What is sin? And how is our situation affected by grace?
In this famous sermon, the great Christian-Existentialist theologian, Paul Tillich, asks: 'Do we still know that it is arrogant and erroneous to divide men by
calling some "sinners" and others "righteous"?'
And he goes on to point out the consequences of this thought-trap: 'For by way of such a
division, we can usually discover that we ourselves do not quite belong
to the "sinners", since we have avoided heavy sins, have made some
progress in the control of this or that sin, and have been even humble
enough not to call ourselves "righteous". '
I believe this priceless message is out of print. However, I do not wish to breach anyone's publishing rights and will immediately remove this post if I am informed that I am doing so.
YOU ARE ACCEPTED (Paul Tillich)
Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound. Romans 5:20.
These words of Paul summarize his apostolic experience, his religious message as a whole, and the Christian standing of life. To discuss these words, or to make them the text of even several sermons, has always seemed impossible to me. I have never dared to use them before. But something has driven me to consider them during the past few months, a desire to give witness to the two facts which appeared to me, in hours of retrospection, as the all-determining facts of our life: the abounding of sin and the greater abounding of grace.
There are few words more strange to most of us than "sin" and "grace". They are strange, just because they are so well-known. During the centuries they have received distorting connotations, and have lost so much of their genuine power that we must seriously ask ourselves whether we should use them at all, or whether we should discard them as useless tools. But there is a mysterious fact about the great words of our religious tradition: they cannot be replaced. All attempts to make substitutions, including those I have tried myself, have failed to convey the reality that was to be expressed; they have led to shallow and impotent talk. There are no substitutes for words like "sin" and "grace". But there is a way of rediscovering their meaning, the same way that leads us down into the depth of our human existence. In that depth these words were conceived; and there they gained power for all ages; there they must be found again by each generation, and by each of us for himself. Let us therefore try to penetrate the deeper levels of our life, in order to see whether we can discover in them the realities of which our text speaks.
Have the men of our time still a feeling of the meaning of sin? Do they, and do we, still realize that sin does not mean an immoral act, that "sin" should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life? Do we still know that it is arrogant and erroneous to divide men by calling some "sinners" and others "righteous"? For by way of such a division, we can usually discover that we ourselves do not quite belong to the "sinners", since we have avoided heavy sins, have made some progress in the control of this or that sin, and have been even humble enough not to call ourselves "righteous". Are we still able to realize that this kind of thinking and feeling about sin is far removed from what the great religious tradition, both within and outside the Bible, has meant when it speaks of sin?
I should like to suggest another word to you, not as a substitute for the word "sin", but as a useful clue in the interpretation of the word "sin", "separation" . Separation is an aspect of the experience of everyone. Perhaps the word "sin" has the same root as the word "asunder". In any case, sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a man from himself, and separation of all men from the Ground of Being. This three-fold separation constitutes the state of everything that exists; it is a universal fact; it is the fate of every life. And it is our human fate in a very special sense. For we as men know that we are separated. We not only suffer with all other creatures because of the self-destructive consequences of our separation, but also know why we suffer. We know that we are estranged from something to which we really belong, and with which we should be united. We know that the fate of separation is not merely a natural event like a flash of sudden lightning, but that it is an experience in which we actively participate, in which our whole personality is involved, and that, as fate, it is also guilt. Separation which is fate and guilt constitutes the meaning of the word "sin". It is this which is the state of our entire existence, from its very beginning to its very end. Such separation is prepared in the mother's womb, and before that time, in every preceding generation. It is manifest in the special actions of our conscious life. It reaches beyond our graves into all the succeeding generations. It is our existence itself. Existence is separation! Before sin is an act, it is a state.
We can say the same things about grace. For sin and grace are bound to each other. We do not even have a knowledge of sin unless we have already experienced the unity of life, which is grace. And conversely, we could not grasp the meaning of grace without having experienced the separation of life, which is sin. Grace is just as difficult to describe as sin. For some people, grace is the willingness of a divine king and father to forgive over and again the foolishness and weakness of his subjects and children. We must reject such a concept of grace; for it is a merely childish destruction of a human dignity. For others, grace is a magic power in the dark places of the soul, but a power without any significance for practical life, a quickly vanishing and useless idea. For others, grace is the benevolence that we may find beside the cruelty and destructiveness in life. But then, it does not matter whether we say "life goes on", or whether we say "there is grace in life"; if grace means no more than this, the word should, and will, disappear. For other people, grace indicates the gifts that one has received from nature or society, and the power to do good things with the help of those gifts. But grace is more than gifts. In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage. There is something triumphant in the word grace : in spite of the abounding of sin grace abounds much more.
And now let us look down into ourselves to discover there the struggle between separation and reunion, between sin and grace, in our relation to others, in our relation to ourselves, and in our relation to the Ground and aim of our being. If our souls respond to the description that I intend to give, words like "sin" and "separation", "grace" and "reunion", may have a new meaning for us. But the words themselves are not important. It is the response of the deepest levels of our being that is important. If such a response were to occur among us this moment, we could say that we have known grace.
Who has not, at some time, been lonely in the midst of a social event? The feeling of our separation from the rest of life is most acute when we are surrounded by it in noise and talk. We realize then much more than in moments of solitude how strange we are to each other, how estranged life is from life. Each one of us draws back into himself. We cannot penetrate the hidden centre of another individual; nor can that individual pass beyond the shroud that covers our own being. Even the greatest love cannot break through the walls of the self. Who has not experienced that disillusionment of all great love? If one were to hurl away his self in complete self-surrender, he would become a nothing, without form or strength, a self without self, merely an object of contempt and abuse. Our generation knows more than the generation of our fathers about the hidden hostility in the ground of our souls. Today we know much about the profusive aggressiveness in every being. Today we can confirm what Immanuel Kant, the prophet of human reason and dignity, was honest enough to say: there is something in the misfortune of our best friends which does not displease us. Who amongst us is dishonest enough to deny that this is true also of him? Are we not almost always ready to abuse everybody and everything, although often in a very refined way, for the pleasure of self-elevation, for an occasion for boasting, for a moment of lust? To know that we are ready is to know the meaning of the separation of life from life, and of "sin abounding".
The most irrevocable expression of the separation of life from life today is the attitude of social groups within nations towards each other, and the attitude of nations themselves towards other nations. The walls of distance, in time and space, have been removed by technical progress; but the walls of estrangement between heart and heart have been incredibly strengthened. The madness of the German Nazis and the cruelty of the lynching mobs in the South provide too easy an excuse for us to turn our thoughts from our own selves. But let us just consider ourselves and what we feel, when we read, this morning and tonight, that in some sections of Europe all children under the age of three are sick and dying, or that in some sections of Asia millions without homes are freezing and starving to death. The strangeness of life to life is evident in the strange fact that we can know all this, and yet can live today, this morning, tonight, as though we were completely ignorant. And I refer to the most sensitive people amongst us. In both mankind and nature, life is separated from life. Estrangement prevails among all things that live. Sin abounds.
