Amos 2:4-11 – Pay Attention to the Poor

The Poor and Money by Vincent van Gogh, 1882

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Judah,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
    and have not kept his decrees,
because they have been led astray by false gods,
    the gods their ancestors followed,
I will send fire on Judah
    that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.”

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.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
    and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
    they drink wine taken as fines.

“Yet I destroyed the Amorites before them,
    though they were tall as the cedars
    and strong as the oaks.
I destroyed their fruit above
    and their roots below.
I brought you up out of Egypt
    and led you forty years in the wilderness
    to give you the land of the Amorites.

“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. (New International Version)

It’s not a sin to be poor. It is a sin to oppress, take advantage of, or exploit the poor.

Social justice isn’t something fabricated in the minds of progressive Christians. Social justice is biblical and at the heart of all sixteen prophetic books of Holy Scripture’s Old Testament.

The reason the prophets address poverty so often is that God hates injustice. God is not okay with an entire group of disadvantaged people having needed resources beyond arm’s reach – and the Lord’s ire is especially roused whenever the wealthy and powerful extort what little the poor have to begin with.

Even if there are some who tend to believe the poor are poor because of laziness or an unwillingness to work hard, you will not find that idea amongst the biblical prophets. You will, in fact, find just the opposite: fat cats who lie around with their privileged lives, not lifting a finger to help the underprivileged.

The Church does have a role in combating systemic oppression of the poor and needy, and the prophet Amos wants those who claim the name of the Lord to know it.

Amos not only harangued the nations who surrounded Israel and Judah of their sinful stances toward the poor, he leveled the very same message at God’s people who did the same things. Although the Israelites enjoyed a special status with God, that did not mean the Lord had a different set of values or expectations for them when it came to basic human justice.

Mistreating one another is a universal sin and all nations everywhere will be held accountable by God for how they treat the least persons among them. There is such a thing as universal human rights – and the godly person will care about this, at the least, because God cares.

Amos almost exclusively hones-in on the economic sins of the wealthy: taking away needed clothing from those who default on loans; assessing unnecessary and exorbitant fines; taking levies of grain; and living a lavish lifestyle on the backs of the less fortunate.

It was these continually repeated sins against one another which eventually led to both Israel and Judah being conquered by pagan nations and carried into exile.

Today, you will still easily find people being used by others, as if they were mere inhuman machines, here on this earth to make money for those who already have plenty of it. They’d sell their own grandmother if they could get a good price on her. Extortion and oppression are like eating and drinking to them.

Yet, such persons, groups, even entire governments are only stockpiling judgment upon themselves for the God whom they must eventually give an account in how they lived their lives on this earth.

Instead, intentionally paying attention to the poor and treating them with equity will involve the following:

  1. Donating to charitable causes, such as church denominational relief funds, and respected international organizations who can make your contributions count.
  2. Agitating politicians for better policies toward the poor. Writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls are simple ways of letting your voice be heard in a democratic society.
  3. Learning about worldwide and local poverty. It’s hard not to be involved whenever there is pertinent information. Putting names and faces to struggling people is a must, as well as understanding some of the dynamics that go into poverty.
  4. Raising awareness of significant issues related to poverty and how it impacts the poor. Find others who care about this and share insights and understanding about how to educate others.
  5. Volunteering at a local organization who works with the poor.

There are many more ways to make a difference. As biblically informed people, care of the poor and being concerned for issues of poverty is a must, because the Lord is a Just God with a heart of justice for the disadvantaged, underprivileged, and needy among us.

Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, CEB)

Just and merciful God, you give honor to the least, the forgotten, the overlooked, and the misjudged.

You give first place to the last, the left behind, the misunderstood, and the undervalued.

You give a warm welcome to the lost, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us, your people, to be your ears in listening to their cries.

Help us to be your voice speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and acceptance.

Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them.

You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

Luke 10:25-37 – How Do We Start Our Ministry?

The Good Samaritan by He Qi

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (New International Version)

Mosaic of the Good Samaritan in the Cathedral of St. Mary, Madrid, Spain

Start with Love and Mercy

The short answer to the question of how to begin any ministry is love, by providing relief through showing mercy. Compassion, mercy, and love are always behind every true Christian ministry.

