Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed. Yet I destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of cedars, and who was as strong as oaks; I destroyed his fruit above, and his roots beneath. Also I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you for forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite. And I raised up some of your children to be prophets and some of your youths to be Nazirites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel? says the Lord. But you made the Nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’ So, I will press you down in your place, just as a cart presses down when it is full of sheaves. Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives; those who handle the bow shall not stand, and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves, nor shall those who ride horses save their lives; and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked on that day, says the Lord.
One of the interesting things about contemporary society is that politicians often are tempted to talk about personal morality whilst church leaders often talk about politics. Archbishop Desmond Tuto famously rebuked those who told him to stay out of politics that he didn’t know what Bible they read as his inspired him to enter political debate.
Amos clearly knew a thing or two about political protest; but for the ancient Jews there wasn’t an easy divide between personal morality and political ideas. The Jews saw God as their King bound to the People by the Covenant. Of course the Jews insisted on having a king like the surrounding nations but Kings proved to be a mixed blessing – and were often removed by the prophets acting in the name of God if they strayed too far from the Covenant. In this passage oppression of the poor is condemned alongside sexual immorality – I wonder if the prophet had in mind the poor woman who had to satisfy both father and son with her body. Amos reminded the people of all that God had done for them in the past in the hope that this reminiscence would bring them back to a fruitful relationship with God but, again and again, Amos is driven to remind the people where they have gone wrong – and the coming consequence of that neglect.
Prophets are in short supply in our own age. Political might is happier for the Church to talk about personal morality – then it can portray as out of touch, insular, and old fashioned – than it is when we make political statements. This isn’t new. In the 1980s the Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara famously noted that when he gave food to the poor they called him a saint but when he asked why the poor had no food they called him a communist. I suspect he was happier with the latter rather than the former description.
God of the poor, remind us of our obligations to care for those on the edge, to feed the poor, clothe the naked, give succour to the hungry and thirsty, and, at the same time to do more than bandage the wounded, but to put a spoke in the machinery of evil, that your Kingdom will come and your people will be free. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in the Synod of Scotland’s Southside Cluster.