It is important to remember that we are not merely separated from each other. For we are also separated from ourselves. Man Against Himself is not merely the title of a book, but rather also indicates the rediscovery of an age-old insight. Man is split within himself. Life moves against itself through aggression, hate, and despair. We are wont to condemn self-love; but what we really mean to condemn is contrary to self-love. It is that mixture of selfishness and self-hate that permanently pursues us, that prevents us from loving others, and that prohibits us from losing ourselves in the love with which we are loved eternally. He who is able to love himself is able to love others also; he who has "learned to overcome self-contempt has overcome his contempt for others." But the depth of our separation lies in just the fact that we are not capable of a great and merciful divine love towards ourselves. On the contrary, in each of us there is an instinct of self-destruction, which is as strong as our instinct of self-preservation. In our tendency to abuse and destroy others, there is an open or hidden tendency to abuse and to destroy ourselves. Cruelty towards others is always also cruelty towards ourselves. Nothing is more obvious than the split in both our unconscious life and conscious personality. Without the help of modern psychology, Paul expressed the fact m his famous words, "For I do not do the good I desire, but rather the evil that I do not desire." And then he continued in words that might well be the motto of all depth psychology: ?Now if I should do what I do not wish to do, it is not I that do it, but rather sin which dwells within me." The apostle sensed a split between his conscious will and his real will, between himself and something strange within and alien to him. He was estranged from himself; and that estrangement he called "sin". He also called it a strange "law in his limbs", an irresistible compulsion. How often we commit certain acts in perfect consciousness, yet with the shocking sense that we are being controlled by an alien power. That is the experience of the separation of ourselves from ourselves, which is to say "sin", whether or not we like to use that word.
Thus, the state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth; but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditioned is demanded of us; but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise.
We cannot escape, however. If that something is the Ground of our being, we are bound to it for all eternity, just as we are bound to ourselves and to all other life. We always remain in the power of that from which we are estranged. That fact brings us to the ultimate depth of sin: separated and yet bound, estranged and yet belonging, destroyed and yet preserved, the state which is called despair. Despair means that there is no escape. Despair is "the sickness unto death." But the terrible thing about the sickness of despair is that we cannot be released, not even through open or hidden suicide. For we all know that we are bound eternally and inescapably to the Ground of our being. The abyss of separation is not always visible. But it has become more visible to our generation than to the preceding generations, because of our feeling of meaninglessness, emptiness, doubt, and cynicism -- all expressions of despair, of our separation from the roots and the meaning of our life. Sin in its most profound sense, sin, as despair, abounds amongst us.
"Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound", says Paul in the same letter in which he describes the unimaginable power of separation and self-destruction within society and the individual soul. He does not say these words because sentimental interests demand a happy ending for everything tragic. He says them because they describe the most overwhelming and determining experience of his life. In the picture of Jesus as the Christ, which appeared to him at the moment of his greatest separation from other men, from himself and God, he found himself accepted in spite of his being rejected. And when he found that he was accepted, he was able to accept himself and to be reconciled to others. The moment in which grace struck him and overwhelmed him, he was reunited with that to which he belonged, and from which he was estranged in utter strangeness.
Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If that happens to us, we experience grace After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves. We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life. We experience the grace of understanding each other's words. We understand not merely the literal meaning of the words, but also that which lies behind them, even when they are harsh or angry. For even then there is a longing to break through the walls of separation. We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we have been accepted. We experience the grace which is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belong to life.
And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to ourselves. We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we. If only more such moments were given to us! For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self- complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say "yes" to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then w can say that grace has come upon us.
"Sin" and "grace" are strange words; but they are not strange things. We find them whenever we look into ourselves with searching eyes and longing hearts. They determine our life. They abound within us and in all of life. May grace more abound within us!
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
The prophecy of Amos: An introduction and analytical overview
In our “post-modern” culture it is not unusual for a work of art to incorporate elements from existing works in a variety of styles. Indeed in recent years the selection and arrangement of precedent material in the service of a fresh agenda has increasingly played a conscious and calculated role in many art-forms. Artists have been encouraged to adopt an attitude of detachment, even irony, towards the original spirit of the source works.
In recent years a similar motive has sometimes been read back into the work of the biblical authors, as though some purer creative or revelatory spirit in the most ancient traditions might have been lost or even betrayed by successive generations of literary redaction. At its best this approach has shed valuable new light on some thorny issues. Sadly, however, some commentators have misused such questions as a pretext for trivialising the most challenging and potentially life-changing aspects of the written Word.
Amos allows little latitude for such a cavalier approach. There is a rugged integrity in the words of all the Hebrew prophets, a sense of conviction that is firmly rooted in political, social, economic and spiritual currents of their day. It is thus hard to find serious inconsistencies between their message and their life-situation, and even by these standards Amos is direct and transparent. Yet Amos does not focus on the personal or historical context of his message in any way that might limit its universality. He is simply a mouthpiece - one who has heard the Lord roar from Zion (1.2) and is under a compulsion to echo what he has heard (3.8).
Of course Amos’ main theme was what God was doing at a particular point in history, and he spoke most directly into that situation. And yet his has been a perennially “relevant” message into which many subsequent generations have been able to read their own preoccupations. The book’s very directness and authenticity, coupled with its relative freedom from limiting personal or historical reference points, have encouraged its use to underpin diverse social and political theologies.
However, this can pose a problem when preaching on Amos. Those already familiar with its distinctive message will probably have their own firm views on its application. Those coming to it for the first time, particularly in a middle class setting, may be so affronted by its radicalism that they reject the message. The book’s air of finality and its grim language could be disturbing to a congregation that is used to an emphasis on love, forgiveness and reconciliation. If people are not to put up barriers, preaching on Amos will call for pastoral sensitivity as well as exegetical integrity.
Nevertheless, Amos needs to be preached. In his remorseless assault on corruption he communicates vitally important dimensions of God’s love. Without an understanding of the inevitability and the comprehensive scope of divine judgement, it is difficult for Christians living in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society like our own to grasp the unique indispensability of God’s own self-sacrifice in Christ. And the surest way to draw out this truth, and avoid being misdirected by our own or others’ preconceptions will be to deal holistically with Amos and his place in salvation-history.
The aim of the present project has been to give myself just such an overview of this essential strand of biblical thought. The primary purpose is to understand the issues Amos himself was confronting and the way he tackled them, but I also wish to address some of the background issues that will have a bearing on the way the book is preached or taught. These include:
Textual issues: How reliable is the text we are reading?
Historical issues: How much do we really know about Amos?
What were the characteristics of the prophetic tradition?
To what extent was Amos a typical prophet?
