Amos is the first of the great “writing prophets.” He lived about 750 years before Jesus, and he worked in the northern kingdom of Israel, even though he was from the town of Tekoa, in the southern Kingdom of Judah. He did not recognize this political division of God’s people as being particularly significant.
He was probably fairly well-off himself, an educated landowner. But, as he says, the Lord took him, and instructed him to prophesy to God’s people.
It was a time of prosperity for both kingdoms; both were enjoying stable royal dynasties. But things were going especially well for Israel. The area had relative peace, and they found themselves situated on a busy trade-route. Many Israelites were getting rich.
I still remember my father preaching on the opening chapters of Amos, and the way he talked about the prophet building up a head of steam, first sharply criticizing the nations around Israel for their injustices and atrocities, getting the crowd whipped into a patriotic frenzy. But then, Amos turns his attention to Israel, and my dad imagined the crowd then getting quiet and even angry.
“For thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not revoke punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way,” proclaims Amos. And then the rest of this book is largely a wall-to-wall hammering of the sins of his own people, the Israelites, and their king, Jeroboam II.
Almost all of Amos’ criticism has to do with economic justice. The Israelites, in their prosperity, had allowed a huge gap to develop between the rich and the poor. The rich, in their expanding greed, oppressed the poor mercilessly, and imagined that their religious observances and their Israelite blood would exempt them from God’s judgment.
To which Amos repeatedly says, “I don’t think so!” He predicts comprehensive consequences in terms of natural disasters like droughts and plagues. And this will culminate in the nation being destroyed and carried off into exile. God is the Lord of nature and history, and God is not mocked with impunity.
Offering perfect sacrifices and singing songs to God will not cut it. Amos insists that the way to honor God is to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” In taking this approach Amos anticipates and prepares the way and sets the tone for the subsequent prophets. They will take up the same themes and message as Amos.
For any other nation, there was no problem. Rich people were thriving, and rich people controlled the religion and the government. If the poor people who actually did all the work were suffering that was not a concern. The GDP was soaring. Amos attests that the wealthy class lived in stone mansions, one for summer and another for winter; they slept on beds of ivory, they feasted on lamb and veal, they drank good wine and anointed themselves with fine oils. They also rigged the economy for their own benefit, using false balances and adding floor sweepings to the wheat-flour they sold. (Israel had no FDA.)
None of this would have disturbed any of the surrounding nations. Their gods approved of and provided for this kind of economic growth. No prophets of Baal ever emerge to decry economic unfairness or injustice.
But the God of Israel is different. And this difference is based on the fact that their ancestors were slaves who had escaped from cruel bondage in Egypt. And their God gave them a law which was supposed to keep them from falling into the same kinds of injustice they experienced in Egypt. This God of escaped slaves does care about the poor and the exploited and the needy. This God identifies with the people who do all the work in society. This is the God who instructs them not to steal, not to oppress aliens, to observe a weekly day of rest from profit-making work even for animals, and not to let wealth pile up among just a few. This God does not want this nation to be anything like Egypt. Israel was supposed to be anti-Egypt in almost every way.
So when God blesses the nation with prosperity and peace, God’s intention is that this be something from which everyone benefits. God wants the wealth given to Israel to be distributed evenly so there would not be anyone who was poor, or crushed by debt, or working hard to make someone else richer.
Unfortunately, this did not happen in Israel. When times were good, they forgot the covenant their God made with them. They reduced it to meaningless religious rituals. And they allowed a system to develop that was no different from that of any other nation. The rich got richer, and more corrupt, while everyone else got poorer, and sank further into debt, while working harder all the time.
God hates it when this happens. God looks at this and it looks to God like another Egypt. And what Egypt’s injustice and oppression brought down upon itself was a devastating series of plagues, natural disasters that broke their system and forced the Pharaoh to let God’s people go.
Only now it is God’s people themselves who are doing this! These are the people who are supposed to know better because they have God’s law. These are not clueless Gentiles mindlessly following the impulses of their own egos. These are not people governed by the dog-eat-dog chaos of natural selection or survival of the fittest. These are the people of God! And when they choose to act like any other nation it constitutes an explicit rejection of God and God’s way. They have no excuse. As far as Amos is concerned, they have consciously chosen death.
At one point Amos has a series of visions. One of these is of a plumb-line, a string with a weight tied at the bottom. Contractors still use plumb-lines to make sure that walls are straight and built absolutely perpendicular to the ground. A plumb-line works by the inexorable law of gravity. It will point to the center of the Earth.
A wall that is not straight, or is not at 90 degrees to the ground, will fall. Gravity always wins.
God’s law, says Amos, is like gravity. It is absolute and irrevocable. A crooked wall may stand for a while, but it will fall eventually. A nation may thrive on injustice and inequality for a while too. Oppressing the poor can make a few people very rich for a while. The nation will look wealthy and prosperous, the system will appear to be working, especially if you only measure like the average wealth or income. I mean, if 1% of the population make $5m a year and 99% make about $5k a year, the average is going to look pretty good.
