< November 09, 2008 >

Commentary on Amos 5:18-24

 

A brilliant ironist, Amos reverses his audience's expectations at every turn in the book that bears his name.

The prophet shows the cherished traditions of Israel to be not causes for complacency but measures of Israel's accountability to God. Here, Amos offers a potent challenge to his audience by ironizing three apparently disparate ideas: the Day of the LORD, cultic worship, and justice. Amos mocks his audience's misguided hopes, rejects their liturgical expressions of faithfulness, and proclaims the terrifying advent of God's own justice and righteousness.

Amos is the earliest biblical prophet to refer to the Day of the LORD. Later references, such as Ezekiel 30:1-4, Joel 2:1-2, and Zephaniah 1:14-18, make clear that the Day of the LORD is an eschatological time when God will punish the earth: "in the fire of His passion, the whole earth shall be consumed, for a full, a terrible end He will make of all the inhabitants of the earth" (Zephaniah 1:18). Amos deplores the fact that his people seem to be rejoicing in the prospect of the Day of the LORD. This will be a day of darkness and destruction, not just for Israel's enemies but for Israel itself. God will hold Israel accountable for sin along with the foreign nations. This echoes the stunning ironic move that we see in Amos 1-2. There the prophet invites his audience's assent to stirring oracles of doom against foreign nations, only to entrap them by having Judah and Israel appear unexpectedly as the last "foreign nations" in the series (2:4-8).

Perhaps the people's ritual offerings and sacrifices can save them. No, replies the God of Amos, and turns on the cult with ferocious anger. Amos 5:21-24 ("I hate, I despise your festivals...") is one of the best-known passages in the prophetic corpus. It has been misused by Christians to argue the superiority of prophetic ethics over Judaism's "legalistic" ritual practice. Such a polarizing view of ethics and ritual betrays a profound misunderstanding of the deep connection in ancient Israel between liturgy and justice.

The "festivals and solemn assemblies" of Israel's worship articulate formative truths about who God has been to Israel. Their faithful observance is commanded by God (Exodus 23:14-17, Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 16). The festival of Passover commemorates God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the annual retelling of the old story, Israel teaches new generations about the joy of God's redemption. The story is a source of blessed memory that offers hope to believers in current tribulations. The festival of Tabernacles celebrates the communal resilience that Israel showed in its forty-year pilgrimage through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Having once survived on manna and miraculous water from a rock, Israel is reminded that reliance on God and hospitality to the sojourner are essential for its ongoing spiritual journey. Other festivals celebrate the offering of the first fruits of the harvest and mature grain to God, showing Israel's gratitude for God's abundant gifts. Another festival crucially important to the Israelite cultural imagination is the Day of Atonement. This annual fast emphasizes awareness of sin in the Israelite community, promoting self-denial as an expression of the community's earnest desire to "be clean before the LORD" (Leviticus 16:30).

Through these powerful rituals, a chastened and renewed Israel may approach the Holy One. But the God of Amos thunders that these observances are despicable. Neither does God find acceptable the daily and weekly offerings that sanctify Israel's living as a holy people. Even songs of praise offend God. Why? Because God stands with the poor, and those who do not show compassion to the poor cannot possibly be worshiping God.

Israel cannot prosper through ritual offerings, feasts, and fasts alone. Israel must "seek God and live" (5:4, 6), and the God whom they seek is an uncompromising God of justice (5:14-15). The famous line, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (5:24) is not a rousing call to believers to do good deeds. It is a roar of outrage. Because of the hypocrisy of the community of faith, God's own justice will roll down like floodwaters, and God's own righteousness like a perpetual torrent! "Ever-flowing stream" is far too gentle an image for the meaning of the Hebrew here. Amos's point is this: because God's people have not shown justice to the poor, God has no choice but to unleash God's own justice and righteousness as punishment.

Israel has always known that ritual observance and compassion for the powerless should not be separated. The Holiness Code is quite clear about this (see Leviticus 19). God has formed Israel to be both holy and merciful. What God condemns, then, is ritualism without heart. Here it may be productive to reflect with your congregation on the particular kinds of ritualism that plague your own tradition. Worshippers who place a high premium on the preached word may be prone to idolize a charismatic preacher. The congregation that revels in the beauty of liturgy may become too focused on aesthetics and sacramentalism. What are the temptations for your own church?

Amos 5 offers the preacher a wonderful opportunity to articulate the relationship between worship and justice. How do we connect our hope for the eschatological future in Christ, our worship practices, and our ministry with the poor? Perhaps your congregation has a strong tradition of outreach but doesn't relate that outreach to Eucharistic fellowship. Perhaps your parishioners enjoy transcendent worship on Sunday, but their ministry in the wider community is only sporadic and peripheral to the identity of the church. Your lay leader who mutters, "The church is not a social service agency," your overly officious head acolyte, and your outreach volunteer who skips Sunday worship all need help integrating holiness and justice. Amos invites us to offer our lives and ministries as radical incarnational testimony both at the altar and in the public square. Dare your congregation to take that invitation seriously!