For our Bible readings, if you’ve noticed, we’ve shifted our attention to the prophets—Elijah and Elisha for the past couple weeks, then onto more prophets for the rest of the year. This week and next we’ll be in the book of Amos, then onto Hosea and Isaiah, then over a month in Jeremiah.
God told Amos to leave his flock, to leave his agricultural work, to leave his home, and travel into the northern kingdom of Israel, a mighty nation, a wealthy people, the seat of power for the region—and God tells Amos to prophecy, to proclaim the word of God for the people of God, words of judgment, to tell them that they will be punished with exile: “Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land,” Amos says, “You yourself shall die in an unclean land” (Amos 7:17).
This is an unexpected thing for the people to hear. Amos shows up out of nowhere, and prophesies destruction, that Israel will be destroyed by foreign nations, and the people of God will have to survive in exile. This message is a bit surprising, kinda shocking, because Israel is at the height of its power, the pinnacle of regional dominance. Their king, King Jeroboam II, has established Israel as a force to be reckoned with on the global scene—both in terms of military strength and economic power.
But God gives Amos an impossible word, that there soon with dawn an unimaginable reality. Israel will collapse, an implosion with shake the foundations of the people, because, despite their power, despite their wealth, despite their progress, their society is rotten at the core.
Amos confronts the people with what God sees in them, and God sees violence and greed, injustice and pride. This is a people who are dependant on injustice, a nation that has grown comfortable with economic disparity, with policies that take advantage of workers, with a culture that exploits the poor. “Thus says the Lord,” this is from chapter two, “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 out of the way.”
In verse after verse, chapter after chapter, Amos decries the people for their heartless lives, their cold-heartedness—the way they ignore how their economy affects the poor. The poor are trampled into the dust, and the oppressed are shoved out of sight, out of mind, so the middle-class Israelites can spend their summers at resort communities without guilt and the upper-class can vacation on their private islands without having to see homeless beggars around.
In response, the Lord roars in judgment, saying, “I will tear down the winter houses as well as the summer houses; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end” (3:15).
The disparity between the wealthy and the poor is a reoccurring theme for Amos. “You trample on the poor,” he prophecies again in chapter 5, “and take from them taxes of grain.” “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,” God says in chapter 6. “Alas for those who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (6:4-6).
Here’s the thing I learned from Amos this week, after reading through his prophecy. There’s so little concern with all the things I’ve obsessed about, as a Christian, for most of my life. God doesn’t waste time with the stuff I’ve always thought about as so important for my life, for my faith—all my conceptions about faithfulness, about what it means to love God, to live according to God’s will.
Instead, the defining mark of faithful people is economics—and not just what we do with our private bank accounts, but how money works, and doesn’t work, for the poor. God’s singular focus in Amos is the way economies are set up to benefit some at the cost of real lives, the labor of the working class, the poverty of the underclass. That’s what God roars about in Amos—about restructuring the economy, overturning the stock markets, remaking labor policy. God is angry at a system that thrives by pressing down on people. God is angry at a way of life that tramples the masses.
To be faithful people, according to Amos, means nothing less than changing the economy, which involves restructuring the world. And I have no idea how to do that. And I don’t think Amos knows how to do that either. There’s no roadmap for revolution in those pages. I tried to find one.
What we do find in Amos is a direction for our lives—an invitation to give ourselves to undoing the evils of our economy,the injustice of our labor practices, the cruelty of our tax policies. There are no clean hands in Amos. Everyone is culpable. “I shall strike the capitals until the thresholds shake,” God says in chapter 9, “no one shall flee away, not one of them shall escape.”
There’s a temptation here. It’s a religious temptation. The temptation of piety. To point to our disciplined life as proof that we absolved. That we’re exceptional. That we are better than our neighbors. We use our faith to let ourselves off the hook, to reassure ourselves that we are ok, since we’ve got our personal lives sorted out, our own households in order, with our devotions and our simplicity.
There are harsh words in Amos for people who use their faith, people who use religion, to absolve themselves from the sins of the nation. “I hate, I despise your festivals,” God says in chapter 5. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings, I will not look upon them. Take away the noise of your song; I will not listen.”
This is a word of judgment, from Amos, an announcement of God’s judgment—But it’s a word of judgment rooted in hope, the hope for a different world, a world that is not as harmful as this one, a world that offers life not death, mercy not oppression.
These words of Amos have come to us from afar. We don’t live in that ancient land of the Hebrews. We don’t know what it’s like to be forced into exile. We don’t know what it’s like for our relationship with God to be tied to a place, to a temple—and we don’t know how it would feel for our faith to be ruptured by moving from a land, a forced migration away from the site of God’s presence. We go on, with our faith, without having to think like that.
In our Scriptures, the Jews and their land and their temple have a cosmic significance. But, for us, here—there’s nothing religiously significant about the United States of America. This country—how it’s organized, it’s monuments—none of it is very special, in terms of God’s vision for the world. Governments come and go, this one will come and go—that’s always been the case and will always be the way it goes.
Amos prophecies exile, but the promise, as we will hear from the other prophets, is that God will go before the people, that God will prepare a place, a home, even in the presence of enemies—because God has always prepared a way, God has always promised the Spirit, there in the wilderness of this world, the Spirit of God who wanders with God’s people.
I think what it means for those of us who are not Jews, all of us who are Gentiles—from the perspective of Amos, we recognize ourselves as always in exile, as people without a spiritual home, other than the one we make together, wherever we are, with our neighbors.
Not all exilic situations are the same, and I don’t want to cheapen the devastation some experience more than others. But if there’s something for us, in terms of thinking of ourselves as learning from people in exile, it’s the challenge to care for a place, a people, without having a claim of ownership. And instead to be drawn into belonging to a people, a land, not our own.
We are always working out our sense of belonging, as we make a home together, for a time, honoring the people of this place where God has brought us, honoring the home for live God has provided—the plants and animals, the water and land, none of it belonging to us, because we are, at most, exiles here, guests in God’s world.
And the invitation, the call for us, no matter where we are, no matter where we find ourselves, is to be devoted to what God cares about—“to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That’s a verse from chapter 5, a passage that became the heartbeat of Martin Luther King Jr’s preaching, his witness, a person who descended from ancestors enslaved by the founders of this country, a person from an exiled people who nonetheless gave his life for God’s justice in this place, in this land, among enemies.
The Christian life is this: To let our lives get caught up in that river, a flood of justice, washing away all that tramples the needy, a deluge leveling the powerful, so that no one will have too much so that everyone can have enough—waters of righteousness, refreshing our world.