Having established the context, I propose to discuss the specific issues addressed by Amos and the methods he uses to tackle them. I will then attempt a brief structural analysis aimed at showing how the issues and methods interact in the flow of the book. Finally I will round off with some reflections on how Amos might be applied most constructively in the life of a middle-class church.
The text of Amos reads with great clarity and unity, and can be dated with confidence very close to the events it portrays. There is a general agreement that Amos was prophesying about ten years before the rise of Tiglath Pileser III, a time when the Assyrian empire’s further expansion could not rationally have been foreseen. Most scholars also accept that there was little delay in the production of the book of Amos, and it is thus hard to put the book’s predictive accuracy down to hindsight. Whilst the prophets had little or no interest in predicting the future for its own sake, Amos for all his down-to-earth language does seem to present us with a genuine mystery.
That is not to say that scholars have been unable to find internal inconsistencies of language and style, although there is limited agreement on which texts are actually secondary. At one extreme, Wolff has seen as many as six successive levels of redaction including Deuteronomic and even post-exilic thought. However, the only sayings widely accepted as secondary are the title (1.1) and the dispute with Amaziah with its embedded oracle (7:10-17).
Other passages often cited as later interpolations, but with less universal agreement, are:
· Three of the oracles against the nations (Tyre, Edom and Judah), on the rather tenuous grounds that they lack the conventional messenger conclusion, “...says Yahweh”.
· What have been taken to be hymn or liturgical fragments (e.g. 9.5-6) that serve a purpose in emphasising God’s power and authority but seem in places to interrupt the logical and stylistic flow.
· The final salvation promise (9.11-15), which seems to some readers to belong to a later theological development. This argument on its own is rather weak, as reconstruction promises are a regular element in prophetic writing. Suspicions are reinforced, however, by the difference in tone between this final section and the rest of the book. Indeed as prophecy the conclusion fits Judah’s known fate better than Israel’s.
In conclusion, it is unlikely that the book of Amos was a result of a single creative impulse, but whatever processes may have shaped the book into its final form, most readers find that it has a particularly blessed unity and integrity.
Amos is regarded as the first of the literary or eponymous prophets, that is, the first representative of the prophetic tradition to have his sayings and some biographical material compiled into a book bearing his name. Earlier prophets had more in common with the shamans and seers of other contemporary cultures. Whilst they were most likely real people, many of the stories about them were both mythical in form (e.g. Elijah and the prophets of Baal) and part of a different moral world (e.g. Elisha and the bear). In contrast, Amos and his successors are naturalistic and clearly historical figures who far more reliably point forward to a Christian understanding of God and his purposes.
Scripture gives us tantalisingly little detail on Amos himself. If we take the Bible at face value he was “among the shepherds of Tekoa” (1.1). Tekoa was a well-known town situated in Judah rather than the northern kingdom, lying a few miles south of Bethlehem on the site of the modern Khirbet Taqu’a. However, scholars have questioned even this sketchy information. Koch, for example, connects the prophet with a Galilean Tekoa recorded in NT times, and argues persuasively that such penetrating social and political insights must have been informed by an upbringing in the northern kingdom of Israel.
In contrast to Koch, Hubbard accepts the scriptural particulars more or less at face value, and assumes that Amos’ Judaic origin was one of the reasons his message fell on deaf ears in Israel (a view supported by a straight reading of 7.12). This is a useful reminder that rigorous scholarship does not always have to take a deconstructionist approach. Nevertheless, given questions about the authenticity of 7.10-17, it would be unwise to be too dogmatic about the Judaic connection. It is worth bearing in mind that if this and the other questioned passages were later additions then they were almost certainly the work of scribes in or from Jerusalem.
Although the historical and political context of Amos’ ministry is no more particularised in the text than the prophet’s personal details, most evidence suggests that he delivered his oracles in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (BC 793-753). Some commentators have concluded that his recorded ministry took place over no more than two years in the range BC 760-755, and the crystallisation into a final written form probably took place shortly afterwards.
A more crucial question about Amos is his trade. It is probably stretching the linguistic evidence to suggest as some scholars have done that “shepherd” indicates a pastoral vocation. Nevertheless, he shows great sophistication and originality of thought as well as encyclopaedic geo-political awareness. These attributes suggest that he was probably more than a mere herdsman (despite his claim in 7.14), but do not rule out the possibility that he was a prosperous gentleman farmer. It is misleading to think of the Judaean Tekoa as a poor and primitive backwater. Olive oil from Tekoa is said to have been the most highly prized in the ancient world, bringing the town prosperity and close links with the Jerusalem Temple. Furthermore the town has been associated with wisdom at various points in history. It was in Tekoa that Joab found a “wise woman” to play mind games with King David over the return of Absalom (2Sam 14.2), and the town would later be home to the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the father of Jewish mysticism (2nd century C.E.)
The most important biographical question of all, in terms of the way we will assess the words of Amos, is the extent to which he was a product of the cultic system. His intellectual reach and much of his language suggests roots in the cult. The traditional assumption that he was a charismatic outsider is part of a rather discredited concept that the nebiim (the most widely used word for prophets in the Hebrew scriptures) were almost by definition charismatic figures set in a permanently adversarial relationship with the priesthood. On the other hand Amos is bitterly hostile to cultic spirituality, and he vehemently disowns the title of nabi (7.14).
The most satisfying theory is that Amos was a renegade from within a prophetic establishment associated with either the Temple at Jerusalem or the shrine at Bethel. There are several plausible clues:
- His putative rural upbringing. He would have seen first hand the spiritual and socio-economic alienation that resulted from exploitation and dispossession of smallholders by wealthy landowners.
- His lack of excitability. His visions are vivid enough, but he gives every sign of a cold and calculating appraisal of the destructive trends visible in society. This suggests that he could have seen through a more experiential emphasis among his peer group, disowned their complicity in the many abuses, and foreseen a doom to which they were blind.
- A final and extremely powerful exhibit is the change of tone between his second and third visions (7.4-6,7-9). This is not conclusive, but it is tempting to interpret the shift in Amos’ perspective on the coming judgement as an expression of a deteriorating relationship with Amaziah and the rest of the religious establishment. He may have given up hope at this point of being able to change the direction of the community from the inside by negotiation, and only then accepted that the disaster was inevitable.
In conclusion, while keeping due regard for the breadth of scholarly theories, the simplest hypothesis that fits the evidence is that Amos was a of Judaean origin. He may have been the renegade product of a Temple- or shrine-centred prophetic establishment, compelled by his own unforgettable vision of Yahweh’s mishpat (justice) and sedaqa (righteousness) to turn the full force of his intellect and training on the injustice and unrighteousness of the very system that had produced him.
How distinctive was the message of Amos?
