Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Hey You, Listen Up! Amos Is Just the First in a Long Line of Prophets Who Tell the Truth, for Their Time and Ours

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Hey You, Listen Up! Amos Is Just the First in a Long Line of Prophets Who Tell the Truth, for Their Time and Ours

Article excerpt

LET ME TELL YOU about a society of peace and prosperity that existed long ago. In this society, many people had much more than they needed. The construction business was experiencing an unprecedented boom; elaborate wine cellars and even personal vineyards were in vogue. All the markets were buzzing; the communications, entertainment, and travel industries had never enjoyed such escalating profits.

The men and women of this society--at least the ones who luxuriated properly--would have been to hear that there were some in their midst who enjoyed none of these pleasures, people leading lives of quiet desperation. The people on the hilltops would have been greatly offended had anyone dared suggest that the dispossessed were their responsibility--that, in fact, it was their uncaring wealth that was responsible for the plight of the invisible poor.

The scene I have set is not in the Hamptons or Marin County, but in Samaria in the Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century B.C. The prophet Amos was so shocked by conspicuous consumption on such a grand scale that he realized that this was a novel form of social injustice:

They hate those who teach justice at the city gate and detest anyone who declares the truth. For trampling on the poor and for extorting taxes on their wheat: although you have built houses of dressed stone, you will never live in them; although you have planted pleasant vineyards, you will not drink wine from them: for I know how many your crimes are and how outrageous your sins, you oppressors of the upright, who hold people to ransom and thrust the poor aside at the gates--Amos 5:10-12

Prophets are, by their nature, inconvenient party-poopers. It is a mistaken notion that prophets can see the future. Rather, they tell us what is true right now. Amos is the first in a long line of Hebrew prophets who tell the people the truth, however unwelcome, about how they actually stand with God.

A decade or so after Amos' time, another prophet, Micah, finds himself confronted in the southern kingdom of Judah with the appalling Canaanite tradition of sacrificing children to the god Moloch. This practice had begun to attract even some Israelites. Micah, sickened, tells them in no uncertain terms that God "has already shown you what is right: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

The ancient Jews had an amazingly unitive view of life. They did not need to distinguish prayer and moral action as if these were separate movements: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk with God--that is, to be moral and prayerful were all simply aspects of the same process.

A THIRD EXAMPLE of prophecy comes from early Christian tradition. Luke reports that "it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1). Despite the decree, it wasn't really the whole world--just the poor and lower rungs of the middle class, because in ancient Rome the rich only pretended to pay taxes, while everyone else bore the brunt of supporting the state. And Caesar Augustus' taxation method was even more cumbersome than, say, Florida's voting procedures.

Joseph had to travel all the way from Nazareth to his birthplace, Bethlehem, "to be taxed," as Luke tells us, "with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child." If you lived in one of the better neighborhoods, you didn't need to be saddled with such inconveniences. But if you were poor or a member of a minority group, a 100-mile journey by donkey when you were nine months pregnant was just the way things were.

Were Mary and Joseph bitter? Did they wonder if God had abandoned them to be permanently oppressed by the rich and powerful? No, their lives were not confined to the politics or circumstances of the moment, however appalling.

In her song of celebration about the baby she was about to give birth to, Mary spoke eloquently in the Jewish prophetic tradition by seeing beyond the surface realities to the deep truth of human affairs. …

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