“‘The days are coming,’ declares the sovereign Lord…” (Amos 8:11)
Now to be faithful to the voice of the text from Amos, it seems appropriate that the sermon should be judgmental. Indeed, the text tells us that Judgment Day is coming. However, I also hasten to say that the judgments of God are an aspect of God’s grace as well. Our God loves us enough not to leave us to our own devices. God does not watch in silence as we, like lemmings march to the edge of the cliff, but sends prophets like Amos to speak words of truth to us and, in speaking the truth, there is grace.
Amos, the farmer from down south, has been called by God to start his life over to become God’s voice as God has need to speak to the people. So Amos tells of a time when the sky will be dark. There will be no light. All will be silent. There will be no help from the Lord. The offer of God’s grace, once always on the table, will be removed. The people have had concerns about famine, but Amos says there is much worse awaiting them, a famine of the Word, a time when God falls silent.
These harsh words seem so out of character for the God of Israel, who had been so talkative throughout Israel’s history. Indeed the whole of the Bible can be seen as one long conversation between God and humanity; a conversation always initiated by God, who keeps coming back to us asking, (in the words of Genesis 3) “Where are you?”
So, to threaten to stop speaking (and, as result, stop creating), God must be pretty ticked off. Why is God so angry? We ought to note well the specific reasons for God’s unprecedented wrath.
Is God angry because Israel has not fulfilled the religion’s requirements? Is there something wrong with Israel’s worship? Or perhaps Israel has misinterpreted the Scriptures. Has there been some sort of interpretive failure that has angered God? Or has there been a failure of prayer or inadequacies of music?
Amos mentions none of these. Rather, that which has angered God so severely is merely economics. God is upset over business. It seems the poor have been victimised by the rich. People can scarcely wait to get out of church before they can return to their business of buying and selling grain at the highest possible profit. The poor have become virtual slaves of the rich, so horribly, deeply in debt that they can never climb out.
I’m sorry if you thought that our religion is mostly spiritual, and does not have anything to say about our everyday concern with money matters. I don’t doubt that many people wish that the church really could be more ‘spiritual,’ but no, the God of Israel is Lord of all, including economics. This God is not just interested in our vague religious sentiments on Sunday. This God cares about our our dollars and cents, the way we spend our money, i.e. business.
In the global financial crisis a few years back, the financiers had a rather rough time. You’ve got to feel sorry for them. They got themselves and their organisations in deep financial trouble through greed-inspired bad decisions. Some missed out on millions of dollars in bonuses. Of course, they still collected their multi-million dollar salaries while thousands of people lost their homes, their savings, their superannuation income. When one of the major bankers was asked by a reporter about the morality of some of the shonky products that his bank was marketing to investors, and which exacerbated the collapse of credit, he replied, “It’s business.” To him it wasn’t a moral issue at all; just business. I recall in the movie, The Godfather, just before a Mafia hit man is about to complete his contract; he says to him, “It’s nothing personal, Sol; it’s just business.”
To the banker, business certainly was not a religious issue, and yet, in the light of today’s reading from Amos, his immense salary, coupled with his shoddy treatment of investors, and the people who lost their homes as a result of his poor business decisions, his job is a spiritual, religious and moral issue.
In the U.S., and I expect that it is mirrored in Australia, in the 20 years between 1974 and 1994, the salary of the average CEO rose by 300% in real terms; that is, adjusted for inflation. During the same period the average worker’s pay fell a shocking 13% in real terms. And if you think that this situation is immoral, consider the average Australian worker who earns hundreds of times more than his counterpart in the developing world. Is not this equally unjust?
Amos says that God cares about this. God is threatening to stop talking to Israel because of economic abuses.
Sometimes it seems as we live in a period where there is a famine of the word. God seems very far from modern 21st century people. We say the reasons may be that we are too busy for God or that we are too skeptical, scientific, critically-thinking people. I wonder what Amos would say.