No one writes in a cultural vacuum, and there is clear evidence that Amos and his successors in the prophetic tradition drew ideas and literary forms from a wide field, both geographically and historically. They each imposed a distinctive emphasis, but it was always ultimately Yahweh’s agenda. Just one strong argument in favour of supernatural inspiration is the remarkable consistency of their collective body of thought across several generations – not just for the 250 years or so (roughly BC 750-500) that the literary prophets held sway, but for as long again beforehand under the kings and before that to some extent in the ministry of the Judges. Thus while the message of Amos is distinctive in some key respects, much that can be said about him is generally true of the literary prophets, and it will be helpful to approach the particular issues and methods of Amos’ ministry through an overview of this peer group.
Christians may be surprised on investigating the prophets for the first time to find that their message had little to do with personal salvation, or even with individual morality except insofar as individuals are particles in the waves of history that the prophets intuitively saw unfolding. Moreover, the prophetic spirit had surprisingly little to do with foretelling the future, except insofar as the future is the inescapable consequence of the present.
Thus for the most part the prophets did not give absolute predictions about future events in human history. Rather their gift (nonetheless divinely inspired) was to extrapolate from contemporary trends and warn of the consequences if these were allowed to go unchecked. In other words the prophets’ main point seems to have been not what was going to happen, but what they could see happening and where it was going to lead. The purpose cannot have been prediction, since the purpose of the warning was usually to bring about such a change of heart as would avert the impending doom.
It is important to state one proviso, however: There was an undercurrent of resignation in all the prophetic writings – a hint of reluctant acceptance that repentance was not going to take place on a large enough scale to avert disaster. There were of course repeated and glorious pictures of future reconciliation and reconstruction when the judgement had run its course, but the fate of the Israelite nation-state of the prophets’ own era was implicitly sealed. Thus while it is conventional to contrast the inevitability of judgement in Amos with a greater stress on the call to repentance in some other prophetic writings, I think too much has been read into this difference in emphasis.
By the same token, there is no conclusive reason to see the final salvation promise in Amos 9 as inconsistent with the rest of his message. Berith as such may not feature in his lexicon, but the whole of his vision is underpinned by mainstream covenant theology in which a key recurring theme is the salvation of a remnant when God’s anger has run its course. As with the issue of inevitability referred to in the preceding paragraph, the difference in emphasis between Amos and later prophets is more than just a matter of personal style, but fundamentally there is much less divergence than some commentators have tried to portray.
Another crucial point of convergence between the nebiim was their intense and exclusive Yahwism. This bond was probably the single most important coherent thread in the corporate body of prophetic thought, and it is more than likely that the prophetic strand developed in response to the syncretistic spiritual climate of Canaan. Indeed it is even possible that the prophetic school grew out of interaction between the Hebrew priesthood and shamanistic traditions already established in the region. It is, after all, hard to find any material trace of the prophetic thought-world among the Israelites before the settlement in Canaan. In fact the most nabi-like figure in the Bible up to the time of Samuel is Balaam, the seer of Pethor on the Euphrates (see in particular Nu 24). As the Israelites became more established in the Land, the prophets were required to act as advocates for the God of the Patriarchs in a society that had increasingly been shaped by political expediency, economic muscle and spiritual compromise.
It is interesting to indulge in chicken-and-egg speculation here. Some commentators choose to interpret the prophetic message primarily as a moral and ethical one. However, it is fundamental to both Jewish and Christian thought that spirituality precedes morality. We can only aspire to being “good” because God himself is Goodness. Sin is bad primarily because God is holy. It is thus fair to assume that whatever the ostensible frame of reference of a prophet (and Amos’ certainly appears to be morality), the fundamental issue is one of holiness and Israel’s responsibilities under the covenant. The fact that Amos rails against the religious establishment has blinded some commentators to the fact that a proper response to Yahweh’s self-revelation is the only possible foundation for either repentance or post-judgmental reconstruction.
So if the fundamental disease is spiritual rather than ethical, what is the prophet’s prescription? Is it a return to a purer form of religion? Some commentators have affirmed precisely that, interpreting Amos’ main target as corrupt religious practices. However, this view does not seem do justice to the scope of Amos’ vision – in fact it may be an attempt to duck the issues. Is Amos then calling for a moral reformation? In a way, and yet however much the moral turpitude has saturated all levels of society, it is clear that Amos focuses the bulk of his ire on the political, religious and economic leadership. Those responsible for the dissolution are those whose decisions affect the life and livelihood of others.
To clarify this theme of executive responsibility, Koch brings out the extent to which the national soul of Israel was interlinked with God’s gift of the Land. Unless all in society could live out the role in relation to the Land that God had ordained, neither individuals nor the nation as a whole can fulfil their destiny. Tragically, the institutions of the nation-state had become instruments of oppression and stimuli to apostasy. Personal conscience was so trapped within these political and religious paradigms that spiritual and moral reform was obstructed even at the level of the individual heart. The solution was nothing less than their complete overthrow of the political and religious establishment.
It is therefore reasonable to think that Amos in common with other prophets was advocating a political solution (albeit one framed by the covenant with Yahweh). Does that mean that the prophets were political radicals? Revolutionaries? Their own place in the cultic establishment would suggest otherwise, but that is to frame the question in essentially western terms. There is no shortage of evidence that prophets were willing to manipulate, coerce, vilify and even topple heads of state who put political and economic expediency before Yahwistic purity. Omri is a good example of a ruler whose political and religious reputations were at odds. (Contrast 1Ki 16.25-26 with extra-biblical evidence that his 12-year reign was a time of peace and prosperity).
The closest parallel to the prophets’ patterns of thought I can find in the modern world is in the Middle East, where both conservative ayatollahs and ultra-orthodox rabbis still subjugate what we in the west would regard as sound social and economic policy to the dictates of what they perceive as a divinely prescribed order. They may be deluded, but outwardly these provocative Jewish and Moslem elders may give some useful clues as to how the biblical prophets addressed the political issues of their day.
THE DISTINCTIVE MESSAGE OF AMOS
The God who is speaking
The God who reveals himself through Amos is more complex than at any previous stage in Israel’s understanding. On the one hand, he is YHWH (Yahweh), the lofty and separate God who spoke to the people via Moses from the mountain-top, the God whose simple word (the Hebrew dabar incorporates rich additional shades of activity and tangible substance) brings the present and the future into being. On the other hand, the priorities of Amos’ God seem to resonate strongly with the kind of Elohist tradition conjectured by Wellhausen. This picture of God is moralistic rather than cultic, universal rather than tribal. He seems already to be prefiguring his later self-revelation to the exilic community (cf. Ezekiel) as a God who is present everywhere and willing to reveal himself anywhere. And yet in all this expanded revelation, he is still recognizable as El-Shaddai, the intensely personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
“No” to God’s people
Like the revealed God himself, the message contains numerous strands, interwoven so densely that it is difficult to know where to start. However, at least one writer (Crenshaw) has summed up the whole book as a comprehensive “No!” uttered by God to his own chosen people. They have been privileged to be at the heart of God’s purposes on earth, but their slide into degeneracy has eliminated their last chance of fulfilling God’s purposes for them. In short, the people have broken the covenant. It is not that God is being arbitrarily unforgiving. The problem is that the leaders of the people, through a process that will be examined in greater detail, have put themselves and their subjects beyond rehabilitation. In consequence they are to be swept away. On one level the land that God has given them will rise up and break them. On another level, the military might in which they have put their trust will fail them, leaving them defenceless against invasion. Ultimately their king will die without leaving a successor and the leading citizens will be carried into exile. And God is declaring through Amos that this will all be his doing.
