Justice and Consumption (Sermon on Jeremiah 22:13-17)

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This is the fifth sermon of a six message series written by Pastor Jack Van de Hoef based on the book Live Just.ly by World Renew and Micah Challenge. Click here to learn more and order your copy of the book. This sermon was originally given February 12, 2017; Bethel CRC, Brockville, ON

The king’s name was Shallum or Jehoahaz. That’s who the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in these verses (see verse 11.) Shallum was the son of King Josiah, but he was not anything like his father. Where King Josiah introduced reforms to return the people of Israel to true worship of God, Shallum was a selfish, arrogant tyrant. What he cared about most was to have a fancy house to live in that looked better than the houses of everyone else. He didn’t pay his workers proper wages to build his extravagant palace, if he paid them at all. He took advantage of others for the sake of his own personal gain.

It’s easy, when you are not one of the really rich people in society, to despise those who have more. We mutter over the growing number of people on the Sunshine List, those in the public sector in Ontario who earn a salary of more than $100,000. We even scoff at some of the specific names and question the validity of their salary. Do they really need to earn that much?!

It’s easy to complain about the reported raises for public sector executives when the wage freeze gets lifted. Especially when someone is already earning $1.5 million dollars, or another person might get a raise of $118,000. Scandalous!

And what about the salaries of professional athletes? Do we get cynical about how much they are earning to play a game? Forbes magazine published an article in December about average player salaries in major US sports leagues.

  • In the NBA (basketball), the average salary is $6.2 million, with the highest-paid player earning $31 million (LeBron James).

  • In the MLB (baseball), the average salary is $4.4 million, with the highest-paid player earning $32 million (Clayton Kershaw).

  • In the NHL (hockey), the average salary is $2.9 million, with the highest-paid player earning $14 million (Anze Kopitar).

  • In the NFL (football), the average salary is $2.1 million, with the highest-paid player earning $31.25 million (Drew Brees)

  • In the MLS (soccer), the average salary is $308,969, with the highest-paid player earning $7.2 million (Kaka).

Isn’t there something wrong with people earning that much money, while others go hungry? Isn’t there something unjust about people earning those exorbitant salaries while other people line up at the Food Bank or wonder how they are going to pay their hydro bills?

It’s so easy to look at others and consider how privileged they are and how we are just one of those ordinary people trying to make ends meet. The harsh words of justice and right living are for those “other” rich people, not for us.

But then I did a short survey at a website called slaveryfootprint.org. I answered a bunch of questions about my lifestyle and buying habits. At the end of the survey, I was informed that I have at least 31 slaves that work for me. There are at least 31 people who have done work to support my living habits and they have not received proper wages. Or they have received no wages at all to produce some of the things that I enjoy every day.

Someone else might fill out that survey and have 56 slaves that work for them, so then my 31 slaves do not look so bad. But child labour, debt bondage, sex trafficking, forced marriage or other forms of slavery are wrong for even one person to produce one product that I enjoy.

Listen to the words of Jeremiah 22 as found in The Message: “Doom to the one who builds palaces but bullies people, who makes a fine house but destroys lives, who cheats their workers and won’t pay them for their work, who says, ‘I’ll build me an elaborate mansion with spacious rooms and fancy windows and rare and expensive woods and the latest in interior decor.’”

Woe, doom, to the one who takes wonderful care of themselves at the expense of others. Woe, doom, to the one who provides for their own luxuries or comfortable living at the expense of others who work for nothing.

We have become so driven to get a good bargain. Isn’t that valid? Isn’t it right to try to get a good deal, to go where the best sale price is available? Isn’t it wonderful when prices get rolled back or set at new locked down levels?

We love to find a good deal. When people give a compliment on what we are wearing, we often enjoy telling the story of the great bargain that we got. Why is it, when we buy something nice that’s inexpensive, we think we’re a smart shopper? Is cheap/inexpensive always better?

What if we would pause at the point of purchase and ask questions. “Why is this so cheap? I wonder if the person who made this was paid a fair wage.”

