Today’s reading from Amos, our prophet on the ground in ancient Israel.
Listen to this, you who rob the poor
and trample down the needy!
You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
and the religious festivals to end
so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
You measure out grain with dishonest measures
and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
And you mix the grain you sell
with chaff swept from the floor.
Then you enslave poor people
for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals.
Now the Lord has sworn this oath
by his own name, the Pride of Israel:
“I will never forget
the wicked things you have done! – Amos 8:4-7 (NLT)
We had the nicest drive through the countryside in Northumberland County yesterday. It’s not an area we are familiar with so we were both taken by the lush, rolling hills and valleys of the region. We would occasionally draw one another’s attention to a prematurely red tree, standing alone among the greens, a confident soloist in what will soon become an autumn choir.
Autumn is a unique time of year in this part of the world: colourful leaves, cool air, musky forests, crisp apples, harvest vegetables. Yet the beauty of fall also holds a dark side – it ushers in the chill and barrenness of winter.
Canadians and Americans are entering national elections that will take place during the next two consecutive autumns. Will our choices also be autumn-like, slowly ushering in a time of cultural winter or spring-like, ushering in a time of summer?
Christians hold two ideals in constant tension: on one hand government matters because it provides for the safety and care of its citizens but on the other hand, God is our ultimate and final source of safety and provision. So when people of faith make political decisions we should be examining issues that influence the well-being of our neighbours, not our need to have our way. Christians of all people should have the clarity to express themselves on the important issues and set aside the imagined ones.
Just watch the election advertising or the way that parties strategically announce new election promises; it’s one-sided propaganda. Every comment and ‘new’ piece of dirt on their opponent is in their own interest and is only meant to gain or keep power.
People who seek power can’t govern their own morals. In democracies we keep them in check by speaking up and by voting. You do know that, right?
It’s not just the political parties who are hoping to grab your vote: there are also special interest groups, single-issue obsessives and even foreign countries who have already begun influencing you. There is just so much biased, controlled information flying around that it is nearly impossible to know where truth is.
Please, please … can I ask you again to proactively stop reading any politicized comments on Facebook, Twitter and their relatives? They feed half-truths and fear into our brains and they are more effective than you know at clouding clear thinking.
Go find the information you need by observing the lives of the candidates and how they demonstrate their concern for every day people. Check out the solid, if boring, major news networks and long-established newspapers. Keep an eye on internet sites that present the information objectively like this one from the CBC or this one from CTV.
The longer I interact with the Bible, the more I realize that the Christian faith is much more than a religious play book. Yes, God wants us to be moral and holy and connected to him but that needs to play itself out in the world around us in practical, life-giving ways. Caring for the needy, equality, peace, etc. are Scripture-steeped themes.
As you think about the coming vote, what attention are you giving to justice issues? What policies will care best for the most vulnerable around us? Christians, before any other demographic, should put these issues to the front of our politics.
In the next few Lectionary readings, the prophet Amos has lots to say about social justice. He lived in a time of peace, prosperity and expanding influence in the sister nations of Israel and Judah. However, God was in a cranky mood with them so he employed Amos, a simple farmer in the mid 8th century BCE, to address the problem.
God gives a good background in Amos 5 as to what is annoying him. I strongly suggest you read the whole chapter but notice these particular verses:
You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed.
You treat the righteous like dirt. (7)
How you hate honest judges!
How you despise people who tell the truth!
You trample the poor,
stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. (10-11a)
For I know the vast number of your sins
and the depth of your rebellions.
You oppress good people by taking bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
So those who are smart keep their mouths shut,
for it is an evil time. (12-13)
That gives us a pretty good idea of what God finds objectionable in these prosperous countries, even among his ‘chosen’ people.
Question: does any of this sound familiar to you? God’s people are living in prosperity and yet there is a stench of dishonesty, oppression, injustice, and fear all around their nation.
When we think about issues like healthcare, immigration, wages, ecology, the elderly, prisoners, welfare and more – are we just thoughtlessly voting our own, selfish interests or are we trying to learn what is best for normal people in our country? We tend to think in predictable versions of conservative or liberal but we need to think outside of those narrow perspectives and see our surroundings as God sees them. (Note: surprisingly, God isn’t politically conservative or liberal or anything else.)
There is another level of concern I see when reading this. Amos isn’t just criticizing people for being prosperous and comfortable, he is criticizing a way of life that perpetuates this prosperity on the backs of the poor and weak by using a system that is tilted away from justice.
The wealthy are in control of the marketplace and the power in ancient Israel. Yes they dutifully participate in religious observances but they can’t wait to get back to their main occupation of walking on others to get more for themselves.
Amos is talking about the business of ‘it’s just business’. He is reminding us that God is offended by our belief that clamouring for more is the way things are supposed to be. He is critical of the assumption of consumption.
“I hate all your show and pretense—
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living. (5:21-24)
I have to tell you that I am concerned about the state of priorities in the Church. We have our politics and business and faith all neatly arranged and we’ve confidently woven them together for our own comfort. So much so that we have trouble seeing the world as God wants us to see it. Of course it is most noticeable south of the border but we have a typically Canadian way of doing the same, only more subtly.
We are often more outraged at ‘losing our rights’ (something Jesus promised would happen) than we are by the poor and oppressed being ritually victimized.
Amos isn’t completely negative though, as he writes in 5:14-15:
Do what is good and run from evil
so that you may live!
Then the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies will be your helper,
just as you have claimed.
Hate evil and love what is good;
turn your courts into true halls of justice.
Perhaps even yet the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies
will have mercy on the remnant of his people.
Is this the autumn of Canada? The church?
I guess that depends on you and me.