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.

Hebrews 11:23-29 – Taking the Long View

Enslavement of the Israelites

By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (NIV)

Faith looks ahead and sees as clearly as is right now in front of your face. Taking the long view of life, the mature person of faith can set aside temporary pleasure to attain a future hope. Moses, held up as such an example, refused to identify himself as the daughter of Pharaoh. He chose to be mistreated in solidarity with his fellow Israelites, instead of having a good time with his high position in the most powerful empire of its day. Moses knew that the treasures of Egypt were not as wonderful as what he would receive from suffering for the Messiah, and he looked forward to his reward.

It is an understatement to say that our contemporary society assumes practicing instant gratification. We want to feel good, and we want it now. Impulse control may just be one of the best life skills that kids (and adults!) need to learn today. A Psychology Today article effectively demonstrates through some classic and current research that “one of the most effective ways to distract ourselves from a tempting pleasure we don’t want to indulge is by focusing on another pleasure.”

For the Christian who desires to follow Jesus in all things, looking ahead to a future heavenly reward which will be shared along with all God’s people needs to be kept at the forefront of our thinking. If we only consider today, there are scant resources for responding to the temptations and fluctuations of life. However, if we will put some energy into clarifying and embracing our most cherished values, we will then let those values inform everything we do, or not do. In the scope of eternity, suffering a bit now is nothing compared to what Christ has yet in store for his people.

Deferred gratification causes us to live differently. In a twist of irony, folks who orient themselves toward the next world are able to effectively impact and change the world they currently reside within – whereas those who focus solely on this present world find themselves falling woefully short with their short view of life. We need the wisdom which faith provides us:

We are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. We live by faith and not by sight. We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord. So, our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home. We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:6-10, CEB)

Future hope, fueled by faith, gives shape to how we live today. It enables us to live in solidarity with those who suffer and are mistreated. It ennobles us to live above short-sighted desires and act on behalf of the common good of all persons in the here-and-now.

Lord God Almighty, the One who is and was and is to come, may we, along with your servant Moses, see the plight of all those who suffer in our midst. Give us courage and compassion to live in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, and all who live with misfortune and misery. May our hearts, burning with love, bear the burdens of all in our care. And may our loving example ignite the hearts of others to accompany the vulnerable in their affliction. We ask this in the gracious name of Jesus through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 15:32-39 – Feeding the Four Thousand

Jesus Feeds the 4000
Jesus Feeds the 4000 by Laura James

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”

He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. (NIV)

Through the event of Christ miraculously feeding more than four-thousand people, the Christian tradition embraces a living, ascended, and glorified Jesus who still looks to feed those in need. Furthermore, just as Christ had his disciples participate in the miracle, so he still wants to use us today in feeding the world. It is therefore necessary that we work on aligning our resources – our emotional energy, our money, our service – toward reaching out to people who are hungry, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus did just that in feeding thousands of people. He organized his disciples for a miracle even though they failed to understand what he was doing until he did it. The disciples, bless their head scratching, wondered how the vast throng of people were going to be fed, even though they had already participated in the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21). The disciples sarcastically responded to Jesus, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”  Maybe they were less thick-headed and more hard-hearted. You see, unlike the previous feeding miracle, this one took place in the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon.

It appears the disciples were having a hard time with Jesus using his efforts, compassion, and miracles for Gentiles (non-Jewish people) instead of Jews. It could be that they were thinking Jesus should stand for holiness by being as far apart from pagans as they can get. Besides, it wasn’t as if there weren’t any hungry people among their own Jewish people. Maybe they were thinking: “Shouldn’t the miraculous and divine resources be better utilized in keeping them within the Jewish community? After all, the gentile Romans oversee the land. Couldn’t they take care of the needy? Is this really our responsibility?”

Jesus would have none of that kind of thinking. Christ most certainly could have avoided the Gentiles if he wanted to; but he didn’t. Jesus could have fed the people and done a miracle without the involvement of his Jewish disciples, but he didn’t. Jesus wanted his disciples to be part of the miracle through distributing the bread and fish for the people to eat.  Jesus would have nothing to do with his Jewish disciples avoiding the Gentile people.  He wanted the disciples to meaningfully connect with the hungry people.

