but my mother was always suspicious that a greengrocer might take oranges from the back of the heap or sell her inferior bacon from under the counter rather than that which she had seen with her own eyes; and I am sorry to say that she thought that the jolly stall holders employed their merry banter to distract her from looking at the scales as, like magicians, they heaped potatoes into the pan and then whisked them into a bag before you had time to read the needle.

What was then part of common experience is now the exception; and Tod' market, though still famous, specialises in bric-a-brac. The organisation of absolutely uniform coinage was followed by the absolutely uniform tin of red salmon and bag of sugar, and now packets of everything.

But for Amos and his generation, and generations’ right up until the late middle ages, the fair balance was an essential of life. Coins were weighed because they were 'clipped', they were tested because they frequently contained cheap alloy. Like my mother, you had to be on your guard before the days of the packet and the bar code.

There are two sides to this transformation: we may not, like my mother, need to be quite so vigilant about fair value - although windy crisp packets call that conclusion into question - but the other side is that everything becomes, literally too cut and dried, too easy.

The two points are made in our Reading from Amos. While warning against cheating he also says that Israel has only, at best, taken its social obligations legalistically, doing the absolute minimum.

In our case, the response to our society may not be so calculated; but we can fall into unthinking habits. Do we, for instance, have a fixed amount in our mind when somebody waves a collecting box at us or do we weigh the relative importance of starving children and retired donkeys? Do we have a peer acceptable amount in our heads for a wedding present or do we consider the needs of the couple? Have we worked out precisely what kind of food and wine we need to serve to preserve our status and conserve our bank balance or do we consider our guests individually, not making the mistake, noted in the letter of James, of treating rich people better than poor people?

There are many benefits to living longer than our ancestors but one of the disadvantages may be that the longer we live, the more we fall into not so much bad habits, nor even habits of indifference but simply habits of routine.

I have been giving this subject much thought lately because my wife and I are planning to move from two incomes to mine plus her pension. We rejected making a standard cut across all of our expenditure of a given percentage and decided to examine each item rationally deciding, to give just one example, that we would keep our church giving steady but reduce our budget for eating out. I don't tell you that in search of admiration but because that is precisely the kind of decision I think we should all make; and I don't think that any of us should advocate what we are not prepared to do ourselves.

But there is a wider point. Most of our commentators are currently bound up with the forthcoming public expenditure cuts and we have all become used to different groups arguing their own case for exemption. So far I have heard no group say: "what we are doing is important but that cause is more important than my cause". When we are talking about fairness we should consider this to be much more than receiving what we think is our due; fairness involves the imagination to understand that not all rights or claims are equal and that as Christians we are called upon to make individual and collective sacrifices for the common good.

But there is one further point which we should not lose sight of. It's all very well for us to be vigilant when we trade, when we buy or exchange goods, but when it comes to considering individual and collective resources we have to remember that what we possess is gift not right; nothing is our due. We might argue that we have worked hard for what we have but it does not take much imagination to see that there are many who have worked much harder than us who have less. We live in a society which cannot exist without massive amounts of social co-operation and we would not be where we are now if somebody else had not built the roads and railways, mined the coal, extracted the oil, planted the beans and driven the truck but you can bet that what people earn bears no relationship to the social worth of what they do. If I proposed that the director of a charity for the homeless should be paid as much as a merchant banker, there would be general outrage.

In these circumstances, when we consider fairness we ought to start with ourselves but, having looked carefully at what we have and what others need, we may then earn the right to campaign to change the behaviour of others, including the Government.

I sometimes wonder whether, in my childhood, I would have been unhappy then if I had known what I know now. I was entranced by the glow of the pyramids of fruit; I could think of nothing more enticing than black pudding and mustard; and the familiar fish and cuts of meat were all I knew before the advent in our shops of kumquats, chorizo and quails' eggs. At a practical level we know that wealth and happiness do not go together which ought to be a practical argument in favour of generosity; but there is no point either in being nostalgic or simply giving away what we think of as our surplus. Christianity is more demanding than that and now is the time to make a principled assessment of our individual and social obligations. And we must use our individual scales of conscience, not the packet of peer convention.