On a recent radio program, I learned that when someone asks, "How are you?" you're simply to respond, "Fine. How are you?" Unless you're speaking with your doctor or some other medical personnel, you're to presume the questioner really isn't interested in your actual physical or mental well-being. All cultures have parallel conventions. After a while one learns what to take seriously and what to slough off.
One of the problems our sacred authors surface today revolves around some people not taking their faith seriously. Though these individuals employ the proper religious words and gestures, they don't expect anyone to take what they say and do literally. Certainly they themselves don't. Their faith is as much a cultural convention as someone's request to know how you are.
Amos, the first "book prophet," confronts such people. "When will the new moon be over," they ask, "that we may sell our grain, and the Sabbath that we may display the wheat?" Determined not to break any of the laws regulating the use of sacred times, they wait to buy and sell their products until those holy periods are over. But when they finally return to business as usual, they "diminish the ephah, add to the shekel and fix (their) scales for cheating." In other words, they're planning to defraud the poor with false weights and measures. "We will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals (a biblical idiom for a bribe); even the refuse of the wheat we will sell."
It's logical to ask why these dealers so scrupulously keep every religious law governing the Sabbath and full moon, yet deliberately connive to break Yahweh's law to love one's neighbor. They're simply not serious about living and growing in their faith. As long as it's culturally convenient, they're faithful. When it's not, they're faithless.
Yahweh's judgment on such behavior is classic: "Never will I forget a thing they have done."
Luke's Jesus, fearing some of his followers will also adopt the religious attitude Amos condemns, gives an example of a dishonest servant who plots, schemes and conspires to avoid his master's punishment, eventually coming up with a strategy to impoverish his master and enrich himself.
Jesus uses the dishonest servant's ingenuity in doing evil as a goad to get his followers to be just as ingenious in doing good. "For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light." Amos and Jesus agree: evil people frequently spend more time honing their field of expertise than good people exert developing their area of specialization.
That's why Jesus returns to his basic message of repentance, encouraging us to undergo a change in our value system. "No servant can serve two masters. He or she will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon (dishonest wealth)." In other words, put your money where your values are.
The author of I Timothy is committed to the same belief. Though he presumes Christians will lead a life different from non-Christians in the community, he encourages them to live that unique life in a "quiet and tranquil" manner, not calling attention to themselves. Still, nothing should alter their conviction that ". . . There is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as ransom for all."
If this short, early Christian hymn isn't at the heart of our faith, then our practice of that faith eventually will become just as insipid as our telling people, "Have a happy day!"