Israel’s social and economic life – a denial of God’s justice
A coherent theme running through the Law and all covenant theology is that neither individual nor national prosperity can be sought at the expense of social justice. The God who decreed jubilee for people, animals and even plants cannot tolerate the abuse of people or even objects for the sake of greed.
Against this principle, Israel has degenerated to the point where people are preying on one another, and the responsibility for this decay is placed squarely with Israel’s leaders (the rationale for this executive responsibility has already been set out above). Examples of specific offences are:
- Enslaving for debts (2.6)
- Denying justice to the disadvantaged (2.7-8)
- Harsh taxes or levies (2.8b)
- Corrupting the holy men and silencing the prophets (2.12)
- Extravagant lifestyle at the expense of the poor (4.1)
- Failure to heed previous warnings (4.6-11)
However, these and other offences named in the book are little more than specimen charges designed to illustrate the root of the problem. The essence of Yahweh’s complaint is that a highly developed legalism is being used as a pretext for systematic injustice. The trend is towards the inevitable alienation of a large segment of the community from the spiritual, economic and social unity to which they are entitled under the covenant. In modern terms, they have been written off as an underclass with no stake in the system. The nation is divided against itself – it can implode without the need of a military adversary.
Israel’s religious life – a denial of God’s righteousness
The censure of religion is harder to explain than the social condemnation, and many words have been expended debating whether Amos was really opposed to all cultic worship. On the one hand, those who would search for God entirely within the realms of moral advancement will note with satisfaction that Amos went far beyond the usual domain of the nebiim, which was to condemn idolatry and other corrupt religious practices. Amos condemned not just these but also the very practices that the other prophets prescribed, the festivals and sacrifices that pious Yahwists believed were God-ordained.
On the other hand, there is no clear-cut evidence that Amos was against anything but the misapplication of the religious impulse. However, he saw with unsurpassed clarity that the worship of his contemporaries was corrupt to its heart and incapable of rehabilitation. Worst of all, by providing even the purest-hearted with a morally cheap means of maintaining outward obedience to God, it had deadened their consciences to God’s call to righteousness. In a manner curiously reminiscent of the NT concept of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, even the most pious of Amos’ contemporaries were conditioned to condemn as blasphemous the prophetic voice that represented their only hope of salvation.
The parallel economic and religious perversions put justice and righteousness beyond the reach of all, from the highest to the lowest. Koch helpfully brings out the extent to which Amos’ culture saw mishpat and sedaqa as animate forces – almost personalities – that flowed from God through human spheres of activity via the Temple or shrine practices. Cultic worship and the life of the land were thus tightly interrelated. Tragically, the cult was no longer acting as a channel of grace but blocking it, and thus Israel’s shrine culture was not merely a passive accessory to the social and economic dissolution of the nation but a prime cause of it. “Let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream” – this was great poetry but it was also sound theology. Tragically, it was too late for the flow of mishpat and sedaqa to be a blessing, and when God released the waters they would bring destruction.
The Dynamics of Judgement
The absolute sovereignty of Yahweh is emphasised in the multi-dimensional unfolding of his judgement. The destruction of Israel is executed simultaneously on four levels that bring to mind the curses of Genesis 3, viz. man’s alienation from God, his fellow man and the earth. The covenant blessings have been an oasis of healing in a fallen world, and the fallen order is about to reassert itself among God’s formerly chosen people:
1). A divine and supernatural level. This is the primary aspect of judgement, in which God personally acts and takes responsibility for the entire process. He repeatedly declares, “I will...” (e.g. 8.9-10). The remaining levels on which judgement is to be understood have an element of almost mechanical causality, but the language throughout suggests that Yahweh is moving actively in each scheme. The supreme irony is that the “Day of Yahweh” that they are looking for will be a time not of light and victory but of darkness and disaster.
2). An environmental level, in which the earth itself rises up (8.8) against those who have turned their back on the covenant. This could be seen as a natural result of the breach of good rural economics laid down in the Mosaic Law, but the language suggests that the environmental turmoil is an outworking of God’s presence.
3). A moral level, in which the violent acts committed come fall circle in retribution. Once gain, this could be seen as an inevitable result of alienation amongst the dispossessed classes, but the language rather stresses God’s sovereign activity.
4). A geopolitical level, in which God raises up a hostile military adversary to wreak destruction. Assyria is not specified, but Amos foretells with devastating accuracy how the seat of government and religion will be targeted (8.14), the leaders exiled (5.27) and the population decimated (6.9-10). The armies will naturally be destroyed (5.3), and once again the outcome could be described in rational terms as the inevitable result of fecklessness and complacency, but for the fact that Amos stresses God’s activity.
The bulk of the book is taken up with five visions and a few (mostly brief) oracles against various nations or classes of people. Up to two dozen literary styles and devices have been identified or conjectured, and opinions differ over the exact classification of these, but there is a general consensus on the following main techniques:
Judgement speeches: Poetic narratives, mostly in the divine first person, of which the substance is accusation and threat. There are conventional messenger formulae that open and close many of these sayings. These speeches carry the bulk of the message.
Visions: Vividly impressionistic, sometimes surreal imagery of a sort normally associated with ecstatic mental states. These passages depict the inevitability of judgement with a clarity that no words could match, but they require the judgement speeches to elucidate their meaning. A major purpose is to authenticate Amos’ credentials by establishing him as part of a recognized prophetic tradition, even though he himself seems to repudiate the title.
Biography or narrative: A few short passages, some of which are in the first person. To the extent that these passages are objective they are evidently the work of an editorial hand, but such objectivity cannot be taken for granted. Indeed the Amos/Amaziah conflict in particular (7.10-17) is an integral part of the prophetic writing with its own embedded oracle and judgement. Thus the biographical form may be no more than a rhetorical device.
Salvation Promise: While Amos’ judgement is unconditional, it may not be universal. The hope in this section (9.11-15) is in contrast to the rest of the book, but there is no conclusive reason to see it as a later addition by a more conventional writer. God is always loving, and there is always hope for a faithful remnant after judgement has run its course. However, the textual and exegetical difficulties of this section are among the most severe in the whole book. It could be the work of a later Judaic editor. Moreover, given that Amos was probably from Judah himself, there is a chilling possibility that this passage is not intended to give the recipients of the message hope but to make their humiliation complete: it may be saying that of all the people of Israel, only the house of David (i.e. Judah) will survive to inherit God’s promises to the Patriarchs.
