Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst. Those who swear by Ashimah of Samaria, and say, “As your god lives, O Dan,” and, “As the way of Beer-sheba lives”— they shall fall, and never rise again.
I always thought that the Old Testament had nothing in it for me except as a book of stories. That was in my pre-TLS days of innocence. During my studies I discovered the prophets and was staggered to find out how little has changed – that the things that concerned them concerned me. I had become part of the Jubilee Debt Campaign and the Make Poverty History movement and discovered a spokesman – Amos – along with the other prophets.
In our passage Amos is speaking about all the businessmen whose lives are concerned with making money, no matter how crooked their methods. The religious festivals were inconveniences to making money. During the festival of the new moon, no business could be done – what a waste of opportunity to make money. The Sabbath – another day lost. Moreover, they used dishonest methods: fixing the weights to be too light or too heavy, whichever method was in their favour. The people who suffered were the poor, some of whom would be in slavery to earn money to live, and the wheat would be just the husks on the floor.
It wasn’t that Amos was against business – he was a small businessman himself – a sheep owner with a fig ripening business so he obviously believed in buying and selling – but fairly. Clearly he believed in plain speaking.
Usually, when the passage is taken as a text to preach on, it ends here. However, Amos goes on to ask what will happen if people don’t change their ways – he is a prophet after all! This warning is worse than usual; something terrible will happen. God has warned about famine or drought before but now Amos threatens something far worse – a shortage of God himself. There will be no more words from God, just silence. No matter where the people search, they will not find God. What could be worse?
In our talk today of Brexit and Trade Deals, perhaps we should remember the words of the prophets and take heed.
O Lord of the market place and the balances, help us to be fair in our dealings Make us consider people not profit and look for balance not gain. Make the poor and needy our priority and not give them our leftovers. God of justice and mercy, may we reflect you in our lives, Amen
Chris Eddowes, lay preacher and elder at St George’s URC, Hartlepool