It is the 8th century before Christ; David and Solomon’s empire has split into two- a northern kingdom, Israel, and a Southern Kingdom of Judah. It was then that a southerner, from the hill city of Tekoa south of Bethlehem who described himself as a “herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees” received a call to prophecy in Israel. His name was Amos.
When he appears on the scene, the northern kingdom is booming. None of the big powers in the region such as Egypt or Assyria are on the prowl. For a change, the government is stable: King Jeroboam II is in the midst of reigning over a half century of prosperity and strength. Amos cannot get over what he finds in the northern cities. The luxurious lifestyles shock him: gorgeous couches, beds of carved ivory, summer homes, top grade meat, fine wines. And it seems obvious to Amos that this extravagance is built on a foundation of injustice: oppression of the poor, slavery, dishonest business practices, court brides, privilege bought with money. People are too busy enjoying the good life and not loving God and their neighbor. In order to get the attention of those who are at ease in Zion, Amos speaks in italics and exclamation points.
Amos warns, Israel cannot forever push God into the small corner of their lives, to be brought out like a magic charm whenever they need him. They cannot build their lives on the backs of the poor and the oppressed.
So he speaks. It is not a comfortable word: This country is in a perilous state. You have already been warned by plagues of locusts and by parching drought that to trifle with the Lord of Creation is fraught with peril. Despite your carefree optimism, your society is built on rotten foundations. I have seen YHWH standing on your walls with a plumb line in his hand and he said to me, “this place must be destroyed. What was once straight has become crooked. I can stand no more. This land is ripe for destruction.” Can you imagine how the beautiful people of his day responded to this message?
No wonder his ministry lasted no more than a couple of years! Here is a man who dares to tell us what we don’t want to hear. Amos is the prophet of justice. His standards are uncompromising, like the God he speaks for! True he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder-the desert-dweller’s suspicion of everything connected with civilization, which is apt to bias his judgment.
But on the moral order of the universe, he is on bedrock. Morality is not an accident or a convention: it is the principle on which the universe works. Amos is no philosopher and builds no system. What he sees, he sees by inspiration and intuition. For him the sequence of cause and effect applies to the whole of life: sow evil and reap destruction, whether you are man or nation.
Amos is also the voice of social conscience. He reminds us that our heritage as people of God is not only to be concerned with our individual salvation but also with our neighbor; read just society. When Jesus began his public ministry, he returned to his hometown to speak in the synagogue there. He got up and read these words from Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Later he told an incredible parable of the sheep and the goats the punch line of which goes like this: 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. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Jesus has some Amos in him, doesn’t he?
As inheritors of the prophetic message of Amos, and Jesus, as Christian people, we are reminded as the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal Church puts it to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” We are also called to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”
It seems to me that an important ingredient in the role of formation is not only the ability to distinguish between right and wrong but also an understanding of the larger context of neighbor; Amos and Jesus challenge us today as the Church to speak out against injustice, and hypocrisy in our own culture and to be advocates for “the least of these” in our own day.
Maybe our style won’t be as confrontational as Amos’s was, but our message must be just as strong. Amen.