Commentary on Amos 8:4-7
This is the first of two weeks in which the Old Testament reading is from the prophet Amos.
It is worth spending a little time, then, talking about Amos in order to understand the context of these readings.
Amos prophesied in the 8th century BCE, probably around 760 BCE, during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel. Amos was from the southern kingdom of Judah but prophesied to the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim, Jacob, Samaria).
Amos was not a professional prophet nor was he part of the wealthy class. He was a farmer. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’” (Amos 7:14-15).
The time in which Amos prophesied was one of peace and prosperity in Israel. The empires of Assyria to the east and Egypt to the southwest were relatively weak and were not threatening smaller nations like Israel and Judah. Indeed, under Jeroboam II, Israel expanded its territory (see 2 Kings 14:25).
This prosperity, however, was built on the backs of the poor. Amos speaks often of the wealthy oppressing the poor: “Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (Amos 5:11).
Amos, to use the old trope, does not comfort the afflicted so much as he afflicts the comfortable. He is the quintessential prophet described by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his classic book, The Prophets:
What manner of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns…to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place … To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, catastrophe, a threat to the world.1
The prophet is hypersensitive to injustice, to evil, and does not ignore what to most of us might seem trivial, just the way the world works. The passage for this week illustrates this point. Amos announces God’s judgment on the wealthy who oppress the poor in the marketplace. He uses their own imagined words against them:
When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.
The wealthy, those who control the marketplace, have no real regard for religious observance. The weekly Sabbath, the day when everyone—including slaves—gets to rest, is simply an interruption in the ceaseless quest to make more money. Likewise the monthly celebration of the beginning of a new month. Once these inconvenient festivals are over, the merchants can get back to business as usual, making the ephah (a unit of measurement for grain) small and the shekel (a weight used to measure out silver or gold) heavy. In other words, they will sell less grain for more money than it’s actually worth. In fact, they will even mix chaff and grain that has fallen to the ground in amongst the good grain.
The biblical legal code warns against such practices. “You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:36; see also Deuteronomy 25:13-16).
Those who profess to follow the LORD, the God of Israel, are to reflect God’s own character, which is one of justice and of mercy for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. Sabbath rest is for everyone; not just wealthy landowners or heads of household, but for the slave, the foreigner, the children, the poor (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Simply observing the day of Sabbath is not enough if the justice and mercy exemplified by the Sabbath does not shape everyday life—one’s behavior in the marketplace, on the street, and at the gate of the city.
Amos, then, is building on the tradition of Israelite law to chastise those who may observe the letter of the law (refraining from work on the Sabbath) but ignore the spirit of the law (justice and mercy for the oppressed). These wealthy Israelites have no real regard for the poor and the needy; they will sell them into slavery over a debt as paltry as the price of a pair of sandals. Human lives are to these people just another commodity to be bought and sold. To them, the judgment of the LORD is a word of warning: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
Having said all that, it is important to note one more thing about this passage. For all of his chastising of the wealthy, Amos does not condemn the practice of buying and selling itself; neither does the law of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Both Amos and the law assume that such commerce is necessary for daily life. What they condemn is dishonest commerce, and commerce that disregards human lives.
A sermon on this passage should be clear about this. Commerce in itself, business in itself, is not evil. Too often, sermons on money or business seem to imply otherwise. Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, puts it this way:
How should people who call themselves Christians conduct their lives in the secular world? This is a good question and a very serious matter for people of any faith. Most pastors, priests, rabbis and imams who speak about faith and work make a terrible hash of it. Listening to them is like hearing a eunuch lecture on sex: He may have studied the topic but really knows little about the mechanics.2
Business in itself is not evil. In fact, it is necessary for daily life and it can be and should be one arena in which one’s faith is lived out. This passage from Amos gives us guidelines for how to live our faith in the marketplace—by dealing honestly, buying and selling for fair prices, and always being careful to protect those most vulnerable to exploitation. Dealing justly, generously, and honestly with others in our business life is one important way to reflect the character of the God of justice who speaks through the prophets.
Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Prophets. Harper Perennial Classics ed. (New York: Perennial, 2001), 3-4.
Rich Karlgaard, “Godly Work,” Forbes, April 13, 2007. At https://www.forbes.com/global/2007/0423/018.html#3b0de82d1a32