I wonder whom Jesus wants us to meaningfully connect with. I am curious if Christ is looking to align his divine resources for people in our lives – and to use us as the means of a miracle. Perhaps the people who are quite different from us are the ones we are to feed. I am wondering how we view such persons. If we tend to freight our language about them in sarcasm, perhaps that is a clue to our own implicit or unconscious bias.

Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I had many conversations and dialogues with Christians about AIDS and the gay community. I am saddened that the pervasive attitude I encountered at the time was how gays and lesbians were ruining our society (among other attitudes not worth repeating). Instead of seeing them through the eyes of the compassionate Jesus and seizing an opportunity to love an entire community of people, the discussions were more about how to keep “homosexuality” and the “gay disease” out of church. The hospitals at that time had wards of persons dying from HIV, and few Christians present to bring the compassionate resources of Jesus to them. Withholding spiritual or physical food from people in need, no matter who they are, is not the way of the Lord Jesus – the One who feeds and heals. However, giving the grace of food and fellowship to all in need emulates the compassion of Jesus. Indeed, there is always room at the Table.

Table of Hope by Joey Velasco
“Table of Hope” by Joey Velasco

Jesus not only meets the needs of all kinds of people, he also gives lavishly so that the supply is more than enough. The resources of grace will never run out; there is always enough. I hope our legacy to the people of this earth is that there is always enough grace from us because we have ourselves received grace from the Lord Jesus.

Most folks, especially the poor, rarely have their needs met through rational ethereal arguments and pious pronouncements of truth. And their needs cannot be met if available resources are placed on the outside of their access to them due to existing attitudes about poverty and/or particular people groups. The needs of people are met through non-judgmental compassion which finds a way to connect them with food, both physical and spiritual, even if it takes a miracle to happen.

God Almighty, the One who sustains all, we ask you to pour your powerful Spirit into all who are empty this day. Fill the hearts of persons who are troubled. Fill the minds of people who are confused. Fill the stomachs of your children who are hungry. Fill the souls of people who are feeling lost. Fill the lives of all who need you, but do not know you. May your Spirit fill us all to overflowing, dear Lord, and may we be inspired to share our abundance with others so that there will be no more empty hearts and minds, stomachs, and souls. We pray all this in the name of Jesus Christ, who fills lives with your endless grace. Amen.

Matthew 12:15-21 – The Servant of the Lord

Jesus the Liberator
Jesus the Liberator by Argentine artist Adolfo Perez Esquivel

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
    In his name the nations will put their hope.” (NIV)

It is important to say the words, “I love you.” It is also significant how we say it. If our tone of voice is monotone and our affect flat, then the incongruent words of love will go unrequited. If, however, our tone is soothing and excited and our face beaming as if starstruck, then the love expressed will likely be received and stick.

Christians have a message of love to the world; it is a message of Jesus Christ and his love for humanity. Both the content of our message and the way we communicate it are vitally significant. For if the words we speak are grotesquely mismatched with our tone of voice and affect, then love is not what we convey. Yet, if we have been profoundly and meaningfully touched by the love of God in Christ, then that love cannot be constrained and will find a way to express itself with appropriate mannerisms.

Both the message of Jesus, and the way he proclaimed it, testified that he was, indeed, the promised Savior and the rightful King for God’s world.

The message of Jesus was to proclaim justice to the nations. The disciple Matthew used a quote from the prophet Isaiah to explain the reason why Jesus withdrew, and told people not to make him known.  This was a curious act for a Messiah, to say the least.  After all, we might believe Jesus should loudly proclaim who he is and what he is doing. Human ingenuity might say he should be advancing, not retreating – getting his name out with some notoriety in a slick marketing message so people will come running into the kingdom of God!

Nope, Jesus goes a different direction. Matthew quoted the prophet Isaiah to make it clear who Jesus is and what he is all about. Jesus is God’s servant. Jesus is God’s beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased. The Holy Spirit came on him in his baptism. Jesus became a teacher of justice to the nations, that is, to all kinds of people – even the ones we do not like.

