The sting of Amos

I wanted to share some observations from reading the Book of Amos this week.

Amos opens with a litany of sins of the peoples. Damascus has threshed Gilead. Gaza and Tyre have taken whole communities captive and sold them to Edom. Edom — the land of Esau’s descendants — has taken the sword against its brother (Jacob’s people). Ammon has “ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead.” Moab has burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king.

The particular accusations are likely worth careful study, but we see a litany of sins related to war against the people of Israel and Judah, and even against their brothers the Edomites.

Amos then moves on to list the sins of Judah and Israel. Judah has rejected the law of Yahweh, not kept the Lord’s decrees, and been led astray by false gods. Israel has sold the innocent for silver and the needy for sandals, trampled the heads of the poor, denied justice to the oppressed, engaged in profane sexual relations, refused to return garments taken in pledge, and gotten drunk in the house of God on wine taken as fines.

I’m not sure if Amos’ charges against Judah reflect a protest against the Davidic kingdom and temple or the more usual complaints of Baalism. In Amos 6:5 the prophet appears to take a jab at David and the luxury of his kingdom, so I don’t know if these accusations against Judah might reflect the tensions between the two kingdoms. In any event, the criticisms of Judah are remarkably different from the complaints against Israel, which the prophet repeats and deepens in chapter 5.

Here the list includes: turning justice into bitterness, casting righteousness to the ground, hating the one who upholds justice in the court, detesting the one who tells the truth, levying straw taxes on the poor, taxing the grain of the poor, oppressing the innocent, taking bribes, and depriving the poor of justice in the courts.

Amos lashes out at the leaders who indulge themselves in luxury and care little for the poor and weak. He mocks their outward piety. One of my favorite verses is 5:14:

Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.

That “just as you say he is” hits with a zing. I don’t think it should hit us with any less force than it hit Israel.

In 8:11, the prophet famously warns about coming drought of the hearing of the word of God among the people. Yahweh has attempted to discipline them with crop failures, lack of rain, and plague, but they have not turned from their evil ways. So, now they will be deprived of the very word of God. I have always taken this to be reference to the killing and carrying off of the religious elites and the prophets by invading kingdoms.

As I reflect on the church today, I wonder how we might hear Amos’ warning. In Amos the neglect and oppression of the poor and weak leads to a loss of the word. Retreat to empty ritual and blind luxury robs the people of God’s presence.

As the churches commonly known as the mainline have lost contact with the poor and the weak, I wonder if that has placed us under the judgement of Amos’ prophecy. Could it be that our struggle to grasp and proclaim the Word authentically and with power is the product of our treatment of the poor? Is God with us? Or is that merely something we are saying to ourselves?

Pastor school via Ezekiel & Jeremiah

Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

I’ve been thinking recently that every seminary and pastor training course should include a lesson on Ezekiel 33 & 34 and Jeremiah 23, not just as part of a general Old Testament class but specifically as part of pastoral formation. There are probably other chapters that should be thrown in there as well. What they all have in common is the stern words of God for shepherds or prophets who do not teach faithfully, who do not warn the people about the utter seriousness of being God’s people, and who do not strengthen them with the pure word of God.

The word is a hammer that break rocks to pieces.

How often is my preaching more like a velvet blanket?

In Ezekiel, God warns of the watchman who fails to warn people from their wickedness. The blood of the wicked will be on the hands of the watcher who holds his or her tongue. Jeremiah lashes out at the prophets who say “peace, peace” to the people when there is no peace.

God’s desire is not to destroy or burn. His desire is to turn people from their wicked ways.

And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right — if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil — that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live. (Ezekiel 33:14-16)

The message is one of grace, in the end, but it is grace on the heels of a word that burns like fire and shatters stone. God does not desire that anyone should perish, but that is what will surely happen if we do not repent of our wicked ways. (And just to be clear, this is not only about sex. It is about oppression and violence and exploitation of the weak; also it is about sex.)