Perhaps Amos would say that the reasons are more basic, more fundamental, more economic. We have compartmentalised our lives. Over here we are doing business, and business is business. Over there, maybe for one hour a week, we’re spiritual and religious. These two compartments in our lives never meet.
But not in today’s Scripture lesson! Here the Bible gets very specific, and excruciatingly economic. And God is angry!
A few years ago, I met an African bishop in Geelong. During a discussion at church, the bishop was asked, “What do you think is the greatest challenge faced by young people today?’
The bishop responded, “Perhaps it is because I am a visitor here, but I would say the greatest challenge is your materialism. Here there seems to be so much of everything. Christianity does not do well in such a climate. Where life is filled with so much, there is not enough room for God to get in. Money is always the problem, according to Scripture, never the solution.”
Is this what Amos is speaking about when he says that, in an Israel of riches and great wealth, there will come a famine, not a famine of food or things, but a famine of the word of God? More possessions; less word of God?
I don’t think the issue is quite this simple. The problem in Amos’ time was not that people were wealthy, but that only some people were wealthy and many were very poor. Furthermore, the wealthy had become wealthy by ripping off the poor, and they continued to get wealthier while the poor got poorer. It seems that it is not wealth per se that closes one off to the word of God, but the desire for wealth at the expense of justice. It seems to me that people get wealthy, partly or even largely, because they are all too willing to take more than their fair share. Money is more important than justice, yet justice is part of the very character of God. No wonder God is so angry!
From Amos we hear a harsh, direct, specific word; a word that is meant to provoke rigorous self-examination in each of us. Where will we go after church on Sunday? What concerns will consume us? What desires will eat away at our marriages, our family life, our relationships with other people? What responsibility do we have for the poor and less fortunate in our society? To what extent do we recognise that we owe our relative wealth to impoverished farmers in third world countries and children working in sweatshops in second world developing nations and to our forebears who colonised this land and, in the process, dispossessed the original inhabitants. Are any of us among those who now object to sharing our lucky country and its wealth with desperate refugees risking all to flee to Australia in unseaworthy boats? How did we vote in the recent election; did we vote for our own self-interest, that is, for parties that promised to spur the economy and lower taxes, or have we been guided by concern for others and voted for the leaders who would raise taxes in order to redistribute wealth to the poor?
Hear, then, this word of judgment, but at the same time, hear the word of grace. Though it may be difficult, we ought to give thanks that our God cares enough about us to speak the truth to us, painful though it may be.
You may have come here today looking for comfort, peace and reassurance, and on many Sundays this is what is offered. But this Sunday, we are also offered the truth. You may wonder why there is a gnawing sense of anxiety or unfulfilment in you; why there are problems in your relationships or your work, why there are social problems in the streets or violent conflicts in the world. In this text God loves you enough to name it; to name it as greed, materialism, insensitivity, injustice. And for this truthfulness, let us be thankful.
Let us pray: Lord, help us to hear your truth, even when it challenges us deeply. May your words lead us to self-examination, and from self-examination, lead us, Lord, to change our lives, to help make the just world that you demand. Amen.
In this particular situation, the economic injustice of Israel in Amos’ time has its own built-in repercussions. If you like, you might like to think of this process as the way the creation is ordered; hence, a function of the Divine. People who are selfish and do not care who they trample underfoot while seeking wealth and power, are unable to ‘hear’ God because they have closed their ears. This is the experience of that which Amos called a “famine of the Word.”
In sociological terms, Amos’ Israel is terminally weakened by the growing gap between rich and poor, powerful and weak. This makes it easy prey to militaristic neighbouring states. It is a cancer that leads to rot from the inside. Sooner or later, an opportunistic nation will take advantage of the vulnerability that results.
We see this happening this very moment in many countries where capitalism runs rampant to the disadvantage of the majority, notably the USA (and Australia?). If Amos is right, a radical change in the world order is over the horizon.