Being available and approachable, crossing paths with people in need, noticing and caring about others is a merciful response. Following the example of Jesus, the Christian community ought not to pass by on the other side of the road. Instead, we are to stop and get involved smack in the middle of human need.

That isn’t what always happens, though. It can be far too easy to respond to the vast sea of human need by being judgmental and critical. We might observe people’s predicaments and write those persons off as being lazy, foolish, or of bad character. Just as bad, our prejudice or bias might see a person’s clothes, habits, race, ethnicity, or gender and immediately make sweeping negative assumptions about them – without having even engaged them.

Frankly, from a Christian perspective, it just doesn’t matter. Whether we believe someone deserves our help or not, all Christian ministry is to be driven by a spirit of love, compassion, and mercy – rather than a spirit of condemnation. We need to see all people, without exception, as image bearers of God who possess inherent worth and dignity as human beings.

The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Start with Relationships

It is good to give money, food, and resources to those in need. It’s even better to develop relationships and get to know the people for whom we are helping. Both handouts and hugs are good and necessary. In this COVID-19 world we are currently living in, I am using “hug” as both a metaphor and an acronym….

Hold eye contact. One of the things we all have discovered about masking is that the eyes communicate a lot. Looking someone in the eye is important. Far too many people in our world don’t feel seen by others. They wonder, if they fell off the face of the earth, whether anyone would even notice. Seeing people is a necessary ministry, in and of itself.

Understand another’s life and point of view. Be curious about their lives, their history, their faith background, and their experiences. Put yourself in their shoes. See things from their perspective. Empathy (communicating to someone that they are not alone) goes a long way. What’s more, we don’t have to agree with another to extend mercy.

Go to others, rather than waiting for others to come to you. Go where they are. Get close enough to show empathy and compassion, even if it’s an air hug. Half of any relationship, before any talking or doing happens, is simply showing up. The good Samaritan showed up and stopped. He was willing to go wherever the mercy of God sent him.

Start with Building Trust

Most needy people have been, at the least, ignored or dismissed by others; and, at worst, like the man attacked by robbers, beat down and berated by others and left for dead. Anyone who has endured past abuse or trauma is understandably guarded in trusting others. The last thing they want to do is be open and vulnerable to a stranger who might take advantage of them and hurt them.

It takes time to build trust. A person’s issues, a neighborhood’s concerns, and a city’s anxiety won’t be solved overnight. Those problems took a great deal of time in their development, and so, it will take just as much, or more, time to address and resolve all that is wrong.

As we lovingly and mercifully tackle those problems, we must always keep in mind that we fix problems and heal people – and never the other way around. Trying to fix people is a fool’s errand because people are not their problems. Nobody is a cancer, a disease, a schizophrenic, or a lunatic. People have physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual illnesses but they are not inherently those problems. Anything we won’t possess in heaven is something we are not, as people.

Human organizations, systems, institutions, and culture can be a problem – but not people themselves. Whenever someone begins labeling people as “problem” people, or as “those” people, or even worse, as “monsters” or some other label, the judgment of God is not far behind. (Matthew 5:22)

Trust cannot be developed with putting adjectives in front of people’s names or replace those names with pejorative terms. Christian ministry can only thrive in an atmosphere of love, mercy, and compassion.

Trust is developed when we give people the dignity of choices and ask whether they would like help, or not. We don’t save anyone. God does. We are all responsible for our own choices and our own openness to accepting and owning our own problems.

The Good Samaritan by Paulus Hoffman

Start with Meeting a Need

The man alongside the road had a clear need for immediate assistance. The Samaritan stepped in and met that pressing need. The man would have died without it. Yet, some people’s needs aren’t quite so obvious. If we have worked at building trust, some of those needs become known. And there are always existing organizations who are diligently addressing many of those needs with whom we can partner.

Another way of meeting needs is to connect people with one another. Through consulting and collaborating with others, we can foster relational connections in which someone’s or a group’s needs can be met. Since no one person or community can meet everyone’s needs, many times the best approach is to help people meet one another.

When we get neighbors working together to care for one another and improve their neighborhood, they are empowered to make a difference. This is especially viable when a church commits itself to the place or parish in which it exists. By being involved, partnering with community organizations or neighborhood associations, the church joins others as a community connector and a place where the community comfortably gathers.