I read these passages today, and I wonder how my ministry has heard them and whether it reflects the heart of God in regard to these things.

I read these words from Ezekiel and Jeremiah and I wonder how my brothers and sisters in the clergy hear them.

Are these things evil?

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

Here is my question today: Are these things evil or not?

I’m not interested in whether we would say these things are imprudent or potentially contrary to our own interests.

Are they, as Jesus says, evil?

‘For I keep your statutes’

In the movie Luther there is a dramatic scene when Luther is overcome with grief and agony over his sin and the devil’s power. His father confessor comes to him and directs him to pray this terribly simple prayer to Jesus: Save me. I am yours.

I had not noticed until this morning that the prayer was from Psalm 119: 94.

The full verse in the NIV is translated like this: Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts.

Maybe it is what I have been reading recently — both online and in book form — but reading Psalm 119 for my Scripture this morning brought home to me the ease with which my ears are tempted by calls to set aside the law and the teaching of God. It is so easy to talk yourself into the idea that God’s law is fluid and defined by the culture of the day. It is so easy to lift up verse against verse in the Bible and melt any sense that there is something hard and fast and unchanging at the base of it all. It is so easy end up double-minded and hating the law (contra. 119:113).

Psalm 119 ends with this: I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten you commands.

May God’s grace give me the faithfulness to be able to pray those words in truth.

And some United Methodists?

Here’s the background I need to get to post this quote below. Sewanee Uniiversity gave N.T. Wright an honor. A professor wrote that Wright did not deserve to be treated as a serious biblical scholar. Internet hilarity ensued.

And then this piece was written that included this great bit:

Well, Wright is an Anglican and one thing about us Anglicans is that we regard Scripture as sufficient and supreme in the life of the church. In fact, I would point out that the majority of people engaged in biblical studies do so out of a deep reverence and high regard for Scripture as providing authoritative direction for the Christian faith. It is only unbelievers and perhaps some Episcopalians who  are dumbfounded as to why anyone would regard the Bible as somehow normative for their beliefs and ethics.

What Job teaches me about sin

“Sin” is one of those tough words in Christianity. A lot of people outside the faith don’t understand it. Many of them find it off putting. At the same time, many people who claim the name of believer don’t actually know what they mean by the word either.

When I encounter problems like these, I try to stay alert in my Bible reading to clues that might help me see things more clearly. The Book of Job, I find, is a particularly rich resource.

In the course of his self-defense against his friends, Job provides evidence of his innocence. In Job 31, he lists many sins for which he claims to bear no guilt. Here is a quick summary of his list:

  • He does not walk with falsehood or hurry after deceit (31:5)
  • He has not let attractive or alluring or appetizing things control his choices (31:7)
  • He has not lusted after a woman who is not his wife (31:9)
  • He has not denied justice to his servants when they have fair complaints against him (31:13)
  • He has not refused to share his bread, support, or clothing with the poor, the orphan, and the widow (31:16-19)
  • He has not let injustice against the poor occur in court without offering his help (31:21)
  • He has not put his trust in gold (31:24)
  • He has not worshiped the sun or moon (31:26)
  • He has not rejoiced at his enemy’s misfortune (31:29)
  • He has not cursed his enemies (31:30)
  • He has not closed his doors to the traveler or stranger (31:32)
  • He has not hidden from the people who might see whether he has sinned (31:33-34)
  • He has not been unjust to the people who farm on his land (31:39)

This may not be an exhaustive list of sin. But it certainly is long enough to challenge us to examine our own lives.

And most importantly, Job understands that the court of this judgment is not ultimately his own heart or the opinion of his friends, but God: “What will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?” (31:14)

God in the Bible has given us some clear teaching about what he expects of us. He has also left us with some teaching that we find more difficult to sort out. In the end, the proper frame of reference is the judgment of God. How will we stand before God when called to account?