But God is not fooled any more than gravity is fooled. God is not fooled any more than the laws of physics can be denied and ignored. God says repeatedly that idolatry leads to injustice, which leads to disaster. God’s people had fallen into idolatry. They were worshiping these other gods in the “high places,” the State-approved sanctuaries that were supposed to replace going to Jerusalem. The gods of prosperity encouraged the regime of injustice and inequality, and Amos knows that catastrophe always results from this. So he predicts that these sanctuaries will be laid waste, the monarchy will be destroyed by war, and the people will go off into exile.
The wall that tries to defy gravity will collapse; the nation that tries to defy God’s laws will suffer the same fate. And by the way, these are not issues of personal or sexual morality that God and Amos care about. Amos mentions in passing something about cultic prostitution in 2:7-8. But it is the crooked and unjust economics that gets God riled up.
This message upsets the establishment. The State-approved priest, Amaziah, starts arguing with Amos. First, he informs on Amos to the king. Then he tries to send Amos back to the southern kingdom, where he came from. And he bans Amos from preaching at the royal sanctuary at Bethel.
Amos replies that he is just an ordinary guy who was taken by the Lord and compelled to come north and preach. He is not a member of one of the official, State-supported guilds of prophets. He is not, in other words, one of the king’s religious lackeys. His job is not to tell with wealthy and powerful what they want to hear.
Amos recognizes a higher authority. The Lord God is higher than the king. Amaziah says Amos should not prophecy at Bethel because “it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” It probably had the royal flag up by the altar.
This argument means nothing to Amos. He is not an agent of the king or the State. He is only an agent of God. Thus Amos witnesses to a collision between the interests of God and the agenda of the State, the government, the establishment, the authorized priesthood, and the ruling, wealthy class.
Who are we agents of? Is our ministry like that of Amos in the sense that it is about God’s will according to God’s Word? Are we annoying agitators for justice and righteousness? Are we standing up for those who have been left behind, who do the work, who bear the burdens, who suffer the consequences of others’ actions? Are we with the homeless and the undocumented, the sick and the infirm, the unemployed and the indebted?
Hey, I think you folks do pretty well! One of the reasons I came to this church was that I saw how well you care for each other, and that you were willing to be of real assistance even to strangers. Our “Be-the-Church” experience a few weeks ago was another example of this. We should keep this up and even build on what we are doing!
At the same time, Amos does not come to the northern kingdom and start a food pantry to help poor people (as good and important as food pantries are). He addresses the king. He gets in the face of the rich and powerful who are running a corrupt and destructive system. He makes himself so unpopular that there might have been a price on his head. He attacks the root cause of poverty and debt, which is first of all idolatry: obeying something other than God, going along with the promises of prosperity these other gods tempted people with.
And secondly Amos attacks the policies that make for catastrophic inequalities in the distribution of the wealth that God intends for everyone. Amos addresses the problem at its source: bad, selfish, greedy, exploitative leadership.
In our gospel reading we see John the Baptizer doing the same thing… and suffering gruesome consequences. John is a prophet who follows the traditional prophetic role, established by Amos and his predecessor, Elijah. He addresses the leader, the king. And he as no effect at all. Herod cuts off his head and presents it to his step-daughter as a gift. What can a prophet say to such a decadent, degenerate leader and his laughing court? Nothing.
Jesus has already established a different approach. He
comes pretty much ignoring the leaders and the men with the power and money. Instead, he invites everyone into a new kind of community. He calls it the Kingdom of God. It will not be dependent on kings and rich people. It will be a gathering of the common people, starting with the poor and the outcast, and those whom society declared to be sinners. He starts with the most unlikely people: prostitutes and tax collectors. One group is hated by the right because of their immorality; the other group is hated by the left because of their injustices. These are the new leaders – anti-leaders, perhaps – whom Jesus will call to lead people into this new community.
Jesus does not go to the king, and only at the end of his ministry does he get to the royal sanctuary, the Temple. He goes and collects, well, a motley gathering of losers from all walks of life. And he establishes small, alternative groups of sharing and healing, acceptance and prayer. The poor didn’t have much but if they shared what they did have, and if they did not adopt the values of their predatory economic leaders, they would draw closer to God’s intention from way back in Exodus when God gave Moses the law.
This is what King Herod hears about. And it scares him. Nothing terrifies a corrupt ruler more than the idea of the people not participating in their own subjugation anymore.
Maybe that’s what Jesus intends his church to be: gatherings of neighbors and friends for mutual support, prayer, encouragement, acceptance, forgiveness, and healing. Maybe he sends us out to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom by welcoming others into this community. Maybe Jesus comes to rebuild human society in God’s image, person by person, household by household, church by church.
We see where injustice gets us. We see where leaders want to take us. But we also see Jesus Christ, and where his teachings lead us. In him we are bound together; in him we are one, and all of our divisions are dissolved. In him we may embody the vision that Amos cherished, and that God gave to Moses, of a holy people, gathering in peace, and sent out in love to all the world, starting right here.