Proper 20 • Amos 8:4–7 • September 19, 2010
Preachers who take up this text take up a daunting task, especially if they wish to proclaim the gospel and not simply generate a diatribe based on the law. The paral- lels to our society are striking, but I suspect that in every time and place there are those who lie, cheat, and steal in order to make a fast buck at the expense of the poor. In our generation we see this kind of behavior in the glorification of vanity and greed that is so typical and so endemic.
The Lord Jesus loves the poor. He does not consider poverty to be either a crime or a sin, and yet in this passage we see that the plight of the poor may be the result of the sin of others. Many act today as though poverty itself is a sin, a result of laziness, or bad luck, or even bad genetics. But this is not what the Bible teaches. There are plenty of well-off people that are lazy, and there are plenty of poor people who have worked hard and diligently all their lives only to continue in poverty. Wealth is not necessarily God’s blessing any more than poverty is his curse. This is an easy theology of glory—not a position based on God’s word. And yet there is hope for all through the work of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and what he has done for us. He can change our hearts so that we love all men, in real, concrete ways, including the poor.
Verse by verse commentary
“Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.”
Here the prophet declares the anger of a righteous God who has declared in his law that all Israelites are brothers and that their debts are to be forgiven every seven years and their land restored every fifty years (see Lv 25 and Dt 15). This had not hap- pened, and the poor had suffered from endemic poverty, while the wealthy acted fat and sassy, ignoring their plight. But God has not forgotten the cries of the poor (and he does not forget us either.)
“‘When will the new moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?’—skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.”
Here again, we see the tactics of liars and cheats. Our founding fathers in America made one of their first priorities as part of the establishment of the union the establishment of standardized weights and measures. Article 8 of the U. S. Constitution gives Congress the authority, “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of for- eign coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” For example, if you go to a gas station and look at the pump (what else do you have to do while pumping gas?), there is almost invariably a sticker attesting to both the octane content of the gas, and the fact that the gas pump has been inspected to measure and vend gasoline accurately. The latter sticker usually has a date on it of the last inspection as well. And yet people have tried to get around such standards, so inspectors must come unannounced at times. The point here is that honest measurement is a hallmark of good government.
The idea of cheating and lying, of dishonesty in dealing with others, is the sin here, not acquiring wealth in itself. Stingy and generous hearts are fundamentally anti- thetical, and Amos points this out through the words of this verse. Especially telling is the matter of the sweepings with the wheat. Having animals in the area to beat out the grain from the chaff, one can only imagine what was often in the “sweepings.”
“The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘I will never forget anything they have done.’ ”
Here we have a potential conversation by members of the Trinity and this constitutes a handle for proclaiming good news. The pride of Jacob, in a Christian reading of the text, is a synonym for Christ. He is the one Jacob was promised so long ago. But the issue of not forgetting seems cold comfort in the face of the amount of sin Amos is bringing forward. And yet there might be some comfort in knowing that Christ does not blot out this memory, but this iniquity. We are forgiven by the Christ who loves us, but were we not in Christ and standing forgiven in him, all would be remembered. This is good news for those who are on the receiving end of the lying, cheating, and poverty of life. There is an advocate who will take up their cause on the last day and who will not just let these things go. The law stands and destroys all who refuse God’s remedy (not specifically stated in the text) in Christ. It is either God’s way of forgiveness or his way of judgment—there is no third option—we do not stand autonomous.
Preceding and Following Context
The preceding verses demonstrate that God has been patient with Israel for a long time, and that that time is almost up. This is why the basket contains ripe fruit. God will spare his people no longer. There will be much death and destruction.
The verses that follow our text make possible some interesting gospel handles.
The following context begins with a description of the undoing of the land (remember that the land was associated with paradise as well as with peace and justice for the poor). Associating the land with the Nile and Egypt gives an idea of a shockingly out-of-kilter image of the state of things. Egypt represented everything Israel wanted to escape, and the Nile was the life and wealth of Egypt.
The first potential gospel handle occurs in the next verse. Here there are parallels to what happened to Christ at the cross. The darkness at noon, a darkening in broad daylight. These are both described in the Gospels at the crucifixion of Jesus.
The next verse about mourning, weeping, and sackcloth could be used as a handle to the account of Jesus being asked why his disciples did not fast. He said they could not while the bridegroom was with them; but in the day he was taken they would fast (Mt 9:15). The text of Amos makes this mourning more specific by indicating that it is a mourning for “the only Son” (8:10). The idea of the famine of the word certainly occurs even today. There are more Bibles than ever; the problem is that they are seldom read. And as more and more of our culture becomes pagan and un-christian, the matter of Bibles and God’s word becomes more and more like being stranded at sea with “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink” (Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). The same parallels can be made to people not coming out to hear the spoken word or the Word as found in Baptism and Holy Communion. Even if people without the aid of the Holy Spirit and faith were to take up the Word, it just becomes more salt, and one thirsts even more.
So this is a fairly tough passage to preach on, but it is highly relevant to the materialistic, distracted, and narcissistic society of today. The idea here is to make sure not to preach only the law or that wealth is intrinsically bad. Rather, effective preachers will proclaim that believers are given generous and caring hearts by Christ and the Spirit, allowing them to love their God and their neighbor by every means possible through the new life they have been imparted through Christ’s death and resurrection for all.