From the Prophet Amos:
Thus says the Lord: As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who live in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Amos 3:12 (NRSV) – December 4, 2013.)
I’m sitting here this morning knowing full well that I should be writing something about Advent and, truth be told, there are other parts of today’s daily readings that would lend themselves to an Advent reflection. But…. yesterday a federal court in Michigan decreed that the city of Detroit could carry on with a restructuring of its debt through bankruptcy and, more importantly and more destructively, that among the obligations that could be discharged are its pension responsibilities to former municipal employees. I was deeply troubled by that news when I heard it yesterday morning and I’ve been pondering it since.
It’s been more than thirty years since I graduated from law school (thirty years!) and at no time in those three decades have I practiced bankruptcy law, and I certainly haven’t kept up with the changes in statutory or judicial determination of what debts can and cannot be discharged. The only significant change that I know of personally is the legislative decision that student loans cannot be subjected to bankruptcy protection (about which I am keenly aware as the parent of a young adult with significant educational debt). Nonetheless, I recall from my law school studies that the basic concept of court-supervised bankruptcy is supposed to fairness and equity to both debtor and creditors. Sometimes fairness requires that an obligation cannot be set aside in bankruptcy; sometimes equity demands that the creditor be made whole to the greatest extent possible. There is something that seems to me grossly unfair about allowing an employer to simply walk away from a contractual promise to pay a pension, about putting pensioners into the same class of creditors with vendors and lenders.
So with that news of the day in my consciousness, I sat down to read the Daily Office and contemplate the Lectionary texts . . . and the image of the lion with two legs of a lamb or the ear of a goat hanging from its lips (which Amos has taken from the laws of Exodus) struck me as a visual metaphor for the plight of Detroit’s retirees (and possibly those of other employers, public and private, if this decision sets a precedent).
The law of Moses requires that someone entrusted with another’s livestock who has lost an animal to a predator, in order to prove that that is the case and that he has not taken it for his own use, salvage some part of the carcass (Exod. 22:13). Amos twists the legal requirement into a prophetic metaphor by using the verb “rescue” to refer to the salvage of the body parts and then uses the metaphor to describe the way in which God will “rescue” the Israelites of Samaria, driving the point home by saying that those few who will be “rescued” will also come away with only a fragment of their possessions, “the corner of a couch and part of a bed.”
I’m not really sure who’s the lion or who’s the rescuer in the Detroit bankruptcy, but I’m pretty certain who the sacrificial lambs are, who the people who are going to get to keep only a fragment (if that) of what ought to be legally theirs. At one point, Jesus warned his disciples about those whom he described as loving “to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” who want to have the “places of honor at banquets:” “They devour widows’ houses,” he said. (Luke 20:46-47) I can’t help but think of that warning, and see this image of the lion with legs dangling from its mouth, when I think of the pensioners who will be deprived of their retirement income by this court decision and the actions of the city managers of Detroit.
Perhaps the Advent message in the lesson from Amos today is found a few verses further on when the prophet addresses those “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” and warns them, “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks . . . .” (Amos 4:1-2) That is the Advent theme, “The time is surely coming . . . the time is surely coming.”
The time is surely coming when the King will say to some, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing . . .” And he will assure them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matt. 25:42-43,45)
I wonder if he will add, “I was a retiree and you did not pay me my pension.” I wonder if he will mention the bankruptcy of Detroit.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.