THE AMOS ASSAULT: STILL ON TARGET? Thomas Lehman/21 July 2013
As Christians we rightly favor the New Testament as a basis for our beliefs. It is easy to see the Old Testament as short on inspiration and long on problems of interpretation. However, for me this makes the OT particularly attractive when a passage proclaims a message for the ages. That is exactly what Amos does, and I have greatly enjoyed preparing a sermon based entirely on this very old prophet. As though that were not sufficient reason to ignore a perfectly good passage from Luke’s gospel, I have a clear memory of a time long ago when Steve Jolley said in his usual whisper, “Preach the Old Testament.” The first of my two goals for today is to do so, for if we slight the OT we diminish our understanding of God at work.
Willliam Neil, author of Harper’s Bible Commentary, says of the age of Amos that “Trade had increased and money was plentiful. But most of it found its way into the pockets of a few, and dire poverty rubbed shoulders with opulence.” (William Neil, Harper’s Bible Commentary, 1962, p 289).
Amos may have been the angriest of the OT prophets; he assumes an angry God to justify his personal fury. He shouts out a divine diatribe against neighboring kingdoms, then against his own people. One commentator calls Amos a puritan, who has “only one thing to say.” (Henry McKeating in Cambridge Bible Commentary, 1971, p 13)
Let’s examine the situation in the time of Amos. Here are passages scattered throughout the book.
In chapter two Amos describes the abuse of the poor:
Ch 2: 6 Thus says the Lord:
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—
7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
Chapter 3 tells of the splendor of the wealthy:
Ch 3: 15 I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end,
says the Lord.
Chapter 4 condemns the life of ease based on exploitation of the poor:
Ch 4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’
Chapter five foretells the downfall of the land, which followed in a few years:
Ch 5: 11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
Chapter five also assails corruption:
Ch 5: 12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Five also contains the most memorable lines in the book: God speaks…
Ch 5: 21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 6:6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest perfumes,
but you do not mourn over the ruin of Israel…your feasts and banquets will come to an end (GNT)
Amos 8:4-6 Good News Translation (GNT) 4 Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country. 5 You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers. 6 We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We’ll find someone poor who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave.”
Again quoting Harper’s Bible commentary, “The message of the prophets is in a sense timeless, but it is always delivered in terms of the situation in their day.” Amos lived about 2800 years ago. Does his rant have any relevance for today? Let’s look for some evidence. But first I quote David Swanson’s sermon from three weeks ago: “At Duke, our good professors are regularly challenging us to find ourselves in the story. To live the story of the bible and so allow it to be Scripture for us.”
“Dire poverty rubbed shoulders with opulence.” I can justly claim to have “found myself” in this topic, because I have been following some of the literature on the distribution of wealth for years. A second goal of this sermon is to establish a biblical perspective on tremendous wealth differences, especially in our own country. It is important that young people know something of the kind of world in which you are living and soon earning, if not yet.
Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University professor of economics and Nobel laureate, recently wrote the following: “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out. The incomes of the middle class are stagnating or falling, and the difference between them and the truly rich is increasing.” [The Price of Inequality, Norton & Company, 2012, p. 7]
This week the North Carolina government passed a budget that is kinder to the rich than to the poor.
Again quoting Stiglitz: The richest 400 individual (American) taxpayers, with an average income of more than $200 million, pay less than 20 percent of their income in taxes…(T)he wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own about 40 percent of the nation’s wealth…(A)s the top 1 percent has grown extremely rich, the effective tax rates they pay have markedly decreased. (Joseph Stiglitz in NYTimes, 14 APR 2013)
In France, 10% of the households own 48% of the country’s wealth. (The Economist, 6 July 2013, p 49). In other words, French wealth is not nearly as concentrated at the top as it is here, where, to repeat, the top 1% own about 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.
The “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffett (NYTimes 25 NOV 2012): “The ultra-rich, including me, will forever pursue investment opportunities. And, wow, do we have plenty to invest. The Forbes 400, the wealthiest individuals in America, hit a new group record for wealth this year: $1.7 trillion. That’s more than five times the $300 billion total in 1992. In recent years, my gang has been leaving the middle class in the dust…We need Congress to enact a minimum tax on high incomes.”
Under three successive Presidents–Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy–income above $400,000 was taxed at just over 90%. Today the rate is 35%.
