Read… Amos 8:1-10
If I asked you to tell me about the prophets of the Old Testament, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you told me you didn’t know much about them but didn’t they predict the future and especially didn’t they predict the birth of Jesus. We read bits of Isaiah around Christmas time to show his birth was predicted by the Old Testament. (Actually I think Isaiah would be very surprised to hear about Jesus!)
The prophets (and they make up about one third of the Old Testament) did of course make some statements about the future but usually these were along the lines of ‘things need to change in our society and if they don’t these are going to be the consequences’. Primarily I believe these charismatic characters were God’s messengers sent to tell societies about how God wanted them to live and to call the people back to faithful living. They spoke of justice for everyone, a fair go for everyone, respect for everyone. Often they were reluctant and they usually had a hard time because what they had to say wasn’t welcomed. Telling people they have to change the way they are living usually goes down like a lead balloon. But in Amos’ case change was needed because his people had gone off the rails.
We are told at the beginning of the book that carries his name that he was born in Tekoa, a small village not far from Jerusalem. He was a semi nomadic shepherd who lived in the time of when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jereboam king of the northern kingdom of Israel. What he said was anchored in a specific time and place. The opening verse of his book tells us he spoke out two years before the great earthquake. It seems we share something in common with Amos although I think the earthquake that he’s remembered for is his message that the way things were needed to radically change!
Amos speaks for God:
For crime after crime of Israel I will grant no reprieve, because they sell the innocent for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes. They grind the heads of the poor into the earth and thrust the humble out of their way. Father and son resort to the same woman and they profane my name…..it’s not a pretty picture that Amos portrays about some of the things that were happening in his own society. And yet around him people were optimistic. The economy was doing well, and the rich were wallowing in their wealth. People were heading along to local synagogues on the Sabbath. But Amos says God is not fooled. This is not how things should be for God’s people. For him and the God he knows a country is not judged by it’s economic growth, its economic outlook, or even how full the churches are. Amos tells us we should judge a nation according to how well it treats the poor, the disadvantaged, and the marginal. Crucial for him was the question of what was happening to forgotten people at the bottom of the heap, or the fringes of society. In some of his hard hitting comments he rages against the upper class women of the wealthy area of Bashan famed for it’s fertile soils and fine cattle:
“Listen to this you cows [he is calling the women cows!] of Bashan who live on the hills of Samaria. You who oppress the poor and crush the destitute with your indifference, who say to your husbands, ‘bring me a nice gin and tonic’..it’s not going to last….”
And he goes on to speak of foreign armies invading the country that has gone rotten and the rich cows being led away into captivity. The message is clear. God wants a caring society, a just society, and if you won’t change then watch this space. God’s judgment was close at hand.
He also has a go at the religion of his day picking out the two biggest and most holy sites of worship in the land at Bethel and Gilgal. People would expect him to say come to Bethel and Gilgal and worship God. But mocking them he says:
Come to Bethel and turn your back on God. Come to Gilgal and turn your back even more! Yes bring all your tithes and your offerings, do all the right religious things, but he says, your worship is a mockery.
He was saying their worship was an empty sham. They might have prayed loudly on the Sabbath but on the first day of the working week they went back to ripping others off and behaving in ways that dishonoured God. Again Amos pronounces the word of God:
Spare me the sound of your songs; I can not endure the music of your lutes. Instead let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Amos was speaking about the inequality he saw. Some said their wealth was a gift from God, even a reward for their fine upright moral behavior. Amos saw another reality. Clearly there was no concern for the disadvantaged and struggling people in society and instead of a cohesive caring society there were huge inequalities and very little understanding of what life may be like on the other side of town.
Amos saw visions. WE heard about one this morning. A basket of beautiful summer fruit. The grapes, figs, olives, apples, oranges, looked lovely. The Hebrew word for this in the text is gayitz. It is a picture of abundance and all being well. But Amos hears God saying to him that in fact not all is well and the end is nigh. The Hebrew word for end is qetz which sounds like gayitz. The word play was not lost on the Hebrew listeners. Things may look lovely like the basket of fresh summer fruit, but in reality the fruit was going rotton. It was well past it’s ‘use by’ date.
On that day says the Lord I will make the sun go down at noon, and the earth will grow dark. I will turn your feasts into mourning. I will make it like mourning for an only child, deep and bitter. Even the land will become dry and desolate.
Archeologists have confirmed Amos’s picture. In the early days when the Israelites settled Canaan the land was distributed more or less equally amongst the families and tribes. As late as the tenth century BC archeologists have found houses were all approximately the same size and there wasn’t great disparity of wealth. But by Amos’s day two centuries later everything had changed Groups of large palatial dwellings were found in some areas while tiny hovels were found huddled together in other areas. The gulf between the rich and poor had increased dramatically and the once united society had become divided by a chasm with no caring bridge between them. God’s word through Amos was frightening. The consequence of this inequality was that Israel would collapse as a nation and be utterly destroyed and laid waste.
And that’s what happened. Just a few years down the track the Assyrians came and conquered the land. Buildings and life as they knew it was ended. The cows of Bashan were taken away into captivity and their fine homes destroyed. The land became dry and desolate. The judgment of God as prophesied by Amos came to be.
What do we make of Amos and the prophets like him in our Bibles? They tell us God is very concerned about the sort of society we shape for ourselves. Good societies are fair societies full of honesty, fairness, and a respect for each other and for God. No more us and them.
Profits and the drive for good dividends must always be balanced with good and safe working conditions for workers. I’m sure ex ANZ boss David Hisco is a nice guy, but he was living on another planet. Ultra high salaries and crazy perks for the boss, questionable property deals for his wife, while the cleaners in his bank are paid probably close to the minimum wage. It’s a recipe for disaster. You can’t build good societies with us and them.
We know there are good hard working families in our own society who just never get a chance to get ahead with a lack of affordable housing and basic health costs resulting in a hand to mouth existence.
The sort of society and world we live in matters to God, so I give thanks for the work of our community project at Waltham Cottage. It may be a few small drops in the ocean, but every drop in the ocean counts. Every endeavor that seeks to build good community, every action that proclaims we are all neighbours makes God smile.
Amos and other prophets are there in our scriptures to unsettle and remind us we should be greatly concerned for others especially those that don’t get the opportunities we do, the blessings we take for granted. We are a society and we are all linked. Let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Let us be part of that river and stream.