After spending the first part of the summer journeying through the books of First and Second Kings with the prophet Elijah, the Lectionary now turns our attention to several weeks of lessons from what are called the “minor prophets.”
In the Christian tradition of ordering the Old Testament (which varies slightly from the Jewish order) these twelve minor prophets include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – twelve being a rather symbolic number, mirroring the twelve tribes of Israel, as would (much later) the twelve disciples of Jesus.
Now, contrary to what one parochial school student told me, these are minor prophets, not miner prophets. They don’t dig for coal, or diamonds in the rough. Nor are they called minor prophets because they were underage. They are called minor prophets simply due to the relative brevity of their books. And in my book, brevity is a virtue. I see those nods – you’re wondering whether I practice what I preach. This is, of course, in contrast to the relatively longer books of the major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel (but we’ll get to them later this summer).
Our prophet of the day, Amos, lived during a time when the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were going down the proverbial tubes. Long gone were the glory days of a united Israel under King David and his son Solomon, some two hundred years earlier. God’s people had forsaken God’s covenant time and time again, and were on the verge of disastrous consequences; consequences not vindictively dealt by God, but rather, the consequential result of selfish, sinful behavior.
In this anthology of prophetic oracles Amos is given a series of four visions from God regarding his people Israel: The first vision is of locusts devouring all the grasses of the field, the second a “shower of fire” that consumes the great deep, eating up the land. These portents are reminiscent of two of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt before the exodus of the Hebrews ‘lo those many centuries ago. Of these two visions in Amos “The Lord relented, and said: ‘It shall not be.'”
The second set of visions, the last of which we read today, include striking images of a plumb line sizing up a crooked and crumbling wall, and a basket of summer fruit rotting in the heat. The prophetic message could not have been clearer: the people had gone askew, and the land was about to spoil.
While reading through the Old Testament, I’d wager a guess that I’m not the only one who grows a little leery of all the gloom and doom and judgmental “thus saith the Lord” language. “Where is the God of grace,” we might ask, “in the midst of all this prophetic hellfire and brimstone?” Just one glance at our psalm today, which is classified appropriately as an imprecatory psalm, is enough to make one cringe in fear of divine thunderbolts. Imprecatory, meaning “the cursing psalms.” And if psalms were given ratings, Psalm 52 would be rated “R.” But then again, if we’re being honest, who hasn’t thrown around a good curse now and again. It’s only human, as are the psalms. Divinely inspired – yes – yet also human. The two needn’t be mutually exclusive.
But lest we revert back to childish images of a vengeful, vindictive God, we must take note of why Amos proclaims ruin upon the people, we must notice what has provoked such a dramatic reaction from God almighty. We must remember that, as theologian Kenneth Leech has noted, anger is the burning, fiery side of God’s love (Kenneth Leech, True Prayer, 125).
While the translation we heard read this morning uses ancient metrics such as ephah and shekel to speak of economic inequality, the gist of it is this: oppression, greed, and the bending of rules had become commonplace. The Message, which is a contemporary paraphrase rather than a direct translation of the bible says it this way:
“Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing, Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?” Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them – and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.” -Amos 8:4-6, The Message
God, it would appear, has a soft spot for the downtrodden and helpless. They have no one to come to their aid, save for God. The harshest words of judgement in Holy Scripture are reserved for those who exploit the poor and harass the helpless. This is not some cosmic disciplinarian washing our mouths out with soap for a slip of the tongue, this is a highly passionate and personal God who will not overlook our ill treatment of one another.
As I read through the Prophets I can’t help but wonder whether these proclamations of judgement are somehow more descriptive than prescriptive; more consequential than retributive. That is to say, these bad things are about to happen not because God wills it so, but because we will it to be. And God’s love does not violate our free will, sinful as it may sometimes be.
Amos’ prophecy names the honest-to-God truth that any constant oppression of those who are vulnerable, any continual exploitation of natural resources will eventually result in ruin for both the oppressed as well as the oppressor. This is the double-edged sword of oppression: the oppressor, though not bound by physical chains, is also not free. The oppressor, too, is bound by the chains of the oppressed and drinks his own poison. Liberation, in the prophetic imagination, can lead to the freedom of both captive and captor, were we to have eyes to see and ears to hear.
The Prophet Amos rightly perceives that the result of exploitation is devastating not only to human kind, but also wreaks havoc on the natural world: he prophesies about how the “land will tremble, the river Nile rise and be tossed about and sink again.” Theologian Blake Couey notes that,
“(While) many contemporary readers of the Bible may find the claim that God causes natural disasters to punish human sins unhelpful. At the same time, this verse makes a crucial point about connections between economic and environmental exploitation. Corporate fraud, exploitation of the poor, and ecological disruption are all consequences of the drive to maximize profit at any costs. People who live on the margins often suffer disproportionately from environmental abuse.”
We can see quite clearly in Amos that the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is no impersonal, detached deity. The Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of human kind does not stand by neutral and unbiased in matters of justice and peace. The image we get of God in the prophets is of a God who is intensely passionate and personal, intimately involved in the muck and mire of human affairs. The God of the Prophets seems much more concerned about how we treat one another than how we worship or what we say we believe.
So, if you find yourself here today looking for God, the Prophets tell us to look towards the margins. Look for the little ones. Look toward the poor and those who are lonely and neglected. For it is surely there that God can be found.
The prophets were men and women* who had their ear attuned to God. They were attentive to the “better part” of which Jesus spoke of to Martha in Bethany. They sought to pay attention to the things to which God paid attention. They yearned for God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.
May we, too, train our prophetic eye on God; to, indeed, choose the better part as disciples of Jesus today.
*On the topic of female prophets see Women Prophets in the Bible: Remembering the Oft Forgotten by Dr. Christopher Rollston http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-rollston/women-prophets-in-the-bib_b_8918650.html
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 11c (2016)