Justice Is Not Optional
Let justice roll down!
It’s time to talk about the Prophet Amos.
Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake. 2And he said: The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds wither, and the top of Carmel dries up.
14Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
This week’s text? Some (surprisingly brief) selections from the Prophet Amos. This is the Narrative Lectionary’s way of letting us sample some of Israel’s prophetic tradition.
Quick refresher: last week we had the story of Elijah opposing Ahab and Jezebel. And the books of Kings go on to recount more of the adventures of Elijah and Elisha. But most of the prophetic material takes the form of books that bear the names of the prophets. And Amos may be taken as the paradigmatic prophetic book.
“Amos is Israel’s prophet of social justice, proclaiming that true religion consists not just of ritual observances but in a moral life based on fair and equitable treatment of all members of society.” So says Theodore Hiebert.
Amos was active in Israel (the northern kingdom) during the reign of King Jeroboam II (786-746 CE). He speaks against the injustice of the northern kingdom, insisting that God will not bear with it much longer. And, as it so happens, Israel was conquered by the armies of Assyria a mere 25 years after the death of Jeroboam.
(For more on the historical details, see Hiebert’s Introduction in The Access Bible).
So what is the substance of Amos’ message?
I don’t think it does too much violence to the text if we think of the three paragraphs as addressing three different aspects of Amos’ prophetic ministry: his prophetic pedigree, his call to justice and his critique of religion. Let’s walk through these three.
First, Amos takes a lot of pride in his lack of pedigree. He portrays himself, not as someone who went looking for God but as someone who God found among the sheep. Later on, he insists: ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” (7:14). Amos’ lack of credentials helps to differentiate him from the court prophets –prophets on the royal payroll who tell the king what he wants to hear. Amos, by contrast, is beholden to no one and so he speaks the unfiltered truth.
Second, Amos calls for justice. It is important to underscore this seemingly obvious point. In 5:15, he calls specifically for justice to be established “in the gate” –the public sphere, where political and economic transactions occur. Just in case anyone thinks that God is only concerned with personal piety or private religious observance, the prophet points to the city gate as the place where God wants justice.
Third, Amos condemns religion that does not serve the purpose of justice. All of the priestly pomp and circumstance is little more than noise in the ears of a God who demands justice. In chapter 5:21-24, Amos anticipates much of the modern atheist critique of religion. Marx, Feuerbach and Freud, each in their own way, condemned religion as elaborate wish-fulfillment that suppresses work for justice in this world. This is an important critique, one religious people ought to pay more attention to.
But Amos got there first.
What should we bear in mind as we get ready for worship this weekend?
I want to make only one point, because I want to make it clearly: Justice is not optional. If we belong to God, if we read the Bible and try to take it seriously, we must be in the business of seeking justice. That is why I am so proud of Plymouth’s recent decision (by unanimous vote of the Church Council) to become a Just Peace church. In claiming that designation, we adopted the following Just Peace Covenant:
At Plymouth Church we resolve to grow in love of God and neighbor as a Just Peace congregation, affirm our intention to seek justice and peace in every sphere of life, and recognize there can be no true peace without justice for all. The scriptures speak plainly of God’s call for justice. We believe that by the grace of God and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, peace sustained by justice is possible.
We seek Just Peace
In the community—so that all may live free from fear.
With the earth—so that all life is sustained.
In the marketplace—so that all may live with dignity.
Among the nations—so that all lives are protected.
We affirm that living as a Just Peace church is a continually evolving and intentional process, rather than the assumption of a permanent status.
This is a great statement –and a great start. But only a start. Amos would be the first to remind us that our deeps matter more than our words.
I look forward to making good on this covenant; seeking justice with the people of Plymouth Church!