Conclusion

All Christian ministry begins with a loving attitude, a compassionate heart, and a merciful spirit. Then, it looks for opportunities to be available and show up with a compassionate presence. From there, we are able to discover and discern the real needs of people so that we are providing what is truly needed instead of what we believe someone else needs.

In one of the communities I once pastored, I noticed the town had a significant number of single parents trying to raise their kids. So, I did a bit of demographic work and presented it to the elders, pointing out the opportunity we have to make a difference in many of these family’s lives. The elders became excited about the chance for outreach, that is, until I proposed that we recruit two or three of those single parents to come, sit around the table, and help us understand their needs and how we might help…. The elders became eerily silent…. Finally, one of them spoke up and said, “We can’t do that. They got themselves into this single parent situation. They don’t know what’s best. We do….”

That response is just the opposite of what God is looking for in us. If we believe we know better to the point of not even asking others how we might help, then our arrogance and prejudice has blinded us to true Christian ministry in the way of Jesus. Now for a better story….

The Good Samaritan by Corinne Vonaesch

A woman and her husband were not from the area they were living, and so, every Thanksgiving they spent it only with each other, since both their families lived far away. So, when one Thanksgiving came around, they wondered if there were others like them, spending the holiday apart from family.

They found a few and spent that Thanksgiving together. Those folks had such a good time together that, next year, the woman and her husband asked if they could use the church fellowship hall where I was pastoring at Thanksgiving because they found more people who had no family to celebrate with.

To make a long story short, these two people now serve about two-hundred people in the community every Thanksgiving who gather together, and another two hundred shut-ins are delivered a Thanksgiving meal, along with some needed human connection. Many positive friendships and relationships are formed.

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”

Mother Teresa

Small acts of kindness done with big love result in the kind of Christian ministry which pleases God.

Lord, help us believe we are all ordinary people made extraordinary through your vision and power. Take our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy and give us the courage to see ourselves and others as you see us, with gifts and potential to transform your world and build your Kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 72 – Justice and Righteousness

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.

May he live while the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes bow down before him,
    and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
    render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
    bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
    all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
    the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
    and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live!
    May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
    and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
    may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
    may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
    like the grass of the field.
May his name endure forever,
    his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;
    may they pronounce him happy.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended. (New Revised Standard Version)

Today’s psalm is a prayer of King David – beseeching the Lord to help him rule with justice and righteousness – because G-d is just and right in all divine dealings with humanity.

“Justice” in the Old Testament is neither fairness nor the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Rather, justice (Hebrew משפט, pronounced “mish-pot”) in its most basic sense is caring for the poor. A society is “just” to the degree in which every person has enough for the basic necessities of life and is lifted up as persons worthy of care and respect.

So, the way in which David measured his kingly rule was not by how big of an army he had, or how much gold there was in the royal treasury. Rather, a successful rule for David was measured by whether the interests of the poor were defended and provided for.  

A similar word to justice, “righteousness,” is neither some sort of smug godliness nor a sense of superior piety. Instead, righteousness (Hebrew צדקה pronounced “zed-a-ka”) is a relational term of being in sync with G-d and G-d’s ways. It works itself out in a philanthropic spirit of giving what is needed – both physically and spiritually – through acts of mercy such as forgiveness, debt relief, friendship, charity, etc.

Together, justice and righteousness are concerned for giving needed resources with a compassionate spirit of relationship. It seeks to meet the holistic needs of underprivileged people.

Psalm 72 is read in this Christian liturgical season of Christmas (December 25-January 5) because the celebration of the Christ child entering humanity gives great hope for the poor, the needy, the indigent, and all those who struggle to daily survive grinding situations of hardship and adversity.

This is why, when Jesus announced his earthly ministry, he made it clear the nature of that work would be upholding and extending justice and righteousness:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV)

The least, the lost, the lonely, and the lame have a champion – a Divine Advocate who will take up their cause and ensure they are treated as deserving human beings, with adequate care of both body and soul. Done properly, our living a just and right life requires we share compassion and empathy along with the monetary and physical resources.

“Whoever gives justice to the poor with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully and empathize with him in his sorrow.”

Maimonides (1138-1204, C.E.)

Both the hand and the heart are always involved in biblical justice and righteousness. That way both the giver and the recipient benefit. Whereas the poor receive money or other material assistance, the donor receives the merit of sharing in G-d’s work.

So then, righteousness and justice involve giving assistance with the hand as well as encouragement with the mouth so that needs are met with no residual bitterness of heart.

