Martin Luther King, Jr. loved to quote Amos 5:24. I found this verse at least five times in his published sermons and I suppose that he quoted it many more times than this.
“… let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amos, like King was concerned about oppression of the poor and social injustice. But Amos was also concerned about sham religion. And to Amos the two were inseparable.
Amos spoke (around 760 BC) to the northern kingdom of Israel, which had split from the southern kingdom about 165+ years earlier. It was during the reign of Jeroboam 2, a time of territorial expansion and prosperity (at least for some). It was the last period of the kingdom’s greatness before it fell into the steady decline that ended with its conquest and deportation by Assyria within another 40 years.
After tearing into the sins of the neighboring nations (see previous blog) and of their sister kingdom Judah in the first chapter and a half, Amos turns his attention to Israel and never stops for seven chapters.
He makes clear at the beginning what the LORD is angry about. It is the hypocritical mixing of religiosity with oppression of the poor, along with their sexual immorality. Look at 2:6-8: “… they sell the righteous for money and the needy for a pair of sandals. These who pant after the very dust of the earth on the head of the helpless also turn aside the way of the humble; and a man and his father resort to the same girl in order to profane My holy name. And on garments taken as pledges they stretch out beside every altar, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.”
Sounds like 21st century America, doesn’t it? The rich were getting rich off the backs of the poor and using their ill-gotten wealth not only for their own pleasure and benefit, but also to make a show of religion.
Amos calls the Gentile nations to see this. He tells them in 3:9b, 10: “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria and see the great tumults within her and the oppressions in her midst. But they do not know how to do what is right, declares the LORD, these who hoard up violence and devastation in their citadels.” The very people the LORD had chosen and delivered, Amos was now holding up as a bad example.
He calls the wealthy women “cows … who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring now, that we may drink’” (4:1).
He tears into their false worship and makes it clear that it was not getting through to Him (4:4, 5). In beautiful anthropomorphism and irony, the LORD says that their religion was an offense to His senses. “I will not SMELL your solemn assemblies … your offerings … I will not DELIGHT IN, and I will not LOOK AT the peace offerings … Take away the noise of your songs; I will not LISTEN to the sound of your harps!” (5:21-23).
Over and over God, through Amos, mocks the religion of Israel and fulminates against their social injustice.
How can we – American Christians – read Amos without feeling God’s grief and anger at what goes on in this country? How can we be like those “who drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the finest of oils, yet have not grieved over the ruin of Joseph?” (6;6).
And these things are going on. We see it on the evening news. We read about it in our newspapers.
Corporate CEOs robbing pension funds, bankrupting companies and employees and getting off with their golden parachutes.
Congressmen and politicians accepting lavish gifts from lobbyists to promote their pet projects at the public expense.
Federal regulatory agencies peopled with members or former members of the very businesses they’re supposed to regulate and passing on and receiving favors.
American and international corporations growing wealthy at the expense of underpaid and child laborers in other countries. See 8:6: “…..so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals….”
And yet church growth in America continues. Our super-churches are growing larger and wealthier while many of the leaders of these churches live lavish lifestyles.
Isn’t there some sort of anomaly here?
I know that many Christians, many in those same super-churches are aiding in attempting to relieve some of the effects of these evils, but we don’t seem to speak to the evils themselves.
We can write it off and deny that it is really going on. We can claim that somehow those who are at the bottom deserve to be there.
We can say that it is none of our business, that (as I have sometimes said) it’s not our job to speak to these issues, that our job is to preach the gospel.
But we are citizens of a representative democracy, and as Christian citizens, I believe we are responsible for speaking out in love. And we do speak out, though I am honestly puzzled by some of the issues we American Christians find important. Though some are extremely important, others are really trivial compared with what Amos speaks about: oppression and injustice, especially the mistreatment of the poor. Why don’t we speak out more on these? Aren’t these “sanctity of life” issues?