Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
Grace to you and peace in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Comforter. Amen
Nearly 800 years before the birth of Jesus, the land of Israel was enjoying a long and peaceful period of prosperity under the reign of King Jeroboam. The military was strong and the economy was booming. Many Israelites took this security and affluence as signs of God’s favor which they deserved. And why did they deserve it? Because they supported the official shires extravagantly. Into this period of self-satisfaction came a shepherd named Amos. And Amos saw life in Israel quite differently.
Amos was called to “preach harsh words in a smooth season. He denounced Israel, as well as her neighbors, for reliance upon military might and for grave injustice in social dealings, abhorrent immorality, and shallow, meaningless piety.” (RSV, intro to the Book of Amos)
Speaking on behalf of God, Amos says, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beast, I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.”
According to Amos, God did not care about their extravagant rituals and empty piety. The rich and powerful of Israel lying on their beds of ivory, eating the best food and drinking bowls of wine did not want to hear the words of a fiery shepherd.
Eight hundred years later, Jesus was concerned about the great divide between the very rich and the very poor and how this affects people’s relationship with God. Jesus tells a parable about a rich man clothed in purple, a regal color. The dye that turned cloth purple was very expensive so only the wealthy could afford to wear purple clothes. And the rich man was feasting every day—what a luxury when most people were making do with bread and dried fish.
Outside the rich man’s gate was poor, sick Lazarus. The rich man was either oblivious to the desperate need right outside his gate or he was callously indifferent. But in the end, death comes for everyone, rich and poor, and the rich man finds himself suffering torment, while Lazarus is being held in the bosom of Father Abraham.
Now, if you believe that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor, then it is a big surprise when the poor man ends up in heaven, and the rich man ends up in hell.
The Prosperity Gospel has been a popular belief for a very long time. It goes like this: God intends for you to be wealthy; God intends for you to wear purple clothes and drive fancy cars, and these poor folks must be getting what they deserve. The poor are poor because they are lazy and sinful.
There is no indication that the rich man was evil or stole or killed anyone to get the money.
But something was missing in his life. He had every spiritual resource available to him, and he did not pay attention to that.
The rich man had Moses and the Ten Commandments. He must have heard “Thou shalt have no other gods but me.” No golden calf, no love of mammon. The rich man had the prophets who declared he should care for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien in the land. Maybe the man believed that if he was rich then he was right with God and he didn’t need to listen to Moses or the prophets or help the poor. Maybe money made him deaf to God’s word and blind to the man at his gate.
Wealth has an interesting effect on people. All of us have a complicated emotional relationship with money. We need it. We cannot function without money. Sometimes we feel envious if we don’t have as much as other people. Sometimes we feel guilty if we have more than other people. Sometimes we feel really important and successful if we have it
or like a failure if we don’t have it. Even if we have worked hard and honestly for our wealth, followers of Jesus cannot truly rest until all God’s children have been adequately cared for.
It is easy to become oblivious to the needs of the poor especially if you don’t know people personally who are poor. On the other hand, the needs of the poor can be so overwhelming that a person turns away from it.
There are prophets today who are crying out and many of them are young people. A teenager made an impassioned statement at the United Nations Climate Summit. She said, “People are suffering; people are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of mass extinctions. And all you care about are money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?” And like her predecessor Amos, Greta Thunberg was dismissed by some of the powerful and wealthy. Her courage to hold the nations of the world accountable was sneered at and mocked.
Many times in recent years, young people have led the way on raising social consciousness. In 2014, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri. Young black people rose up in national protests over the killings of African-American males by the police. We began to hear rallying cries such as “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” And “Stay woke.”
Last year, when students and teachers were shot at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, two seniors, David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez became passionate and outspoken advocates for gun control. Three days after the massacre, Emma gave a speech at a gun control rally in Ft. Lauderdale. She said, “The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us. . . .And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call [them out].”
Teenagers are outraged at being shot at by the police and by other teenagers. They are overcome with grief and fear and by the failure of governments at all levels to take action to protect them.
In Hebrew, the word “righteousness” refers to right relationships—with God and your neighbors. And this is not just an abstract idea. This is an up close relationship with God and your neighbor. These days we are living in require us to stay grounded in our spiritual tradition that tells us to have a right relationship with God and our neighbors. In order to have a right relationship with anyone—your spouse, your child, your friend, your boss—in order to have a right relationship it must be rooted in trust and in truth.
Trust and truth are in short supply these days. Are we in a climate crisis or are the scientists wrong? Does racial profiling really go on in the minds of police officers or is that just pop psychology? Did the President of the United States really ask the President of Ukraine to investigate the son of a political rival or was that a misinterpretation of the conversation?
Where is Truth? Who speaks Truth? We can find Truth in the words and actions of Jesus. And through prayer, we can find truth within our own hearts. We must have the courage to face the truth no matter how difficult it is to discern or how frightening the truth may be. Because without truth, there can be no justice. Without justice, there can be no right relationships among people and no right relationship with God. Truth, justice, and righteousness are fundamental to our faith.
Prophets come in every generation from Isaiah to John the Baptizer to Jesus to Greta to Emma and David. And ultimately what all these prophets call for is the same thing that Amos believed God demanded. “Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” May there be truth and justice and right relationships with God and our neighbors. Amen.