As I was consulting with colleagues this week, it seems the vast majority were struggling with Amos. A lot of them were choosing to ignore him completely, but since I committed to preaching about the prophets for the next couple of months, well, I had to deal with him. So today I’m introducing you to Amos: this shepherd turned prophet, who had some pretty serious warnings for the people of Israel. He’s telling a wealthy, powerful nation in the prime of its existence that the people have got their priorities backwards, and that there will be consequences if they don’t pay attention to what God wants from them. The language is harsh and violent – even including sexual violence, which does not sit well on my feminist ears. Why is it that women and children always seem to bear the brunt of their people’s errors? It happens again and again throughout history: First the armies come, and the men (and now women) give up their lives – then the raping and pillaging begins.
So, I have to say that while I’m not terribly happy with what Amos has to say here, it tends to be born out in history. Thank God, not as much as it once was, but still far too often in this pain-wracked world of ours. Amos is describing the consequences of a nation that will fall to its enemies because it has lost its way – because it has forgotten God, and will suffer the consequences. From the perspective of history, we may see the fate of Israel as the result of political and economic forces; but the perspective of the prophet is that ancient Israel’s eventual defeat as a nation is because they’ve stopped listening to their God – and the way he gets people’s attention is to use the most dramatic, shocking imagery he can come up with.
The problem Amos is preaching about is that too many people are living as if it is their will and their wellbeing alone that matters in the world. They see their prosperity and power as a sign that God is on their side – that they’ve got God tucked away safely in their corner. But they’ve got it wrong. According to all of the commandments of God, they are sorely lacking. They exploit the poor, they do not care for the needy, they prey on the vulnerable, they profane the worship of Yahweh. In today’s terms we might talk about sweatshops, cutting of social programs, prostitution of children and profiteering, corporate execs earning billions while thousands are unemployed, people going to church on Sunday and then dealing dishonestly with their associates on Monday. You can probably think of more parallels. Things are very wrong in the state of Israel – as they are wrong in many states today.
Israel made a covenant with God at the time of their Exodus: the God of their ancestors – Yahweh, Jehovah, the Great I Am – this God would care for them and protect this tiny, beleaguered people. Their part of the covenant was the Ten Commandments – the promise to care for one another in community, to be honest, to be respectful of each other, to preserve life, and so on. And now they, as a nation, are violating that covenant. Now that things are going well for them, they’re ignoring the commitments they’ve made to God and to each other.
It’s Amos’ job to give the people a reality check – something the people in power really aren’t happy about – because this system works for them! Amaziah, a priest of the temple in Bethel, tells Amos he better shut up, because the temple belongs to the king, and God is the God of the royal family, not of some upstart shepherd from the southern country of Judah. Amaziah accuses Amos of sedition and treason – rather like J. Edgar Hoover accusing Martin Luther King, Jr of being a Communist! Amaziah, as priest of the most powerful temple sanctuary in Israel, is preaching the party line: God is on our side, and whoever is not on our side, is against God, too. This is standard theology in the ancient world – and doesn’t it sound familiar?
But Amos stands firm. He is absolutely confident that he has something to say about how God sees all this, and he knows that the king and his priest do not have a monopoly on God. So he declares in God’s name that this attempt to shut him up will only result in worse for those who want to silence the voice of judgement.
What hits really hard as one reads Amos’ words throughout the book, is that it is precisely because God is the God of the people of Israel in a special way, that Israel is heading for trouble. God chose them, cared for them, led them, and they have violated the promises they made to God: the promises to serve God and to live in a covenant of mutual caring with one another. Any nation that thinks of itself as particularly blessed by God better sit up and take notice, because with blessing comes responsibility.
The 4th century bishop Augustine wrote to his fellow Christians: “The Lord is gentle; the Lord is slow to anger; the Lord is gracious. But the Lord is also just. The Lord is also faithful. God gives you space for correction, but you love the delay of judgement more than the amendment of your ways.” And isn’t that true? We want to hear more about God’s mercy for us –and please don’t ask us how merciful we have been to others! One of the dilemmas of any person who dares to speak in God’s name is the challenge of declaring the unconditional love of God, without compromising the responsibility we have to share that love ourselves with others. When we talk about those chosen to take leadership in the church as ordained ministers, we have traditionally talked about the roles of preacher, pastor and prophet. Preaching – well, OK, we might not always like what the minister says, but it’s her job to preach. Pastor – this is always the most popular part of a minister’s job: the stuff that’s about caring, listening, loving, comforting, supporting. It’s the prophet part that is the least popular, and the hardest part of our job. The old line is: “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. But no one really wants to be afflicted, do they? And what do we do when most of us are both the comfortable and the afflicted at the same time?
The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us what it is to love God and to love neighbour. The public, communal face of love is not just charitable works – like the compassionate act of the Samaritan – but also, the work of justice. We like to talk about love in the church, and rightly so. But we cannot claim to love and worship God and ignore the plight of those around us. A lot of preachers have gotten in trouble with their congregations for reminding them of that truth: that faith in God without loving deeds and the search for justice is empty. At different times in our preaching, we emphasize God’s unconditional love and grace more than works; but we can’t ignore that the fruit by which we are judged, by God and by those around us, is how we actually live our lives.
So what about us – what about this gathering of people who have been called and claimed by Christ? Our calling is both gift and responsibility. Like Israel, the Christian church has been given a special role in the world. How are we doing on following that calling as Christ’s own? How do we treat the prophets among us – those who point to the signs of coming disaster and try to wake us up to our responsibilities? It’s almost always hard for us to listen to those voices – but we ignore those prophets at our peril.
The most obvious example is the decades-old warnings from environmentalists over the degradation of our planet: call it pollution on a cosmic scale, call it global warning, call it climate change – even the most sceptical person can see the results of our carelessness and unwillingness to change our ways. Those who call us to account for our neglect of creation are doing the work of God – and we have imperilled our lives and the lives of billions of other creatures by our failure to pay attention.
Where else might God be speaking to us? We might ask ourselves if there’s something that has been trying to get our attention: some issue that just keeps coming up, something that makes us uncomfortable, something that makes us want to turn off the TV or put down the newspaper or avoid the person who is speaking these words to us. It just may be that God’s found another prophet, and is trying to give us a reality check, too.
The tension between God’s love and God’s judgement is one we always have to live with. But I will say this: it is precisely because God is Love in its highest form, that God wants us to be accountable for our actions. If we are irresponsible and act without thought for others, then that will damage everyone involved, including ourselves. Whether we understand God as a powerful, compassionate Being who wants us to be whole, healthy, loving people, or whether we understand God as the power of Love and Life itself, either way, the truth is that the Divine impulse is to move the universe to a holy, whole and healthy life. Anything that gets in the way of that, well, that has its consequences.
Sometimes, we need to be reminded that we are not just passive recipients of the amazing love of God, but also disciples, called to share that love with the world. And let us not forget that to seek justice is to put a public and communal face on love, for to seek justice is to seek a world in which all are cared for, all are fed, all are treated with dignity and can live in peace. So, as the prophet Amos tells us “Let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
(For a truly excellent article about Amos the prophet, go to: http://justicebeforecharity.org/amos.php)