How does a Christian preach or even read the book of Amos? What message could Amos possibly have for us now? Amos is very nearly unrelentingly bleak. He delivers condemnation after condemnation. In his pronouncements no one is safe from the judgement of God. His words are almost all destruction by fire and sword. In Amos there doesn’t seem to be much Good News, it’s all bad news. The book of Amos is one of those places where we are like to imagine that there is some kind of sharp contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the God we witness active in Jesus in the New. So we might think we have to respond to a twofold challenge: First, in the face of the picture of God which Amos paints, we would want to maintain the unity of scripture. We would want to say that it is the same God who is present in the Old Testament, who is present and active in Jesus Christ. And second, to rehabilitate Amos words, to make it possible to read and preach and hear them. Assuming such a rehabilitation is possible or even desirable.
From the passage which we have just read, it is not immediately clear is what Amos’ overall message is. The truth is Amos is quite consistent. He announces God’s judgement. It is a judgement against the way all of the nations have organised themselves. No one is making their social and economic and political arrangements in the way in which God intends people to live. The condemnation which Amos reports is especially directed against: The way in which the rich have become powerful, and the way in which they have used that power to make themselves richer, and the way in which they have used religion to camouflage what they have been doing. In many ways, the judgement which Amos renders has a startlingly contemporary resonance. It is not difficult to see the parallels between the social, economic and political circumstances of Amos’ world and those of our own. This may just be that the world is ever thus. We may simply be admitting that we live in a fallen world. That the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands, and efforts to justify those circumstances, are a constant. In truth it pretty much the same thing which Jesus condemns.
His parables of the kingdom a critical of the accumulation of wealth rather than its use for the common good. And he roundly condemns the hypocrisy of using religion to conceal or to justify wrong doing. So perhaps fulfilling that twofold challenge is not as difficult as it seemed at first. The God of the Old Testament and of the New judges against much the same thing: the injustices of the social, political and economic arrangements of the world. God speaks judgement in both testaments in the same voice. And we can rehabilitate Amos by standing behind him and cheering him on as he condemns the wickedness of everyone else, much as we might stand behind Jesus with the disciples cheering him on as he condemns the scribes and the Pharisees.
The passage we have read comes from about half way through Amos’ prophecy. Most of what has gone before has been Amos’ announcement of God’s judgement against all the nations which surround Israel. He begins:
Thus says the Lord. For the three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke the punishment. [1:3]
Amos the moves on to announce judgement against Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Moab, and Judah, before moving onto the judgement against the Israel. Only after condemning its neighbours does God’s attention return to the place where Amos is speaking, Israel, the northern part of God’s own people:
Thus says the Lord: For the three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. . . [2:6]
The judgement which Amos announces is that social, economic and political one. He then goes on at some length and detail to list all the things that God finds wrong in the society of Israel, in its capital Samaria and in its principle holy site Bethel. And Amos lists all the terrible things that will happen as a consequence.
Finally Amaziah the priest at Bethel has heard enough. Perhaps he was fine whilst Amos’ words were directed against Damascus and Gaza. He probably cheered Amos on as he condemned Edom and Moab. And would definitely have celebrated when God’s wrath was being directed against Israel’s rival as God’s chosen people, Judah. It was easy to stand behind Amos smiling when God’s judgement was being directed towards somebody else. But when it was turned towards Israel, and when the judgement was directed against the rich and powerful there, like Jeroboam the king, and against the religious establishment, which included Amaziah himself, the priest was a lot less happy.
Amaziah’s first move is to condemn Amos to the king:
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.”
Amaziah exposes the rather unholy alliance between religion and the state. Each uses the power of the other to defend the status and prestige of themselves. What both the king and the priest want is for God to speak in the voice of the powerful on behalf of the rich and the powerful. Amaziah’s dismay is that when Amos speaks it is the cry of the oppressed for justice and God’s judgement in response. Amaziah also turns toward Amos in person:
O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.
For one thing Amaziah makes it clear that he hasn’t actually being listening to Amos. He tells him to go to Judah and do his condemning there. Nothing would suit Amaziah more than for Amos to go to Judah and make it clear that God was against them, and by implication, and for Israel. Most people are happy enough with God’s anger when it is directed against someone else and it can help them to win an argument. Except, as we have noted, Amos has already delivered God’s judgement against Judah. He has already announced that God:
will send fire on Judah and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. [2:5]
Amaziah’s response to Amos is in fact a spectacular “self-own.” Amaziah simply demonstrates that what Amos has been saying is true and that the condemnation is entirely justified. As he tells Amos to go away he also lets slip what kind or religion he really represents. Amos’ words are unbearable because the place where he is speaking represents the religion of the king and of the nation. Amaziah actually admits it out loud. The purpose of the sanctuary at Bethel is not the worship of the true and living God but to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, especially the king. These are very things which God is condemning through Amos’ prophecy. It proves so easy to conflate what God wants with what we want. And then lose sight of God altogether and just use our religious identity to serve our own purposes. That is clearly what has happened in Israel in Amos’ time.
More than 2300 after Amos had spoken, Martin Luther stood before the Emperor Charles V. Luther had issued a similar challenge to the social, political and religious establishment of his day as Amos. Luther said: “Here I stand I can do no other!” Luther’s defence of his actions is essentially similar to that of Amos. Amos answers Amaziah’s challenge by recounting his own story and its encounter with God.
“For one thing”, Amos says, “I am not a professional prophet, there is noting in this for me, this is not my family business”:
Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son.
“There is no sense in telling me to go to Judah to earn my bread there because this is not how I earn my living. Announcing God’s judgement is none of my business, my business is looking after sheep and caring for fruit trees:
“I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees,
“However none of this is up to me, I am not here on my own behalf.
“the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ ”
This is the truth! We don’t get to choose what God says, and we don’t get to choose who says it. It is surprisingly easy to forget that God is God and we are not. Amos and Luther and all the others who have spoken for God did so because of a compulsion laid upon them by God. There they stood, they could do no other. And here we sit. The problem of how we read or hear Amos doesn’t arise, there it is, it can be no other. There is simply no question of rehabilitating Amos, he doesn’t need it.
The encounter between Amos and Amaziah began with a vision which Amos received:
The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.
God sets a standard. Like the plumb line that measures whether a wall is vertical or not. We worry that there is a different God in the Old Testament from the New. The truth is the plumb line which God holds in both testaments is the same. The characteristic way for Christians to read prophecy has always been to find fulfilment of prophecy in Jesus Christ. The answer to how we should read Amos is to remember that Christ is the standard against which God is measuring. Amos delivers God’s condemnation of societies which organise themselves on the basis of giving wealth and power to a small group of people who then use things to exploit and oppress the weak and the marginalised in order to reinforce their position. God condemns the use of religion to hide and justify this behaviour. And God promises catastrophic consequences for societies who conduct their lives in this way.
Prophecy is always spoken with an unless. God says to Amos:
See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
God will not pass this way again, but this is a final opportunity. There is one last chance The standard has been set. Build a society of inclusion, of mutual car and service, which leads to a profound equality. And support that society with a genuine trust in the true and living God. The standard is Jesus Christ. That society is a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
Amos and Amaziah by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0