We, as a culture, are so absorbed in our consumption of things and entertainment that we ignore or forget what the cost is to the rest of the world. As well, the complexities of current supply chains of most large food and clothing suppliers and manufacturers are intricate and confusing. It is difficult to know where exactly a child is used along the line. But some countries are known to use child labour more than others and those countries are big exporters to Canada.

The International Labour Organization believes there are 215 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 who participate in child labour, which is defined as work that is physically or mentally harmful and interferes with schooling.

Can we change this? Can we make any kind of difference? Remember the factory collapse in Bangladesh almost four years ago, where just over 1100 workers died? In the ruins of that factory, people found articles of Joe Fresh clothing. After much publicity and public pressure, the parent company, Loblaw has been involved in improving conditions for garment workers. Exactly what has happened in the past four years is difficult to determine, but changes can happen.

Are the words of challenge to the unjust king in Jeremiah only addressed to those who are rich, to government leaders or corporate officials? What is our responsibility toward justice for the workers who supply our food and clothing?

As consumers, we can begin to ask our favourite companies what they are doing to be part of the solution in building a slave-free economy. It’s easy to claim that, in our global economy, it’s too difficult to address the supply chain and to guarantee slave-free products. However, can we believe that nothing is too hard or justifies the enslavement of other human beings? It might be challenging, but it is not impossible.

Companies spend millions of dollars on marketing strategies to get our attention and build a relationship with us to get us to buy their products. They create surveys, campaigns, and advertisements all in hopes that their investment will pay off later in our exchange of money for their services or goods. We need to let them know that we care whether men, women, and children are enslaved to make the products we buy. We need to communicate to our favourite companies and brands that we will put our money toward those what are honestly and transparently working toward a slave-free economy.

It might cost us more. It might raise our grocery or clothing expenses. It might mean we spend our limited income differently. Let’s look at our coffee habit, for example. It’s an easy target. What would happen if all the coffee drinkers would ask about the child labour practices used in harvesting coffee beans? What if we would insist on using fair trade coffee, which pays farmers a fair market value?

Some coffee industry executives say the labour issue isn't their concern. Gary Goldstein of the National Coffee Association, which represents the companies that make Folgers, Maxwell House, Nescafe, and other brands, says, "This industry isn't responsible for what happens in a foreign country.” Really? Who is making the profit from what happens in that foreign country?

Ten years ago, the world coffee economy was worth $30 billion, of which producers received 40 percent. Today, the world market has grown to be worth more than $50 billion, of which producers receive just 16 percent.

Although they have not lowered consumer prices, coffee companies are paying far less for the beans they use. This creates, at best, sweatshops in the field and, at worst, the conditions that breed human slavery.

Many of the people growing coffee work exceedingly long hours for less than $600 per year, while others are enslaved and paid nothing. Meanwhile, Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods, the parent company of Maxwell House Coffee, is paid more than $26 million a year, and Howard D.Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, receives more than $30 million a year.

Fair trade coffee pays the farmers a fair market price for their product. What if we insisted that our coffee shops purchased fair trade coffee? Yes, it might put the price up. If our church purchased fair trade coffee, it would be about double what we currently pay in the store. What is the just thing to do for the farmers producing the coffee beans?

Hear the words of Jeremiah spoken about King Josiah, “‘He did what was right and treated people fairly, and things went well with him. He stuck up for the down-and-out, defending the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Isn’t this what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 22:15b-16).

It’s easy to judge the rich executives. Let’s not neglect to look at our own participation and responsibility to live justly and care for others, to love our neighbour as ourselves.

When it comes to our purchasing power, we should begin by praying for wisdom. This is counter-cultural thinking in a world where impulse buying and the “we want what we want” mentality is embedded in our consumption habits. In slowing down and thoughtfully questioning how things are made and produced, we will be able to reallocate our spending to slave-free items that we need and begin to understand what real value is: when all lives are treated with dignity.

Let’s conclude with a video from the study guide, Live Just.ly. www.livejust.ly/videos Scroll down to Session 6, Justice and Consumption

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