Measuring up to God’s justice.
Amos is possibly one of the better-known minor prophets, and particularly the often-quoted chapter 5 verse 24: ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’. We hear this call for justice and righteousness throughout the book of Amos, including this Sunday’s passage.
Those who have grown more and more wealthy and powerful have done so by exploiting the poor. Amos has continuously called for social justice and condemned those who refuse to do so (see 4:1-3, 5:14, 6:4-7, and 8:4-6). In chapter 7 he turns his attention to the royal establishment and the church for their failure to do justice, and unleashes strong and prophetic words.
God uses the visual aid of a plumbline to make the point about how corrupt and warped his people have become (v 7). The priest protests at Amos’s words, sending a message to King Jeroboam of Israel decrying Amos’s prophecy, and tries to send Amos on his way, as if he is any other itinerant prophet. Amos is not so easily hustled along, however, and Amaziah’s association with the state and his trying to silence Amos as a man of God adds weight to his prophecy of destruction and exile.
Some commentators have found a glimmer of hope in this passage by suggesting that because God still calls Israel “my people”, restoration at a later time may be possible.
The prophetic words of Amos speak through the centuries to our society and church today. How do we measure up as a society and as church to the plumbline of God’s justice?
In a world of extreme inequality, where 82% of the world’s wealth belongs to the wealthiest 1% (Oxfam), do we find ourselves aligned with Amos, speaking out against the injustice, or with Amaziah, aligned with policies that protect the wealthy?
Amaziah trying to send Amos away is also an example of how those who speak truth to power risk being silenced and exiled from society.
‘But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (v 29)
The lawyer is judging himself, trying to work out how he measures up to the plumbline of the greatest commandment. And, in response to his question, we are given one of the most familiar parables in the Bible, that of the Good Samaritan.
It is hard to imagine how those first hearers of this parable would have received the idea of the religious leaders passing by the one fallen and left for dead by robbers. Perhaps they explained it away by understanding how the cleanliness codes of the law would have prevented or excused the religious leaders from risking touching a possible dead body.
But nothing would have let them explain away the scandal of a Samaritan - an outsider, an enemy, an ‘other’ - being the one who demonstrates the fullness of the law. The one who loves his neighbour as himself was the enemy. This would have been a particularly radical message for the young lawyer and those listening to hear, and it is perhaps to the young lawyer’s credit that he affirms the Samaritan as the neighbour in the story.
Not only does loving our neighbour as ourselves include loving our enemies, it includes receiving love, mercy, kindness from them. It was the misinterpretation of the law that got in the way of the Levite and priest fulfilling the law.
The Good Samaritan is such a familiar story that it is worth taking time to allow those gathered to encounter it afresh. Various attempts have been made over the years to reframe it to contemporary contexts of conflict or hostility.
A contemporary example might be to explore what it means to love our neighbour in the ‘hostile environment’ of the UK asylum policy. How can we love and be loved by those regarded as strangers by the state and many in wider society? Identifying how those new to our communities have enriched and brought a broadening perspective and diversity to our communities is one place to start.
Considering who we are in the parable is another way into the text. Where is the church in this story? Is it the one by the wayside in need of mercy and kindness by those it considers outsiders? Is it passing by on the other side for fear of violating its purity codes? Or is it the innkeeper who takes in the bruised and broken and tends to their wounds for the long haul? Are there times when we as church, community and individuals have been in all these places, the receiver, the giver and the passer-by?
And do we have the same fervency and openness of heart and mind as the young lawyer, willing to be stretched and challenged by the Rabbi Jesus?
'Who is my neighbour?’
When I ask: ‘Who is my neighbour?’
whilst secretly hoping to have my prejudices confirmed
- not him, not her, not them -
write these words on my heart:
‘The one who showed him mercy.’
Then by the grace of God,
May I go and do likewise.
18 July is Nelson Mandela Day - Give thanks for the legacy of Nelson Mandela and pray that he would continue to inspire action for justice and freedom in the face of adversity.
Give thanks for those who accompany human rights defenders in Colombia. Give thanks that their presence reduces the threat of violence against our partners, and pray for the day when they’re no longer needed because their lives are no longer at risk.
Find more points for prayer in our weekly prayer diary.
Published on 05 July 2019