One thing that I think the Catholics really got right that we from the Anglican/Protestant end can really learn from is the idea of adopting a new name.
Catholics take new names at key points in their lives – at confirmation, and certainly at their ordination as priests or nuns, just as you take a new name if you become Pope, and I think we all sensed the strength of that when the latest Cardinal to be elected as head of the Roman church took the name of ‘Francis’.
Francis was a man amongst men and a servant of the poor, and to see the Pope take on that name and that persona gave us all, I suspect, a real degree of hope!
That’s the idea when you take on a name. You identify yourself with one of your heroes – a great saint from the past or from the Bible – and I suspect that each of us has our own favourite spiritual heroes that we identify with.
It’s worth contemplating, I think. What name would you take on if you became Pope? If you had to choose a Biblical character that you identified with or that you particularly wanted to emulate, what name would you choose?
Would any of us be game enough to name ourselves Pope Jesus I? I suspect not.
I suspect there would be more than a few candidates here for Pope Mary or Pope Martha, and certainly there’d be no shortage of Pope Paul’s or Popes Peter, James or John. I must confess though that if the job fell to me I think I would be the first Pope Amos, for when it comes to Biblical figures I don’t think there is anyone I feel more akin to personally than the eighth century prophet Amos.
Amos is an ancient figure – a man who lived and died some twenty-eight-hundred years ago, and yet he is a tremendously contemporary figure – a man who spoke out against corruption, a man who was an advocate for the voiceless, and a man who saw through the propaganda and power systems of his day and confronted them head on!
When we first meet Amos, in the first chapter of the book that bears his name, he’s standing on a soap-box in the middle of Samaria – the capital of Northern Israel – and he’s calling down fire and brimstone on all of Israel’s enemies!
The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem …
“For three transgressions of Damascus,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment”
Yes, twenty-eight hundred years ago there were still tensions between Israel and Damascus (some things change, some things never seem to change) and Amos was publicly calling down judgement upon Bashar Al-Assad’s 8th century B.C. predecessor, and it was for crimes of violence!
“For three transgressions of Damascus,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they have threshed Gilead
with threshing sledges of iron.
So I will send a fire upon the house of Haz′ael,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-ha′dad.
I will break the bar of Damascus,
and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven”. (Amos 1:3-5)
The names and the details are not all familiar but the violence is all too familiar! People have been mercilessly butchered by the Syrians, and God is by no means oblivious to what is going on. Indeed, the perpetrators of this violence are being threatened with an equally violent fate!
And yet Amos does not finish with his prophecies against Damascus but continues right on with equally damning indictments against Israel’s other enemies.
In chapter 1, verse 6 he starts on the people of Gaza (yes, it is very contemporary):
“For three transgressions of Gaza,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they carried into exile a whole people
to deliver them up to Edom.
So I will send a fire upon the wall of Gaza …” (Amos 1:6-7)
Again the issue is crimes of violence, and those who have been firing rockets and killing civilians are themselves now facing divine retribution!
If you read through the rest of the first chapter of the book of Amos, you’ll find that the prophet continues to work his way through the enemies of Israel. He goes on the attack against the Iranians next (or their 8th century B.C. equivalents) and then he turns on Hezbollah etc., and whatever else Amos is doing with these prophecies of doom on the foreign nations he is certainly whipping up a crowd!
If you ever want to gather an enthusiastic crowd of supporters around yourself, just tell everybody what it is that they want to hear. It’s a guaranteed formula for success, and Amos is working the crowd beautifully with his fiery words!
Amos targets each of Israel’s enemies, one after the other, until eventually, just at the point when everybody in the crowd is shouting out ‘Amen’ and ‘you tell ‘em, brother!’ he turns his words of judgement upon his hearers – “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 2:6). For it seems that they too have been guilty of crimes of violence.
“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 shoes—
they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same maiden,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
upon garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.” (Amos 2:6-8)
The people of Israel too are guilty of crimes of violence, it seems, though you’ll notice that the crimes that Amos highlights in Israel are different from those he associates with Damascus and Gaza. Firstly, they are crimes the Israelites have committed against their own people – against the poor and needy within their own society – and secondly these crimes seem to be legalised forms of violence!
The practice of ‘selling the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals’ that Amos refers to seems to have been a business practice whereby poor people were being exploited though an unfair system of trade. People today, of course, are still being ‘sold for a pair of sandals’ (or running shoes) made in third world factories belonging to Nike etc. This is just the way efficient businesses work, but according to the prophet that doesn’t make these practices any less violent.
And along with these violent trade practices go high interest rates from the banks and money-lenders that make it impossible for the poor to get ahead. These money-lenders “lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.”
The Torah says that if you if a poor man gives you his coat as assurity for a loan, you have to give that garment back to him at nightfall so he has something to sleep on. What Amos saw though was that the money-lenders were charging exorbitant interest rates from their poor brothers, taking their garments, and then sitting on them in the temple while they drank! This, for the prophet, was utter hypocrisy!
