The Priest and the Prophet
I would suggest to you that both our reading from Luke, the story of the Good Samaritan, and the encounter with Amos and Amaziah contain a common element. This element concerns the question of social justice. If we want to take that further we can ask ourselves the question, what is our response when we witness acts of injustice?
Of course I’m getting ahead of myself aren’t I?
The Priest and the Prophet – Audio Sermon
The Book of Amos is a small book. It’s listed as one of the Minor Prophets, not because Amos doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say. Rather Amos is a Minor Prophet because of the size of the book. You can sit down for 20 minutes and easily read the nine chapters of Amos. Amos is in fact among the first written prophets. Amos’ ministry occurred in the mid-8th century B.C., some 2800 years ago. Amos helps date his ministry by listing who the kings were while he was engaged in his prophetic work and additionally an earth quake is mentioned. This earthquake is also mentioned in the literature from other ancient cultures which assists in accurately dating Amos’ ministry.
Now if you were to sit down and read Amos, upon finishing the book 20 minutes later you might not be sure of what you had read. I know upon my first read through I had to scratch my head and ask what is going on here? For example in a chapter preceding ours Amos is addressing the women of Israel and he calls them ‘You cows of Bashan.’ Now, if I were to call any women, a cow I would likely be slapped for it and rightly so. What I learned after my initial read is that in ancient society for a female to be called a cow was a compliment. Don’t do it guys, times have changed. It is what comes next that is insulting. Amos was buttering up his audience before he delivered some harsh news.
With that being said I don’t think I can stress enough how powerful a message is contained in the book of Amos. Consider that one of Martin Luther King’s trademark lines came from Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (5:24).
So before we dive into the encounter between Amos and Amaziah, let’s first have a brief history and geography lesson of the world of Amos. The world in which Amos is called to his prophetic ministry is after the reign of King David and King Solomon. The unified kingdom has split; there is Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times the two kingdoms were at war and at other times they were at peace. During the ministry of Amos the two kingdoms are at peace. For those curious Jerusalem was located in the southern kingdom of Judah. Along with peace comes prosperity, money starts flowing into the two kingdoms, especially in Israel.
With this prosperity comes wealth and a degradation of Israel’s covenant responsibilities; the laws and rules that Moses put into place. Israel and Judah lived under covenant law. Follow the law and receive blessings, ignore the law and covenant curses come into play. Each covenant curse is worse than the last, with the final stray being exile. When Amos is called to his ministry, things aren’t so good for Israel. Oh they are wealthy, well some of them are, but they have fallen away from their social responsibilities.
Enter Amos. Our reading this morning tells us that Amos is a shepherd and a tender of fig-trees. He also insists that all things being equal, he would rather be tending fig-trees than having an encounter with Amaziah, the King of Israel’s High Priest. But Amos is faithful to God’s call and so he has set out on his prophetic ministry.
Our reading today is broken down into two sections. The first deals with a vision that Amos has and the second with his encounter with Amaziah.
There are two visions in our text. Both contain God rendering judgment on Israel. In the first Amos intercedes, saying “How can Jacob stand? He is so small?” And God relents. In the second vision, the vision of the plumb line Amos does not intercede and God does not relent. In the second vision God shows Amos a plumb line, a tool used to construct straight walls. What God is saying to Amos is that Israel has strayed; they have fallen out of alignment with God’s holy will. God indicates that the final covenant curse is about to befall Israel.
What follows is a dialogue between Amaziah the priest in Bethel and Amos, God’s prophet. It is curious to note that the first thing that happens in this exchange is that Amaziah misquotes Amos. Amos had prophesied that God would “raise his sword against the house of Jeroboam.” However, Amaziah reports this a few verses later as “Jeroboam will die by the sword.” Similar, but very different things. It seems to me that Amaziah really does not want Amos there. In fact he says as much, asking Amos to leave and return to Judah. Amaziah says, “Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”
Did you catch that?
Did you hear what Amaziah just said?
Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.
