Better Things to be Doing

Scripture Focus: Amos 8.5-6, 11
When will..the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?
…buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals…
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.

From John: In this year of many kinds of hardships for service and retail workers, this post from 2018 has a heightened meaning. May we carry the kindness and grace of Jesus when we encounter retail and seasonal workers. If not, we may find ourselves facing a famine, not of profit, or water, or food but of the Word of God.

Reflection: Better Things to be Doing 
By John Tillman

At this time of year a basket of ripe fruit brings connotations of joy and celebration, but as God explained to Amos, the ripeness of the fruit was not the ripeness of joy, but of inward sin.

The people of Israel only seemed religiously observant. Inwardly, they wished that the bothersome business of worshiping God could be over with so they could get back to making money.

In a day when only openly religious businesses dare to be closed on Sunday, we may not comprehend a time when no business in the nation-state of Israel would dare to be open on a religious holiday.

In our culture, extended holiday hours are expected. They are a fact of life and many work additional jobs during the holidays to get by.

Although I’ve never rushed out of church to open a grain market, at times I have needed to get to the mall and open a Santa set. In my own life and the lives of many others, additional holiday employment doesn’t supply luxuries or money for presents, it is needed to get by. The additional work I get around the holidays has at times provided nearly a third of our yearly income. The gig economy is not always pretty.

Amos is right. The poor are indeed bought with silver.

Economic sins are prioritized by the Lord’s prophets. Amos is just one echo of their repeated theme. The wealthy market owner’s uncaring attitude started with a greedy lie that he had better things to do than worship God—namely, to wring out profit from every minute, every worker, and every square foot of land.

As we move into a cultural season in which we will all interact with many seasonal workers—often undertrained and often sleep-deprived—may we at a minimum interact with them with mercy and grace. And, for those who are supervisors and managers, may we work to humanize our treatment of our employees and better their lives encouraging as much rest as is possible in this season of economic frenzy.

And in moments of worship, whether private or corporate, may we remember there is nothing more profitable that we could be doing than worshiping God.

Amos is clear that if we don’t value worshiping God, the punishment is a famine—not a famine of profit, or water, or food, but a famine of the Word of God.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand… — Psalm 95.6-7

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertimeby Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Amos 8 (Listen – 2:16)
Luke 3 (Listen – 5:24)

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In Amaziah’s Shoes

Scripture Focus: Amos 7.10-17
10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. 11 For this is what Amos is saying:

“‘Jeroboam will die by the sword,
    and Israel will surely go into exile,
    away from their native land.’”

12 Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. 13 Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.” 

14 Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. 15 But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ 16 Now then, hear the word of the LORD. You say, 

 “‘Do not prophesy against Israel, 
and stop preaching against the descendants of Isaac.’ 

17 “Therefore this is what the LORD says: 

“‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, 
and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. 
Your land will be measured and divided up, 
and you yourself will die in a pagan country. 
And Israel will surely go into exile, 
away from their native land.’ ” 

Reflection: In Amaziah’s Shoes
By John Tillman

When a prophet’s name is in bold print as the title of the book, it is easy to take their side. However, angry prophets in our face, saying things we’d rather not hear, are hard to accept. 

There were many reasons for Amaziah to reject Amos. One reason was religious animosity. Amos was from Judah and Amaziah was the high priest at Bethel in Israel. Israel’s religious leaders lacked the spiritual authority of the Levitical priesthood and did not have the benefits of the grand temple of Jerusalem. They must have always felt a twinge of inferiority.

A second reason was political animosity. Like the United States, Israel and Judah had a bitter civil war. But, in their case, the union failed and 10 of the 12 tribes seceded, becoming Israel. Only the tribe of Benjamin stayed loyal to Judah. Occasionally, the two kingdoms were at peace and even went to war on the same side, but there was often political tension, especially over religious matters.

There was also class animosity. To Amaziah, and probably to us had we been standing there, Amos didn’t look like he belonged. His hands would have been workman’s hands, not those of a scholar. His fingers may even have been stained from the juice of the fruit he picked and sold. He probably smelled of sheep and manure. He was uneducated and uncultured. His tone showed no deference to Amaziah’s position. 

