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.

James 2:1-7 – Favoritism is Foolish

My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?
 
Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens! Isn’t it the high and mighty who exploit you, who use the courts to rob you blind? Aren’t they the ones who scorn the new name—“Christian”—used in your baptisms? (The Message)
 
Have you ever felt like an outsider?  It is an awkward feeling, isn’t it? 
           
Imagine being a visitor to a church worship service. Picture that you are a just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy. You have never been to this church before. You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park. 
 
What is going through your mind?… What are you observing?… “Wow, that is a big building! I don’t know anybody here.” You work-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the building. Your inner dialogue may be, “Where do I go? Will anybody notice me? How am I supposed to act? Are my kids going to be okay?  Where do I sit?” All the things the regular attenders never think about and take for granted are at the forefront your mind. 
 
Not everyone thinks the same and has the same experiences – and that is the point the Apostle James was communicating to the insiders about the marginalized outsiders. 
 
If we are only attentive and aware and care about people who look just like us, think just like us, and act just like us, then we are playing favorites and have become judgmental persons who cannot be trusted with the things of God.
 
That’s a big reason why so many persons in the West today have no desire to be a regular church attender.
           
Showing favoritism is not a good thing. It’s foolish. The word “favoritism” comes from an idiom, “lifting up the face,” that is, taking something merely at face value. To make a biased judgment based only on surface impressions is contra God’s will.
 
Jesus freely associated with people of dubious morality. He went out of his way to hob-nob with hated tax collectors and came into close contact with ostracized lepers.
           
Discrimination of people based on our limited understanding of them is soundly condemned throughout Holy Scripture. 
 
You must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly. (Leviticus 19:15, NET)
 
Prejudice is wrong. (Proverbs 28:21, GNT)
 
I caused everyone to hate and despise you, because you disobeyed me and failed to treat all people alike. (Malachi 2:9, CEV)
 
Times change; God’s heart for the poor never changes. God cares for all kinds of people, not just “insiders.” 
 
The Apostle Peter had to get prejudice of Gentiles out of his heart. He had always assumed they were inferior and needed to be outsiders. It took a series of visions from God for Peter to become woke.
 
“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35, CEB)
 
All people, without exception, are to be treated well and respected. 
 
Be fair with everyone, and don’t have any favorites. (1 Timothy 5:21, CEV)
 
God soundly condemns favoritism. Whenever we discriminate between people, we render opinions based on outward appearance. Then, there are only insidious motives toward outsiders to be used for one’s own advantage – which is at the heart of all discrimination and segregation.
           
The church James addressed had the mistaken notion that certain persons were better than others because of their ability to contribute to world missions and wield a big influence. 
 
The temptation was to suck-up to the rich. The church needed some stable donors, and not some poor people who were going to drain their already short resources. Showing preferential treatment to the wealthy only made sense to them.
           
But James would have none of it. For him, showing favoritism was sin and reflected a terrible malady of the heart: a divided loyalty between God and the world. 
 
When things got rocky they turned to the rich, instead of coming to the Lord who has unlimited resources. 
 
Wherever you find favoritism, there you will find a divided loyalty between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.
 
Inattention to the poor and needy might make good fiscal and business sense, but it will result in spiritual death when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead. 
 
Blaming poor people for being poor merely takes the attention off one’s own heart and need for repentance.
           
Showing favoritism ought to bring to the surface that we need to re-establish a true, genuine, authentic, and real relationship with Jesus who does not look at us for what we can do for him but loves us just because he wants to. 
 
People who show favoritism and give preferential treatment to certain persons only demonstrate that they are not gracious, merciful, and kind, like God is.
           
In the third century, Brother Lawrence was a deacon in the Church of Rome. According to tradition, Lawrence was in charge of the church’s treasury and its mercy (benevolence) fund. One day the Prefect of the city asked Lawrence to gather up and give him “the wealth of the church.”
 
Lawrence sent back a message: “I do not deny that our Church is rich … and that no one in the world is richer, not even the emperor …. I will bring forth all the precious things that belong to Christ, if only you will give me a little time to gather everything together.” The Prefect agreed, as he dreamed of what he could do with the money, gold, and silver.
 
For three days, Lawrence ran about the city of Rome, collecting the Church’s treasures. But they were not the sort of treasures the greedy Prefect was dreaming of. Instead, Lawrence walked through all the alleys and squares of the city and gathered the church’s real treasure—the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless, and the lepers.
 
The people Brother Lawrence gathered into the church included a man with two eyeless sockets, a disabled man with a broken knee, a one-legged man, a person with one leg shorter than the other, and others with grave infirmities. He wrote down their names and lined them up at the entrance to the church. Only then did he seek out the Prefect to bring him to the church.
 
“These are the treasures of the Church of Christ!” Lawrence declared as he presented the ragged crowd to the astonished Prefect. “Their bodies may not be beautiful, but within these vessels of clay they bear all the treasures of divine grace.”
 
The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society just as he did with the rich and influential. 
 
Getting rid of favoritism only happens whenever we adopt a ministry of mercy toward the poor.
 