Amaziah has it all wrong; in fact Israel has it all wrong. Amos and Amaziah weren’t in the king’s sanctuary, they were in God’s sanctuary. And the temple belongs to God, not to the kingdom. As for telling Amos to leave and not prophesy in Bethel anymore, well that’s probably the last thing you want to tell a prophet.
Let’s not mince words, Amos says some pretty nasty stuff to Amaziah. That his wife would become a prostitute, his children to die by the sword and Amaziah himself to die in a Pagan country. For Israel will surely go into exile. Those are words I can’t imagine uttering to my worst enemy. However, Amaziah is a priest, he knows the law. As a priest Amaziah is to keep to a higher standard of ritual purity than other Israelites. The words that Amos speaks to him render God’s judgment on Amaziah and Amaziah knows it.
Let’s pull all of this together. Amos’s words to Amaziah come because as high priest he has failed the people of Israel. Of all people Amaziah should know the consequences of not staying in covenant with God. Amaziah’s problem is that he is serving two masters.
Amaziah wants to be true to God, but he works for the King of Israel. His loyalties are split.
I imagine that most of us today want to be true to God, but we work for faceless corporation, we need to provide for our families. Our loyalties are split.
The truth is we’ve all been in Amaziah’s shoes. We can relate to his situation. We have all wanted to be left alone. To go about our daily chores, we want to live our lives.
Amos is a problematic individual and his prophetic words are difficult to swallow. Amaziah just wants to be left alone and if we read Amos honestly we may realize that we also want to be left alone. We don’t want to hear what Amos has to say to us or about us.
Amos is a book about judgement. Amos holds up a mirror and forces us to look at where we have fallen down in regards to our social obligations. What is worse, Amos spells out how God will respond when we don’t live up to our end of the bargain.
I know what you are thinking. That’s nice, but I’ve got this guy Jesus in my back pocket. He’s the ultimate trump card. He came, died for my sins and then rose from the dead and wiped the slate clean.
Which brings us to the story of the Good Samaritan. One reading of this story is one of compassion, the Samaritan stopped and took care of the injured traveller. A command from Jesus to go and do likewise.
However, I would suggest to you that in condemning the actions of the priest and the Levite Jesus was pronouncing judgment on all those present. You see the priest and the Levite walked past the injured traveller because to touch him would make them ritually unclean. They were following the law, doing what they were supposed to do.
Except that in following one law they were ignoring another. In Deuteronomy 10:17-18 we read, “17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” If God does those things, then we are to do those things.
Amos informs Israel that they are not doing those things and that having ignored God’s warnings final judgment is coming.
Jesus in telling the story of the Good Samaritan informs those present that it is the law to take care of one another, to love your neighbour, that is most important.
William Willimon writes, “In our day we tend to think of judgment in an exclusively negative way. A judging god is what we got over when we discovered a loving, gracious God. You have no doubt heard the old chestnut, ‘The Old Testament is a collection of laws and judgment; the New Testament is a collection of love and grace.’ This is not only a grossly unfair characterization of the Hebrew Scriptures, but also a mischaracterization of biblical views of judgment. In the Bible the judgments of God are part of the graciousness of God.”
Grace flows from judgment. We just don’t like to talk about judgment, it makes us feel uneasy. But let’s not forget the Apostles Creed where we affirm that “God will come to judge the quick and the dead.” Grace flows from judgment. We should not be afraid of God’s judgment. As seen in Amos, it is a reminder of where we have strayed and how we can get back on track.
These are two texts that deal with judgment. They illustrate what we are not supposed to do and in the case of the Good Samaritan Jesus provides us with a command. Go and do likewise.
Friends, let’s not be afraid to hear where God is critical of us. If we are honest we have many faults, for compared to a holy God, none are perfect. The message in Amos and in the Good Samaritan are not so different. The people have forgotten their basic obligations to love and serve one another. Amos’ message of judgment reminds us how important these obligations are to God. Jesus’ words are a gentle reminder. Go and do likewise. Amen.
Text: Amos 7: 1-17 and Luke 10: 25-37