Commentary on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Integrating life and liturgy has been a practice for Christian churches.
There are few that aim to do it, and even fewer are able to achieve it. A divide separates those who think of the Christian life as a way of being versus those who find virtue in the way of doing. These tensions appear with those who see ministry as prophetic versus those who think of it as a priestly function. The book of Amos tends to be mined for ammunition for these battles or, hopefully, dialogues. While the book expresses an open animosity towards the cult center at Bethel, several questions remain to be answered as to whether the sentiments here reflect Amos’ position, that of a broader prophetic disposition, or even a view that comes from a later time. Regardless of the resolution of these questions, the book in its current form employs the language of cult practice for the purposes of justice.
The book of Amos presents the modern reader with several ironic challenges. Chapter 5 takes the form of a funeral dirge yet contains within it calls for reformation. If the destruction is inevitable (v. 2), why then ask for a change of behavior? This burial song also pivots to a creation hymn (vv. 8-9) providing a stark contrast between beginning and ending. Has the end come for those to whom this word was directed or is it a chance for a new start? The answers to these and other questions are not readily apparent in the pericope selected for this lection. Reading the entire chapter neither offers more illumination on these issues. Preachers will need to decide whether they expect that they are reading the words of the historical prophet, or whether they are privy to later additions to the original prophetic words directed to another historical context. Failure to engage these challenges presented by this passage can result in the misapplication of these words not only to an unsuitable context in the past but also to the present.
The lection opens with the immediate challenge to “seek the LORD.” The Hebrew word, darash, translated here as “seek,” evokes not simply a search for information about something but rather details about its nature. In the prophetic literature, “seek the LORD” occurs as an expression that points to the LORD as the subject of enquiry. This theological formulation appears quite often in contexts where knowledge of the divine will becomes necessary. Therefore, the popularity of the term among the prophets who were skilled in accessing the divine makes sense. The book of Amos uses it at least four times in this chapter. As a term that occurs in the context of crises (see 2 Kings 8:7-15, Jeremiah 21:1-10), the action of seeking the LORD points to the prophets’ role in mediating an understanding of God’s will in the midst of crisis. Presumably, prophets undertake this role with a view to arriving at a salutary outcome regarding the presenting crisis. The word darash finds greater use in cultic and theological language. Not exclusively the function of the prophet, the action of seeking in a theological sense revolves around various forms of liturgical and cult activities performed in keeping with the divine will. Communal practices of worship around laments (Isaiah 58:2, Psalm 78:34), confession of guilt (Zechariah 7:3), and regular worship events (Isaiah 65:1, Jeremiah 8:2) describe these practices as “seeking.”
The prevalence of this single word in Amos 5 indicates a familiarity with the language of the Bethel cult. The chapter, though, sets up an immediate polemic against the Bethel cult in the call not to seek Bethel (v. 5). This word places a prohibition upon Bethel as a site where any legitimate theological, liturgical, and devotional activity can take place. Rather than Bethel, Amos calls for the LORD as the suitable object of theological desire. This polemic of place against deity or what some would see as institutional versus organic religion may be present within the text but distracts from broader insights that can be found in this passage. The insufficiency of Bethel as a cult site is clear in the book of Amos (4:4; 5:21-23). What is not clear is whether this view holds for every cultic site then and now. Bethel’s insufficiency leads to the call to express theological desire “through a reformation of behavior towards others.”1 The pressing demands of communal justice cannot wait upon liturgical reformation. And at the same time communal justice does not become an issue simply because of liturgy failure. The book directs its audience to seek the LORD as the basis for communal justice. This redirection does not suggest that the cult is no longer necessary or that communal justice is at a higher premium than any other action of devotion. In the context of a chapter that indicts the cult for its failure to lead to socially acceptable behavior, readers should hear the divine pain over the failure of worship to support the production of this vision of community.
The passage provides evidence of the failures of communal justice (Amos 5:10-12). Rather than a list of things that need to be done, these verses point to what has not been done. Reading them this way will avoid the idea that the book proposes a check list for the amelioration of the community’s distress or even its fate. The resonances of several of these issues — income inequality, judicial malpractice, mistreatment and neglect of the poor, opulent lifestyles — with contemporary concerns make it all too tempting to simply apply this description as the recipe for contemporary communal justice. This easy application falls into step with the admission that not much has changed from the time of this ancient text. Taking this path may only prove temporarily satisfactory as the demands of preaching require the preacher to dig deeper into contemporary forms of communal fracture. Preachers will need to spend time examining the distances between the different forms of desire for God. How does/does not worship prepare and enliven participants to be more engaged in achieving the divine vision of community? Where are the places of communal fracture and injustice that can be healed by “seeking good and not evil” (v. 14)?
Using the language of the cult, the passage asks its audience to employ liturgical action in pursuit of justice. “Seek good” (v. 14) takes up the fervor and needs expressed in attending to the devotion of a cult place and desire for God and places them at the disposal of changed behavior as the means for communal transformation. This action of seeking good does not replace other liturgical actions and devotions. Rather it calls upon the audience to live out the devotion of the cult in the active promotion of the choice made when presented with an option between good and evil. The text implies that the audience has already made the choice for good and now presses home the demand to actively pursue good with the level of fidelity and devotion of liturgical practice. The passage offers no details on how this can be done except the broad challenge to “establish justice in the gate” (v. 15). This general statement may apply to those members of the leadership council who dispensed justice at the city gate. Even more, this challenge presents everyone who lives in the city to make justice the character of their city, a character clearly marked at the entrance to the city. The passage holds out a vision of a city transformed by justice because its residents have learned how to make their devotion to its holy place serve the demands of communal justice. This is an appealing vision, no doubt, but one that comes without the enabling mechanisms that many persons would desire. Amos offers no silver bullet or even any single prescription that can help churches to heal the chasm between worship and mission. Such a gap saves the preacher for advocating for a single policy and instead frees the preacher to follow the path of the prophet. The prophet calls the people back to devotion to the LORD and to the fervent expression of that devotion in multiple forms of worship and mission.
1 John Barton, The Theology of the Book of Amos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 93.