Learn. Get to know a family in poverty. Listen to their story. Find out the roots of their situation. See how incredibly resourceful and resilient they are at getting by and how they are helping others.
 
Act. Volunteer at the local food pantry. Deliver meals at Christmas. Do some research on poverty in your area.  Find out what poverty level is and calculate if you could live on that amount. Take a helping vacation or mission trip. Send a needy student to college. Find out what organizations need to help those in poverty. Show respect to everyone who is need.
 
Connect. Do you have any ways of helping people out of poverty? Feel free to share what you have done.
 
Come, Holy Spirit, and open our hearts, minds, and souls to your presence. Grace us with the strength to follow the example of Jesus. May you provide us with a voice to cry out for justice for the poor. Remind us that what we do to the least of those among us, we do to you. 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.

Luke 14:12-14 – Abundance and Inclusion For All

The Great Banquet by Hyatt Moore

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (New International Version)

A lot of people live by the old adage, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” It’s a phrase referring to reciprocity. In other words, if you give me something I want, I will then respond by giving you something you want.

That old adage works fine, that is, unless you have no ability to give or give back to another. If we only operate by the principle of reciprocity, a large chunk of people automatically get left out. And this situation is untenable and unacceptable to Jesus.

Christ observed that the religious insiders of his day were keeping entire groups of people on the outside through their practice of scratching one another’s backs.

We need to get ahold of the reality that God loves us, as well as everyone else – even the people we may not give the time of day to. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. Jesus has come to feed us. 

The kingdom of God is about food. The food given by Jesus is to feed the hungry by staging a banquet. It is a feast of God’s abundance. Yet, many seem to hoard the resources they have, only thinking about their friends, family, and people just like them. They act as if there is no need to invite outsiders, consumed as they are with their own daily lives.

We have an incredible abundant feast contained in Scripture – in fact, Jesus said that his food and drink was to do the Father’s will, that Scripture was his bread. (Matthew 4:4; John 4:34) 

It’s much too easy to take our blessings of food for granted. After all, when we are well-fed, it’s easy to assume that everyone else is, too. Feeling healthy, it’s easy to forget that others are hurting. Making money, it’s easy to think there are not many poor people around. Living in a community with plenty of churches and more bibles than people, it’s natural to assume that everyone knows the gospel of Jesus – but they don’t!

Then, whenever we get around to acknowledging there are people who need Jesus, we keep devising ways to reach them without having to change or accommodate our own lives to do it.

Christ’s call to faithful discipleship requires people to change from having a narrow focus on our small circle of friends, to including those who have no means to pay us back.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is open to outcasts and failures, to problem people and to unimpressive persons. People with needs and flaws are especially dear to Jesus. It’s the people who outwardly have it all together who are being replaced wholesale with those who admit their need. 

We must not be picky about who we invite to participate in the largess of abundance we possess. We are to avoid the spiritual snobbery of looking down our noses at the needy and less fortunate, who have nothing to offer us in return.

St. John Chrysostom (348-407, C.E.) was a Bishop of Constantinople and arguably one of the greatest preachers in the history of Christianity. John always thought of both the recipient and the giver in his sermons, insisting that both need God’s mercy.

With a concern for the giver’s soul, John insisted that givers provide for all – even the lazy, the fool, and the sinner. By opening our hearts in almsgiving, we open ourselves to Christ, who is present in the least of those among us. Refusing mercy to people deemed as unworthy, givers then actually shut themselves off from the very mercy God desires for them.

There is no reward from God when there is only reward from others.

“If we are going to examine lives, we will never have mercy upon any human being; rather, hindered by this inopportune meddlesomeness, we will remain fruitless and destitute of all help ourselves.”

St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving

It’s not only the poor who suffer when the rich fail to give. In judging whether or not a particular person is worthy of love and aid, the wealthy person rejects the spiritual fruit that he would have received by giving with humility.

Giving to the poor, simply to relieve our own conscience, is not real charity; it doesn’t consider the other. We attend fully to the other by observing their spiritual and holistic needs for community, purpose, respect, and dignity. Dispassionate giving from a distance, without relationship, refuses to acknowledge the whole person. It exploits the poor for the mental comfort of the rich.

We need to be involved in people’s lives, and that takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. There are too many lost people who need Jesus, and too many Christians who are the walking wounded and need the healing touch of Jesus, for us to pay scant attention to the call of Jesus to invite the needy into our lives. 

Seeing people come into God’s great banquet, and into a joyous and vital relationship with Christ, probably takes about ten times more work than what you are thinking it does right now. Yet, this is the pathway of true blessing – to having God’s stamp of approval on our lives.

Merciful God, thank you for the abundance of life, relationships, health, comfort, and wealth you have provided to so many. Thank you that, even in times of need, despair, and brokenness, you are there. Please, put your arms around children and families in  poverty and disability so that they feel your comfort and hope. Meet their needs both physically and spiritually. And guide me so I can be your hands and feet pursuing justice for the poor and upholding the cause of the needy, in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.