Commentary on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
“Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13).
I never feel the temptation of this proverb more than I do in the midst of a political season. As I watch the social media accounts of my dear friends and family on either side of the political spectrum, I witness posts filled with sardonic humor, righteous indignation, and sometimes even downright cruelty aimed at those who happen to disagree with the one who posts it. While I as much as anyone acknowledge that the stakes are high and that our choice of policymakers and national leaders is vital, I almost always succumb to the temptation to stay out of the fray and keep silent in such a time as this.
Anyone who has read the book of Amos, however, knows that Amos showed himself to be the fool on many occasions, consistently decrying the opulence of the elite at the expense of the poor. Amos is a hard book with tough words. Throughout the book we repeatedly read about the wrath of a disappointed deity who will ultimately lash out against the oppressive Israelite culture. We read recitations of crimes that the upper class has perpetrated upon the poor. Most of all, Amos laments the lack of justice in the land and the disrespect for the word of the LORD. Rarely in the book do we experience a chance for repentance, much less words that offer a chance for redemption.
The lectionary passage for this week, however, envelopes more indictments with a faint glimpse of the hope for repentance. The opportunity to repent is only possible when the guilty parties recognize the magnitude of their violations. The words from Amos are not words of false hope, but words of realistic hope that rely on the response of the hearer.
Establishing Justice in the Gate
The charges against the Israelites are quite clear. After the general metaphorical indictment against those who would turn justice into rot, tossing righteousness on the ground (verse 7), we hear the more specific crimes. One of the most relevant indictments for our own era appears in verse 10: “They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.”
The “gate” in ancient Israel was often seen as the place where judgment occurred or legal and economic transactions took place. This is the venue where Boaz negotiated for the right to redeem Elimelech’s land and marry Naomi’s daughter-in-law, Ruth. The gate is also where Absalom stole the hearts and minds of Israel’s citizens from his father David by rendering judgment (incidentally, the Hebrew term mishpat, the same term used in Amos 5:7) and discerning disputes among the citizens (1 Samuel 15:1-6).
In thinking of making the move from reading this text in its ancient context to the preaching moment, one might ask what represents the city “gate” in our own culture. While an apparent analogy might be to correlate the “gate” with courtrooms or legislative sessions, I wonder if the activities at another “gate” deserve the thrashing of the prophetic word. If the literal gate of ancient cities represents the place of public discourse and decision-making in ancient Israel, could the “gate” of Western democracy be the very media outlets that provide information to the people who must render increasingly complex judgments on a wide variety of topics both during and beyond the political season?
With our direct access to information and media outlets, the court of public opinion has never had so much sway on the culture as it does now. Of course, one could simply set up the media as the scapegoat, but neither the reality of a ratings-driven media culture nor the prophetic tradition allows us to do that. The ancient prophetic tradition suggests that while ultimately the kings, priests, and nobility make the decisions that lead to the oppression of the poor, the whole community would suffer God’s judgments.
Even if God’s judgments might be harsher and more specific against an individual leader such as Amaziah (Amos 7:17), the whole house of Israel will ultimately bear the judgment (see Amos 2:6, 5:25-27, 7:8, 8:2 for only a few examples within the book).
In regards to the contemporary “gate” of Western culture, we know well enough that many of the media outlets are driven by ratings and revenue, just as politicians during an election year are often driven by public opinion polls. Might we be offering “bribes” to our media outlets by driving up their ratings when we simply choose to only view the reports that affirm our own political or social agendas?
Might we as American Christians be pushing aside the needy in the gate of our media outlets by feeding at the trough of celebrity scandals and salacious political affairs while ignoring the very difficult, but vital, information about poverty, civic unrest, or poverty in this nation and beyond?
The Wise Folly of Prophetic Preaching
And what does hope look like in this analogical reading of Amos 5? How would our parishioners “seek good and not evil, that [we] may live”? How might we establish justice at the gates of our public discourse? (5:14-15) Might we as responsible, and even prophetic, Christians demand more truth and less showmanship from the media coverage we consume?
Might Christians demand to be seen as more than just a voting block that can be won over with simplistic talking points or the abuse of biblical rhetoric that elected officials use to pander to us? Might we seek God and live by recognizing the complexity of the world’s problems and not falling prey to the absolutism of an entrenched and divided political fundamentalism?
Now that I think of it, the proverb in verse 13 is even more appealing. Perhaps it is prudent to keep silent in such a time. Yet, like the prophet Amos, perhaps the good news of this text is that God is calling the church to foolishly demand the restoration of justice and goodness in the gate that we might experience the graciousness of God.