Amos 8:1-12 – A Prophet’s Perspective on Power and Poverty

Miners’ wives carrying sacks of coal by Vincent Van Gogh, 1881

This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked.

“A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered.

Then the Lord said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”

Hear this, you who trample the needy
    and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

“When will the New Moon be over
    that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
    that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
    boosting the price
    and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
    and the needy for a pair of sandals,
    selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.

“Will not the land tremble for this,
    and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile;
    it will be stirred up and then sink
    like the river of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,

“I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
    and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
    and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
    and the end of it like a bitter day.

“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.
People will stagger from sea to sea
    and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
    but they will not find it. (New International Version)

I’ve been in the church most of my life. I have listened to thousands of sermons, as well as preaching thousands of them myself. I can count on both hands how many times I’ve heard a sermon from one of the twelve minor prophets in the Bible. Although I personally have preached on them more times than that, it still pales in comparison with how many sermons I’ve preached from the New Testament gospels or epistles.

This, I believe, is an indictment on us, especially those with privilege and power. If you add the major prophets, we have sixteen books contained in Holy Scripture calling out powerful and influential people’s oppression of others. To overlook such a girth of text is to stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to listen to God.

Those with power, position, and privilege must continually be vigilant to use such influence for the benefit of all persons – not just themselves or people just like them.

The books of the prophets make it very clear that God cares about justice. God will uphold the needy. The Lord will stand with the oppressed. If we fail to share a divine sense of justice and injustice, there will be hell to pay.

God is longsuffering. The Lord patiently awaits us to pay attention. Yet, eventually, that patience will run its course. A prophet will be sent to voice God’s concerns. Like a basket of ripe fruit now finally ready to be eaten, so God’s justice is ripe and ready for action.

The prophet Amos delivered a scathing message to the ancient Israelites about their total disregard for the poor and needy in the land. The people in positions of authority and power only 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. Judgment was coming, and it would not go so well for the power brokers of society who only thought of their business and squeezing others for more money.      

Peasants planting potatoes by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Few people rush to have poor folk as their friends. Those in poverty are often overlooked and disregarded. Either they are ignored altogether or are given hand-outs and services without ever having any significant human contact. Even when there is help, it comes from a distance.

In other words, those in authority rarely take the time to listen and get to know the real face of poverty. If there isn’t a photo opportunity, then encounters with the poor are not likely to happen with politicians, or anyone else. After all, so many are busy making money, checking stock portfolios, and considering how to get bigger market shares…. 

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

Justice is the responsibility of everyone, not just a few.

God identifies closely with the poor, the distressed, the underprivileged, and the needy. The Lord listens to the lowly. So, we as God’s people, are to share this same concern. It is a theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture.

From the Old Testament:

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)

From the New Testament:

“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.”

Jesus (Matthew 19:21, CEB)

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17-18, NIV)

 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)

Poverty is not only an issue in some far away place; the poor are found everywhere, and they are always among us.

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world. I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Just because poverty has always been with us, doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with – including malevolence and materialism.

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice. Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?… Materialism would.

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

In short, poverty must be tackled, from a biblical perspective, on both the personal and systemic level. Individuals, families, churches, faith communities, organizations, corporations, and governments must all remove the obstacles which keep people in poverty. This is an appropriate use of power and authority.

What will you and I do?…

Gracious God, you are found everywhere – both the halls of power, and the back alleys of slums. As we seek you more and more, help us to see the face of Jesus in everyone we encounter, whether rich or poor, so that we might share the gift of life with them, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Amos 5:10-17 – Work It Out In the Public Square

People hate this kind of talk.
    Raw truth is never popular.
But here it is, bluntly spoken:
    Because you run roughshod over the poor
    and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
    the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
    from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I precisely know the extent of your violations,
    the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
    taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.

Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic.
    Decent people throw up their hands.
Protest and rebuke are useless,
    a waste of breath.

Seek good and not evil—
    and live!
You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    being your best friend.
Well, live like it,
    and maybe it will happen.

Hate evil and love good,
    then work it out in the public square.
Maybe God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    will notice your remnant and be gracious.

Now again, my Master’s Message, God, God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“Go out into the streets and lament loudly!
    Fill the malls and shops with cries of doom!
Weep loudly, ‘Not me! Not us, Not now!’
    Empty offices, stores, factories, workplaces.
Enlist everyone in the general lament.
    I want to hear it loud and clear when I make my visit.”

God’s Decree. (The Message)

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world.

I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Too bad so many people are unfamiliar with this prophet and his message. This unawareness, or even purposeful ignorance, could be one reason why the ancient message of Amos appears as fresh today as it was so long ago.

Poverty has always been with us – but that doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with. Those issues include malevolence, materialism, and militarism.

Malevolence

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice.

Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?…

Materialism

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

Jesus said:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24, CEB)

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15, NRSV)

It’s bad enough when individuals, families, and corporate companies devote themselves to a bloated materialism without regard to the poor; it’s even worse when entire nations, governments, and regions do it. From their perspective, what is the most effective way for them to protect all that stuff and self-interest?

Militarism

Pouring significant amounts of money into maintaining armies to safeguard resources – and the way of life which created those resources – puts the focus off the poor and onto the interests of wealth. It also diverts money which could address problems of poverty and puts it into a massive defense budget.

Throughout the Old Testament, militarism was seen as fundamentally not trusting in God. And the prophets have a well-known term for this: idolatry.

