A friend of mine posted a fantastic “idiomatic translation” by Eugene Peterson of the famous passage from Amos this week on facebook. And, as I read it again, afresh, I realized that it is so vividly self-explanatory that it is worth posting it at the beginning of this week’s Sabbath School study reflection:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making.I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
(Amos 5:21-24, The Message)
Amos 4:12 – “Prepare to meet your Lord.” It was probably hard for Israel to take prophet Amos seriously, because there is a hard hitting message that comes from this farmer preacher from Tekua, writing in the middle of the 8th century BC.
Times were good. “Advancement” was the watchword that sounded like messages of “peace and prosperity”. That astute solder statesman, Jeroboam the Second, had turned the economy around and the arch-enemy Assyria was unable to pursue her expansionist ambitions. Israel was safe – or so she thought.
It was to the comfortable and to the complacent that Amos came with this powerful and eloquent cry for justice. Like a rough and ready medical man he comes along ripping off the dressings to expose underneath the festering sores. Israel had forgotten justice. And in a timeless message that reaches its climax in Chapter 5 and verse 24. Amos, speaking God’s very own words, cries out : “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.
The first 3 verses set the tone for this grim message Amos is to deliver to the God’s community. How would you like to be read your own obituary? To be standing beside your own graveside and listening to your funeral sermon? And this is exactly what is happening here to Israel.
Verse 1, it’s a word of lamentation. Verse 2, Israel, whom God has espoused, is fallen no more to raise, forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up. It’s all over! The Holocaust of 722 BC when Syria put an end to kingdom of Israel forever has actually been pictured here as if it had already taken place. It’s all over. Amos stands by the grave side of Israel. Verse 3, the armies are decimated. It’s actually difficult for us to get hold of the offensiveness of this, the shock it must have been to Israel’s system. Because, you see, the trouble with Israel was that they thought they were on track, they thought that they were secure and “reformation” was surely taking place. And it is in this way, by means of reading to them their own obituary that Amos introduces some important themes on BIBLICAL JUSTICE.
The first is this, and it comes in Amos 5:4-9: Justice springs from spiritual reality. Failures of justice in Bible and today always have at their root absence of spiritual reality. It’s when the God of justice gets forgotten that justice itself, verse 7, is turned to worm-wood, literally “becomes a sour joke”. That’s why no sooner than he finished the obituary Amos breaks into a plea, “Thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, seek me and live. But do not seek Bethel, or do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba.” (Amos 5:4)
First and foremost, it’s a call to spiritual re-orientation. You see the irony was that Israel thought that as they made their way to these sites of festival pilgrimage, that seeking the Lord was EXACTLY what they were doing. Wasn’t Bethel a place where God revealed himself in the past? Wasn’t Gilgal a shrine confirming possession of the promised land? Didn’t Beersheba underline that God was with his people? The word is, verse 5, “DON’T BOTHER! Forget about it, you are getting it wrong.” Seek ME! Ritual, you see, is no substitute for reality? And the acid test of reality is whether it leads to transformed living. … If you , verse 7, turn justice to bitterness, do not be surprised if God who, verse 8, is well able to turn things--same word as in verse 7-- turns the tables on you. So, justice springs from spiritual reality. People who are truly in touch with the God of Justice, in touch with the transforming God, the God of power, the God of creation, the God who specializes in turning things around, are themselves turned around, and they do justice. That’s why we who claim to be in touch with God, have a particular responsibility in the area of Justice. Jim Wallis, puts it well, “Conversion is the beginning of active solidarity with the purposes of the kingdom of God.” We are converted to compassion, justice and peace as we take our stand as citizens of Christ’s new order. So, Justice springs from the spiritual reality.