Let’s put ourselves in Amaziah’s shoes. We are a powerful, well educated, and well respected religious leader, with an inside track to the king. Then a smelly, loud, rude, immigrant prophet shows up. He is “uppity,” showing no deference or respect. He’s badmouthing the king who supports us. He won’t shut up. He’s pointing his fig-stained fingers at us as sinful. To us, he seems to obviously be here on some errand from our political enemies. He’s a fraud and maybe part of a political conspiracy!

The purpose of this exercise is not to absolve Amaziah, but to consider ourselves with sober judgment. We must remove any excuses we may have for dismissing a message from God because of the messenger God chose.

Messages from God may come from outside our theological circle or from a political enemy. They may be respectful and well-spoken or angry and rude. Woe to us, if we dismiss a prophet because of his “tone.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
And yet my people did not hear my voice, and Israel would not obey me. — Psalm 84.11

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Amos 7 (Listen – 2:45)
Luke 2 (Listen – 6:11)

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Woken by Woe

Scripture Focus: Amos 6.6
6 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, 
and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, 
you notable men of the foremost nation, 
to whom the people of Israel come! 

Reflection: Woken by Woe
By John Tillman

We have lost the meaning of “woe.”

The Hebrew cry “hoy” or “ho” has been translated “woe,” “ah,” or “alas.” All of these are archaic to a modern audience. Most only know “woe” in preexisting clichés: “woe is me” or “tale of woe.” Familiarity with these phrases comes, mostly, from humorous contexts, not from true moments of distress or mourning.

“Woe,” is a wordless cry from ancient Hebrew, first appearing in Job. (Job 10.15) Ancient Hebrew mourning was normalized and formalized, with specific customs letting the community know there was one among them who mourned. The rending of clothing, the shaving of one’s head, and the cutting off of the beard spoke to the shame of loss. The singing of sad songs and wailing were orchestrated communal acts that joined the people together. 

Cries of “woe” were part of this formalized mourning. The repeated, ringing cries, like a bell or a siren, rang through communities, letting the living know that one who had walked among them was dead. 

Mourning in this context is both a protest against death and an acknowledgment of mortality.

We mourn death because deep down we know we are intended for eternity. Eternity is set in our hearts. This reminds us that our return to dust is the result of a tragic mistake and a rebellion that we remain complicit in. It also reminds us to seek truth, to repent and ask for forgiveness, and to enter into a new rebellion against the forces of death that now hold us captive.

The tone of “woe” is more ominous than mere sadness. It announces death and its inevitability, not just suffering or “having a bad day.” Amos, Jesus, and other prophets employ the ominous tone of, “woe” to get the attention of their audiences.

When Amos says, “woe,” to the complacent, he is announcing a funeral for their normal life. He is demanding their attention to a community tragedy. He is putting under their noses the foul stench of death to wake them from their complacent complicity in oppression and evil.

Woe can wake us. Woe can be a first humble step to repentance. Woe can mean that our past sins have died and we can now be cut free to walk in mercy. Woe can be the mourning of sin that leads to a resurrection of righteousness. 

If only we will listen…

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. — Psalm 51.8

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Amos 6 (Listen – 2:13)
Luke 1:39-80 (Listen – 9:26)

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Justice to Wormwood

Scripture Focus: Amos 5.7, 10, 25-26
7 There are those who turn justice into bitterness 
and cast righteousness to the ground.

10 There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court 
and detest the one who tells the truth.

25 “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings 
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? 
26 You have lifted up the shrine of your king, 
the pedestal of your idols, 
the star of your god— 
which you made for yourselves.

Reflection: Justice to Wormwood
By John Tillman

As the people ignored Amos’s calls to repent, God called into question Israel’s entire history of worship, implying that in their hearts they always had worshiped a god of success, wealth, and comfort rather than him.

