Tuesday, July 16, 2019

What's Wrong With Amos?

Last Sunday's reading from Amos was a bit harsh. Speaking to the priest who would silence the prophet, Amos declared, "Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city." That's personal. So tough were Amos' words that a parishioner stopped me on Monday just to tell me how unpleasant they were. "Wait until you hear what the prophet says this week!" I replied.

This week, Amos continues his work. "The end has come upon my people," the Lord declares through the prophet. "I will never again pass them by." The dead bodies will pile up. Feasts become fasts. Celebrations become lamentations. Everyone will mourn as if she or he had lost an only child. But why?

Hear the prophet's indictment of the people:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.' The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
Let's pick that apart. First, the prophet addresses his damning predictions to those who "trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land." Although he is just getting warmed up, it's worth noting how the prophet initially identifies his audience. He doesn't begin with "idol worshipers" or "those who pray to Baal." The focus isn't on religion; it's on behavior. The problem isn't described as a theological one but a practical one. Those who have come into the crosshairs of the prophet are those who have taken advantage of those in need--the poor.

Second, note how it is that the evil ones have mistreated the poor and needy. They say to themselves, "We will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances." In other words, they are cheating in their trade. They are taking the money of the poor and selling them less than a full measure of food. And what can the poor do about it? To whom will they bring their complaint?

Third, look how bad things have gotten. The wicked are those who "[buy] the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals." The prophet holds up a mirror of truth, showing the powerful that they aren't just cheating the poor. They are, in effect, making people a transaction. The lives of the poor become no more valuable than a handful of change or even a pair of sandals. That's a consumerist culture. That's I'd rather spend my money on cheaply-made, sweat-shop-produced than care about the people who make them. That's Amazon Prime Day.

Finally, notice that there is an inherent religious problem going on. The evil ones say to themselves, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?" In other words, when will the religious festivals be over so that we can get back to what we really care about--making money at the expense of the poor and defenseless? And that's the real problem. Religion and behavior--theology and practice--are never separate.

What does it mean to belong to the God of Israel? What does it mean to be faithful? What does it mean to abandon idol worship? What does it mean to stay true to the faith of the ancestors? It means honoring the poor, the widow, the orphan. It means caring for the stranger. It means providing for those who are hungry. It means lending without demand of interest. It means using fair scales in trade. It means championing the cause of the defenseless. It means standing up for those who are oppressed. And when we forget it? When we pursue the false gods, when we begin to blend our religion with practices that are more advantageous for us, we give up those commitments. And soon the consumer-culture becomes our god.

The prophet has some harsh words for us this week, and we are desperate to hear them. We don't like hearing them, and that's exactly why we need them most. When will the weekend be over so that we can see the deals that will be offered on Amazon Prime Day? When will the Fed cut interest rates? When will I have enough money to retire? How easy it is for us to forget what really matters--to brush aside our God and the demand that we care more for others than ourselves--and pursue what is important to us.

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