September 25, 2016
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7
In the warm cocoon of American capitalism, it’s hard to feel uncomfortable. In fact, it’s hard to even realize that there’s something to be uncomfortable about. Sure—there are lots of fraught political issues and highly-charged debates, but…there’s food in the fridge. The privileges we enjoy in the first world came home for me one time when I was on a mission trip to Haiti. I attended Mass at the local parish near where I was staying. I was the only foreigner and boy, did I feel it! Most of all, I kept looking around and thinking about my shoes. I had bought new shoes right before my trip and I kept thinking about how my shoes were worth more than anything anyone in the congregation had on or probably even had at home. It could be that my shoes were worth more than the net worth of almost anyone in the church. That realization frightened me—how out of touch with reality was I?
Lazy in Luxury
In this Sunday’s first reading from Amos, we find the prophet excoriating “those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1). He scathingly depicts them as lazy rich people, who lounge around on “beds of ivory” (6:4). They live in the lap of luxury, enjoying ease and comfort. They eat lamb, not tough mutton, and veal, not beef (6:4). Beyond that, they entertain themselves by fiddling with a harp as if they were David coming up with new tunes (6:5). They enjoy drinking wine and they pamper themselves with the finest oils (6:6). Yet in all of their idleness, wine-bibbing, couch-sitting and harp-strumming, they can’t find it within themselves to feel any compunction over the fate of the nation. They “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (6:6).
Amos preached in the northern kingdom of Israel and was warning against the coming Assyrian invasion and conquest. In this passage, he speaks both to Zion (south) and to Samaria (north). The great power of the day was the Assyrian empire, which was on a mission of expansion. In fact, Amos cites several fallen cities as examples of the power of Assyria’s conquering armies: Calneh, Hamath and Gath had already been defeated (6:2). These cities had stronger walls than Samaria and Jerusalem and so their fates are a stern warning. Eventually Amos’ warnings would come to fruition with the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom in 722 BC. His prophecies are no idle threats!
Sick with Grief
Amos focuses mainly on the moral outlook of the complacent rich, rather than simply on their behavior. How could they justify living in such luxury while ignoring the pressing issues of the day? He accuses them of not being “grieved,” but in fact, the underlying Hebrew word (nechlu) really means more like “being sick.” They should have been sick with grief over the coming destruction of the nation. I have always been struck by how Scripture emphasizes the moral necessity of our mood changes. You would think from the way modern psychology talks that we should expect to maintain a level composure at all times, but in contrast, Scripture urges us to feel emotions intensely, particularly when the holiness of God is disrespected. We are encouraged to “groan over all the abominations” (Ezek 9:4), to “clap your hands, and stamp your foot” (Ezek 6:11), to allow our eyes to “stream of tears” (Ps 119:136) and our souls to “weep in secret” (Jer 13:17). Living for God involves a morally-centered emotional life, where our deeply-felt reactions don’t focus on our own pride or selfish control, but on love for God and his people. The rich people of Amos’ day ought to have been sick with anxiety over the prospect of an Assyrian conquest, but they just kept eating bon-bons and thinking only of themselves.
Let Justice Roll Down
In the previous chapter (Amos 5), the prophet had warned his people not to foolishly hope for the “day of the Lord” since it would not bring their vindication, but their judgment. Punishment was coming upon the people for their many sins: oppressing the poor, practicing fraud, worshipping false gods and treating the true religion like a collection of superstitious rituals. Their religious hypocrisy combined with their unjust social practices cause the prophet to give voice to the Lord’s disgust: “I hate, I despise your feasts” (5:21). Their religious practices have become empty rituals and they merely look for more opportunities to exploit the poor. In contrast, God desires a true cohesion, consistency between our religious practices and our business practices: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24 RSV). The wealthy couch-potatoes Amos attacks have lost their center and neglected to connect the dots between their relationship with God and their relations with others. They have become true hypocrites and are totally unconcerned about the fate of their people. For their deeds and omissions, they will be punished as the first to go into Assyrian exile (6:7).
The trouble, I suppose, is that so many of us look a lot more like the ivory-couch, veal-eating harpists than we do like the poor people of the land of Israel. A passage like this, and the gospel about the rich man and Lazarus, which accompanies it, should provoke profound reflection and even an examination of conscience. Do we care about our own society in the way that God desires or are we unsympathetic and selfish? Are we watching the horizon for Assyria or indulging ourselves on the latest delicacies? I don’t think there’s an easy solution for how to engage with the wider culture, but we certainly should care. Whether it’s realizing how expensive your shoes are or how in trouble the world around us is, Amos’s voice still calls to us to get up from our couches, to look around, to feel sick with grief and then to do something about it.