1 This is what the LORD God showed me: a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, “Amos, what do you see?”
I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”
Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again forgive them. 3 On that day, the people will wail the temple songs,” says the LORD God; “there will be many corpses, thrown about everywhere. Silence.”
4 Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land, 5 saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale, make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel, and deceive with false balances, 6 in order to buy the needy for silver and the helpless for sandals, and sell garbage as grain?”
7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget what they have done. 8 Will not the land tremble on this account, and all who live in it mourn, as it rises and overflows like the Nile, and then falls again, like the River of Egypt?
9 On that day, says the LORD God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in broad daylight. 10 I will turn your feasts into sad affairs and all your singing into a funeral song; I will make people wear mourning clothes and shave their heads; I will make it like the loss of an only child, and the end of it like a bitter day. 11 The days are surely coming, says the LORD God, when I will send hunger and thirst on the land; neither a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the LORD ‘s words. 12 They will wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they will roam all around, seeking the LORD’s word, but they won’t find it. (CEB)
Amos is a book that sets a great precedent. It does all of the things people say pastors and preachers should never do. I’ve been told more than once that pastors should not mix religion and politics. I’ve been told pastors shouldn’t talk about money or economics, either. Every time I open my mouth or make a post on social media about these things, someone inevitably responds that a pastor shouldn’t mix them together. It’s inappropriate, they say. You have offended me, they say.
I take their words as proof that I’ve gotten it right, because what God demands of us is offensive and uncomfortable. Will Willimon, one of my seminary professors, said that only a false god will never tell anything that’ll make you angry or uncomfortable. The Living God challenges us to choose something better than comfort and complacency. In fact, God wants us to choose righteousness! Not the false substitutes of self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, or self-congratulations, but true righteousness where we make moral choices and live moral lives that benefit the community, not merely ourselves.
In fact, the only reason people say pastors and preachers should not talk about politics, money, economics and the like is not because we shouldn’t, but because they simply don’t want to hear it. If it challenges the way we live and think, we might get offended. The truth is we don’t want to come to church and hear that we might actually have to change, or have to consider another way, or—God forbid!—be shown that we might need to repent of the choices and assumptions we have made.
If anyone really, truly believes there is any issue anywhere that pastors and preachers should not talk about, then I fear that person doesn’t quite grasp the God we worship in Judaism and Christianity. Our God makes absolutely no distinction between so called religious and secular matters. How we act in our every day—the morality or immorality of each decision we make and how those decisions affect others—is of particular concern to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Amos, and us. Even if something is perfectly legal, God demands we consider whether or not it is moral, and we are to choose the moral path.
In fact, the entirety of Amos’s message is concerned about the immoral economic practices of the northern Kingdom of Israel in the middle of the 8th century B.C. Did you know that God is so concerned with economics that he would send a prophet to preach a message of judgment to a kingdom lost in immoral economic practices? Amos preached the message that Poor Lives Matter, Needy Lives Matter, Vulnerable Lives Matter, Disenfranchised Lives Matter, just as Jesus later preached, “Blessed are the poor,” (Luke 6:20).
Part of our hesitancy to hear about matters of economic injustice, such as what Amos condemns, is our distaste with the idea of God’s anger. In fact, one of the prevailing views of early Christianity as presented by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, was that we shouldn’t take these comments about God’s anger literally. Rather, we should interpret them allegorically. We don’t want to imagine that God can actually get angry, and so we find ways to gloss over examples of Divine anger in Scripture. It’s an embarrassing idea, after all, that God could be moved to passion.
And yet, how can we say that God can love and find joy in human goodness without logically concluding that God finds displeasure and can become angry at human evil and injustice? God is never presented anywhere in the Scriptures as indifferent to injustice. In Jewish theology, God’s anger is always tied to God’s love. God’s pathos is always tied to God’s ethos. In regard to Gods’ anger, the great scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “It is because God is the source of justice that His pathos is ethical; and it is because God is absolutely personal—devoid of anything impersonal—that this ethos is full of pathos.” (Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, p. 5). God gets angry because God loves us, not because God has irrationally lost self-control. God’s anger is justice.