A STRUCTURAL SUMMARY
This brief analysis cannot do more than scratch the surface of Amos’ dense and multi-layered thematic development. It is intended to show the interaction between the principal themes and literary methods set out above, and for this reason it is deliberately based on an open reading of the biblical text rather than on professional commentaries. The point is not so much to analyse the book as to assess its effect.
1.1-2 Title and Introduction
Amos is briefly introduced, but as the prophet speaks we are to understand that Yahweh is roaring like a lion – simultaneously declaring his sovereignty and issuing a warning.
1.3 - 2.5 A series of oracles against Israel’s neighbours
Amos’ message proper opens with oracles against some of the surrounding nations. It only includes peoples that had some kinship with Israel (e.g. the descendants of Lot and Esau) or been part of David’s “greater Israel”. Thus whatever hostilities might have been current, these tribes would all have had cultural and economic links with Israel and some familiarity with its traditional spiritual and moral values. They are:
The Ammonites (1.13-15)
The Moabites (2.1-3)
Each of the messages begins with a formula familiar from wisdom literature (cf. Pro 30.15-31): “For three transgressions of [e.g. Damascus] and for four, I will not revoke the punishment”. In each case only one specimen offence is mentioned, and this offence is always some form of gross savagery in warfare that would be objectionable even by decent human standards. In every case an appropriate judgement is declared, and we can imagine Amos’ original hearers nodding with approval through this section - prophecies of doom against the nation’s enemies were a traditional part of a prophet’s role.
It is unlikely that this sequence was inserted just for dramatic effect – the crimes of the nations were real and their respective punishments are credible in relation to subsequent events. Nevertheless, this sequence of indictments must have nicely lowered the listeners’ defences in preparation for the blow that was about to land, and it may be easiest to see the brief final oracle against Israel’s sister kingdom of Judah as primarily a transitional device, bringing the focus one step closer to Israel itself.
2.6-16 Introductory prophecy against Israel
“For three transgressions of Israel...” This must have come as utterly unexpected. Amos was part of a long prophetic tradition, and the use of his position to challenge Yahweh’s own people was unprecedented. He drives home the emphasis on Israel’s sin by actually listing four offences rather than merely one. Moreover, these are not simply gross violations of humanity, but breaches of the higher standard of morality expected of God’s own people. Debtors are being sold into slavery (6); justice is being denied to the poor and powerless (7a); there is unnatural sexual practice (7b); and the apparatus of justice is being abused for personal gain (8).
It is not certain whether four examples are to be taken literally, or whether they represent broader categories of disregard for human dignity, but they are almost certainly intended to illustrate a breach of the covenant. Worst of all, there is an implication that these abuses are intertwined with Israel’s religious activity: They are done in God’s name (7b), in God’s house (8b), beside the altars that were designed for sacrificial worship (8a).
Amos piles on the shame by reminding his listeners of some of the blessings that Yahweh has showered on them (9-11). He makes clear that these offences are only possible because Israel has silenced the voice of conscience in society. This moral numbness has been achieved by repressing the pursuit of personal holiness and gagging the prophets (12).
The climax of this section is a threat of punishment. On one level Amos gives several different pictures of sluggishness or weakness afflicting the nation’s defenders that could be seen as the logical consequence of a dissolute lifestyle. On another level, however, it is made clear that Yahweh himself is acting to crush their rebellion (13-16).
3.1-15 An explanation of Yahweh’s anger and his method
Why is Yahweh being harder on his own people than on the surrounding nations? Reference is made to a special relationship between Yahweh and his people. This must be meant to refer to the covenant, although the usual term berith is not used anywhere in Amos. A special responsibility is attached to this privilege, and Israel’s behaviour is all the more worthy of punishment as a result (1-2).
(The absence of berith is curious, especially given the strong informative presence of the covenant in Amos’ message. It is tempting to speculate that the sacred term might have been dropped in later editing by Judaic scribes on the grounds that Israel’s break with the covenant dated in their view right back to Jeroboam’s rebellion.)
Following on from this basic truth about the relationship between God and Israel, an extended poem (in a repetitive questioning style familiar from wisdom poetry) highlights in a different way the fact that Yahweh is taking decisive action in the world. Firstly, Amos himself is only speaking because God has spoken. Secondly, disaster is occurring only because God’s hand is at work (3-8).
Amos applies his sermon in a manner that is as relevant to our circumstances as it was to his own. He points to the tensions, upheavals and oppression that can so clearly be seen in society. It could not be clearer that he sees these cracks as a warning sign, and that if unchecked they will lead to a still greater disaster. The threat of siege by an adversary that was only implicit in 2.13-16 is now made more explicitly, and as usual there is a strong logical connection between the crime and the punishment: strongholds full of violence and robbery will themselves be plundered. Nevertheless, in the light of verse 6b it is equally clear that God himself is acting in judgement (9-11).
Finally, a new judgement oracle declares that the destruction will be almost total. In deliberately shocking language Amos foresees that the surviving remnant will be like the remains of an animal’s corpse eaten by wild beasts (an image carrying powerful overtones of ritual uncleanness for its original audience that will be largely lost on modern readers). Importantly, the oracle ends with a vital clue as to the where the chief guilt lies, in that the principal loci of judgement will be the religious establishment (14) and the assets of the wealthy (15).
4.1-11 A series of brief warnings and reminders
Chapter 4 consists mainly of brief warnings and reminders, each ending with the conventional messenger formula, “...says Yahweh”:
a). A threat to the “cows of Bashan”, apparently the wives of the wealthy who are both leading a luxurious life at the expense of poor and (according to the mores of the day) overstepping their place in society. They will be led off into slavery through the broken walls of the city (1-3).
b). The first explicit statement that the cultic worship is sinful. It is evidently being conducted for the people’s own gratification rather than Yahweh’s (4-5).
c). Five reminders that they have ignored minor disasters sent as warnings (6-11):
Food shortages (6)
Crop failures and blights (9)
Diseases and raids (10)
Natural disasters (11)
Each of these reminders ends with the refrain, “...yet you did not return to me”. In this remorseless rhythm it is once again made clear that God’s hand has been and will continue to be in every blow to their proud self-sufficiency.
The prophet obliquely makes his first reference to the “Day of the Lord”, a future time of victory with both geo-political and eschatological overtones that was a persistent theme in folk-Judaism. This will be laboured more explicitly in a later chapter, but Amos is already suggesting that Israel’s meeting with its God will be a day of disaster (12).
e). A brief “hymn fragment” or snatch of liturgical worship, probably intended to remind the reader of God’s majesty and power. This points to Yahweh’s right to pronounce judgement and his ability to use the physical world over which he is sovereign as an agency of judgement (13).
