As we move through the summer months there are a few things one could notice about the readings on Sundays. We have been reading from the Gospel of Mark, following Jesus as he gets a poor reception in his own home town and then sends disciples out on a mission of their own. This weekend the Sunday Gospel has the disciples returning from their mission. Jesus sees their condition and takes them to a place of rest. And likely, much like your life, things get in the way. The demands of their responsibilities lead them off-plan from rest in order to care for the people because Jesus saw the people with compassion. This is a prelude to recounting the miraculous feeding of the 5,000. Next weekend (and for the four following weekends) our Gospel will begin to cover this key event in Jesus’ ministry through the Gospel of John.
But are you following the first readings from the Hebrew Scriptures? We are reading from the prophets fiery and bold, filled with the word of God. This week’s reading from the Prophet Amos is particularly appropriate and timely. In our age when groups such as ISIS pervert religion for a political cause, Amos’ prophecy reads like today’s newspaper. He lived under king Jeroboam II of Israel. Jeroboam’s kingdom was characterized by territorial expansion and unprecedented economic prosperity. Times were good – for some, but not most.
The privileged people of the day interpreted their good fortune as God’s favor. There is another phenomena of our age – religion that proposes economic gain as the reward for faith. Such folks are exactly has Amos characterized the people of his day: intensely and sincerely religious. But theirs was a privatized religion of personal benefit – twisting religion for an economic cause. In Amos’ time such adherents ignored the poor, the widow, the alien, and the orphan. There was no compassion for them. Their form of religion made no demands upon the affluent. If the privileged had plans for rest and relaxation, those plans would have gone unhindered.
Into this world, enter Amos – a blue-collar. everyday-Joe if there ever was one. He admits that he was neither priest, prophet, nor a “connected” person. He was a shepherd, a farmer, and a tender of fig trees. He was a small town boy who grew up in Tekoa, about twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem and five miles south of Bethlehem. The cultured elites would have assumed him to be an uneducated, backwater hick – certainly not one welcomed in the halls of power. What would he know? What could he say? Nothing worth listening to – at least not seriously.
But Amos comes in the power of the Word of God and does not mince words. He describes how the rich ignored and crushed the poor; there was no compassion as the attention of the wealthy, powerful, and the like was focused on expensive lotions, elaborate music, and vacation homes – their rewards for being a faithful people. Meanwhile predatory lenders exploited vulnerable families while the halls of justice sold justice to the highest bidder – and the comfortable and religious leaders said nothing.
Well that is not exactly true. The chief priest Amaziah informed Jeroboam that Amos’s preaching was unpatriotic and seditious and tried to run Amos out of town. “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel.” (7:12).
Then Amaziah said something that reveals the problem of religion that never speaks out into the public square – and thus into the political sphere. Amaziah says: “ but never again prophesy in Bethel., for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.” (7:13). The temple in Bethel wasn’t the House of God, it was the royal temple and the king’s house. Such is what happens when people of faith remain silent because we need to “keep religion out of politics” and thus guarantee the way we live. In Amos’ day, the king found his own way into the Temple and guaranteed the good life for the chosen few. All he asked was silence – and to silence the cry for compassion. What is the equivalent today? It is far more subtle but the net effect is to remove the religious voice form the pubic square, even in a world that cries out for compassion.
We all have our moments when we hear some protest against the way things are. It is an excellent moment to consider what we are choosing to be: Amos or Amaziah. Are we choosing to be people of faith for whom there are no boundaries beyond which one must remain silent? Or will we listen to folks like Amaziah that say our faith has no role in the public square.