Rather than provide justice (mishpat) to the poor, they were frustrating justice and causing bitterness, more literally “wormwood.” Wormwood is translated as “bitterness” multiple times. It is symbolic of a curse or poison and may refer to hemlock. For example, wormwood is used to describe the poison of an adulteress whose lips “drip honey” but in the end, she leads victims to a bitter death. (Proverbs 5.4)

Justice is very much the business of people of faith and when people ignore it or frustrate it…God notices. God points out that the wealthy enjoy great benefits of stone mansions and lush vineyards, (Amos 5.11) but because of their treatment of the poor, the vineyards will be filled with wailing instead of joy and they will be exiled from their comfortable homes. (Amos 5.16-17)

Amos is sympathetic to the plight of living in a corrupt land where justice is denied. “The times are evil” Amos acknowledges and points out that “the prudent keep quiet.” (Amos 5.13) But this acknowledgment of the evil state of the world is not an endorsement of doing nothing or a command to be quiet. Prudence should mean “approaching a problem wisely,” but too often it means “avoiding a problem selfishly.” Rather than avoid trouble, God charges the people to “hate evil, love good” and to “maintain justice in the courts” despite the days being evil.

We are under the same charge. Is there bitterness and poison? We must counter it with justice and righteousness. Justice, or mishpat, is the law being upheld. Righteousness, or sedeq, implies the actions that uphold it. We must not sit quietly but speak out. We must not avoid the unjust but confront them and comfort their victims.

It will not do for us to sing about justice without bringing it to pass. We must bring justice to counter bitterness. We must bring a flood of mishpat to wash away wormwood.

23 Away with the noise of your songs! 
I will not listen to the music of your harps. 
24 But let justice roll on like a river, 
righteousness like a never-failing stream! — Amos 5.23-24

Divine Hours Prayer: The Cry of the Church
In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. — Psalm 55.18

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Amos 5 (Listen – 3:44)
Luke 1:1-38 (Listen – 9:26)

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Three Strikes

Scripture Focus: Amos 2.6-7; 11-12
6 This is what the LORD says: 
“For three sins of Israel, 
even for four, I will not relent. 
They sell the innocent for silver, 
and the needy for a pair of sandals. 
7 They trample on the heads of the poor 
as on the dust of the ground 
and deny justice to the oppressed. 

11 “I also raised up prophets from among your children
and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the Lord.
12 “But you made the Nazirites drink wine
and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.

Reflection: Three Strikes
By John Tillman

Amos, after laying out prophecies against the enemies of Israel, turns around and lays into Israel for her own sins. Amos shines a spotlight on the treatment of the poor.  

It is one thing for there to be poor people among us. Jesus told us this would always be so. It is another to collectively refuse to do the God-commanded work of helping them. It is another to sell them for one’s own profit. It is another to live a life of ease that is funded by oppressing the poor and ensuring they remain so. The prosperous nation is held collectively responsible for the abuse and oppression of the poor.

Amos also condemns Israel for not listening to the young Nazarites and prophets he sent. 

Nazarites made special vows of devotion to God, including abstaining from wine and from cutting the hair. This could be a lifelong commitment or only a few days. Paul seems to have completed a Nazarite vow in Acts (Acts 18.18) and it may have been a Nazarite vow he was participating in when he was arrested. (Acts 21.20-30

Nazarites were not always prophets but were those who were dedicating themselves to God for a special purpose. Amos condemns Israel for working to tempt the Nazarites to break their vows. 

The prophets, the Israelites did not tempt, they simply told them to be quiet. These reactions may have been the result of the prophets and Nazarites being “children” and “youths.” God specifically moved among the young people of the land and the older generation did not take them seriously. They dismissed their words and corrupted their devotion to God.

At the height of her power, Israel strikes out with God by ignoring three groups God cares greatly about: the poor, the pure, and the young.

Oppressing the poor, corrupting the pure, and ignoring or silencing the young are three strikes that God won’t ignore.

Let us pray that these will not be strikes against us.
May we rise up from couches of comfort built on the backs of the poor and help them.
May we not corrupt the principles of the pure with our jaded cynicism.
May we listen to the passionate voices of the youth that God moves to speak out. May we listen rather than silence them. 
Give us ears to hear and feet and hands to obey.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people. — Psalm 66.4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Amos 2(Listen – 2:12)
Psalm 145 (Listen – 2:19)

This Weekend’s Readings
Amos 3(Listen – 2:11), Psalm 146-147 (Listen – 3:09)
Amos 4(Listen – 2:21), Psalm 148-150 (Listen – 3:04)

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