The New York Times recently published a list of the 200 corporate executives with the greatest compensation packages–salary, cash bonuses, perks and other forms of cash, and stock and stock options. The range was from $96.2 million per year all the way down to a stingy $11.1 million. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/06/30/business/executive-compensation-tables.html?hp&_r=0
The distribution of wealth in this country is so great that it cannot be shown on a one-page graph. It would extend from a few dollars, or from no money at all, to at least ten billion dollars. (Steven Strogatz, NYTimes, 15 October 2012) Thus we can’t even picture the extremes of American wealth.
Dan Ariely teaches psychology and behavioral economics at Duke. He and a colleague did a study of what Americans know about the distribution of personal wealth. They found that most Americans have no concept of the great difference between the poor and the rich in this country. The great difference can be illustrated by comparing a very high income and a median income…
Consider a wealthy American investor with an annual income of $20 million. The median personal salary of American workers is currently between $26000 and $27000/year. This wealthy American’s income before taxes is about 750 times as great as the median income. Twenty million dollars/year increases at the rate of $2300/hour for every hour of every day. That’s $55000 per day. Thus in one day his income is twice as great as the median individual salary per year of the American worker. To some, such great wealth indicates great success–nothing more. However, income inequality in America is a perfect example of the kind of situation that caused Amos to scream. Today the prophet’s message should be heard across our land.
It seems likely that quite unequal distributions of wealth appeared soon after money was first used. Strict equality of incomes or wealth would also be very bad, because it would remove the motivation to be inventive or more productive in order to gain wealth. The question is how much wealth is enough, and Americans are utterly unwilling to put an upper limit on personal wealth.
Some Christians care about great disparities in wealth; a recent article on fracking on Amish lands (Kansas City Star, July 9) quotes Donald Kraybill, who has studied the Amish for many years. Kraybill says that rules vary widely among Amish communities, but that there is “considerable concern” among church leaders that drilling money could create huge income disparities within the same community.
Plato lived about 300 years after Amos, and of course in Greece, not Israel. In his Laws, Plato declared that “Anyone acquiring more than four times the average possession of the citizens must relinquish the excess to the state.”
Will Durant, a careful student of history and philosophy, wrote:“Exploitation of the weak by the strong is as natural as eating and differs from it only in rapidity; we must expect to find it in every age and under every form of society and government;” Caesar and Christ, 1944, p 333.
Among the more wealthy countries, the United States is second highest in the percentage of people in poverty, being surpassed only by Mexico. (The Economist, 10 NOV 2012, p. 22)
In 2009 two British public health scientists published a book with the subtitle “Why greater equality makes societies stronger.” They assembled much evidence in support of their claim. (Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level)
Barbara Ward was a respected British-born economist during the middle years of the last century. She taught at Columbia University for part of her career. In a 1968 book entitled The Lopsided World she looked at the problem of global economic imbalances. Speaking of the scarcity of foreign aid, she declared that “This is not an economic issue. It is political and moral” (p 88). A moment later she says practically the same thing about domestic social spending. This puts her in good agreement with Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, who insists that a budget is a moral document. In other words, it is open to analysis in Christian terms. Barbara Ward’s declaration, that “This is not an economic issue. It is political and moral” links the worlds of economics and Christian ethics. Some of today’s politicians do not understand. Christians should understand, and we have a responsibility. Amos understood.
Amos was the first of the prophets to leave a written book, which he did about 2700 years ago (GNSB). As he was a shepherd, I wonder how he learned to write. Some scholars have wondered if Amos actually did the writing; perhaps others wrote down his utterances later. Another theory is that he was a relatively wealthy sheep breeder and had some language training.
Amos breathed fire on the people of neighboring countries as well as on his own. Today the distribution of wealth is terribly uneven in many countries, especially in our hemisphere; some countries in Latin America have long had a few wealthy people and multitudes of poor.
Great wealth is also very suspect in the NT: 1 Timothy 6.10: For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil. Some have been so eager to have it that they have wandered away from the faith and have broken their hearts with many sorrows. (GNSB)
Matthew 19.24: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
Consider James 5, verses 1 and 4: Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
There is a reform agenda to reduce income disparities that makes sense whatever your attitude towards fairness. It is not about higher taxes and more handouts. Both in rich and emerging economies, it is about attacking cronyism and investing in the young.
(The Economist, 13 October 2012, Special Report, page 6)