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
    their righteousness endures forever.” (2 Corinthians 9:7-9, NIV)

May you know the joy and celebration of both giving and receiving with a grateful heart, attuned to the blessings of a generous G-d who stands behind it all.

Amos 8:4-12 – A Spiritual Famine

Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak,
    you who treat poor people as less than nothing,
Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming
    so I can go out and live it up?
How long till the weekend
    when I can go out and have a good time?”
Who give little and take much,
    and never do an honest day’s work.
You exploit the poor, using them—
    and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.

God swears against the arrogance of Jacob:
    “I’m keeping track of their every last sin.”
God’s oath will shake earth’s foundations,
    dissolve the whole world into tears.
God’s oath will sweep in like a river that rises,
    flooding houses and lands,
And then recedes,
    leaving behind a sea of mud.

“On Judgment Day, watch out!”
    These are the words of God, my Master.
“I’ll turn off the sun at noon.
    In the middle of the day the earth will go black.
I’ll turn your parties into funerals
    and make every song you sing a dirge.
Everyone will walk around in rags,
    with sunken eyes and bald heads.
Think of the worst that could happen
    —your only son, say, murdered.
That’s a hint of Judgment Day
    —that and much more.

“Oh yes, Judgment Day is coming!”
    These are the words of my Master God.
“I’ll send a famine through the whole country.
    It won’t be food or water that’s lacking, but my Word.
People will drift from one end of the country to the other,
    roam to the north, wander to the east.
They’ll go anywhere, listen to anyone,
    hoping to hear God’s Word—but they won’t hear it. (The Message)

Four hundred years of silence….  That’s how long it was between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In that period, there was no word from God. No prophets sent by God. No divine message, at all, of either judgment or grace. There was complete silence from the Lord… until the fullness of time, when the incarnation of Jesus changed everything. Why so long to hear from God?

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to God’s people about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. Those in positions of authority and power in Israel merely looked on the less fortunate as commodities – as pawns to be taken advantage of for the rich merchants. 

Because the wealthy never took the time to listen to the poor, God would not listen to them. A famine was coming – neither about hungering for food in short supply, nor about thirsting for clean water. Instead, there will be a scarcity of hearing words from God. Folks can search far and wide just to get a wordy tidbit or even a crumb of a message from the Lord, but they won’t find it.

Whenever people refuse listening to the poor, the entire human community is at risk of experiencing a famine of God’s speech. That’s for all people, not just some. Justice is the responsibility of everyone, and not just a few.

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

Mother Teresa

Scripture says people don’t live on food alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is necessary sustenance, just as much as the need for three square meals a day. Withholding both physical and spiritual resources from others, either through sheer inattention or blatant disregard, damns a society to experiencing famine in the total sense of the word – for all, not just some.

We live in a day when the poor are often disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact.  In other words, very few people take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. After all, we are busy making money and checking our stocks, and…. 

Oh, my, perhaps we have the answer as to why there is such a lack of revival in the land. The Lord shows such solidarity with the poor that to ignore them is to ignore God. No matter our financial picture and outlook, every one of us can grace the poor with the gift of time and listening to them. For in doing so we might just be listening to the voice of God.

God identifies closely with the poor, distressed, and needy. The Lord listens to the lowly. So, we as God’s people, are to share this same concern.

God will rescue the needy person who cries for help
and the oppressed person who has no one’s help.
He will have pity on the poor and needy
and will save the lives of the needy. (Psalm 73:12-13, GW)

Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who rejoice at the misfortune of others will be punished. (Proverbs 17:5, NLT)

Those who are gracious to the poor lend to the Lord, and the Lord will fully repay them. (Proverbs 19:17, CEB)

If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13, NRSV)

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who turn a blind eye will be greatly cursed. (Proverbs 28:27, CEB)

Give your food to the hungry
    and care for the homeless.
Then your light will shine
    in the dark;
your darkest hour will be
    like the noonday sun. (Isaiah 58:10, CEV)

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1, NIV)

 Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matthew 19:21, CEB)

 If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. (1 John 3:17-18, GNT)

We already have words from God. What will we do with them?…

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums.  As I seek you more and more, may I see the face of Jesus in everyone I encounter, whether rich or poor so that I can share the gift of life with them all in this season of anticipation.  Amen.