Secondly Justice shapes social relationships, verses 10 to 17. The problem for many of us, if we are honest, in a complex modern democracy, is that it’s not always obvious what justice actually is. And words like justice, and peace and freedom get banded around and they become rubber stamps to make our arguments respectable. Justice comes to mean what I perceive to be just. Peace can be achieved by nuclear escalation or by unilateral disarmament. Even among readers of this Spectrum post there will be an enormous variety of views as to the ways of achieving social justice, or social advance. C. S. Lewis said that he did not like the political sermons as the only thing that you learn from political sermons is what newspapers the preacher reads. It was David Watson that once said that the only problem with capitalism is that man exploits man, whereas in socialism it’s the other way around. We must refuses to baptize any secular ideology with the seal of total approval. The Christian struggles to bring politics and all his opinions to the touchstone of revelation and then he searches revelation for instances of what it means to do justice, and then he tries to apply that, however difficult it may be, to solid policy. Now, here Amos helps us, because in the first part of this little section in verses 10 to 17, he embarks on some social critique. And he sharpens for us two critical areas, a) a corrupt legal system, and b). exploitation of the poor.
A) A corrupt legal system. The gate that is mentioned in verse 10 and 12 and 15 is the focus of civic life, the law courts. It ought to be a place for justice. But, first, vs 10, in Amos’ community both the just judge who reproves and the honest witness who tells the truth are detested. Secondly, vs 12, there is bribery. And thirdly, the same verse, there is unequal administration of justice to rich and poor. The needy are turned aside in the gate. Now any legal system manifesting any of those problems in any system is corrupt and ought to be denounced as such. So, we must be mindful of a potentially corrupt legal system and this could apply to our ecclesiastical community as well!
B)The exploitation of the poor. The cities were growing at the expense of the poor. The poor were being trampled, vs 11, they were paying unjust taxes of wheat. And a minority were building themselves luxury villas of beautiful stone, but they never lived in them. They were planting vineyards, but they were never enjoying their vine. They overlooked, as we sometimes do, that it is impossible for any form of injustice to escape God’s eye. Because God always recognizes injustice for what it is. “I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins.” (Amos 5:12) Wherever greed replaces justice, whenever money triumphs over mercy, whenever judicial system becomes a pawn of power and privilege used to oppress the very people it is designed to protect, there is injustice. And the consequence, verse 16 and 17 , is judgment. Verse 17, “I will pass in the midst of you”. Not as Israel believed as a friend or an ally, but as God did at the Passover in Egypt - in judgment. But there is a note of hope, if they only listened.
Amos turns from the social critique where he looks at the corrupt legal system and from how they exploited the poor, to some social aspirations. (Amos 5:14-15). There are at least two broad but important guidelines.First there is a positive and the negative: “Seek good - don’t seek evil. A positive and a negative. Press as hard for good as you resist evil. Secondly actions and emotions are involved. Vs 14 seek, vs 15 hate. Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate. The positive and the negative, the balance of action and emotion? We are a bit schizophrenic in the church, sometimes. We are righteously aroused in the safety of the pews and the prayer meetings but when we get outside it is different and we become indifferent or ineffective. There needs to be prayer, the developing of the Christian mind and then that needs to be channeled into Christian action.
Justice in the Bible means meeting the need, meeting it wherever it may exist and, in particular, where it exists most helplessly. So, there is negative and positive, there is emotion and there is action. “Hate evil, love good, establish justice in the gate” …and it MAY BE that the Lord of hosts will be gracious to the remnant. (Amos 5:15) God’s grace in society is a very special commodity. It’s not called down by any automatic means: political, spiritual or otherwise.
Justice springs from spiritual reality. Justice shapes social relationships. It was John Wesley who said: “There can be no holiness but social holiness!” as he contemplated in his last sermon that he never finished and was planning to preach in Dublin when 86 years old. “There can be no holiness but social holiness!” And Wesley was right.
So you see, our Christianity must never become just a Sabbath only ritual. We are called to abide by biblical standards of personal holiness, and then to be salt and light permeating society. Jesus words echo verse 15 in a way when he tells us to seek first the kingdom of God. But how often we stop at that point. We forget those extra words. We are to seek first Kingdom of God … and His righteousness. (justice = righteousness)
There is a social dimension that we cannot neglect. It is a demanding task in a complex world to work at justice that we cannot and dare not avoid the challenge.
