How many of you would agree with me that the Bible is not an easy read? And it’s not just that the words are hard to pronounce, although that is an issue. It’s the words themselves and the meaning of them. Consider this passage from Isaiah:
Then the Lord said to me, Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, “Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz,” and have it attested for me by reliable witnesses, the priest Uriah and Zechariah son of Jeberechiah. And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call “My father” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.
First there are the names—Maher-shalal-hash-baz and Jeberechiah. Then there is the question of common characters; is there a special kind of characters that were not to be used? Then there is the jump from writing on a tablet to conceiving a child to being carried away by the king of Assyria. What does it all mean?
And lest we write this off as a Hebrew scripture problem, consider this passage in Galatians penned by our good friend Paul:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Fortunately, Paul has kept the names pronounceable. But, quick quiz here, based on your hearing of this scripture, are we to obey the law or curse the law? Show of hands!
And that brings me to our passage today from the Book of Amos. Listen again to those words:
“This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. God said, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’ Then God said to me, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,’ says the Lord God; ‘the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent.’ Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
And so, I rest my case. The Bible is not an easy read. As soon as we finished reading this text in lectionary the other week, the first thing that someone said was, “A basket of summer fruit, what does it mean? I don’t get it.” After a brief conversation about the text, I suggested that maybe we should try and rewrite this text to make it relevant for 2013. And guess what, a couple of people took my suggestion. Maybe their words will sound more familiar to you and make the text real and relevant.
I call these readings “Amos 8 for 2013.”
This is what God showed me:
Behold, a basket of clothing.
And God said, “Jenny, what do you see?”
And I said, “A basket of clothing.”
Then the Lord said to me,
“Let me show you the end that this situation will bring;
I will never again send a moment like this.
The votes cast at the polls on Election Day
will soon be a sick charade,”
declares the Lord God.
And I said,
“So many dead bodies!
They are thrown everywhere!
Hear this, you who cripple the electoral system so you can hold on to power, even as you bring human hopes and dreams to shame, saying,
“When will early voting be abolished,
so there will be long lines at the polls,
so workers will be forced to choose between voting and keeping their jobs,
so anyone with different abilities has to vote absentee or not at all.”
Or this interpretation from another:
I stared intently at the basket of peaches, plums and nectarines thinking of taking a bite. Then I noticed the fruit flies, and lifting a peach recoiled at the rotted bottom.
How temporal, how noticeable, how the top of the fruit is deceptive.
Is our fruit spoiled? Have we hoarded selﬁshly, overlooking everyone else? Have we chosen silence? Have we relished in our comforts, our daily routines and are we striving to make our lawns as manicured as our neighbors?
Maybe I should open my business on an extra day…
Maybe I should increase my proﬁts for the next quarter…
Maybe my employees will get by without a raise this year…
Maybe I can import a cheaper good…
Maybe I can shut down the factory here…
Maybe I can move to the neighborhood within the gates…
Maybe I will vote for my own tax break…
Maybe I can pay the cleaning lady under the table…
Maybe my kids won’t have to go to school in THAT neighborhood…
Oh, let me prosper.
Have we confused the American Dream with God’s dream?
Manufacture at a riotous pace so the land will tremble and collapse…
Consume at any cost and drown our concern in greed…
Construct your gates and watch your fear grow exponentially…
Let everyone else fend for themselves so the kinship becomes enemy…
Has God stopped drawing you together? Or do you just refuse to hear?
Is our fruit spoiled?
Here is the truth about the Bible. It may not be an easy read, but its central message is clear: God is a God of justice – justice for the poor and the needy and powerless. In the Bible, justice starts with the very nature of God. Justice is a part of God’s nature; and over and over again we read that God is a God of justice. But biblical justice is not solely about God. God demands that the people reflect God’s character—meaning that the people of God must be a people of justice.
But biblical justice is not only about God and God’s people, it is also a social concept. It has to do with the external ordering of society in which the most of life can thrive. Biblical justice requires a special concern for the powerless—those who lack the capacity to protect their own welfare. The Hebrew scriptures social concept of justice is caring for the “powerless” – the widow, the orphan, the alien, the needy and the poor.
Through all the strange words of Amos 8, Amos the prophet condemns practices that “trample the needy” and “ruin the poor.” Specifically, Amos is challenging societal practices that create untrustworthy markets. In the ancient world, units of weight and measure had not been standardized, so a shekel or ephah used in the markets of Jerusalem might be different than those employed in the markets of Samaria or Damascus. This means a merchant might need to have different sets of weights in order to trade in different markets. But given human nature, the temptation to cheat the illiterate would often have proven irresistible. And so, in Amos’ day, untrustworthy market places were contributing to a sense of injustice – trampling the needy and ruining the poor. Is any of this sounding familiar? Could it be that Amos 8 was written for 2013?
Amos also condemns those who yearn for the end of the Sabbath day, so that they can cheat their neighbors. In Amos’ day, the Sabbath day was not first-and-foremost about a time for worship, but rather was originally a justice law designed to give rest to all of society—not just to the property owner, but also “your ox and your donkey, and your livestock, and the resident alien in your towns.” In the sabbatical laws, the poor and wild animals are provided with food, slaves are given release to freedom and those in deep debt are forgiven their debts. The laws of the day were not just laws for the sake of having laws. They were about creating a just and compassionate society—a society in which a far greater part of the members are flourishing. That was the message of Amos. It is the central message of the Bible. And it is still God’s vision for our world today, in 2013—a just society for the good of the whole.
Yes, the words of Amos 8 may sound odd to our ears. But its message is clear: healthcare for all, good schools for every child, the protection of voting rights, economic justice for the poor. That is what Amos 8 is all about—God’s justice for the poor and the powerless.
What do you see? A summer basket of fruit? A basket of clothing? A hungry child? A mother who is working two jobs and still can’t put enough food on her table for her children. A laborer who can’t get the medical care he needs? A family living in their car because their home is in foreclosure because the father lost his job due to company downsizing.
God asks, “What do you see?” But a more important question for us is, “What will we do with what we see? The Book of Amos ends with these words: “The time is surely coming says God, when…I will restore the fortunes of my people, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”
What do you see, America’s vision or God’s vision? Amos reminds us that God is a God of justice—a God of the poor and powerless. Amos also reminds us that we are to be a people of justice—caring for the poor and the powerless. May our eyes be set on a just society where a far greater number of its members are flourishing.