the BIGB story: Amos 5

The people of Amos’ day really went to town celebrating their religious feasts, they brought the best offerings to the place of worship, they sang their praises of God enthusiastically. And that sounds so familiar!  I recently came across an Amos 5 sermon from Eden Baptist at Cambridge called, “When religion has become a shame, the lion roars”. Indeed, he does!

In Amos 5:21, God speaks to Israel in some pretty uncompromising terms:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts. I cannot stand your assemblies.

God’s people had a  duplicitous attitude to worship. They are bringing their offerings not only to the Lord but to other gods as well. They thought that once they had been through the ritual of worship, they could do what they liked the rest of the time. And God delivers a series of stinging rebukes of their attitudes to justice and righteousness. They might well be bringing to God what the Law of Moses required of them – the tithes, ritual offerings and sacrifices – but their real thoughts are often elsewhere.

The renowned American economist J K Galbraith puts it this way in The Affluent Society

Few things have been more productive of controversy over the ages than the suggestion that the rich should, by one device or another, share their wealth with those who are not. With comparatively rare and usually eccentric exceptions, the rich have been opposed. The grounds have been many and varied and have been principally noted for the exclusion of the most important reason, which is the simple unwillingness to give up the enjoyment of what they have.

To put it another way, people like us – the rich of this world – are generally too selfish to share with the vast majority of this planet – the poor – that which we enjoy as what we take to be our right. For Amos, the two major casualties of such a selfish and grasping attitude are truth and justice.

Truth

The prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil Amos 5:13

This “prudent man” is not the “wise” man of Proverbs and Psalms, but the man who thinks he’s going to get on a bit better if he doesn’t rock the boat. Yet in Amos 5:10 we read:

You despise him who tells the truth.

The people of Amos’s day weren’t too keen on listening to the prophets and those who spoke God’s word uncompromisingly ended up in all kinds of trouble. Those who today try to speak out for the poor, who advocate a more thoughtful and equitable use of the world’s resources, are abused in all kinds of ways. Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian bishop who has faced all kinds of obstacles as he has tried to help the poor of that vast country, once said,

If I give money to the poor, they call me a saint: if I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist

Steve Turner puts it this way:

No, you didn’t stone the prophet.
You said there were crazies like him
Around in Ancient Rome
But Italy survives.
The official view was
Don’t panic.
You didn’t stone the prophet.
You didn’t even censor him.
You didn’t put him in prison.
You just put him in perspective.

Amos 5 challenges us to make sure that the voice of truth is expressed in every situation. Some years ago, Tony Campolo realised that the practices of a multi-national food conglomerate were highly offensive to those who took what the Bible has to say about justice seriously. So he and a few of his students bought one share in the company, one share that permitted them to go to the annual meeting of shareholders and there they made their point so tenaciously that the company eventually changed its policies.

“All that is needed for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

So Edmund Burke is reported to have said. Once we have decided that we are going to ignore what’s going on around us, that we are not going to face up to the truth, then justice goes out of the window too.

Justice
In this prophecy, Amos says clearly there is no justice. Wrongs that could be righted with the political will are continuing, because the rich like things that way.

“They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (2:6-7).

Jesus died on the cross not just for people like me, but for all people and especially the poor:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news for the poor.”

Amos could see truth and justice disappearing, along with compassion and unselfishness. What could be done? In 5:5-6 he says that the first thing to do is to “Seek the LORD”. Then he provides a stark contrast with his condemnation of the pious and empty religiosity of the Israelites’ worship: “Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Here is what you could call the principle and practice of justice

Through the ages it has been the Church’s concern for justice, its care of the poor and dispossessed that has marked it out from other organisations. Senator Barry Goldwater when he was seeking the presidential nomination in the USA back in 1964, said:

“Let me remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

He didn’t win!!  There is still a huge gap between rich people like me and the poor majority of the world’s population. What can we do? The advice of Amos is, “Seek good not evil, that you may live.” Then we might be able to worship God with real integrity.