AMOS 8:1-12

The prophets bear a lot of bad news. The caricature a prophet is a gadfly at best, a curmudgeon on a good day, and at worst fiery preacher of gloom and doom. Chapter eight begins with the image of summer fruit. What can be more life-giving than this: a ripe basket overflowing with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, peaches, and melons? Yet even this basket of summer fruit is not a sign of good news. It is a sign of very bad news.

The prophets are poets, and these prophecies in Hebrew work on poetic rhyme and image. The basket of summer fruit is a word-play in Hebrew. The word for “fruit” sounds very similar to the word for “end.” This basket of summer fruit is a signal that the end has come for Israel’s northern kingdom. The party is over. God’s judgment in this passage goes from bad to worse, painting a picture of mourning and death and darkness and lamentation as gruesome as anything you will see on the news. And the worst part is that God goes silent.

There are many descriptions of God’s judgment in scripture, but that is not a theological topic we visit very often. There are some good reasons for that. The most important reason is Jesus Christ, who reveals to us that God is love. The first and most important message of the gospel we believe is not a word of judgment but a word of grace: God so loved the world. Our calling as followers of Christ is not to condemn others, but to love others as Christ has loved us. That’s one very good reason we don’t often visit the topic of judgment.

Another reason for why we rarely visit the topic of God’s judgment is that, frankly, we can’t be trusted with it. The church has too often abused language about judgment. We have preached judgment to addicts, and outsiders, and women, LGBT persons, and kids who dress differently, and on and on. In the hands of the church, God’s judgment has been a stick used to beat up on others and not love them.

In my Christian life, I have tried very hard to leave judgment to God and practice love like Jesus; and I know many of you have too. But the book of Amos, and particularly chapter eight, is knee-deep in God’s judgment. Listen again to what the prophet said:

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.’

What is it that God is angry about? Let’s study it closely. “You bring to ruin the poor of the land.” That word ruin has the image of devastation: you make their lives worthless; wiped out. Then this first example. “When will the new moon be over so we can sell grain/and the sabbath so we may offer wheat for sale.” What’s happening here? The new moon and the sabbath were religious observances that meant people couldn’t work. For laborers in the field, this was their only day off a week. For the merchants and farmers and landowners, this was a lost opportunity to make money. Making money was more important than rest.

Take the next couplet: “We will practice deceit with false balances… buying the poor and the needy for silver… and sell the sweepings of the wheat.” What is going on here? Well, first, the vendor in the store is a cheat. The scale is false because the arm on the scale has been bent, and the weight of the goods is wrong and the person over-pays.

But the cheating is then compounded at this time in Israel by the practice of debt slavery. At that time, the person who did not have enough money to pay what the scales said they owed was a debtor who could be sold by the merchant to pay off the debt. Scholars believe this is why the scales were false – not just to make more money, but to trade in human beings. A new pair of shoes, or a few pieces of silver would buy a person to work the field or clean the house. And what about “selling the sweepings?” This is just the icing on the cake. The sweepings were the chaff from the threshing floor, junk that was padded in with the wheat.

There are seven accusations God makes through Amos in these few verses. The scholar Daniel Carrol in his length study of this book writes that this set of seven, in addition to providing specific examples, suggests in its poetic totality of the number seven, the “complete violation of the poor.”0F1

That is what brings God’s judgment. If we learn anything from this chapter of really bad news in the book of Amos, we learn what God cares deeply and fiercely about. God’s fierce sense of fairness is at stake. God is angry because of deep sense of dignity and worth with which God endowed each person is being violated. God is beside himself because God’s deep compassion for those who need an advocate.

Let me tell you a story from my family history. My grandparents on my father’s side were tenant farmers all their lives. When my grandfather was ten his mother died in childbirth, and he left school to work on the farm. He never learned to read of write. To the day he died in 1977, he signed his name with an “x.” My grandmother made it through the eighth grade, when she too left school to work on the farm and in the house.

For most of their adult lives, where they raised seven children, they lived in a five-room house on a forty-acre tenant farm. They grew tobacco and cotton in the sandy soil of Johnston County, North Carolina. The way that tenant farming worked was that every year they would borrow what they needed against the future harvest to plant and grow the crop, and would borrow a little more money that they needed to get by. Once the harvest was sold, they would settle with the landowner.

My grandmother kept the family books, but every year when she went to settle up, her books never matched the landowner’s. Every year they owed more money, and every year they ended up in the red. Until, that is, late in their lives, when they moved to a different farm and farmed for five years with a different owner. Every one of those five years, my grandmother’s books were right, and they ended the year in the black.

I know this story from my father. I never met my grandparents, and I don’t know how they felt about it. I only know the anger my father and his siblings felt. And what could my grandparents have done about it anyway? They didn’t own the land; they had no money, they had no education, they had no power, they had no advocate.

This what stirs the judgment of God more surely than anything else. When people are taken advantage of. When human life is devalued for the sake of gain, or greed, and carelessness. When people made in God’s image are robbed of human dignity. That makes God angry.

Thankfully, we know that God’s anger does not last, and the God who threatened silence to Amos is the same God who spoke clearly in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, we know that God’s mercy is greater than God’s anger. We know that God is love and love has the final word. We do not need to fear the judgment of God.

But we do need to learn from the prophets what stirs the heart of the God we worship and serve. God still cares fiercely about human dignity and worth. God still has fierce compassion for those who need someone to balance the scales and make things right.
We do not need to fear God’s anger, but we are called to develop a prophetic imagination for the kind of world that God wants and the kind of world God is bringing into being through Jesus Christ.

It’s best to begin with ourselves.

Take the example of the sabbath and new moon:

Do we claim a day of rest for ourselves and do we honor a day of rest for the other people in the world who make our lives go?
Take the false balances: Are we fair and honest in our dealings with others? Do we treat others as we would want to be treated, even when we have the opportunity to take advantage?

Take the new pair of sandals and silver: Do we see ourselves and other people, no matter what their station or circumstance in life, as persons with dignity and worth, made in God’s image – as really and truly our neighbors?

We could also put some imagination into society, into the kinds of social structures that balance scales and honor human dignity. One example today is early childhood education. More than anything else, early childhood education has the power to change generational poverty. Another example is access to health-care, especially in poor communities, that helps people to stay well. And fair policing, so that every community is safe and every person knows they will be treated equally by the law.

God cares deeply about things just like this, and because God cares there is hope. The good news of Jesus does not mean that God no longer cares. The good news of Jesus means that God cares so much, God could not stay silent – God had to speak and to act. God came in Jesus Christ to speak a living word, and to act to recreate the world. When we trust in Jesus Christ, when we follow him in our lives, God will act through us as well: balance the scales, to help the weak, and to give each of us a spirit-filled desire to make the world as good as God created it to be.

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina

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