God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit and declares that the end has come upon Israel. “the people will wail the temple songs,” and “there will be many corpses, thrown about everywhere. Silence.” (CEB). We miss the connection in the English translations, but in Hebrew, the words for Summer-fruit and End sound similar. The summer-fruit, which represents to the people abundance, plenty, and the blessing of God’s providence now represents doom, death, and God’s absence.
Amos’s words should make us recoil. They’re intended to make us recoil. How does a prophet get the attention of those who have become indifferent to evil? With words and imagery like this.
What should have made the people recoil didn’t. What should have made people recoil with disgust were the economic injustices the wealthy were committing against the poor: cheating with false-balances, mixing in the sweepings with the grain, buying the poor into indentured slavery when they had nothing else with which to purchase the basic necessities of life.
The mistreatment and cheating of other human beings for personal gain should have disgusted them, instead the wealthy found it enticing. It was extra money in their pockets. So they accepted it. They hardened their hearts and showed indifference to the evil things they were doing. The problem is that indifference to evil and injustice is, itself, evil and unjust. How can we expect a God who loves to sit back and ignore such things? Do we really want God to sit back and ignore them? We certainly don’t when we’re the ones who are somehow wronged, so why would we desire God’s indifference if we’re the ones who wrong others?
When God gets angry, it is not arbitrary. God’s anger is always a response to human injustice and human choice to do evil. When God dishes out punishment, the punishment fits the crime. The dead bodies Amos says will be strewn about compare to the corpses of the poor who have already died as a result of immoral economic practices. We read about the death of Egyptian first-borns and think it was a harsh punishment, but we forget about the murder of Hebrew babies whom Pharaoh ordered to be thrown into the Nile as alligator food (Exodus 1:22). The punishment fits the crime, but we don’t like the idea that God might bring upon us the very things we have done to others.
The thing is, the call to justice: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as our self, sounds simple enough. But in a world that is systematically unjust and broken it’s not always easy to follow through with those very things. It’s easy to let the world deafen our ears, blind our eyes, and harden our hearts to others. It doesn’t just happen, we let it happen. We choose it.
The consequence of choosing to ignore God’s call for justice is that eventually, we won’t be able to hear or recognize God’s word for what it is. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD God, when I will send hunger and thirst on the land; neither a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the LORD’s words. They will wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they will roam all around, seeking the LORD’s word, but they won’t find it.” (CEB). Remember, the punishment fits the crime. Those who refuse to listen to God’s word in the first place, will render themselves unable to hear it at all.
Let me recount a history lesson. Roughly thirty years after Amos preached this message, the northern Kingdom of Israel was wiped off the face of the earth. Assyria came in and carried God’s chosen, hand-picked people into exile, forcing them to relocate in a foreign land. The people did not listen to Amos. “I will turn your feasts into sad affairs and all your singing into a funeral song; I will make people wear mourning clothes and shave their heads; I will make it like the loss of an only child, and the end of it like a bitter day.” (CEB).
There is hardly another book of the Bible that speaks more clearly about God’s economics and demand for justice for the poor and oppressed. What would God say to us today? What would Amos preach if he came to the United States bearing God’s word for us? And how would we react to this prophet from a foreign land daring to tell us how it is?
I think Amos would tell us that God is concerned about our religious devotion. God is concerned about our politics. God is concerned about our economic practices.
And we would tell him not to mix religion and politics.
I think Amos would tell us that God is concerned with the money we earn, the possessions we accumulate; and not only what we accumulate, but how we accumulate them.
And we would tell him what we have and what we earn is our business, not his.
I think he would tell us that God is concerned with every sphere of human existence. And God is especially concerned about the poor, the disadvantaged, the neglected, the vulnerable, the abused, the used, and the abandoned.
And we would tell him to take his message elsewhere; that he’s not welcome in our communities.
You see, I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’re any better than the people of Israel in the 8th century B.C. What I do have confidence in is the power of God’s grace to change human lives; to take people lost in sin and make them righteous; to enable us to repent of evil and injustice and choose what is right, and just, and good. Only God’s grace can heal us and rescue us from the power of evil and injustice. But it still requires the courage of repentance. Do we have that kind of courage?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!