Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Theological Context of Amos 8:4-7: Justice

This week’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Amos offers a chance for preachers to explore with congregations the concept of justice, in order to “thicken” the church’s understanding of this central biblical concept.1 

Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace
Unidentified Flemish painter. Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

September 18, 2016

First Reading
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Commentary on Amos 8:4-7

The Theological Context of Amos 8:4-7: Justice

This week’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Amos offers a chance for preachers to explore with congregations the concept of justice, in order to “thicken” the church’s understanding of this central biblical concept.1 

As most preachers are well aware, the eighth-century prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Micah were in one accord about the Lord’s demand for justice:

    Let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.                (Amos 5:24)

    Cease to do evil,
        Learn to do good,
    seek justice,
        rescue the oppressed,
    defend the orphan,
        plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16d-17)

    He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
        and what does the Lord require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
        and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

A quick review of the concept of justice.

First, justice starts with the very character of God. Justice is part of the Lord’s nature–“The Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18).

Second, because the Lord has elected Israel as God’s own people, the Lord demands that the people reflect God’s character–that is, Israel must be a people of justice (see the above texts).

Third, justice is a social concept–it has to do with the external ordering of society in which the most life can thrive. A more just social order is one in which more life can thrive, whereas a less just social order is one in which less life can thrive.

Fourth, justice requires a special concern for the powerless–those who lack the capacity to protect their own welfare. In the Old Testament social concept, these “powerless” are often described as the widow, the orphan, the sojourner (resident alien), the needy, and the poor.

Fifth, justice is a legal concept. The laws, courts, and judgments of the legal system are about creating and maintaining justice. Here it is good to recall God uses the law in at least two ways. God uses the law for a “civil” purpose–to create a more civil society. God also uses the law for a “theological” purpose–to remind human beings of their sin and that even the most just people need grace and forgiveness. Doing justice is not a way to earn God’s grace.

Finally, justice and injustice are systemic. When a person participates in systems that create a more just social order, one is “doing justice.” Conversely, when one participates in systems that
create a less just social order, one is “doing injustice.” Which means, of course, basically everyone is already both doing justice and doing injustice. This is so because everyone participates in many systems. Some of those systems create a more just social order, some maintain unjust social structures, and some do a little of each.

That final point is worth stressing–almost all of us are already both doing justice and doing injustice, merely by the fact that we are participating in multiple social systems. Too often when Christian preachers take up the topic of justice, an implicit dualism is communicated in which the congregation hears the pastor saying, “Some of you do injustice, while some of us do justice. Be like me and do justice.” Especially the men and women in the congregation who work
in business too often hear the preacher as suggesting the secular realm automatically is a realm of injustice. We know that this is not true, but too often this is what the congregation hears from the pulpit. If that is the message a preacher were to preach this Sunday, it would be better just to skip the sermon altogether.

Which brings me (at long last!) to the text from Amos.

In this week’s lesson, Amos condemns practices that “trample the needy” and “ruin the poor.” Specifically, the prophet challenges practices that create untrustworthy markets. God does not condemn markets. Rather, God’s laws are about creating trustworthy markets, which will create social prosperity and be a fair means of exchange: “You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure” (Deuteronomy 25:15). The Hebrew word translated as “honest” is the term tsedeq, which is normally translated as “righteous” (see Amos 5:24, quoted above). The term translated in Deuteronomy 25 as “measure” is the term ephah, which was a standard unit of measure and is transliterated in this week’s lesson simply as “ephah.”

In the ancient world, units of weight and measure had not been standardized, so a “shekel” or “ephah” used in the markets of Jerusalem might be different than those employed in the markets of Samaria, or Damascus, or Tyre. This means a merchant might need to have different sets of weights in order to trade in different markets. But given human nature, the temptation to cheat the illiterate would often have proven irresistible. Conversely, the suspicion of merchants may have been in many cases unfair. At any rate, one can see that in Amos’ day, untrustworthy market places were contributing to a sense of injustice.

Amos also condemns those who yearn for the end of the Sabbath day, so that they can cheat their neighbors. It is well here to remember that the Sabbath day was not first-and-foremost about a time for worship, but rather was originally a justice law designed to give rest to all of society–not just to the property owner, but also “your ox and your donkey, and your livestock, and the resident alien in your towns” (Deuteronomy 5:14). One can trace what Patrick D. Miller has called “the Sabbatical principle” through the Pentateuchal laws and see how justice is a theme of the Sabbath. As one traces this principle, one sees how the laws are creating a society in which more life can thrive. In these sabbatical laws, the poor and wild animals are provided with food (Exodus 23:10-11), slaves are given release to freedom after six years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18), those in deep debt are forgiven their debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), and so on.

But in Amos’ day, the justice sense of the laws had been lost. People longed for the justice-establishing Sabbath to be over, so that they could return to exploitation. The phrase “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” refers to the practice of enslaving those in debt, even those who owed only a pair of sandals. Note how far this is from a just social order in which debts are forgiven! “Selling the sweepings of the wheat” was prohibited because these were to be left for the poor.

The task of translating the realities of Amos’ social context into our social context is both the challenge and the joy of preaching. Perhaps the most effective sermon on such a text will be
the sermon in which the pastor invites the congregation to explore these connections, rather than the one in which the pastor makes all the connections for people or the one in which the pastor asserts his or her own agenda.

It is worth noting also that the lesson from Amos is law in both uses of the law. First, by condemning certain practices, it is envisioning a society that operates according to more just norms. Second, by condemning, it is reminding all of us salvation does not come through the law. The law cannot save–in part, because it was never designed to save and in part because those in power can also turn the best intentioned of laws to their own benefit. So it is good to remember, as Saint Paul put it, “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And that therefore, we “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-23).

1. This commentary was first published on this site on Sept. 19, 2010.