Let Those with Ears Hear
Amos 7:7-17, Luke 10:25-37
Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, Grand Rapids, MI, 7/10/16
This morning's lectionary text is another of the great stories from the Hebrew Scripture. I want to use it as a jumping off point to look at some of the history and events of our faith; how the prophetic tradition shaped our faith; and how the words of the prophets are still beckoning to us, if we have ears to hear. Remember that the prophets of Israel were the biggest influence on Jesus; in fact, he was thought by many in his day to be a prophet. He was a reformer, as were the prophets. They provided correction when the faith was going off the rails.
Most of the words of the prophets were passed down by oral tradition as was most of the rest of the Bible. But a few of them, Amos being one, actually wrote their words down - a kind of memoir, or a scribe did. Amos is quite well-known and you will recognize some of his prophetic words. That is not to say that we have his words in the form he wrote them, for the tradition used and molded them in retrospect to speak the truth it understood God was trying to convey.
But who really was Amos, and what was going on in his time for God to call him from his profession as a dresser of sycamore trees, to dressing down the King of Israel?
The year was 755 B.C.E. in the latter days of King Jeroboam II's reign. To hear Amos' scathing, condemnatory words - words of unequivocal judgment and doom, you'd think that the situation in Israel must have been very grave indeed. You would think that the signs of Israel's impending collapse would have been there for everyone to see.
Quite the opposite was the case, however! This was one of the most prosperous and expansive times in the history of Israel. It was a world power, even.
It is true that the prophets are those who read the signs of the times, but they did it from the perspective of God's will and way, God's intention for human community. That was the lens through which they saw and judged the world and the practices of Israel. Through that lens, Amos had the unenviable task of speaking a harsh word in a smooth time. Nobody wanted to hear those pesky prophets, particularly those in power, especially when everything was going their way.
Let's back up a bit and get our historical bearings. Our Hebrew forebears who became known as the Israelites, moved into Palestine sometime after they, or a part of them, were held captive and then liberated from slavery in Egypt, and after their long sojourn in the desert wilderness. In a span of about 200 years, from around 1200 - 1000 BCE, they proceeded to occupy the Promised Land, basically by settling as squatters and loose tribal units. In times of crisis, a leader, called a judge, would rise up, unite and lead the tribes to meet the crisis. This period is what the book of Judges is all about - two of the Judges you will recognize are Deborah and Gideon.
Once the people settled in and controlled much of Palestine, they seemed to feel like they should emulate the surrounding countries, all of whom had kings. Israel wanted a king. God knew it was a bad idea. But the people kept pestering God, and like the parent of a persistent 5 y/o, God relented. "OK, if you want a king, I'll give you a king, but don't say I did not warn you. However, your king is only the Israelite with the 'King' job. They are not divine, only I am. They are responsible to lead MY people in the way I would have them go." (And good luck with that!)
They managed about 100 years as a united monarchy under one king, first Saul, who became a major screw up, then David, then Solomon. But after that, the northern tribes - who became known as Israel, and the southern tribes - who became known as Judah, where Jerusalem was, split. Each saw themselves as a separate kingdom and each anointed its own king.
Amos was a prophet in the northern Kingdom of Israel in the decade of 760 - 750. King Jeroboam was quite beloved by those with money and power because, as I said, they were prospering. Israel was at the height of its military and territorial expansion. Of course, many saw Israel's powerful position and economic affluence as a sign of God's special favor. Further, they felt they deserved it because they were so religious and supported the official shrines. They talked a good religious game, indeed.
So why was Amos using such harsh and colorful language, preaching their immediate need for repentance? Why was he saying that Israel, the northern kingdom, would fall and the powerful and religious elite would be hauled into exile? Amos leaves no doubt: it is because of their reliance on military might rather than justice and mercy. It is because of their grave injustice in social dealings, especially to the poor and vulnerable; their shallow piety that consisted of ritual without lifestyle; piety without building community and society that reflected God's care for all.
Amos was a Class A party-pooper! And he was not the least bit diplomatic. He said that the king who reigned over this prosperity would die by the sword. He insulted the high society ladies of the rich, secure in their palaces on Mt. Samaria. In one of the great insults in Scripture he called them, "The Cows of Bashan." That is almost as good as the one we had in last week's text from Acts, which is, "You are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness." (Sometimes it pays to memorize a little scripture...)
Amos' harsh judgment brought him into direct conflict with the priests of the king's shrine at Bethel which is where today's text picks up. Amaziah and a group of
professional prophets were in the king's pocket. Though in that day there was not supposed to be a separation of church and state; religion was NOT to be put in the service of the king, but just the opposite.
Amos was clear that he was NOT a prophet, if Amaziah and his troop were the definition of prophet. He came, with a word from God, kicking and screaming, like all prophets do. Nobody volunteered for the job of prophet, though many were called. Amos' word is absolutely clear for those with ears to hear. As I said, the condemnation was not for ignoring the practice of religion. It was not for following other gods, at least not in the formal sense. This is what he said was Israel's sin: "Because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted away." Later he continues, "Hear this, you cows of Bashan who are secure in Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy...You only multiply your transgressions when you bring sacrifices every morning and tithes every three days. ...I hate, I despise your festivals. I take no delight in your worship. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them. 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 ever-flowing stream."
And again, a few chapters later, "Hear this, you who trample on the needy, who bring ruin to the poor, who can't wait for the Sabbath to be over in order to get back to your commerce. You who make the ephah small (a unit of measure) and the shekel great (a unit of currency), you who practice deceit with your balances, who sell the sweepings of the wheat... I will turn your feasts into mourning and your songs into lamentations."
It was a mere 25 years later that the northern kingdom, Israel, was over run, conquered by the Assyrians, hauled off into exile, and never heard from again. Likely their remnant are the Samaritans of Jesus' day.
I am not saying that in modern times God makes this happen or that God pulls the strings of destruction, but God's call for justice and righteousness, God's call that everyone belongs at the banquet table, is clear and has not changed. And long injustice does finally have consequences. We have seen it in many places: El Salvador, in South Africa, in the former Soviet Union.
How long here in the U. S. will we let those prevail who think that problems can be solved at the end of a gun, be it civilian, law enforcement, or military?
How long will we let the divide widen between rich and poor?
How long will we let the kind of hate-speech that leads to violence against the marginalized, that is so rampant on the campaign trail, television, and radio, have the upper hand?
How long will we support subsidy for the rich and blame the poor for being poor so as a society we don't have to feel guilty or change the system?
How long will we allow and perpetuate the sin of racism, and the constant reminders that for many in this nation, Black lives really don't matter as much?
How long will we allow those who have put our religion in the service of hate, in the service of denigration of difference, and in the service of white, Christian, heterosexist privilege - how long we will let them define what it means to be Christian in the United States?
Let those with ears hear, those with mouth's speak, let those with hand, do.