Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” (Amos 8:1-12)
I sorta promised someone in the parish that I’d choose a more cheery passage next time I preached. “Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy laden” was suggested – a message of encouragement and hope. This is not that sermon.
Inspired by our set lectionary readings, for better or worse, I have found myself irresistibly drawn again to the figure of Amos – one of the fieriest or the fiery prophets of the Old Testament. So … my apologies, but strap yourselves in!
Amos is actually an old friend of mine. Indeed, we became friends a long time ago. During my crazy early Christian days, when I was busy preaching on street corners, trying to convert all my old friends, doing my best to share all my possessions, set up shared bank accounts with the other members of the youth fellowship, and turn my flat into a de-facto shelter for local alcoholic persons, Amos was my inspiration.
I preached my first ever sermon at my home church – the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Surry Hills – on Amos, at the first service of the day, and I got so carried away that I just couldn’t be stopped. I preached for 25, 30, 35, 40 minutes, and as people arrived for next service and started knocking on the door, I was still going! You have been warned! Strap yourself in (and pour yourself a cup of coffee).
Why was I so drawn to the figure of Amos? Because nobody in the Bible, I think, more clearly reflects the Biblical passion for social justice as does the prophet Amos
Amos was an 8th century prophet, meaning that he preached in the 8th century B.C., before the destruction of Northern Israel.
If you know the history of ancient Israel, you know that after the reigns of King David and his son Solomon, there was a civil war of sorts in Israel, after which the country was split into north and south. The southern state of Judah remained loyal to the line of David and maintained Jerusalem as their capital, while the much larger state of northern Israel set up their capital city in Samaria, and built there an alternate temple, which, according to the books of Chronicles, was the beginning of the end.
The importance of this with regards to Amos is that Amos was a southerner, from the southern state of Judah, but was preaching in the north! This was a point of tension for Amos, and when he comes into conflict with the northern religious authorities he’s told to go back home and mind his own business, and I’m sure that his southern drawl would have made it difficult for him to get a unbiased hearing.
Amos was no professional preacher either, with a clever, polished style. He tells us quite frankly that he was a farmer who felt called one day to go and preach to the people of the north. So he closed the farm door, got on his donkey, rode all the way to Samaria, the capital of the north, set up a soap-box, and started preaching:
Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 1:3)
I’m in Amos chapter one, where we read of Amos giving a series of prophecies of doom to a variety of middle-eastern nations – Damascus, Moab, Edom, etc. – and he speaks of the terrible judgement that God is going to bring upon these peoples for the crimes of violence that they have committed.
We’re told that the people of Damascus “threshed Gilead with sledges of iron”, and that the Edomites hunted down their Israelite relatives “and showed no pity”. We’re told that the Ammonites even “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead”!
We are not unfamiliar with this sort of violence. Crimes such as these continue to happen. Indeed, for some of our parishioners, who have come to us seeking refuge from their own war-torn homelands, these reports may sound all too close to home!
They were crimes took place, of course, in the context of war, but so far as Amos in concerned, this is no excuse. Don’t bother pleading, “I was only following orders”. God will not overlook such terrible acts of inhumanity.
In terms of Amos’ overall message, it’s worth recognising that in this opening spiel, Amos is railing exclusively against Israel‘s enemies. Indeed, if you take a map of the area and pinpoint the nations that Amos targets in these prophecies, you‘ll see that they encircle Israel, and that crimes of violence were all perpetrated on Israelites.
This was probably Amos‘ attempt to get his audience on-side by whipping them into a patriotic frenzy. “Woe to the you violent Iranians”, he cries. “woe to the Syrians, woe to you Hezbollah Muslim fanatics”, … and all the people say, “Amen!”
In chapter 2 though, Amos adjusts his sights, extending his message of doom firstly to Southern Judah (his home country) and then finally to the people of the north, and again it’s for crimes of violence, though this time of a more subtle nature:
Thus says the LORD: “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 sandals – those who 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 on 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)
Amos’ basic charge is one of violence against the poor, but it’s not because there are gangs roaming the streets, beating up poor people (‘Clockwork Orange’ style). Rather, what is being targeted is systematic injustice that is being perpetrated through the government and through the economy!
This practice of ‘selling the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals’ refers to a business practice whereby poor people were being ripped of and further impoverished though an unfair system of trade. While the exact details are not known, we know today that people are still being ‘sold for a pair of sandals’ ,or running shoes, at any rate (made in the third world factories belonging to Nike etc).
And along with these unfair trade practices go high interest rates from the banks and money-lenders, that make it almost impossible for the poor to get ahead. They “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.”
It says in the Torah that if you if a poor man gives you his coat as a acuity for a loan, you have to give that garment back to him at nightfall so he has something to sleep on. What we see here though is that the money-lenders are charging exorbitant interest rates from these poor people, taking their garments, yet have the gall to take them to the temple and sit on them while they drink!