5.1-25 An extended lament
Chapter 5 is dominated by a long poem of lamentation over Israel’s sin and the impending disaster. Many themes and techniques are interwoven, including a kind of advance obituary, a call to repentance, an explanation of what God really desires, and various pictures of shame and disaster. A brief summary follows:
a). Israel is like a destitute girl with no redeemer or helper – an image of moral shame as well as poverty (2).
b). The population will be decimated – an apparent reversal of God’s promises to the Patriarchs (3).
c). God may still be found, but not via the doomed shrines (4-5).
d). Those who pervert God’s mishpat and sedaqa are warned to turn or face destruction (6-7).
(These Hebrew words are conventionally translated as justice and righteousness, but they have a far richer meaning in the original language. As explained earlier, these words have been held to incorporate the sense of an animate force flowing from God that not only makes human justice and righteousness possible but is also the basis for a fruitful relationship between Israel and the Promised Land. If this hypothesis is correct, then it is indispensable to an understanding of the cause and effect relationship between immorality and the rebellion of the land which comes out later in the book.)
e). Another fragment of praise comparable to 4.13 (8-9).
f). Because the nation’s prosperity has been built on injustice and oppression, the wealthy will not be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labour (10-15).
g). A clear call to seek justice and righteousness, as it may still not be too late. It is not clear whether God is offering to be gracious to the whole of Israel or merely to a future remnant, but once again he declares his mercy (14-15).
h). A picture of wailing and mourning in every part of the community, when God “will pass through in the midst” of them. Another oblique reference to the “Day of Lord”.
i). The first explicit reference to the “Day of the Lord”. The expected day of light and joy will instead be a time of darkness and unexpected danger (18-20).
j). A famous passage in which God forcefully rejects all religious festivals and ritual sacrifices, “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. A clear illustration of the Hebrew theology of justice and righteousness referred to above (21-24).
k). A direct declaration from God that he will take Israel “into exile beyond Damascus”, as a result of their idolatry (25).
6.1-14 Further judgements against the wealth and self-reliance of Israel
The first part of chapter 6 continues in lamentation form, focusing on Israel’s false sense of security (1-3) and its idle rich who will be the first to go into exile (4-7). Yahweh hates Israel’s pride and self-reliance, and swears to deliver “the city” to its adversaries (8-9).
The chapter concludes with a poem in a style familiar from wisdom literature. Once again stressing that Israel has perverted justice and righteousness, Yahweh declares that he is raising up a nation to oppress them (11-14).
7.1-9 Amos’ first three visions
Amos introduced each of his visions without drama, with some variation on the words, “This is what God showed me”. These visions cement his credentials and provide a chilling picture of judgement.
a). God is making locusts to devour the crops. Natural disasters are all part of God’s arsenal, but he relents when Amos pleads for Israel (1-3).
b). God is calling up a shower of fire to eat up the land, reinforcing the locust vision. Once again Amos pleads for Israel, and God relents (4-6).
c). God is holding a plumb line against a wall. Clearly Israel is not meeting his standards of rectitude. This time God pronounces devastation and there is no relenting. This has been widely seen as a watershed in Amos’ vision, the point at which he accepts the need and inevitability of destruction.
7.10-17 The conflict with Amaziah
Most commentators have regarded this narrative passage as a later addition. Amaziah, the chief priest at the Bethel shrine, reports Amos to the king for subversive talk. He then orders Amos to take himself away to Judah and/or to cease prophesying at Bethel. In response Amos sets out his credentials – he was a simple farmer whom God sent to prophesy to Israel. He is speaking with the Lord’s authority, and proceeds to pronounce a horrible doom against the priest who would defy God.
8.1-14 Amos’ fourth vision
Amos sees a basket of summer fruit (1), possibly symbolising that Israel is ripe for consumption and will soon wither. The book’s longest and grimmest prophecy of doom then follows. The end has indeed come for Israel and great woe is in hand (2-3). The people’s heart is not in their observances (5), and they are dedicated to making money by exploitation and deceit (4,6). Disaster is inevitable (7-10). The worst aspect will be a famine of hearing the word of God – something for which they will become desperate (11-12). All idolaters will be destroyed (13-14).
9.1-15 Amos’ fifth and final vision
Amos sees the Lord standing beside the altar, the symbolic point of contact between God and man (1). God calls the roof of the shrine down on the people’s heads, and declares that no one will escape death. In a terrifying inversion of Psalm 139, he warns that he will pursue them to the death (2-4).
A further “hymn fragment” (5-6) bridges the way to the final sequence. Israel is no different from other nations – sinful kingdoms will be destroyed. But then comes the first clear promise that Jacob (the common ancestor of the divided kingdoms) will not be utterly destroyed (7-8). All the sinners among God’s people will be massacred, but the kingdom of David will be re-established (9-12). In a picture of melting sweetness, God promises to restore the fortunes of his people Israel. The cities will be rebuilt and the crops replanted, and they will never again be taken from the land that God has given them (13-15).
Is this a promise to restore the whole of Israel – including the northern tribes - that has yet to be fulfilled? A more figurative prophecy pointing to the reign of Jesus Christ? Or is it a final humiliation to the northern kingdom, promising that only the house of David (i.e. Judah) will survive? All these views have been argued, and ultimately it is all speculation. The one sure message of this hopeful conclusion is that God is merciful to those who repent, He is and will always be victorious, and those who are his will share in his victory.
SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE CHALLENGE OF APPLYING AMOS
I have yet to hear this challenging and beautifully written segment of scripture treated in a church context in the completely honest and edifying manner it deserves.
My wife and I have taken part in two separate house group series on Amos, several years apart and in different churches. In each study, there was a feeling that we were missing something. Both sets of questions were loaded towards a literal application of Amos’ words to our own situation, and we came away on each occasion with little more than a reinforced sense that God hates injustice and immorality. That is a fair conclusion as far as it goes, but there was a lingering sense that we had failed to account for the exceptional severity and finality of the Amos’ language. The natural solution was to explain these attributes away, either as poetic exaggeration or (more dangerously still) as immature theology. Thus we achieve the seemingly contradictory result of watering the message down through an over-literal reading.
It is almost too easy to identify the abuses documented in Amos with various ills in our own civilisation. We can apply his words to the perpetuation of inequality and the denial of human dignity in the capitalist system as a whole. We can relate them to party political issues like progressive taxation or law and order, to sexual mores, to abusive personal relationships. At the other end of the spectrum we can fit them to geo-political concerns such as war and third world poverty. And as far as it goes this moral dimension is probably the best place to start in applying Amos today.
The danger is that we will read our own conscience agenda into a book that has a very clear and distinct agenda of its own. I do not think we will tap the full power of Amos’ message as long as we interpret it as no more than a tirade against the values of the pagan/secular world outside our doors. The real horror of Amos to his original hearers was that via Damascus, Edom and Judah he progressively brought the focus of his vision closer and closer to home. Ultimately his purpose was to challenge the pride, the complacency, the religiosity and the most dearly held traditions of God’s own people. This is not to say that any of our practices in the Christian Church are intrinsically wrong. But unless we constantly open ourselves up to God’s Spirit, and test our assumptions against his written Word, we may not notice a drift in our priorities until we have rendered ourselves as unserviceable as Israel.
