In this postmodern age, many revivalists are inclined to resume a search for guidance in biblical wisdom applied to current challenges, and I am among them.
For me. there is much to commend, and to be learned, from the great minor prophet Amos, who did not write much (hence he is a “minor” prophet), but in poetic form identified major ills and solutions at a critical time in our salvation history (the 8th century BCE) at a critical time today as well.
Although born and raised in the Southern Kingdom (Judah, a little south of Jerusalem) Amos preached primarily, it seems, to the Northern Kingdom (Israel, at a time that immediately preceded its destruction, by the Assyrian Empire). Amos’ warnings and recommended solution were of grave importance in the 8th century BCE; and they are of similar importance now.
What could be more relevant? In chapter 5, Amos, speaking for the Almighty, condemns, among other things, (a) unfair rendering of so-called justice without righteousness, (b) reproving on bases that are untrue and ignoring or even abhorring the truth when proclaiming so-called correction, (c) taxing the poor unfairly, disproportionately and heedless of their greater needs, (d) implicitly taxing too lightly, relatively speaking, the rich including oneself, (e) taking bribes or “selling” justice, and (f) favoring one’s own interests or relatively lesser needs when ruling or rendering justice (sitting “in the gate”).
Look around ourselves and our own worlds — look honestly — and we can see all of the above in abundance. Moreover, in chapter 5 we also see mention of Divine consequences — consequences that seem to be breaking out all around our worlds today.
Amos cites, metaphorically or perhaps in some instances unquenchable fires, waters of the seas poured out on the surface of the Earth, and destruction “flashed out” against what had seemed especially sturdy, even indestructible.
And communities of faith did not go un-criticized. Speaking for God, Amos scoffs at empty ritual and liturgical excesses without meaning — even “your festivals and … your solemn assemblies,” and God asks to have our “noisy” songs and harp melodies removed from his hearing. Rather, Amos tells us that what God desires is that “justice (will) roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (a verse often cited by the late blessed Martin Luther King, Jr.).
In other words, what God is more interested in, we can see, is what Christians refer to as “doing the work of the Gospel”: loving and serving God and all of our neighbors, universally and unconditionally, and without hesitation attending to the ancient obligations of the righteous (sometimes referred to as “sacred acts of loving kindness”), in each case both literally and figuratively feeding hunger, quenching thirst, welcoming strangers, giving needed shelter (clothing and housing), taking care of the sick, and befriending (the lonely, the friendless, the imprisoned mentally or physically, and so on.)
Finally, in an epitaph-like conclusion at verses 25 to 27, Amos addresses the Northern Kingdom, and in so doing alludes, it seems, to God’s deliverance of Israel from enslavement in Egypt, followed by a 40-year opportunity to purify their worship, putting aside pagan idols and organizing themselves into a holy nation.
Since that work was far from completed, God then through the prophet Amos proclaimed — prophesied — that Israel would be taken into permanent exile in the far reaches of the Assyrian Empire (“beyond Damascus”), which indeed happened, beginning around 722 BCE.
The parallels (on the whole) with the circumstances of our emerging 21st century seem obvious. If only we would look, read, mark, learn, heed, and understand. Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams, Jr., K.St.J. is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar, Nave Chaplain and member of the Dean’s Council and Service Rotas. He formerly was Bishop’s Dean and Sub-Dean for the St. Thomas and St. John Deanery of the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.