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Some are Guilty, All are Responsible (July 17, 2022) Amos 8.1-12

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I said last week that we would be diving into the prophets some over the next few weeks. These are not what we traditionally believe a prophet to be: one who tells us the future. While they do tell the future, they are also living and preaching here in the present. The bring a word for those who are living in the here and now. And usually, the word is not a soft word, but rather a hard word. A word that is not easy to hear and a word that does not make the speaker a popular person.
Last week we heard the words of Amos at the sanctuary at Bethel and how those words were heard and received. It was not a good reception. Amos was told to go and leave the good people of Israel alone that the land could not take his kind of preaching and the words that he brought to them. Amos replied that he was just bringing the Word of the LORD and that there was nothing that those who wanted him to stop could do about it. These were the words given to him and these were the words that he would proclaim.
And so, we come to another word that Amos is to bring to the people of Israel. The LORD shows him another vision. The first had been a plague of locusts, the second a fire sweeping the land, and the third was a plumb line showing that the walls of the so, land were not true. These visions told the people that judgement was coming and that there was no way out of it, especially the last as the prophet did not plead with God for clemency in that one.
But now there is a new vision. Amos is shown a basket of fruit. Now, who does not like a fruit basket? There is nothing like getting a basket of fresh fruit to say welcome to someone new or to say what cannot be said in words. Think of the Edible Arrangements and you get an idea of what it is like to receive a fruit basket and how nice it looks.
But Amos is not talking about a nice arrangement of fruit that is being sent as a welcome gift. He is seeing a basket of summer fruit with an entirely different meaning. God tells him that the end is near for Israel. Now if you are wondering what summer fruit and the end have in common, let me explain. The two words fruit and end sound very similar in the Hebrew language. Therefore, it is a pun that God is using to communicate to Amos what is about to happen. The fruit that he sees might look good, but look again. It is over ripe and beginning to rot. The people are like this and the end is coming. God will no longer hold back the coming judgement. God’s compassion and patience have come to an end. And so, the end is to come. There will be no more joyful songs in the sanctuary only lament. The songs of praise for the good things that God has done, for the peace, security and prosperity that the people have enjoyed will turn into songs of wailing and asking God “Why?” There will be many slain and the bodies will be thrown onto the ground. The worst thing that can happen to someone was to not be buried, to let the wild animals and vultures come and feast on the dead. And there will be many bodies that are left out to rot in many places. The magnitude of this can only cause silence, there are no words for what is about to happen.
What is the cause of all of this? God tells them in verses 4-6: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “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.”[1]In the books of the Torah, the people are told to take care of the poor, especially the widows, orphans and those who are resident aliens in the land. They are told to celebrate a festival of the new moon every month and to celebrate the Sabbath every week. And in these times, there is to be no work done, no buying or selling, the people are to have some time off to recuperate from a busy work week.
But there are those who are gnashing at the bit to get back to their buying and selling. They want the time of the Sabbath to be over so that they can “get back to business.” They want to be gaining more wealth and power.
But mark this: these are the religious people as well. They go and celebrate the festival and the Sabbath. The make all the motions of the ones of those who are “doing God’s will” for the following of God’s laws. Yet they want to go out from here and take advantage of the people who can least afford to be taken advantage of. There is an illustration of this from the book Nickel and Dimed. The author decided to do the work of those who were working jobs that pay the bare minimum and see just how these people live on those salaries. While working as a waitress she says this about those who come in after church: “The worst [patrons], for some reason, are the Visible Christians—like the ten-person table, all jolly and sanctified after Sunday night service, who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill”[2]
Here is what is happening. Those in the marketplace are making the weights and measures fraudulent. When someone comes to sell their wheat, they have to give more to equal the amount of the fraudulent measure. Think of a twelve-ounce pint. When they come to buy the wheat, the weight is skewed so that the person gets less than the amount owed. And then there are those who just make the balances fraudulent all the way. In a sense we have this today. Have you noticed that containers of goods have gotten smaller while paying the same price that you paid for the a larger sized good, like peanut butter? You are not seeing things; this is what is happening. And all the while those who make the smaller product are pocketing the profits.
As if fraudulent weights were not bad enough, the merchants are selling the people into slavery for a mere pittance, the price of sandals or in our day the price of a pair of flip flops. When someone could not pay the price of the grain seeds that they needed, they bought it on credit. As collateral they might put up little Johnny. This would mean that if the crop did not come in (as would sometimes happen), Johnny was sold into indentured slavery. The merchants were doing this at an alarming rate, buying up the land they wanted and making those who owned the land before as tenant farmers, taking those who could not pay back a loan into slavery. And it was all legal. But was it moral?
God says that: The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.”[3] This sound like God will punish all the people of Israel for the crimes of just a few. How is that fair? The people know what is going on, but do nothing to stop it. The government turns a blind eye to those who want to get more power and wealth. The poor get poorer while the rich get richer. And the Torah calls this wrong. Therefore, all the nation will suffer. As the scholar Abraham Heschel said: Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, {and} in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” The people knew what was happening and yet did nothing about it. Therefore, they were to pay the price of their indifference.
Finally, the people will then turn and look for a word from God. But there will be no word from the LORD, there will only be a famine of the word. Now, today we look for a word from the LORD in writing. We do not trust those who claim to have had a vision from God and even less those who claim to have heard the word of God (perhaps Marvin Gaye was correct). But even then, if they are looking for a word from God there will be none. God is done with this people and they will soon know it. And then to where will they turn.
It would be easy to say that this text is a text for us today. That would be taking things out of context. This was a word for the nation of Israel and not one for the United States. But there are elements that apply.
We are called to help the poor and the needy. Jesus called us to do just that. We are called to stand in the gap for those who are oppressed and bring liberty to those who do not know it. How many of us do that?
We see those who work the poor into the ground just so they make more of a profit: think of the stores open on Sundays and those that open on Thanksgiving Day for an extra sale day. And think of all of us who go and do our shopping on a day that could give those people a break. I know because I have worked those jobs. These people are not lazy but are underemployed. They know what Amos is speaking of when he speaks of those being taken advantage of in the marketplace. What is our response? What will we do to help those in need?
Some are guilty, but all are responsible. That is a call for us to know the needs of those who are hurting in a world that just does not seem to care. A world where the rich get the tax breaks while the poor pay the bill. A world where those in power bow down to the rich. What will we do to make this world filled with justice that runs like a mighty stream? What will we do? Amen.
[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print. [2]Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001) [3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989. Print.
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