Our readings this church year come from the Year C Lectionary list. In this season of Pentecost most of the first readings each week are about some of the Old Testament prophets. The first few weeks we heard readings from 1st and 2nd Kings, featuring the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Then last week we heard from the prophet Amos, and we continue with his prophecy today. Later in Pentecost, we will be reading OT prophecy from other prophets—Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habbakuk, Daniel and Haggai. These prophetic readings during Pentecost remind us of the role and importance of the prophets in the Jewish faith tradition; this history of the God’s elected--the Jewish people and their prophets, is part of our Christian faith and experience.
Amos was the one of the first biblical prophet whose words were recorded; he was an older contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah. He was active around 760-750 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom of Israel, and the reign of Uzziah, King of Judah, the southern kingdom, at a time when both kingdoms were peaking in prosperity. Amos lived in the kingdom of Judah, but he preached in the northern kingdom of Israel. This was about 200 years after the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, when the Jewish kingdom had been united.
God spoke to Amos, a common farmer and herder, and told him to go to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. Through Amos, God told the people that he was going to judge Israel for its sins, and that it will be a foreign nation that will carry out his judgment. (This impending judgment is what we heard from the readings from Amos chapters 7 & 8 the past two Sundays. Within a few decades the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians.)
The Book of Amos recorded a time when the people of Israel not only were prosperous and complacent in their lives, but had also reached a low point in their devotion to God. They had become greedy and had stopped following and adhering to the values and the laws of God. The wealthy elite had become rich at the expense of others. Some of the wealthy had become big time slave traders, taking innocent people and making them slaves, and the courts had helped them do it. Many wealthy people used their money to get an advantage over other less fortunate people, lending them money they could not pay back, and then heavily fining them so that these people stayed poor. The people had even used their religion for their personal gain. Peasant farmers who once practiced farming just to exist had been forced to farm what is best for the foreign trade, mostly wine and oil. Some of these farmers ended up having big debts, so the leaders just took their property away and gave it to the people who had lent the farmers money.
Bottom line: Amos could see that beneath Israel's external prosperity and power, internally the nation was corrupt to the core.
Amos proclaimed to the Jewish people that:
God IS Lord over and judge of all nations (not just Israel).
God had elected Israel as His chosen people and then redeemed Israel so that He would be known throughout the world through them. Election by God meant that those elected were responsible to live according to the purposes clearly outlined to them in the Law.
God expected moral righteousness in his people.
God expected that there would be social justice and concern for the disadvantaged by his people.
God will only destroy the unjust of Israel, and a remnant will remain.
These major themes of social justice, God's omnipotence, and divine judgment became the main points of prophecy for those Jewish prophets who came later.
This theme of God’s expectations concerning social justice resonates in the present day political and religious discussions occurring in our society. It has been a continuous theme led by some Christian churches and other people during the entire lifetime of our country. This theme and its discussions have resulted in slowly removing the oppression of slavery, the passing of civil rights legislation, fair labor laws and practices, voting rights, women rights, provisions for social security, Medicare/Medicaid, and lately even some provisions in our laws toward health care insurance reform.
I just completed an archaeological history book called “1491, New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus”. The author discusses the makeup, culture, and mindset of the indigenous people who inhabited the Americas at the time that Columbus and others first journeyed here. He points out the specific case of the Native Americans in New England living there when the colonists from England came in the early 1600s. Many of these first colonists to New England came to escape religious persecution in their homelands in northern Europe, to be able to practice their faith as they chose. Coming to America they were able to build new societies that did just that, but many also initially brought along their class system way of life they had experienced back home.
The colonists found in these Native Americans of every tribal nation an extreme belief in and cultural practice of individual liberty and social equality and justice-- this from people who were not even Christians! The various colonists—British, French, and Dutch—most who came with their own desires for religious freedom, could not understand a people where everything was not about class and social structure and wealth. The author asserts that when finally our nation obtained its freedom from England and began to form its own government and laws, these social equity and justice aspects of the Native American society had as much influence as the colonists’ own experiences and faith beliefs. This resulted in a much less class structured and more socially aware society than any of those in Europe at the time.
I also just finished reading a book that Bonnie mentioned last week in her sermon, by former President Jimmy Carter, called “Our Endangered Values’. He talks about his lifelong Christian beliefs and values from the teachings about Jesus Christ--to be his witnesses empowered only to serve others, by alleviating suffering and espousing truth, forgiveness, and love. This was from his Plains, Georgia Baptist Church upbringing. President Carter states that over the years he has seen the overlying Southern Baptist Convention organization that leads most of the Baptist churches, stray away from these basic mainstream, historic Christian and Baptist values toward extreme fundamentalism—including melding religion and politics, all male pastor domination, subservience of women, and lay leadership overridden by local pastoral authority. He sees this as “clearly in violation of Jesus’ statement that he was a servant, that his disciples would be servants, and that the greatest would be servants of all”. (He says he also sees this occurring in many Christian churches organizations today—that is the premise of his book.)
A few years ago, when asked for a 50 words or less response by Guideposts magazine for his definition of success in life, President Carter struggled for awhile, but finally said: “I believe that anyone can be successful in life, regardless of natural talent or the environment within which we live. This is not based on measuring success by human competitiveness for wealth, possessions, influence, and fame, but by adhering to God’s standards of truth, justice, humility, service, compassion, forgiveness, and love.”
Sojourners magazine did some research and found that one of every 16 verses in the New Testament refers to wealth and poverty, and that in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament), only idolatry is mentioned more times than the relationship between rich and poor.
What are we taught by Jesus Christ about social awareness and justice?
Reading from Matthew 25.35-40:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
Jesus promoted God's passion for the oppressed, hungry, widows and orphans that permeate the Hebrew Scriptures, including Amos. In fact, it was so much a part of His being that in caring for them he showed how he was to be cared for. Worse, not caring for them would be like turning your back on Jesus Himself.
So, what are we to do about social justice? Again, Jesus tells us how to act:
Reading from Matthew 22:37-39:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. "
Jesus teaches us to believe in a God of love, and not fierce judgment, as was described by Amos, 760 years before Christ. So, doing, or not doing, as Jesus calls us to do, while carrying a fearful mindset of divine judgment, is not the issue with our faith. It is because of our love of God and Jesus Christ that we as individuals and as a church community help those less fortunate around us--people we know and also those we don’t know. Our combined giving to a church budget that has at least 20% allocated for outreach in our community shows we do love and care about others. Whatever we also do on our own to help others says the rest about our faith and love for one another.