Chances are, a fair number of us here today have ordered something from Amazon.com at some point. You can buy literally just about anything in the world on their website: lawnmowers, iPods, art work, toys, diapers, shoes, bike racks, gun safes, 3-D printers, cameras, auto parts, janitorial supplies, light bulbs, bath fixtures, mattresses, candles, office furniture, step ladders, televisions, groceries, fresh flowers, lip stick, shoes, jewelry, watches, skies, fishing reels, and on and on. If you’re one of the millions of people who have signed up for Amazon Prime, your purchases are delivered free of charge to your door two days after you click the button confirming your purchase. And Amazon is more than just a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer like Apple, building its own Kindle devices, it’s a utility company like RG & E, providing server infrastructure to start-up companies (as well as to the C.I.A.), it’s a video distributor like Netflix, a literary magazine like The Paris Review, a grocery deliverer like FreshDirect, and someday it may become a package service like U.P.S. Amazon is an enormous and still very fast growing company: they hired about 30,000 people last year in the United States alone. So, it can be hard to remember that Amazon started out selling just...books. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, was no great lover of books. He was working on Wall Street in the early ’90’s, and when the Internet started taking off, he had this idea. Book stores are limited by their physical space: they can only stock a certain number of titles. There are way too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. But a bookstore in cyberspace could provide access to every book in print. Bezos moved to Seattle and started his website. He priced the books close to cost in order to increase sales volume. Amazon really took off, and I remember how fantastic I thought it was: so convenient, and the access to any book I wanted was just amazing. And in general, in the early years, most everyone agreed. Publishers thought it was terrific to have another way to sell their books, authors were excited at the possibility of more readers having access to their work, and readers loved the convenience.
I read an article this week in The New Yorker by George Packer called “Cheap Words.” Packer provides a sort of history of Amazon and how its business has impacted the publishing industry. First, of course, is the impact on bookstores. In the twenty or so years Amazon has been in business, the number of small independently owned bookstores has shrunk by well over 50%, going from about 5,000 in 1993 to about 1,900 today. And it’s not just the small independent bookstores that have had trouble competing with Amazon, the big chains have suffered as well, with Border’s closing its stores and Barnes and Noble experiencing shrinking profits. All of that is sort of what you’d figure, and probably is just the reality of changes in how we do business in the Internet age. But what was really fascinating to me is the impact Amazon has had on how books get published. Traditionally, authors would send their manuscripts or book proposals to publishing houses. Editors would read the work and decide if it was something they wanted to publish, and they’d work with the author to polish and edit their work, they’d figure out how best to market the book, and they would sort of take care of their authors over the years to help them write more books. Amazon has pushed the profit margins for publishers down so much that there is not much money for them to do that sort of work with authors anymore. Plus, Amazon makes it very easy for authors to publish their own work directly, by-passing publishers and editors all together. Some authors really like that, authors who had trouble getting published before, folks who are happy to have just a few hundred people read their work. But Packer says there’s a problem: if you’re a big name author, you’re fine. If you’re happy self-publishing and having pretty limited readership, you’re fine. But if you’re in the middle, and most authors twenty years ago would fall into that category, you’re really left out in the cold. Publishers don’t have the resources to help you develop your work and help you sell it so you can support yourself. The result of this for readers is that while Amazon initially provided access to more titles and brought down prices, it has in essence decreased the number and diversity of books available. Giving people access to books takes more than the basic rules of economics and good business practices: it takes investment in up and coming authors.
I think we run into this problem a lot. We think we’ve figured out how something works, what is important, what we are supposed to focus on, only to find out that our focus really needs to be elsewhere. Take nutritional information, for instance. Remember when margarine was supposed to be a healthy alternative to butter? When eggs were supposedly bad for you? When saccharine was better for you than sugar? And it’s not just nutrition or economics or good business, we get basic things wrong about life. I think that is what Jesus is trying to make his disciples realize in our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel. Unfortunately, our lectionary, that schedule that determines what parts of the bible we read on any given Sunday, chops off what I think is really the introduction to our reading this morning. Jesus is up on the mountain with his disciples talking about the kingdom of heaven, trying to explain to them how it works. In the verse right before our reading, he says to them, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Pharisees were a group of folks within Judaism who did their best to follow the law, all of the commandments, not just the 10 big ones, but all 613 of the laws in Leviticus. These laws govern what faithful Jews can and can’t eat, what they can and can’t wear, who they can marry and how they can get divorced, and how they are to treat each other in all sorts of interactions, from business dealings to how to act in an ethical way in everyday life. All faithful Jews tried to follow the laws, but they are very complicated and it takes a lot of time and money to really follow them to the letter, so only the most dedicated and relatively well-off folks were able to do it successfully. These folks were the Pharisees, and they were generally well-respected, even if on occasion they could be a little full of themselves. So when the disciples hear that they will have to follow the law even better than the Pharisees, that can’t have been real welcome news; in fact, it sounds downright impossible.
But then Jesus goes on to explain what he means: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, I think Jesus is saying this: “You know the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s all well and good, but really, it’s not enough. If you’re angry with someone, if you’re holding a grudge, if you’re so ticked off that you want to curse them, you’re really not helping advance the kingdom. Don’t come to the altar and try and make things right between yourself and God if you haven’t already tried to make things right between yourself and those you live with.”
Jesus continues, “You know the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” That’s all well and good, but really, it’s not enough. If you’re spending your days ogling people outside your marriage, if you’re online for hours at a time looking at websites that you’d be embarrassed to show your mother, if you’re daydreaming about your neighbor, it’s really like you’re already being unfaithful to your spouse. Keep your heart and your mind where it should be, and your body will follow. Get rid of those habits that lead you down the wrong path.”
Jesus then talks about divorce. I want to be a little cautious here, because really the understanding of marriage in the ancient world was very very different from today. Women were for all intents and purposes viewed as property of their husbands, and a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all simply by handing her a certificate of divorce: women had no such right. I don’t think that Jesus is saying divorce in cases where there is abuse or where a relationship has become toxic and unrepairable is absolutely wrong; rather, I think he’s trying to say this, “Yes, I know that the law allows you to divorce your wife for little or no reason, but really that’s not what marriage is for. Your wife deserves to be treated better, treated like a person and not like a piece of property.
Finally, Jesus says, “You know the commandment, “You shall not swear falsely,” but really, that’s not enough. Be upright and honest in all your relationships, in all of your business dealings, and there is no need to take oaths, or to promise in God’s name. Let your own words mean what they say, let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No.”
I’ve really come to love this passage as I studied it this week, and here’s why. I think Jesus is saying, “Look, the kingdom of heaven is not going to be brought about by everyone following a few rules. This life isn’t about following rules so that no one gets hurt; this life is a gift from God, and one of the chief reasons life is such a gift is your relationships with others. Those relationships, with your spouse, your family and friends, your neighbors, and those you do business with, can’t just be governed by a few rules. If you really want to get the most out of this life, if you truly want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, if you truly want to have life-giving relationships, you must be guided by love and compassion, that same love and compassion that God shows for you. Let love and compassion be your guide in this life, and you will experience the kingdom of heaven here on earth.”
This week, I pray that we will examine our hearts and our minds as we go about our daily lives. Where are we holding on to resentment and anger is ways that are poisoning our relationships? How can we let it go, how can we make it right with others? How are we letting ourselves stray from our commitments to our spouses and our family and our friends, and how can we get back on the right path? How can we make sure our Yes is Yes and our No is No? May we be guided by love and compassion, and may we experience the kingdom of heaven through our relationships. Amen.