Cambridge, MA. The first reading at Mass on Sunday July 15 was short and provocative:
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.”’ And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’ Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
The kingdom was in a time of prosperity and relative peace. Jeroboam II of Israel was a successful king, who reigned for many years, and died peacefully. Old enemies had been pushed back for a time. For the convenience of his people, and also to dissuade them from traveling to Jerusalem in the land of Judah, the king has installed a golden calf in the sanctuary at Bethel (see (I Kings 12: 25-30), that sacred shrine where Abram had built an altar, and where Jacob had dreamed of the ladder between earth and heaven. And the priest in Bethel, Amaziah, is content, and a strong defender of the king. Religion and royal power converge. Natural disasters will come, but not yet.
But right now, Amos is furious. The kingdom is too secure and too smug. It takes for granted its security and forgets that the core of its identity lies in dependence on God. The sanctuary at Bethel has been cynically used for political purposes, and reduced to a site for what the tradition had abhorred as idolatry. The divide between rich and poor been greater, and the rich do not care. Probably not himself one of the poorest, Amos must have nevertheless been in touch with the ordinary and poor people. He cries out:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6:4-7)
He gives the Lord’s word, on the ruin of Bethel:
On the day I punish Israel for her sins, I will destroy the altars of Bethel; the horns of the altar will be cut off and fall to the ground… Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing. (Amos 3.14; 5:5)
Now all of this is very inconvenient, and disturbs the economic, political, and religious equanimity of the kingdom.
Of course, Amaziah, priest in Bethel and collaborator with Jeroboam, sees Amos as a threat to the king and to the well-being of the kingdom. He wants to silence him and send him away from Bethel, off to Judah:
‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’ (Amos 7.12-13)
“Earn your bread there:” Amos must, after all, be a professional prophet,. He too must have found a way to support himself by way of religion. But he is bad at it; he is annoyingly out of sync with both political and religious power. So get out of here, Amos, go back to Judah, make your money there! Let Bethel alone, and stop criticizing the wealthy-powerful-religious syndicate that runs things. Let Bethel keep its golden calf, people like it.
But Amos, who has no credentials, is unafraid:
‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” (Amos 7.14-15)
This makes things worse, in a way. Amos admits that he has no authority of his own, and apparently no family connections. He is no professional, has no title as “prophet” and belongs to no guild of prophets who do this for a living. His prophecies of doom do not even come true during the reign of Jeroboam II!
The difference is simply that the word of God has come to him, and he speaks it. (Last Sunday, July 8, we saw how it worked out for Ezekiel — grabbed by the Spirit, made to stand on his own two feet, given the Word to eat, and made into a voice of God: accept his word or not, you really do know that Ezekiel is speaking God’s word, not his own. (See Ezekiel 2-3) If you have the word of God, it comes out of your mouth, whether they accept it or not. And if you can’t tell the difference between Amos or Ezekiel and a fake prophet, all the worse for you.
The preceding paragraphs were the gist of my homily (though the parts were in a different order), and as is my custom, I made no direct contemporary parallels, since people have no chance to argue back in church. But we did discuss the Gospel at a gathering of about thirty of us after Mass, and the parallels became very clear. Amos’ Israel is in some ways just like the United States right now: our smug and overly comfortable country, not at the moment under any great threat from outside; we act as if we hardened against the poor, the homeless, the alien in our midst, we are not worried about the gap between rich and poor; and too much of our religious establishment is cozy with power, Amaziah siding with Jeroboam, “Christians” on the side of our bully in chief, Donald Trump.
But the hard part, the sharp edge has to do with all of us: dare we not be an Amos? But how do we tell whether an Amos – or any of us – does really speak in God’s name? One does not have to be a friend of the king; one does not have to hang out with the rich and the comfortable; and one does not even have to be on good terms with the religious authorities. If the word of God has come to you, then speak. But neither is it enough to be contrary to those in power: some rulers merit respect, some shrines are truly holy, some priests more than instruments of higher powers. Consorting with the rich, the powerful, the leading class, is not enough; being merely contrary is not enough. Being loud, being strident, is not enough either. If I have the word of God, everything is possible. Otherwise, however moral and virtuous my own word — thoughts, critiques, opinions — is not the prophetic voice we desperately need.
Most of us are not Jeroboam, presiding over a peaceful kingdom that happens to be rotten to the core; most of us are not Amaziah, who sold out for the sake of the lovely golden calf in what used to be the house of God. We are probably mostly like this most ordinary Amos, minding our own business, but unable to deafen ourselves to the cry of the poor. We may find ourselves inconveniently given the word of God —perhaps a harsh, condeming word — to speak into our economic-political-religious culture. We cannot volunteer to be Amos, of course – for then our word would be merely our word. But none of us can assume that we can merely mind our own business, as if God doesn’t have work for us to do. We can’t really know: if it is the word of God coming out of our mouths, they will hear it, whether they like it or not.