The idea of vo-tech schools is quite old. As early as the days of young Samuel and King Saul there were schools that trained students to become prophets. One imagines that the core curriculum might have included subjects like “Aggravating People 101” or some upper level classes like “Seven Weird Things to Do With Your Body in Public for a Year” (read the book of Ezekiel) Much like law students looking for clerkships or seminarians looking for parish placements, the best and brightest prophet students could fetch a pretty good price. It wasn’t a bad gig as long as you told people what they wanted to hear and managed not to anger the wrong folks. On the other hand, just because a prophet did manage to always infuriate his audience was not necessarily a sign that the prophet was the real deal. Also not a new phenomenon: trying to pass off vitriol as deep truth.
Although now we think of them as being able to tell the future, in the old days they were more like older siblings or a wise but detached elder who would take you aside and warn that, based on their experience and in conversation with the Almighty, if you keep doing what you’re presently doing you can expect some serious consequences.
Because ancient prophets were financially compensated, it is understandable that from time to time those to whom they prophesied would occasionally fire them and send them packing back to wherever they had come. What a predicament when the prophet is — dare I say it — “self-funded!” I think many would agree that it’s pretty hard to turn off the message when the messenger is paying his own freight.
Unlike some self-funders, however, the prophet Amos would very much like to return home to his vineyard. He didn’t seek the job and he is not enjoying it. He isn’t even very good at it. God shows him a “sign” and asks Amos to interpret it. But poor Amos tells God he sees only the “sign”. He has no idea what it means. And so God spells it out to him and Amos, in turn, spells it out to the priest at the shrine at Bethel who, in turn, spells it out to the king adding the following commentary, which you might notice also has a very contemporary ring to it: “The country cannot endure the things he is saying.”
“Go away!” they beg Amos, only to have Amos reply basically “I’d love to! I am a rancher and a farmer. I’m not a prophet. But God dragged me away and brought me here and told me what to say. The sooner I deliver my message, the sooner I can go home.” His authentic reply underscores the authority of his message. And, as always, it is a warning that because of what you have done, this is what you can expect.
So, how is the Spirit speaking to the Church here today, to you and to me right now? What is the message that we would love to ignore but find that we cannot? What is God calling you and me to change immediately, before the dye is cast, before it is too late to avoid the consequences? Perhaps looking more closely at Amos’ warnings to Israel might help.
The prophecy had four points.
First, your wife shall be “ravished” in the town. Scholars believe this “wife” is a reference to the pagan goddess Asheroth. Israel liked to hedge its bets and the idea of the one true God was slow to take hold, contrary to the popular idea we often have that Israel’s transition, her conversion if you will, from many deities to one was immediate. Frequently, Israel and Judah (the northern and southern kingdoms) set up totem poles dedicated to this female deity. God warns, this idol is about to be destroyed in the midst of the people who have worshipped it.
Your sons and daughters will fall by the sword, a reference to losing one’s children to overpowering outside forces, because their own family systems were weak and ethically porous. In 721 BC, the ten tribes that lived in the northern kingdom of Israel would be dispersed throughout the world, never to be heard from again, and in 587 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah would fall to the Babylonians who would destroy their temple and their capitol city and deport its ruling class and wealthy residents to Babylon where, after a generation, the Persian king Cyrus would allow the exiled Judahites to return home to begin the slow rebuilding process. But in the meantime, the loss of life would be devastating.
The third warning was that ‘your land will be divided by a measuring line.’ There were two ways to mark property boundaries in ancient times. One way was with topographical landmarks: i.e., from that mountain to that valley. This was a generous broad sweep that implied bounty; no need to fuss over small details. The other way was to measure off small plots by cubits. Such mean accounting was for sharecroppers, not landowners. This way of measuring suggested not only the loss of stature, but of individual freedom over one’s destiny.
Finally, you will die on unclean soil because your sacred soil is gone. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to any of us is: How portable is our relationship with Jesus? Do our children remember it when they go off to college? Do our adults remember it when they go off on business trips? The southern kingdom of Judah would be faced with the challenge to remember who they were when every symbol that indicated they were God’s “chosen” people was gone.
I bet Amos did want to go back to his ranch.
What an horrific prophecy! The priest at Bethel and the king in Israel recognized that such a prophecy would demoralize the people. Unfortunately, it was going to happen. To put it mildly, it would be misplaced compassion to spare Israel’s feelings by not warning them about the impending consequences.
Each of us here today is the moral leader of some entity; perhaps your workplace, your home, your dorm, your hall, or your neighborhood, maybe even your knitting group or your civic committee. We all recognize that just because some consequences do not fall immediately doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually fall. “ “Can two walk together without having met?” asks Amos. There is always a backstory that explains where something went wrong and individuals are culpable for their part.
Israel’s sins constituted a very tenuous faithfulness to God, a gross indifference toward the weak and the poor, and a manifest perversion of justice. “You defraud the poor and rob the needy.” Amos’ warnings here in today’s passage are summed in an earlier passage from Amos: “You ignored the covenant of brotherhood!” (Amos 1:9)
This last indictment is perhaps the one that strikes closest to home. It is this covenant of brotherhood that is at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer. Is my brother my neighbor, the person who lives where I live and lives like I live? Is it not the one who has been abused, robbed, left for dead, who has nothing with which to repay my kindness?
We have all heard the story of the Good Samaritan so many times. We know all about the ones who pass by the poor man. We know all about the good Samaritan who helped. But we actually know nothing about the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead. When putting these two texts together in conversation – Amos’ warning and the lawyer’s question to Jesus – the man becomes Everyman, Any Man, Any Woman, Any Child – a young father in Baton Rouge, a school worker in St. Paul, eleven police officers in Dallas, four patrolmen or even a 25 year old gunman taking lives out of a misguided sense that this changes things or makes us safer. True compassion in these circumstances derives from a way of life, an orientation toward sacred and ethical ideals. Such an orientation develops secure, healthy grounded families and communities.
It also produces young persons who enter their transition to adulthood grounded and healthy with a realistic outlook about how the actions of their one life in concert with others can affect true change. It reflects a mature and balanced theology – not rigid but solid – based on the study of scripture and the regular practice of prayer and worship. And its language is the articulate and unambiguous narrative that comes from our baptismal covenant. Amos’ warnings about not ignoring the covenant of the brotherhood and Jesus’ clarification about who is our neighbor make a compelling case for us to think less about the noise of modern prophets we would like to drown out and more about the work we have to do in our lives, closer to home, so that wisdom and true godliness will prevail, and justice will eventually roll down like waters on every child of God.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
July 10, 2016