The temple-worship of these businessmen strikes Amos as blatant hypocrisy, and he’ll come back to that again. Let’s note though first that Amos also launches an indictment here against ‘a man and his father who go into the same maiden’.
We assume that this is more than just a particular incident of promiscuity. Most likely cult prostitution is on view, or young slave-girls forced into the sex industry. Exploitation takes many forms and, Amos says, God will not excuse any of it!
The aspect I most want to draw attention to in this opening volley from Amos, is that he is not just attacking some nasty people who are doing some obviously nasty things. The crimes that he has on view are ones that are embedded in the system.
The men of violence that he targets are not street thugs. They are businessmen! These money-lenders are not wanted men. They are acting within the law. And even these father and son teams who are getting up to mischief out the back of the boardroom are probably not doing anything technically illegal. What we have here is a corrupt system that is enriching one section of the community at the expense of another. The business leaders are working with the courts, and they’re getting their blessing from the priests, and it’s all entirely kosher (pardon the expression).
What Amos is telling the people is that their God does not consider the fact that it’s legal to be an excuse! You can‘t say, “sorry mate, but business is business” and “it’s not my fault. I‘ve got to operate in the real world”, any more than those Ammonites can say, “We were only following orders” or those young boys can say, “but raping young girls is an acceptable part of the culture where we come from”.
“Garbage!”, says the prophet. It doesn’t matter what standards your culture sets any more than it matters what your mates were doing. It doesn’t matter what your orders were. It doesn’t matter whether it’s legal or illegal. It’s wrong, it’s violent, it’s demeaning of other human beings and God will not overlook it, even if everybody else was doing it!
In chapter 5, Amos highlights the way in which the powerful are working with the courts. He speaks there about ‘the gate’, and the gate of the city is where they held their court, so when it says ‘the gate’, it’s a reference to the legal system.
“They hate him who reproves in the gate (ie. an honest judge) and they abhor him who speaks the truth (ie. an honest witness). Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, 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.” (Amos 5:10-11)
Again, it’s not because anyone in particular is beating up on poor people, but because there is a corrupt legal system in place that is generating injustice. A similar point is made in Amos’ well-known attack on the upper-class women of Israel in chapter 4, where he refers to these ladies as‘cows’!
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’“ (Amos 4:1)
Again, these women are not out on the streets, oppressing the poor. They probably rarely ever see poor people. Those sorts of persons probably don’t get up to ‘Bashan Heights’ very often – the place where these women were ‘grazing’.
No, their sin is in their involvement in an unjust system. They say to their husbands, “bring that we may drink” and they are probably only half-aware of the fact that their fine wine and their gorgeous parties are only possible because of the injustice and virtual enslavement of the poorer section of their population.
Chapter 5:21-24 has Amos’ most focused attack on the people’s 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 grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
This was a favourite passage of Martin Luther King’s and of Latin American scholar, Hose Miranda, who said (in ‘Marx and the Bible’) that this passage illustrates how the God of the Bible does not really care about prayer and worship. I think this is an exaggeration. The practices being referred to were God-ordained, and there is no doubt, I think, that God delights in the prayer and worship of His people, but NOT when those who are worshipping are simultaneously profiting from injustice, from the systematic oppression of the poor.
These issues of injustice, corruption and hypocrisy all come together in the reading we had this morning, from Amos chapter 8:
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?” and keep our thumbs on the scales, and outsource all our manual labour to Gabon, and take control of those oil-fields in Iraq, and make a killing on the stock exchange while we‘re at it! (nb. I am ad-libbing a bit) The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” (Amos 8:5-7)
Sisters and brothers, some people says to me, “Dave, as a Christian I am not interested in politics”, and I can say to them in all honesty, “neither am I”.
If by ‘politics’ you mean the way governments work and way bureaucracies function, I agree, I find the whole science of these things entirely boring, and I suspect that Amos did too. But what I am interested in, and what I think Amos was interested in, and what we all must be interested in, is people.
And when people are being destroyed – whether it be by acts of individual violence, through the drug trade, through relationship breakdown, or through the legalised violence of an unjust political or economic system, none of us can turn a blind eye.
Saying, ‘that’s just the way things are’ is no excuse. Hiding behind company policy or blaming the system will not cut it with the Almighty, says the prophet Amos.
The people of Northern Israel ultimately had to learn this lesson the hard way when their Assyrian neighbours came down and crushed their system and destroyed their nation about 30 years after Amos came and warned them. Let us hope and pray that in our case we can come up with a less brutal solution for bringing life and health and humanity back into our economic and political systems.
First preached by Father Dave at the Chinese Presbyterian Church of Surry Hills in 1984. Most recent version preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, July 2007.