I personally find it strange that there are folks who seem to think justice is something which is not part of the Gospel, as if it were nice, but optional.  However much they believe it is important to engage in some sort of social justice toward the downtrodden, some believers want to put it on a secondary shelf that bends to the primary initiative of speaking, as if we could or should separate the message from the messenger. However, we can no more divide the good news of forgiveness in Christ from social justice any more than can neatly separate the cross and resurrection. It is all redeeming work, and it all goes together.

Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus Christ emphasizes the kingdom of God. The Sovereign of the universe desires all things and all people to be redeemed and come under the Lordship of Christ with the practice of justice as central to making redemption a reality for humanity.

“And what does the LORD require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)

Mercy and justice go together like corn on the cob and butter, and like pork ribs with barbeque sauce (okay, so I’m from Iowa).  Mercy is God’s unconditional grace and compassion.  Justice is treating all people with equality without favoritism. Biblical justice is not primarily punishment for wrongdoing; it is to give people their rights – and this concept is overwhelmingly taught in the Scriptures, over 200 times in the Old Testament alone. Christ’s back to the Bible movement rightly emphasized justice.

God loves and defends the weak, the poor, and the powerless:

He gives justice to the oppressed
and food to the hungry.
The Lord frees the prisoners.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down.
The Lord loves the godly.
The Lord protects the foreigners among us.
He cares for the orphans and widows,
but he frustrates the plans of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9, NLT)

We, as God’s people, are to share his passion for justice:

Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. (Proverbs 31:8, CEB)

“Cursed is anyone who obstructs the legal rights of immigrants, orphans, or widows.”  All the people will reply: “We agree!” (Deuteronomy 27:19, CEB)

Since believers are justified by faith in Christ, we must in both word and deed bring justice to our communities by advocating for the least, the lost, the last, and anyone else without social or economic power in this world.

If we have a voice, we must use it both for ourselves and for those who have no voice.  The voice of justice is the voice of action.  To be concerned for the justice of God is to actively work for the kingdom of God to enter every inch of this world, and every nook and cranny of our homes, neighborhoods, and schools.

The Christian life is much more than avoiding sin; it is about actively pursuing God’s will through words and acts of justice on behalf of the needy.  Jesus came to this earth to proclaim justice, and, as his followers, he expects us to do it, too. For this to happen we must overcome our own prejudices toward anybody unlike us so that we will stand with the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the lowly, and the hurting among us.

The probing question for all of us is: Am I able to see the image of God in someone different from me?

Jesus did. The quote referencing that Jesus “will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice” is referring to the way of Christ – gentle, humble, and meek.  Jesus did not look for dramatic confrontations with others but instead went quietly about his Father’s business.  Jesus was not bullhorn guy, who loudly proclaimed his message on the street corner.  He interacted with and ministered to the lowliest people of society who had no power and nothing to give in return. Jesus did everything to connect with them and not avoid them.

Along the Jordan River in Israel, reeds grew by the millions in Jesus’ day.  They were of little value because there were so many.  Reeds were used to make baskets, pens, flutes, and a variety of other things.  A perfect reed is fragile, and a bruised one is useless.  When the text says that God’s servant will not break a bruised reed, it means that he will treat the weak with sensitivity.  A smoldering wick is also not worth much; if it is damaged, we would just get another one.  A contemporary example might be a paper clip; it is not worth much to us, and a damaged one we would just discard and get another.  The point is that Jesus handles hurting people with care. Society’s poor, disadvantaged, and struggling will not be callously overlooked and tossed aside by Jesus.

Jesus Christ discovered his own island of misfit toys and demonstrated to the world that they were a needed part of society. Small wonder, then, that droves of the lowliest people throughout history have come to Jesus, placing their hope in him.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16, NIV)

My hope is in the name of Lord who made heaven and earth. May you also find Christ as your anchor and hope in the world.

Holy Father, you have given all peoples one common origin. It is your will that they be gathered as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and the desire to ensure justice for all. Through sharing your goodness, may we secure equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, hatred, and war. May there be a dawning of a truly human society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.