The third great theme is that justice undergirds the acceptable worship. Verses 18 to 27. There is nothing worse then an individual or a church that confuses assurance with complacency. Israel regarded itself as seeking God, (vs 5), they boasted that God was with them, (vs 14), and they desired the Day of the Lord, they longed for the coming of God (vs 18). Their religion was extensive, it was varied: assemblies, feasts, offerings, songs, music (vs. 21). It was wholehearted. It was satisfying. But they were complacent because, it seems, their hope was misplaced and their worship was unacceptable. There would be no escape, if you get away from the lion the bear gets you, if you get away from the bear and you are leaning breathlessly on the wall, the snake bites you (vs 19). That’s the way it is. The Day of the Lord will not be the way they imagined as the day of happiness, and congratulations and the back slapping all around, but rather the day of darkness (vs. 20). Why? Because their living and their religion was wrong.
God’s outburst was shocking to them as it is to us: “I hate, I despise your feast, I take no delight in your solemn assembles, your offering I can’t accept, your music I can’t listen to”. Social injustice made a mockery of all that they were doing. It’s a solemn reminder to those of us who have forgotten that true worship is not just undesirable without right socially just behavior; but it’s impossible. God is revolted by it. On the contrary, true worship is where the moral perspectives are sharpened; where we begin to see from God’s point of view. Where we get hold of his concerns for justice in relationships, the right treatment of the marginalized, the better gender relationships and roles, the more astute way to celebrate racial, cultural, economic and other differences. And hence the timeless call: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Israel, not much unlike us, was very good at rolling up to church but not quite so good at rolling out again the other side as transformed people. Not so good at letting the church experience influence how it effects the social experience. The warning comes to us that without an unequivocal commitment to justice and righteousness our worship may, not to put too fine a point to it, stink. So the challenge to us is to begin where we are, with ourselves, our families, our church, our neighborhood, our work, what one thinker called the building block of a just society. And to recommit ourselves to justice. Checking greed, manipulation, dishonesty, prejudice, pressing for integrity compassion and love. If you think that God helps those who help themselves then you need to spend longer with Amos. Because the poor, and the needy, and the forgotten, and the helpless are those for whom God has a special concern and he commands us to do the same.
Finally, justice shutters ugly complacency. Amos continues his attack on ugly complacency in Amos 6:1. “Woe to these who are at ease in Zion, to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria.” They lived in the important city – Zion. They got a bit of a reputation – i.e. notable men of the first of the nations. There were many others less fortunate then themselves in the other cities, but they were like the company and the crew of Titanic, dancing cheerfully in the ballroom full of the joys of life, whilst Amos can only see the iceberg of judgment around the corner. Though they boasted that they were the first of the nations, the reality was that they would be the first for judgment, the first of those who go into exile (Amos 6:7). And look at the ugly picture of their self-indulgence, their laziness, their futility and aimlessness, their drinking and vanity.
The absurdity of their behavior could hardly be clearer: vs 12, “do horses run upon rocks, does one plough the sea with oxen, yet incredibly, unbelievably, amazingly, you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood”. Again, it’s a solemn word to those of us who have gone complacent. There is an equation between our justice and God’s justice. And it works like this, if we do not practice justice, God will, but it is the justice of judgment and rebuke. So, meanwhile, here is a challenge to our lifestyle, to use of our home and money, talent and resource.
Four significant biblical ideas are in this prophetic passage,
- Justice springs from spiritual reality (it’s a cry to spiritual reformation),
- Justice shapes social relationships (it’s a cry to social reformation),
- Justice undergirds acceptable worship (it’s a cry for religious reformation), and
- Justice shutters ugly complacency (it’s a cry for personal reformation).
We are called as a church to be salt and light in a civilization that’s grown weary, in a society that’s gone tired, that’s become cynical. We are called with all our souls and minds and strength to honor God’s name and to do his will on earth as it is in heaven. And when God quickens the church and gives it a vision of true concern for the other, there is a purging power that spills over into society around. That’s when justice begins to flow. I read portions of the biography of William Wilberforce after the film Amazing Grace made it so compelling to pay attention to what he did in the 19th century. He caught the vision of integrated Christian behavior and justice what he called the true Christian society. We can too. What are we going to change in the 21st century? Let justice roll down like waters in our beautiful land. And in every land where Advent believers come to worship from Sabbath to Sabbath.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5251