The Lord doesn’t care about
the strength of horses
    or powerful armies.
The Lord is pleased only
with those who worship him
    and trust his love. (Psalm 147:10-11, CEV)

Make sure to not build up a war machine, amassing military horses and chariots. (Deuteronomy 17:16, MSG)

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. A standing military is a must – I’m just pointing out that we need to know precisely what we’re defending. Are we truly defending the rights of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the needy? Or are we defending someone’s exorbitant wealth?

Work It Out In the Public Square

Policies need to reflect values. Greed can and is legislated as a politic of indifference, whereas generosity can be ensconced with a politic of caring for the common good of all, not just some. This is not namby-pamby liberal drivel – it is paying attention to the biblical text.

Addressing poverty means removing the obstacles of malevolence, materialism, and militarism. And it begins with practicing lament.

The very presence of systemic racism and poverty, ecological devastation, healthcare disparities, economic policies which do not benefit all persons, and distorted notions of nationalism requires not only virtuous policy making, but also demands public lamentation.

Why lament? Because the Lord, the One who observes and sees all the wrong against the most vulnerable of the earth, demands that it be done.

Wherever there is injustice, we need people who will champion the cause of the needy through voicing aloud the deep grief from being squished by the powerful, as well as affirming trust in the Lord.

I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
    the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
    the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
    He’s all I’ve got left. (Lamentations 3:19-24, MSG)

O Creator of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. The possibilities of food for bodies and souls overflow on this earth. We ask for the grace to see the abundance of our world and enough awareness to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear.

Give us openness of soul, courageous spirits, and willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are One God, now and forever. Amen.

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.

Amos 9:8-15 – Grace Has the Last Word

The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the face of the earth
    —except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,
says the Lord.

For lo, I will command,
    and shake the house of Israel among all the nations
as one shakes with a sieve,
    but no pebble shall fall to the ground.
All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword,
    who say, “Evil shall not overtake or meet us.”

On that day I will raise up
    the booth of David that is fallen,
and repair its breaches,
    and raise up its ruins,
    and rebuild it as in the days of old;
in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom
    and all the nations who are called by my name,
    says the Lord who does this.

The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
    when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
    and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    and all the hills shall flow with it.
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
    and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
    and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant them upon their land,
    and they shall never again be plucked up
    out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God. (New Revised Standard Version)

Doom and hope. Judgment and grace. Suffering and glory. These are the movements and rhythms of the Old Testament prophets. 

There was injustice aplenty in ancient Israel way back in the eighth-century B.C.E. Not only were the poor and needy in the land trampled upon, but the people in power saw nothing wrong with building their wealth and status by taking advantage of the less fortunate. 

Yet, God was not okay with this state of affairs. Thus, the time was imminent when God would deal with the situation by destroying an inequitable and exclusive way of life in which the privileged enjoyed a lifestyle on the backs of the unprivileged.

The Lord clearly communicated that the people will be sent away to a place with no chance to oppress others. Death would come to many. The oppressors shall die by the sword, even though, in their arrogant inebriation of power, they actually believed disaster wouldn’t ever happen to them.

However, it did. And history shows that the prophecy of Amos came to pass. The Assyrians, a powerful people who had their own egregious sins to deal with before the Almighty, were the instruments of divine judgment upon God’s people. Israel was conquered, the people deported, and the proud oppressors became the lowly oppressed.

Even in such a terrible time for Israel as that, judgment doesn’t have the last word – grace does. God would not completely destroy forever. Restoration, renewal, and fruitful times will come as a result of God’s mercy toward a wayward people. 

The Lord spoke a promise that it will not forever be this way. Rebuilding and restoration will eventually happen. God chooses to act with mercy and demonstrate grace because that is what God does. 

We may often get the wrongheaded notion in our creaturely pea-brained heads that God executes judgment to teach people a lesson or make a point, like some capricious schoolmaster who wraps kids on the knuckles with a ruler when they act up in class. But God acts out of holiness, justice, and grace. The Lord maintains righteous decrees while showing mercy to the undeserving.  

Israel deserved only judgment, not grace. God would have been completely justified to destroy rich and powerful oppressors and never restore or renew them. Yet, be that as it may, this is not how the Lord of the universe operates. God’s grace overwhelms human sin. Grace always has the last word.

Try and understand grace and you will be befuddled. Some things just defy comprehension. Sometimes it’s just best to observe and appreciate. Grace is wildly illogical, nonsensical, and unconditionally free. Grace shows radical acceptance where there ought to be only hell.  

God’s grace is downright scandalous. Whereas we might have a stick-it-to-the-man mentality, God is much bigger than petty petulant posturing. The Lord doesn’t sit in heaven and scheme clever ways to irritate sinners and put them in their place, like some belligerent divine bully.

Rather the Lord of all continually conspires within perfect Love how to guide folks mercifully and gently to Truth – utilizing incredibly diverse tools of divine kindness to woo people to the source of amazing grace.

The height of grace, the pinnacle of restoring the fortunes of Israel, came through a baby, by a humble birth in the small village of Bethlehem. 

Jesus came to save the people from their sins. God acted by entering humanity with free divine love so that there could be new life and fresh hope. Therefore, let grace wash you clean. Allow mercy to renew your life. Let worship of the newborn king shape your season and the New Year.

Gracious God, although you are careful to uphold your great holiness, your mercy extends from everlasting to everlasting. May the gospel of grace form all of my words and actions so that true righteousness reigns in my life through Jesus, your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.