Written by Pastor Ed
What Does Justice Require?
June 7, 2015
Books of the Bible – Amos
Stephen Colbert, the conservative counter-point to Jon Stewart in the fake news category, once declared, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Now, of course he was speaking to the U.S. but his words ring true for any nation or people, and in many ways speaks the message of the Amos, the shepherd turned prophet.
Amos is the earliest of the prophets to have their words collected and put into a scroll bearing the prophet’s name. For the most part, the book consists of the words of Amos, with only a few additions by an editor giving us some biographical and incident related material in the third person. (1:1 and 7:10-13)
Amos, according to that editor, was a shepherd in Tekoa, just a few miles south of Jerusalem, during the days of King Uzziah in Judah and King Jeroboam in Israel, “two years before the earthquake.” Unfortunately, we don’t know what earthquake this refers to, but it must have been a memorable one since Zechariah also mentions it some years later. That would date the prophecy of Amos somewhere between 760 and 745 B.C.
This was a period of relative calm in the area of Palestine. The world powers, Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon were occupied elsewhere and no one was attempting to dominate the region. An interesting side note is that because of this relative calm, the Olympic Games could be held in 776 B.C. Uzziah took advantage of this calm to try and institute some reform in Judah, perhaps urged on by Amos, although Amos directed most of his prophecy against the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Also given the lack of fighting going on, trade and commerce flourished and Israel and Judah lay along the major trade routes between Egypt and the powers to the north. And they took advantage of this both in exacting tolls and in developing their own merchant class. It was a time of prosperity for some and, as is often the case, poverty for others. As some became wealthier they began to crowd out those without access to that wealth. Small farms were bought up and displaced by large estates and the divide between rich and poor widened.
In the north, the shrines at Gilgal and Bethel became centres of worship for the wealthy who saw their wealth as the approval of the gods, and of course the priests and prophets benefited as well. At each of the shines there sprang up a guild of priests and prophets who told the people what they wanted to hear and reinforced the message that prosperity was a sure sign of God’s favour. The temptation then, as now, was to say what the people wanted to hear. Why would you tell someone they were doing wrong when they were your benefactors? As they say, “You shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
So when Amos, a shepherd arrived at Bethel and began to denounce what was going on, many thought he was just attempting religious blackmail. “You want a better message? Just pay me a little more money!” But Amos rebuffs them. “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, just a lowly herdsman and tree trimmer.” (7:14) That is, I’m not a part of the guild of professional prophets, I was called by God to speak. In today’s language “I’m an outsider.”
And what was his message to the people of Israel? Amos’ message from God was delivered in two rather interesting ways. In the first several chapters of the book, Amos does sort of a stealth move, using the formula, “for three transgressions of (name of country) and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” And he starts with the nations around Israel; Gaza, Tyre, Edom, the Ammonites and Moab. And the people listening would have been cheering him on. Yes! Go after them!
And then Amos names first Judah, which would have caused the Israelites to begin to wonder and then turns his attention to Israel. “For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the 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 the indictment continues and he doesn’t mince words. “You cows of Bashan!” he calls them at one point. Over and over Amos denounces the people of Israel for the way they treat the poor. Even though they bring their offerings, even three times a week, they are only multiplying their sins because they are forgetting the weightier matters of the law.
And then there is a series of visions, of locusts, fire, a plumb line, and a basket of fruit all with explanations of how each relates to the coming judgement on Israel for her sins. Unlike later prophets, Amos does not have a lot of hope is the future for Israel. Only at the very end of the book is there any hope for a restored and renewed Israel, and that only of a remnant who remain faithful.
While business was going well for many in Israel, and worship at Bethel and Gilgal was lively and done to perfection, things were not good in Israel. To a visitor it might have looked like all was well, prosperity was evident and people dressed in their finest were all about. Attendance at worship was up and the offerings were great.
But God said, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” As The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible put it, “it is the justice, holiness, and purity of God that calls for justice, holiness, and purity in the common life of Israel.”
Now we tend to think of justice in terms of punishment for someone doing something wrong. We want the courts to mete out justice and punish those who have broken the law. But justice in the Bible has more to do with making things right, more like what we would call restorative justice rather than punishment, which doesn’t really make anything right or restore relationships.
Justice in the Bible requires the righting of wrongs, and that includes economic justice as well. Is it right that some have far more than they need while others are starving? And how did those with so much get that way? Evidently in Israel it meant some shady dealings with fixed scales and slightly off measures. If you do enough business, a small increase or decrease can make a lot of difference. When McDonald’s began they allowed their employees to squirt catsup on the burgers on their own, but later developed a tool that squirted a set amount on each burger, thus saving the corporation vast sums of money. I’m not saying they were shorting people on catsup, just an illustration of how a small change can make a lot of difference in the bottom line.
Amos’ message to the people was quite simple. All of your great worship and sacrifices, showing up for church even three times a week, won’t do you any good if you are cheating in your business or ignoring the plight of those less fortunate. Jesus put it this way, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 7: 21)
Justice requires that we not remain neutral. I recall working with a couple who were having marital difficulties and clearly there were abusive things in the relationship. As a young pastor I was trying to be neutral and listen to both sides and be encouraging. I finally talked with a colleague of mine who was a professional counselor who said, “There are times when you can’t be neutral. Sometimes justice requires that you take a side and stand against oppression, or in this case abuse.”
It was good advice, and I changed my stance and began naming the abuse for what it was. There are times when justice calls us to name the oppression and abuse. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has just released their final report which names the abuse and injustice done to aboriginal Canadians. But naming it is not enough. Seeking to right the injustice and follow the recommendations is needed as well.
Again and again the Bible speaks to the plight of the oppressed, the poor, the orphan and widow. And again and again we are told that how we treat the least and the lowly in society says a great deal more about our faith than whether we show up in church on Sunday or put our money in the offering plate. Not that those things aren’t also important. Hosea, who was active shortly after Amos, took the priests to task for not upholding proper worship.
As with many of the prophets, we don’t know what happened to Amos after he was ordered to leave Bethel, but his message has continued to ring down through the centuries. One of the marks of the early church was their care for the poor, not abandoning the sick, and looking after the widows.
I’m not sure that any nation can be called Christian, but perhaps Colbert’s word need to be heard just as much be the church that calls itself Christian as by any nation that calls itself that. I think Amos would agree.