This post continues my series on the Prophet Amos and his mission to redefine "righteousness" as many of the fervently religious ancient Israelites (and contemporary Christians) practice it. The previous posts are:
Amos Redefines Righteousness: Amos at a Glance
Amos: The Crimes of Nations, 1.1-2.5
Amos Continues to Redefine Righteousness: Judgment on the Church's Sin
Amos 6 ... A Rumination
"What then is permanent? What do I have that is mine forever? Of what can it be said, this will not be lost or taken away? May answer is: the promise of god to be with us always. That is the ONE THING which the brevity and impermanence of life will not take away." (Gene Zimmerman)
An outline of our text of reflection.
6.1 Summons to appear in court before Yahweh
6.3-7 Tragedy that is ignored by the complacent
Studdert-Kennedy has a disturbing poem about Jesus. In the poem he asks how would our world respond to Jesus if he came today? Our world that has no great passion. Our world that has no great "sin" (in its own eyes). People today would pay the Savior no mind at all Studdert-Kennedy imagines.
Oh, we would listen politely, but his words would simply fall to the ground. We simply would not care. The poem ends, hauntingly, with Jesus leaning against the wall crying out for Golgotha. What a disturbing scene!
Indifference. A cold blase attitude has come to dominate our materialistic, individualistic culture. Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish philosopher/theologian, argues that the opposite of love is not hate. He says the opposite of love is indifference. Indeed, according to Wiesel, indifference is the greatest crime/sin humanity can be guilty of. Writing against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, he says that for a person to sit and let another human being get carried away to a death camp; or a person's business to be shut down or their home taken away simply because their blood is "different" -- to be capable of watching this and not get involved is to cease being human! When cold hearted complacency can keep us from doing the right thing 'because its not my fault' or 'not my business' is to cease being a living person.
Martin Niemoller, the great German pastor, wrote of his own complicity ...
"When they came for the Poles, I did nothing because I wasn't a Pole. When they came for the unions, I did nothing because I wasn't in a union. When they came for the socialists, I did nothing because I wasn't a socialist. When they came for the Jews, I did nothing for I wasn't a Jew. When they came for the Gypsies, I did nothing for I wasn't a Gypsy. When they came for the intellectuals, I did nothing for I wasn't an intellectual. When they came for me there was no one left to do anything."
The text for our rumination is addressed to those who are materially well off. But being well off was not their sin. The problem, the sin, was what we have been attempting to describe through Wiesel and Niemoller. These Israelites let wealth make them complacent and indifferent to the needs of the poor around them. They just did not seem to care, or worse "notice" as long as it did not affect them. Read carefully the text ...
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion
and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation,
to whom the people of Israel come!
Go to Calneh and look at it;
go from there to great Hamath,
and then go down to Gath in Philistia.
Are they better off than your two kingdoms?
Is their land larger than yours?
You put off the evil day and bring near a reign of terror.
You lie on beds inlaid with ivory
and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves.
You strum away on your harps like David
and improvise on musical instruments.
You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions,
but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
Therefore you will be among the first
to go into exile;
your feasting and lounging will end."
The chaos of the average Israelite lives in can exist because those with means allow it to exist. The avarice described in vv 3 & 4 is stunning when we realize that the typical Israelite only ate meat three times a year. The complacent are lost in their leisure pursuits ... God cares if we care.
Ruminating on Us
I recall a story from when I lived in Mississippi of Oseola McCarty of Hattisburg which made national headlines. She was a simple poor house keeper. She cleaned the homes of wealthy white folks her whole life. She never made more than 20,000 dollars in a single year. But at the age of 75 she donated her entire life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi, a sum of 150,000 dollars. She said it was her dream to make a difference in the lives of young African-Americans. She wanted them to have chances that she was never allowed to have -- go through high school and college. This materially poor woman was rich in care and abundant in love for her fellow image bearers. She believed she could make a difference. She believed that even she could help some one else. So she saved. She quietly worked in her housekeeping. She did not let the complacent self-absorbed world or her circumstances make her indifferent. Now a dozen students each year receive an education -- one she made possible -- because she cared.
Ms. Mcarty shows us that each of us can make a difference in this world. We do not have to be the mayor, the governor, school principal, or one with clout. The key is simply "griev[ing] over the ruin of Joseph" enough to put love into action. We must realize that wealth is not a badge of approval before God (regardless of what Joel Osteen says). God grants us blessings not so we can live in avarice or be a leisure culture but so we can do what Ms. Mcarty did. God gives us money so we can ... give it for kingdom purposes.
As we reflect on how Amos redefines righteousness and says it has everything to do with how we use our resources there are questions that come to mind ...
Why do I have these "seemingly" natural talents?
Why do I have the job I have?
Why do I have this education?
Why do I have money?
Why do I have my house?
Why do I have ... (fill in the blank)
The materially comfortable and individually concerned of Amos' day seem to answer by saying "So I can live a comfortable life. It is proof of God's approval of me. I deserve it." Amos rattles their cage with the thundering words you will be the first to go into exile in Assyria! God's answer to these questions is that he has given us talents, jobs, education, money, etc so that we can be a kingdom blessing to those around us. This it would seem is the sole reason Yahweh has granted us wealth.
I believe that Wiesel is essentially correct. Complacency means death. It means to cease functioning as the Creator God intended image bearers to function. Complacency is the opposite of God. God cared enough about the literal poor to have his Son incarnate as a poverty stricken man.
His parents had to make the sacrifice of the poor (doves)
He took advantage of the provisions encoded into the Torah for the poor (gleaning)
He never owned a home (he was homeless)
He lived off the generosity of others (see Luke 8.1-3)
The poor man died on a cross because he cared for those who didn't. The poor man was not indifferent and it cost him his life.
Jesus was among the ones who were ignored and even oppressed in Amos' day. He was among the despised slaves in the South. He was in the death camps among Wiesel's family in Nazi Germany. He was with the blacks who had dogs turned loose on them in Birmingham. Perhaps, just perhaps, that is why these folks have been treated as they have been treated. During his public ministry we treated HIM the same way. We haven't changed that much.
This text in Amos haunts me. It really does. The reason it does is because I know, inspite of all my denials, I live in avarice compared to the rest of the world. We are consumed with leisure as Americans ... even Christian Americans! But Amos challenges us to gain a new ... a righteous perspective ... on materialism, individualism, and wealth.
One last rumination that I will simply throw out there. Those who would like to dismiss Amos because it is "Old Testament" should never read James ... especially 5.1-6.
"O gracious Lord grant us eyes to see and ears to hear what you see and hear. Grant us the Spirit to be moved with compassion and a willing heart to hear Amos' hard words (and Lord they are hard!). And grant us the strength to do as Ms. Mcarty had done. Help us, O Lord, to be a blessing in your fallen world. We pray in Jesus', the poor man, name. Amen."