Commentary on Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
The lectionary text for this week offers three snippets from the book of Amos that together communicate the book’s profound concern with justice.
First, in Amos 1:1, the prophet Amos, whose profession is identified as being a shepherd from Tekoa, is introduced in terms of his capacity to go serve as a prophet to the Northern part of the country at a very specific point in time — two years before the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam of Israel.
This introduction also introduces the main theme of the book that is concerned with the call “to seek good and not evil, that you may live” (Amos 1:2). Similar to much of the Deuteronomistic and Wisdom traditions, this call to refrain from evil is thought to lead to life, while failing to seek the good inevitably will lead to death.
In Amos 1:2, one finds the image of God roaring like an angry lion from Zion – an image that powerfully captures the underlying emphasis on judgment accompanying the call to justice in this text. The sound of God’s voice speaking of rage and judgment has an adverse effect on the environment as the shepherds’ pastures wither and the top of Mount Carmel dries up. One could say that the drought-stricken earth is grieving because of the inhumanity manifested by the people.
A second text that further equates doing good with acting in justice is Amos 5:14-15 when the exhortation to “seek good and not evil, that you may live” is repeated once more in verse 14. In this text, one finds a close connection between God’s presence and the people’s ability to live justice-filled lives. In addition, in Amos 5:15, the prophet provides a concrete example of what it means to “hate evil and love good” by equating loving good with doing justice in the gate where court cases were heard. The gate also is the place where those most vulnerable without someone to represent them were particularly susceptible to injustice.
Amos 5:21-24 is the third text selected to be part of this week’s reading. In this text, God in the first person declares in the strongest terms that God hates the hypocrisy associated with the people’s religious activities. The text warns the audience to not even try to appease God with burnt and grain offerings, nor to sing praise songs to God. God despises it all. What God wants is justice. Justice, in this context, is described in the powerful words in Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
For Amos’ hearers, who lived in a world in which drought and the absence of rain was an all-too-regular occurrence, the image of justice being like a torrent of water running down, as well as a constant stream of doing what is right, must have been a compelling image to describe the life-giving effects of justice and righteousness.
Amos 5:24 moreover has been made famous by Martin Luther King Jr. who cites a version of this text in a number of his speeches, including in his March 1963, “I Have Dream” speech. In this struggle for civil liberties, King proclaims justice to be like a mighty stream that sweeps away everything that stands in its way. Susan Ackermann points out that Martin Luther King Jr. used a different translation “mighty stream” that differs from the original Hebrew that according to the NRSV is translated as “an ever-flowing stream”. Ackermann speculates that for King’s audience that came from the American South in states such as Mississippi, Alabama, George, South Carolina, a year round, slow-flowing stream, would not have been anything special. The notion of a fast-flowing torrent that comes down with a force conceivably would better have represented the urgency of the matter, that is, the idea that justice is coming, even in spite of the difficulties the people were facing at the time.
Ackermann notes that at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Atlanta, Ga., the famous words of King’s speech are accompanied by a reflection pool that is more reminiscent of the “ever-flowing stream” of Amos’ original text. According to Ackermann, this memorial perhaps signals a return to the original meaning of the text, in the process capturing the ideal of the justice that had run down with a mighty force, now becoming the constant reality of what it is supposed to be.1
When preaching on this text, it is important also to consider the oracles from Amos 5 omitted by this particular lectionary selection. Thus, immediately following the call to justice in Amos 5:15, one finds an emphasis on lamentation and bitter weeping that offers a connection to the judgment of God that has an effect on all of the earth and its inhabitants. This theme of mourning in a context of great injustice seems to be more important than ever in terms of the profound expressions of pain and anguish in #BlackLivesMatter, the refugee crisis, the gaping chasm between rich and poor that is growing ever bigger, and in terms of the many instances of violence and terror that assault not only the bodies but also the psyches of its victims.
The reminder of a God who roars in anger (Amos 1:2) regarding the perversion of justice is a call to all believers to take a serious look at the way we construct our society; to the way we are church. Amos 5 challenges us to ask whether “the noise of our songs” as well as our “solemn assemblies” are not despised by God because they are taking place in the glaring absence of justice for those who are overlooked, excluded, slighted, and violated in our midst. In this regard, we should remember King’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
1. Susan Ackermann, “Amos 5:18-24” in Interpretation (2003): 190-193.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of all people,
Show us how to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an every-flowing stream. Create justice and righteousness in us, that all may rejoice in your blessings. Amen.
Justice, Rollo Dilworth