Commentary on Amos 6:1a, 4-7
The Old Testament reading of this Sunday is from the prophet Amos, as it was last Sunday.
For some background reading about the prophetic concept of justice, see last week’s Old Testament commentary. For a brief introduction to the prophet Amos, see either the article on Amos on the Enterthebible.org website, or my article, “What Every Christian Should Know about Amos and Hosea,” in Word & World 28:2 (Spring 2008) 182-191.
This passage, like most from the prophet Amos, is a message of judgment. If one chooses to preach on Amos this week, it would be good to remember three things about interpreting judgment passages. The first is that God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love, as many people tend to think. Rather, God’s judgment is an expression of God’s love. Because God loves people, when one person or group of people cause others to suffer, God gets angry. This anger is a sign of God’s love for those who are oppressed.
Second, God’s anger and judgment exist in order to get people to change their harmful behavior. God does not delight in being angry. Quite the opposite. Over and over, the Old Testament tells us that God delights in showing mercy and in forgiving. God expresses anger in order to bring about repentance and change.
Third, when curved-in-upon-themselves human beings interpret passages of judgment, we tend to see the sins of others rather than our own sins. So when we read Amos, we tend to think of “those people’s sins, back then.” Or, we tend to think of the sins of “other people” today. But as Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount, when we interpret the law we should first examine the logs in our own eyes, rather than starting with the slivers in our neighbors eyes. Here, when preaching, preachers will do well to role model an interpretive approach that starts by looking in our own eyes. Preachers should resist the urge to apply this passage first either to the rich or to those in power–instead, starting with the text as saying something true about ourselves.
Portrait of a Life-of-Faith Run Amuck
One can consider Amos 6: 4-6 as a portrait of a life of faith that has gone horribly wrong at some point. But first, a little context.
The passage is introduced by a slap-in-the-face shout to “those who are at ease in Zion” and “those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” Zion, of course, refers to Jerusalem, which during Amos’ ministry (about 760 B.C.E.) was the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Samaria, likewise, was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Thus, Amos is addressing all of God’s people here–both the southern kingdom from which he hailed, as well as the northern kingdom to which God had sent him as prophet. The prophet accuses the people in these cities of being at ease because they are sure that no harm will come to them, that they are safely out of danger’s reach. In the verses the lectionary excises (verse 1b-3), the prophet essentially says, “Take a look around, friends. What do you see in the neighboring countries? Do you see any that have escaped the devastation of the Assyrian army? So why do you think you will be any different?”
To this, the people of both the northern and southern kingdoms would have answered: “We are different because we are the Lord’s people.”
To that, Amos answers by painting his audience an audible portrait of a corporate life of faith that has gone to seed. The picture Amos paints is of a decadent feast. This feast may have been connected to some worship ritual because the Hebrew words for “bowls” in verse 6 (mizraq) and “anoint” (mashach) occur elsewhere in the Old Testament in ritual contexts. Or the feast may simply have been “the revelry…of privileged powerful people who enjoy the indulgences which they can afford.” Either way, the prophet paints a picture of people who claim to belong to the Lord and who trust the Lord to protect them and keep them “at ease” and “secure,” but who behave in a decidedly ungodly manner.
Amos’ canvas begins to be filled in: The worshippers are those who lie down on “beds of ivory,” literally “beds of tooth”–these refer to beds made of wood, with inlaid, ivory ornamentation. Most Israelites slept on the floor, on thin, woven mats. The worshippers are those who eat the most expensive of foods–veal (calves from the stall) and young lambs. Most Israelites ate little meat, subsisting mostly on grains, vegetables, and fruits. Amos is thus taking aim at those in power in Jerusalem and Samaria. Those who can tax the poor of the land, but use the taxed proceeds not for the welfare of the people, but for their own luxury. They drink wine and anoint themselves with oil.
“But are not Grieved over the Ruin of Joseph!”
And in the background of Amos’ picture, one can see a suffering, oppressed populace: “They are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” “Joseph” here is a collective name that refers to the entire people of Israel. Amos’ portrait comes close to the clichéd image of Nero, who supposed fiddled while Rome burned. Or that of a Marie Antoinette, who is rumored to have said, “Let them eat cake,” while the populace rebelled in starvation.
Amos’ point is that the leaders of God’s people have been invested with power and authority in order to fulfill a mission–that mission is to tend the faith of God’s people, so that God’s people can fulfill the mission that God had given Israel. But instead of using their authority and power to tend to the welfare of God’s people, those in power have used their privilege to seek their own welfare.
“If You Like Amos, You Don’t Understand him.”
A former colleague of mine often would quote one of his teachers, who had said, “If you like the prophet Amos, you don’t understand him.” That is, if you think Amos is reinforcing your own political views, skewering your political opponents, taking your side–you probably have not understood the old codger. Conservatives in our culture could easily seize on Amos’ condemnation of the legislative, government class: “See, it is about the oppressive taxes fostered by a legislative class that nurtures our dependence on them, all the while making sure that their own bellies are full.” Liberals in our culture could easily seize on Amos’ condemnation of the wealthy, business class: “See, it is about the greedy economic policies of a predatory business class, who exploit workers for forty years and then default on their pensions, all the while lining their own pockets with gold.” There is surely truth to both interpretations. And yet, there is also a third interpretation–an interpretation that would be in line with the consistent prophetic condemnation of the clergy class.
Amos’ contemporary Hosea said, “For with you is my contention, O priest” (4:4c). Perhaps the working-preacher class (myself first among them!) should start by exploring how this passage indicts us. Have we really put the faith formation of the people of God first? Have we focused everything we do on forming the faith of God’s people, so they can serve God’s mission in the world. Have we exercised our offices, used our authority, and employed our power faithfully, always tending the faith of the people, so they can live out their callings as God’s chosen ones?
I don’t sleep on a bed with inlaid ivory ornamentation, but somehow, I am pretty sure that the bed I have made is the same one that Amos had in mind. And I have decided that I don’t like Amos.