For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 19 – Amos 5:6-15 (Related)
As a Southern prophet called to minister in the North during the time of the divided kingdom (C8 BC), Amos has few kind words to say about the rival sanctuaries set up in Bethel and Dan, at either end of the Northern Kingdom. But in today’s reading (to which I have re-added verses 8 and 9, filleted out by our lectionary) his agenda seems different. It is not so much that the Northerners are worshipping contrary to the Deuteronomic Law, which established Jerusalem as the only valid place to worship God, but rather that their worship is not being backed up by their lives. In particular Amos condemns the injustice which means that the rich were growing richer while the poor struggled to survive. Sound familiar?
In terms of its literary form, this passage forms part of a funeral dirge, yet it is a funeral with a difference: it is possible that the society which has self-harmed its way to death might be able to come back to life. This tension runs through the passage: v.2 reads like the death notice in the paper, and yet v.6 calls the nation to ‘Seek the Lord and live.’ This is a familiar phrase in the prophetic writings, and always comes at a time of crisis when seeking God’s favour might just be the only way out. In fact the whole book of Amos has this tension: the sharp transition from 9:8a to b ‘I will destroy [the kingdom] from the face of the earth. Yet I will not totally destroy [it] …’ has led many to suggest that an earlier, harsh form of the book has been edited later on with the possibility of restoration added in.
So what is this passage actually saying, and what might it say to 21st century Britain? The first thing to note is the importance of the two verses left out by the lectionary. These verses establish God’s right and his power to punish. He is the creator and also, if need be, the destroyer. That which he made and declared ‘very good’ has gone bad. We do well to hold both sides of his character in our minds, and to ponder what it is that might make him become destructive.
Secondly, though, there is a consideration of the state of the nation, and the activities and attitudes which make God so angry, and threaten the security of the whole kingdom. The crimes of Israel are summed up neatly by two words which so often are linked together in Scripture: justice and righteousness, or rather their opposites. When things go wrong, justice, fair living, becomes bitterness and righteousness, right living, is trampled on the ground. In practice this means several things. Morality is turned upside down, and truth-speakers (we might call them ‘whistle-blowers’ today) become hated and vilified. This means that the poor can be taxed heavily while the rich enjoy the fruits of their greed, bribery can decide right and wrong rather than God’s laws, and the poor have no access to impartial justice. But underneath all this, although never stated, is the power of the establishment (whoever that was) to keep things that way. Those who have any sense just keep their heads down and stay quiet. Amos’ shocking verdict on this society: the times are evil.
I don’t think I have ever felt such a sense of despair at the state of our own nation as I do today. That may of course be because I am old and have become a grumpy old man, but as I read Amos I cannot escape the conclusion that he is describing a society very like our own. I don’t want to get too political but it seems to me that the massive acts of national self harm which saw us cut our ties with Europe on the basis largely of lies and fuelled-up xenophobia are coming home to roost, and our arrogance in thinking that we might invite a few truck drivers over for a month or two so that our Christmasses aren’t spoiled are on a par with the self-destructive trajectory of our own nation which Amos would no doubt condemn roundly. The exploitation of the poor by the rich élite has uncanny parallels with Amos’ times, and cannot but bring the anger of God down on us. I have found in my own prayers that when I pray, as 1 Tim 2 tells us to, for national leaders my prayer has become less ‘God bless them’, and much more ‘God stop them!’
I find Amos’ last words on the subject both consoling but also terrifying: ‘Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy’. How we need to pray that he will!