Also under attack from the prophet was the abuse of women – “a man and his father go into the same maiden” (Amos 2:7). Quite possibly this sexual abuse had become integrated into their religious worship. Certainly it was an acceptable part of the culture of the day, but not to the God of the poor and the voiceless, says Amos.
So far as Amos was concerned and (according to Amos) so far as God was concerned, these men and these business owners and these money-lenders who exploited the vulnerable were no better than the war criminals of the surrounding nations that they were so ready to damn to hell for their crimes of violence!
We could continue on from here and plough our way through the book of Amos, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, and it would be instructive! For the sake of brevity though I’m only going to look at three other passages from the book of Amos to gain a more complete feel for the man and his message.
I want first to take three verses from Amos chapter five, where Amos talks about ‘the gate’. In the eighth century B.C. in Israel they used to hold their court at the city gate, so when Amos refers to ‘the gate’ he’s referring to the legal system.
Amos chapter five, verse ten reads “They hate him who reproves in the gate” (an honest judge) “and they abhor him who speaks the truth” (an honest witness).
“Therefore because you trample upon the poor
and take from him exactions of wheat,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not dwell in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins –
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5:10-12)
The problem is not just bad people but a corrupt system!
I can’t read this without being reminded of the many good people I’ve seen suffer unjustly because of corruption within the legal system – people from Mordechai Vanunu to Ray Williams to my dear friend, Sheikh Mansour Leghaei.
I’m sure many of you will remember Sheikh Mansour’s case. He was asked to leave the country after being designated a “direct threat to national security” but when he asked them what crime he had committed they said they couldn’t tell him because it was ‘a matter of national security’! And so my dear brother Mansour was charge, tried and executed – not only without a trial but without ever even being told what it was that he had supposedly done wrong!
Who was responsible for that act that damaged so many people? It was the system! Does that mean that no one in particular was responsible? Amos, I think, would say that everyone who is a part of the system shares some responsibility for its corruption, and that’s something he makes clear in a passage in Amos chapter four where he addresses the cultured, upper-class women of his day.
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1)
Evidently Amos was not trying to win himself any female admirers with this sort of language but he had a very particular gripe against these cultured women.
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are in the mountain of Samar′ia,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’ (Amos 4:1)
Amos says that these women, like their male counterparts, are guilty of crimes against the poor though, of course, it is highly unlikely that the women Amos was addressing had any direct contact with poor people at all!
These women were the wives of the rich businessmen of Israel. They say to their husbands ‘bring, that we may drink’, and they probably don’t give a great deal of thought to the fact that their gorgeous parties and lavish lifestyles are only possible because they are profiting from a system that crushes poor people. Even so, Amos says that these women who profit from the system of oppression bear responsibility for the suffering of the people who are being crushed by it.
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks. (Amos 4:2)
One more passage, from Amos chapter five, where the prophet addresses the people at worship:
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 beasts
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen. (Amos 5:21-23)
Some Biblical commentators have said that this passage illustrates that God really does not care a great deal about prayer and worship (Hose Miranda says that, for example, in “Marx and the Bible”). I don’t think the passage says that at all.
What the passage does suggest though is equally confronting – namely, that worship of the God of the Bible is completely incompatible with a lifestyle that profits from unjust systems that crush poor people.
The verse that follows outlines what God requires of His people:
“But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
You can’t worship God while you are violating God’s other (smaller and weaker) children. It’s simple hypocrisy. But if you’re committed to bringing justice to these poor and disenfranchised persons then, of course, your worship means something.
Let us leave Amos there this morning. I encourage you to read the book in its entirety when you get a chance.
Read about Amos’ confrontation with the Bishop in chapter seven! The bishop tells Amos that he’s a heretic, of course. Amos has his own choice words for the Bishop!
And read Amos’ words of hope in the final chapter of the book (chapter nine). No, Amos is not all doom and gloom but concludes on a real note of hope where he speaks of a descendant of David who will come and make things right.
We Christians, of course, latch on to those words and see them as a prophecy regarding Jesus, and rightly so, I believe. Jesus indeed comes to bring ‘Good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18) just as He is indeed the one who will ‘bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52).
Yes, Amos and Jesus have a lot more in common than most people realise, I think. And that’s not just because Jesus shared Amos’ interest in political power structures and corruption in the political system, but because both Jesus and Amos were animated by the same Spirit of love, and you can’t love people who are suffering without wanting to do something about the institutional systems that are destroying them!
Let me conclude by assuring you that it is very unlikely that I will ever get elected Pope, and that is probably a very good thing. I suspect that I would make a lousy Pope Amos. But God knows we need one! In fact we need more than one!
And if they can’t all be popes, then other spiritual leaders who will confront the power systems of our day with the prophetic energy of Amos and with the love of Christ!
For we can’t love the people of Damascus today without confronting the lies and the propaganda and power systems that keep the violence in place. And we can’t love the people of Gaza or Israel or any of those places without dealing with the systems of violence that imprison and violate and dehumanise. And, as the Apostle says, ‘we can’t love God, who we cannot see, if we don’t first love our sisters and brothers whom we can see’ (1 John 4:20). Amen.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 21, 2013.