10They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11Therefore 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. 12For 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. 13Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. 14Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
16Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: In all the squares there shall be wailing; and in all the streets they shall say, “Alas! alas!” They shall call the farmers to mourning, and those skilled in lamentation, to wailing; 17in all the vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through the midst of you, says the Lord. 18Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
I’m not going to lie to you: these first three weeks of Lent are going to be challenging. We’re going to be talking about sin, which can feel very heavy. I like preaching about God’s love much more, and God’s love is always at the heart of the good news we proclaim. At the same time if we don’t face our sin we can’t change our life. Know that I am not speaking as someone who is telling you what you need to do as if I’ve got my act together. I need repentance as much as anyone else. I’m hear as one wrestling with faith and scripture right along with you.
Amos is a little hard to follow in small pieces like this one. The powerful biblical message of social justice is clearer as part of the whole Bible more than in individual texts. You may understand Amos’s message better if you read the whole book when you have a chance; it’s pretty short so that’s manageable.
Amos lived in the eighth century before Christ. He grew up in the Southern Kingdom of Judah but spent much of his prophetic ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
For both Israel and Judah, faith was an important part of how they saw themselves. God had chosen them as God’s special people, so they were different from the other nations of the region. Throughout Amos we see references to offerings and religious observances, which makes it clear that religion was a big part of life in Israel and Judah.
Unlike in our own time, people stopped working, buying and selling for the Sabbath and for the first day of the month, which was also a day set aside for worship. In our passage Amos refers to people wanting the “Day of the Lord,” the time God would firmly establish His kingdom on earth. The people of Israel looked forward to God’s kingdom because they knew they were God’s chosen people. Religion was important to Amos’s audience in a big way.
God commanded the Sabbaths and festivals the people observed. God commanded the offerings and sacrifices Amos talks about. God commanded them, but Amos says that they are not the most important part of following God. Compared with justice, worship and sacrifice don’t even register in God’s priorities.
Israel is called to build a just society where everyone has enough and all people are treated fairly. If society isn’t built on the foundation of justice, all the sacrifices and offerings in the world won’t make up for it. If the poor aren’t treated fairly, worship rings hollow and singing is just noise in God’s ears. When the “Day of the Lord” comes, Israel will be on the wrong side of God’s judgment because of the way they treat the poor.
Amos talks about Israel’s sin not in terms of following the rules or showing up for church, but in terms of justice for all. The people are doing everything right when it comes to worship, but they are not right with God in terms of their community life. He especially criticizes the rich for building nice houses while others go hungry.
I wonder what Amos would say about our culture where we have such great abundance while many are trapped in poverty. What would Amos say about buying big screen TV’s while 25% of the kids in our country struggle with hunger and billions of people world wide live on $2.50 a day or less?
The causes of poverty are varied and complex, but the fact that thousands of people die of hunger and preventable disease every day is a scandal and a sin. At the most basic level it comes down to valuing lives differently. Whether we admit it or not, we believe that American lives are worth more than other lives.
Differences of race, language, nationality, education, sexuality and more divide us and make it easier to see others as less human than we are. The powerful use those divisions to keep things the way they are, to keep their power intact. People with a bigger piece of the pie than their neighbors are encouraged to fear others and protect their share while people with less are taught to envy those with more and fear those with less.
We find ourselves stressed out and even fearful about not having enough while advertising continually invents new things for us to “need.” While we accumulate debt to meet those invented needs people with actual needs go hungry. We would not spend hundreds of dollars on luxury products while our child died of hunger. Yet somehow we accept that many people will starve every day and others will die of diseases you and I never have to worry about because they are so easy to treat. We accept massive, preventable death because we’re told it’s just the way things are.
God does not accept that. Amos makes it clear that God holds society, especially those with money and power, responsible for the welfare of the whole nation. Amos’s Israel and our United States will have to answer for those whose rights are trampled. We will have to answer for those who are allowed to starve when God has given us plenty of food.
We value lives differently, but the Bible teaches that every life is precious. We know we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. God commands Israel to love foreigners as they love their brothers and sisters. We are all equal in God’s sight: the North Korean child who will not make it to his first birthday, the 5 year old in Rochester’s poverty crescent who will not live up to his potential because of lead poisoning and the Congolese girl facing rape as a weapon in a civil war that never ends are each as precious as the children closest to us. As a society we need deep repentance; we need to change the way we live.
Amos shows us the breadth of our sin: society as a whole, all of us must answer for social injustice. Jesus reminds us that each of us individually must answer for our part in society’s sin. This passage from Matthew haunts me whenever I think about it, so I usually don’t think about it. But we have to face our sin if we want to seek God’s forgiveness, so listen for God’s word to us:
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Can we be on Jesus’ right side and left side at the same time? There are times we feed the poor, but there other times we feed ourselves and leave others to their own devices. We occasionally give clothes to those in need, but mostly when we need to make space in our closets. I have never visited anyone in prison. Eventually, we have to choose which side we will stand on: the side of the powerful, or the side of the oppressed; the side of social acceptance or the side of the poor.
Jesus tells us very clearly what is important to him and how each of us will answer for our lives when judgment day comes. Jesus says to every person at the judgment throne: as you did or didn’t do it for the least of my brothers or sisters, you did or didn’t do it for me. Jesus lives in the poor, the despised, the rejected, the criminals. Jesus is waiting to see whether we care enough to do anything about the suffering we see. Our Lord is waiting; Jesus forgive us and give us the courage to act.
Thanks be to God.