25th Sunday Ordinary Time – Hearing the Cry of the Poor, Hearing God’s Word, and Acting!

The Angelus, Jean-François Millet, 1857-1859, Musée d'Orsay

The Angelus, Jean-François Millet, 1857-1859, Musée d’Orsay

September 22, 2019
Amos 8:4–7

This week, we read from the Book of Amos. We last read from this book in July of 2018. Oddly we will also read it again next week. This week, we look at one of the visions of Amos and examine the consequences of wrapping worship around injustice.

King Jeroboam 2 was king of Israel between 783–743 BC. He was a talented politician and saw that Assyria, the dominant power in the north at the time, was experiencing internal discord. He was able to expand his country’s boundaries and its trade bringing unparalleled prosperity, for at least the aristocracy. This was seen in the development of cities which centralized both worship and commerce often by the same people (king: Amos 7:10–11, high priest: Am. 7:16–17, and wealthy of Samaria: Am. 4:1–3). This prosperity also brought ignorance of God. It is to this world that Amos is sent.

The most critical development was the growth of a permanent underclass, which was contrary to the will of God. This is reflected not only in the writings of Amos and his near contemporary in the Northern Kingdom Micah, but in the other prophets as well. At about the same time Isaiah said:

Learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow
(Is. 1:17)

We also find the concern for the poor in the Psalms. Speaking of God’s involvement, we hear:

For he rescues the poor when they cry out,
the oppressed who have no one to help.
He shows pity to the needy and the poor
and saves the lives of the poor.
From extortion and violence he frees them,
for precious is their blood in his sight.

(Ps. 72:12–14)

The leaders of the people may believe themselves special, but God’s concern is with the poor. Amos is a shepherd and dresser of vines, truly a man of the country. We see today how specific his observations and complaints about the elite are. They will act with punctilious regard to the law:

When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat
(Am. 8:5)

These were forbidden times to trade so they wished to know exactly when they began and ended, so that they could have the maximum time to conduct business. Yet when they began to trade, they cheated with abandon:

We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating
(Am. 8:6)

The ultimate aim is to eventually so impoverish the regular people that they will be essentially their slaves:

We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;

(Am. 8:6)

This includes even breaking the ancient law that allowed the poor to take the leavings of the fields: “even the worthless grain we will sell!” (Am. 8:6B). As we read in Leviticus:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you glean the stray ears of grain.10 Likewise, you shall not pick your vineyard bare, nor gather up the grapes that have fallen. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien. I, the LORD, am your God
(Lev. 19:9–10)

These are particularly outrageous crimes, but Amos realizes that a deeper and more fundamental shift is occurring. The rich are getting richer and wish to have not only comfort but to show off their wealth and position, and they are willing to fight for both.

Woe to those who turn judgment to wormwood
and cast justice to the ground!
They hate him who reproves at the gate
and abhor him who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you have trampled upon the weak
and exacted of them levies of grain,
Though you have built houses of hewn stone,
you shall not live in them!
Though you have planted choice vineyards,
you shall not drink their wine!
Yes, I know how many are your crimes,
how grievous your sins:
Oppressing the just, accepting bribes,
repelling the needy at the gate!
Therefore the prudent man is silent at this time,
for it is an evil time
(Am. 5:7–13).

These are the same people who direct and control the worship in the sanctuaries of Gilgal and Bethel. Because of their injustice God is not pleased with this worship.

I hate, I despise your feasts,
I take no pleasure in your solemnities.
Even though you bring me your burnt offerings and grain offerings
I will not accept them;
Your stall-fed communion offerings,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me
your noisy songs;
The melodies of your harps,
I will not listen to them.
Rather let justice surge like waters,
and righteousness like an unfailing stream.
(Am. 5:21–24)

Worship without justice is blasphemy and calls for vengeance.

The section we read today is between God’s promise of destruction and detailing how it will be accomplished. The opening image of the chapter is agricultural and ironic. The fruit is ripe, but it is not a sign that there will be a blessing to the people; rather that the time has come for rich to suffer:

This is what the Lord GOD showed me: a basket of ripe fruit.
“What do you see, Amos?” he asked. I answered, “A basket of ripe fruit.” Then the LORD said to me:
The time is ripe to have done with my people Israel;
I will forgive them no longer.
The temple songs shall become wailings on that day,
says the Lord GOD.
Many shall be the corpses
strewn everywhere.—Silence!
(Am. 8:1–3)

He reminds them specially that this destruction will occur because of their mistreatment of the poor:

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
(Am. 8:4)

But notice what counts are real destruction:

The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Never will I forget a thing they have done!
Shall not the land tremble because of this,
and all who dwell in it mourn,.
I will turn your feasts into mourning
and all your songs into lamentations.
Yes, days are coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send famine upon the land:
Not a famine of bread, or thirst for water,
but for hearing the word of the LORD.
Then shall they wander from sea to sea
and rove from the north to the east
In search of the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it.

(Am. 8:7–12)

The greatest punishment is not a famine of food, but the famine of not hearing the word of God. God will cease seeking a relationship with Israel. It is that which defines the people and makes them who they are. For this to cease means that they literally will cease to exist.

History has proved this painfully true. The Jews based their existence not on their relationship with God but the ability of capable kings to maneuver effectively between two greater kingdoms. When the rise of Assyria made that impossible, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed.

This deadness is a living issue. Parishes can fall into the same trap by creating a maintenance culture, both literally and more dangerously spiritually. This is an issue we must address as we renovate our church. Is our purpose purely architectural and cultural? This is not bad, but it is inadequate. The worth and power of worship is determined not only by what we feel in Church on Sunday, but what we do the rest of the week. How will a restored building help us be the presence of Jesus in this community, especially to the poor and marginalized?

True Catholic worship is the other side of Catholic social teaching. They cannot be separated. Both must be part of our story. This Tuesday, we are invited to investigate the story of St Charles Borromeo parish with Dawn Hewitt, who teaches Catholic social thought at St John’s University. Let us look at the history of our parish and the present reality of our nation and ask who we are, where we want to go, but most of all who we want to be?