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July 18, 2010
Amos 8:1-12

We noted last week that Amos is known as one of the prophets with a great passion for social justice. Amos, a trader in animals and other agricultural produce, confronted the prosperous and peaceful society of the Northern kingdom of Israel in the mid-700s B.C.E. The kingdom was ruled by Jeroboam II. In their power and prosperity the people of Israel assumed their privilege and affluence were evidence of God’s blessings to them as the chosen people. Their religious observance was disconnected from their social ethics and bereft of social justice.

This passage follows on from last week’s reading, being the fourth of five visions given to Amos. It is the vision of “summer fruit.” The Hebrew word qayits (related to summer or end of summer fruits) resonates with the word for “end,” qets, implying that for Israel, the end is near. After Amos is shown the basket of ripe summer fruit, the Lord interprets its meaning, through a play on similar sounding words, in an oracle or pronouncement. “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” There are echoes of God’s protection and presence in the Passover, now withdrawn because of the people’s injustice.

The predictive verses that follow the vision (vv. 3-5) are very dark; the songs of the temple will become wailings, and dead bodies will be everywhere. The words of warning are directed to those who “trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” They are eager for the Sabbath to end so that they may sell their wheat, and cut corners in doing business, with false scales. They are accused of “buying the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals,” of turning people into commodities to be used.

In verse 7, God swears not to forget any of their (unjust) deeds, retaining God’s wrath unmitigated by forgiveness. The people should tremble at the coming judgement, and mourn for their sins. The image of the Nile is invoked, with its rising and falling tides, hearkening back to the time of captivity in Egypt. It is as though the people have forgotten that they were once captives, and hence should treat the poor with justice.

In verses 9 and following, the Lord pronounces judgement in the image of an eclipse. An unnatural darkness will fall, echoing that of the people’s moral failings. Because of the people’s injustice and abuse of the poor, the feasts and songs will turn to mourning, and all will wear sackcloth and shave their heads as though mourning an only son, perhaps the epitome of grief in a culture that valued sons above all. God foretells a famine not of food, but of hearing the words of the Lord. Words of warning will not be heeded, nor words of comfort taken to heart.

In reflecting on the prophet’s words for preaching in the present day, the dark picture painted as the outcome of social injustice gives pause. Reducing people to commodities, being eager to sell on the Sabbath, shorting measures and cutting corners are commonplace if not integral to western market economies. The accompanying judgement on such practices, while hardly comforting, nevertheless states that such things neither give life to all in society nor do they tap into what is lasting in God’s creation. In making interpretive connections with today’s gospel reading of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), one may well see the “one thing that is needful” (according to the prophet) as justice for the poor.

Psalm 52

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