July 12, 2015
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Amos 7:12-15
Public speaking does not come easily to most people. In fact, most people fear it and some fear it more than death (See some statistics). So what if you were minding your own business, on your own farm, just doing a day’s work and then—wham!—God taps you on the shoulder and calls you to be a professional public speaker, and in particular, a prophet of bad news. Not an easy transition, I imagine. But that is exactly what happens to Amos, an unlikely prophet with a powerful message.
The Message of Amos
The first reading for this Sunday is one of only three that come from Amos in the whole 3-year Lectionary cycle. Our text comes from the seventh chapter of this nine-chapter book, so it is worth reflecting back on what Amos’ message is so we understand why people are so upset with him. Amos was from Judah (the Southern Kingdom) and he prophesied to the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BC (that’s the 700’s). He brings some bad news. The Lord has seen the sins of Israel—idolatry, maltreatment of the poor, and a false religiosity—and he’s not pleased. In fact, Amos proclaims God’s judgment not only on foreign nations, but on his very own people, on Israel. That judgment for sin will consist in a disaster: exile. A powerful nation will swoop in and take Israel off to exile. This prophecy is eventually fulfilled by the 722 B.C. conquest of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria, which exiles some and forces intermarriage on others (2 Kings 17:24).
The Sins of the North
Now the sins I mentioned might seem odd. Why would Israel worship false gods if they are the true God’s people? When the kingdom had split in two, the new northern king, Jeroboam, did not want his people going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (in the Southern Kingdom) for worship. So to solidify his reign, he constructed two golden calves and set up sanctuaries for them in the North—one at Dan and one at Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-30). Apparently there was also an idolatrous sanctuary at Gilgal. Amos takes the people to task for visiting these false shrines (Amos 4:4; 5:6). Not only have the people adopted the worship of fake gods, they have also been routinely oppressing the poor: “They that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:7 RSV). False worship has led to continued mistreatment of those less well off. Not only that, but whatever worship they have been offering to the Lord himself is an insipid and hypocritical religiosity. Their sacrifices and offerings have become disgusting to God and their worship music is pure noise in his ears (5:21-23).
After hearing Amos preach against the practices of the North over and over, Amaziah, the high priest of the Bethel sanctuary testily interrupts the prophet. In chapter 7, Amos tell of a series of judgment visions he has been seeing against Israel. Amaziah can’t take it anymore and writes a letter to the king of the North accusing Amos of treason—for prophesying the exile of the people and the death of the king—after which he accuses Amos to his face. Our reading begins with Amaziah’s nasty attack. He wants Amos to bug off and go home, to stop bothering the Northern people with his prophesying. He accuses Amos of being a profiteer, seeking to make his living off of his prophecies. Amaziah insists this “is the king’s sanctuary” (7:13) and indeed it is since the Lord does not claim it for himself.
Amos Defends Himself
Amos offers an initial defense, reported in our reading. He claims not to really be a prophet. He was not born a prophet and he is not part of the usual prophet crowd. Instead, he was a “dresser of sycamore trees” and a herder. The Lord came to him while he was doing his daily farm chores and called him to prophesy to the Northern Kingdom. The beauty of this calling is twofold. On the one hand, it shows that God can come and intervene at any time to call us from a normal human occupation into a divine vocation. On the other hand, it shows God once again using the weak to shame the strong. How could a humble farmer teach the high priest of Israel? Clearly, Amos’ wisdom comes from God and not from human learning.
Our reading cuts off after Amos’ biography, but his conversation with Amaziah has not yet ended. In fact, for shooing away the Lord’s prophet, Amaziah will get his comeuppance. Amos prophesies a harsh judgment against him:
Therefore thus says the LORD:
“Your wife shall be a harlot in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”
(Amos 7:16-17 RSV)
Amaziah’s own family will suffer for his rejection of the Lord’s messenger. The corporate punishment startles us, but makes sense for a culture of groups rather than individuals. The psychological wall between myself and my family was much more porous in ancient Israel. To punish “mine” is to punish “me.” But why would Amaziah’s wife become a prostitute? Because of the financial ruin that would come upon Israel. Those who live in “houses of ivory” (3:15) and dine sumptuously will be out on the streets, destitute to the point of prostitution. Amaziah himself, a priest who had to be concerned with ritual purity, would die in an “unclean land.” Exile was the ultimate punishment—it meant being cut off from God’s promises, cut off from the future, being a people without hope.
Now we hope that God will not call us to bear a message as painful and terrifying as Amos’ prophecies of judgment. Yet he does call us to bring “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Bearing witness to that good news can be scary—any speaking out in public is frightening. But we should not be surprised if God calls each of us, even those whom we would least expect, to “carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Let’s just hope we’re ready for that moment.