That would be a hard message to deliver from the pulpit in most of our churches, and life is further complicated for preacher by the difficulty of finding individual short passages in Amos that do justice to his integral vision. The fact that I have never heard anyone even trying to preach on Amos suggests that the difficulties of doing so may be quite intimidating. There are audiences that would revel in such a challenging message (“Word Alive” comes to mind). However, for the average parish congregation it would probably be more helpful to allow the text to ask open-ended questions rather than to make dogmatic assertions. It could also be helpful to base part of a sermon on a more familiar NT passage that is thematically linked to the section of Amos under discussion.
The following are just a couple of examples of the sort of provocative but positively-framed question that could be raised in a sermon or a Bible study:
What is true worship?
What are God’s real priorities for his people, then and now?
How has God communicated these priorities, in the OT and in the NT?
How well are these priorities lived out in our private and church family life?
What is true love?
How has God shown his hatred of sin (OT/NT)?
How has God shown his love for sinners (OT/NT)?
How can these twin emphases inform our private and church family life?
No approach will (or should) ever completely sidestep the horror of Amos’ message, but I am sure there is scope to use the book in a way that honours God without scaring people away from drawing the proper conclusions. We can bring his love and his justice together in the crucifixion. We can point forward to the final Day of the Lord as a spur to missions of outreach and mercy. And behind all that we can draw out a clear picture of God working behind all human history, inspiring human joy and sharing human pain as he realises his glorious victory over sin and death.
So finally, should Amos lead us to the conclusion that God threatens corrupt and abusive institutions with judgement in the movement of history? That is an arguable but controversial view. It can be proposed with greater confidence that, regardless of political and religious allegiances, wise men down the ages have seen a consistent and remorseless correlation between certain permissive socio-economic patterns and their painful consequences. Perhaps the key value of Amos to us is that he sets out those causalities very clearly and meshes them into a theological framework that perfectly complements a proper Christian preoccupation with salvation, personal morality and above all the self-giving love of God. Of course there was never meant to be any dichotomy – the inter-relationship of personal faith and social responsibility is one of the core principles of Christ’s teaching on the Kingdom of God.
© John C. Bailey, 2001
© John C. Bailey, 2001
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Bishop Pete Broadbent (Willesden) - a strong supporter of women bishops - explains the amendments on his blog, at http://bishopofwillesden.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/women-bishops-what-house-of-bishops.html
Sunday, May 20, 2012
(Isaiah 61: 4-9)
How do you see the future of the Church in the United Kingdom? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of you here are feeling a great deal of concern at the declining influence of the Church and its values in British society.
Certainly, the traditional beliefs and moral values of Christianity seem to have been pushed out to the margins of national life. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not other religions that are the problem. In fact, I believe strongly in treating all faiths with respect. And it’s all too obvious that for society at large, the so-called equal respect for different religions is in reality an equal disrespect. Try wearing a religious symbol at work, offer to pray with a vulnerable patient or student, or defend the place of religious education in state schools, if you want to see this prejudice in action. National government, local government, the public services, the business sector, the media…. All are guilty of paying lip service to a multi-faith society while making fewer and fewer concessions to the beliefs and values that so many ordinary people in this country hold dear.
In the case of Christianity, this tendency to push faith to the sidelines of public life is all the more damaging, because it contradicts not just people’s individual beliefs, but the ancient spiritual and moral values that have shaped the society we live in. To deny those spiritual and moral values is not tolerance, it is not social harmony; it is denial of the very foundations of our nationhood and our society.
So what does the Bible say about this? Does it give any comfort, any reassurance to those alarmed at this nationwide backlash against our Christian heritage?
I believe this evening’s reading from Isaiah shines a valuable light on the prospects for the Church in this country. I fully expect that in the short term things may get worse before they get better. But this prophecy from Isaiah represents a shining promise that ultimately our saviour God and the Church of Christ will be vindicated, will be victorious, will reflect God’s glory in this land.
In order to understand the relevance to our own times, we need to remember that these last chapters of Isaiah were composed at a crucial time in Israel’s history. After at least two generations in captivity in Babylon, a courageous group of exiles had returned to Jerusalem with high hopes for a new life back in the Promised Land of their forefathers.
And what did they find when they got there? In a word, disillusionment. The sacred buildings were in ruins. The people now living there embraced a host of alien religious cults, and bitterly resented the newcomers trying to re-establish worship of the God of Abraham. Even God himself seemed remote – the Temple no longer seemed vibrant with the presence of the living God as it had been described to them by their grandparents. It seemed to many that God himself had forsaken his people.
What a picture of the Church as it exists in most parts of Britain today: run down, isolated, powerless, resented by so many in the surrounding community. And yet, in the midst of all that heartbreak, the prophetic voice of God was moving afresh, giving hope for the future and strength for the moment. And I believe that the glorious promise of God to those returning exiles is also God’s promise to the body of Christ in this land.
Let’s look briefly at a couple of the promises in this passage:
1. God says in verse 4, “You will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long-devastated.” If we look around this country, we see thousands of churches that have been demolished, or converted into flats, restaurants, furniture warehouses, even mosques and temples. In recent decades there has been a declining demand for all these as place of Christian worship. But I take this verse as a promise that the church will one day grow again, to the point where our sacred buildings will once again throng with worshippers and form the heart of the communities around them.
2. Then, in verse 7, God says through the prophet, “Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance.” Of course, some of the leaders of different denominations have done much to discredit their churches, but for those of us who see the goodness of God at the heart of the church, it is frustrating to see TV and newspaper coverage of the church dominated by shame and disgrace: stories of child abuse, marital infidelity, greed and intolerance. How reassuring then, to be reminded that our sovereign God promises blessing instead of shame, and instead of disgrace, rejoicing in our inheritance.
So, if we accept these promises, what is the way forward? Firstly, we must never allow ourselves to be seduced by despair, never adopt the scepticism of the society around us, never believe that Christianity has lost the battle, never forsake our distinctive beliefs and moral values. For we have a loving, sovereign God who – as we know from scripture and long experience - keeps his promises.
Secondly, God’s promise to the returning Hebrew exiles was eventually fulfilled in the coming of Christ, God’s living presence in the midst of their community. And when we, the Church in this land, are fully willing to be Christ for the world, with all the costly self-sacrifice that entails, then the promises of this prophecy will be fulfilled for us.
And what promises they are. Paraphrasing the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, God will reward us, he will make a renewed covenant with us, and all peoples of every culture will be able to see that we Christians are a people whom God has blessed. Let’s bow our heads in prayer.