Archive for the 'Amos' Category

For Nov. 9, 2014: Proper 27, Pentecost 22, Year A

The Reading                                                  Amos 5:18-24

Amos 5:18-24 asks a quelling question of people who take their own well-being, even at their neighbors’ expense, as a sign of being God’s favorites: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?”—and explains why they will not: sacrifices and solemn ritual do not interest God in the absence of justice being done. Verse 24 resonates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Response                                               Psalm 70

If Amos 5:18-24 can be read as one side of a coin, perhaps Psalm 70 represents the other: this is the voice of one beset by those who believe they know better. Strikingly, its call for the enemy to be disgraced is followed by a plea that those who gloat rethink and repent.

The Epistle                                                     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Thessalonians struggled to reconcile the gospel promise of eternal life with the painful truth that some of their nearest and dearest in the faith are dead; are they lost? No, Paul says: those who have died will be first to meet the triumphant Christ, and all will be with the Lord forever.

The Gospel                                                     Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13 compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding in which half of the bridesmaids get left out because their lamps are running out of oil. Are the wise bridesmaids truly wise in the kingdom for refusing to share their oil? Jesus’ parables tend to be difficult, and this one is no exception.

 

Further thoughts

Taken at face value, the readings for Proper 27 don’t play very well together. In Amos 5:18-24, the Lord pronounces against those who practice religiosity but fail to ensure justice in this world; that goes well with Psalm 70, in which the psalmist clearly expects the Lord to act in the psalmist’s favor, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is explaining to his bewildered flock that their beloved kith and kin won’t be shut out of heaven for having had the bad grace (or something) to have died before Jesus’ return. So far, somewhat inclusive.

But then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids or virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Imprudent bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil; prudent bridesmaids refuse to share; when the imprudent ones do their best to remedy their lack, they get shut out of the wedding party altogether.

And, Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Most interpretations of this parable over the centuries take it as a prescription, a forceful reminder of the perils of not being sufficiently prepared for Jesus’ coming and a prediction of what will happen to those who are unprepared. The theocracies of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Massachusetts Bay colony operated on the principle that this preparedness could and should somehow be legislated.

A newer set of interpretations goes in a very different direction. In these interpretations, the “wise” bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil is not a kingdom virtue and the lord who locks the door isn’t Jesus; the “foolish” bridesmaids’ error lay not in running out of oil but in running out on the party because they thought they could buy their way in by having the right stuff after all.

Which set of interpretations is correct? I don’t know—but I suspect the answer may vary depending on where I am in my walk with Christ when I read the parable. Sometimes I need the forceful urging that it is time and past time to prepare: salvation is through grace, but I do have some responsibility. At other times I need the reminder not to hide outside the door because I’m feeling more than usually unworthy.

And what if part of the point is how readily we insiders can hurt people who are outside with what is supposed to be Good News?

For July 21, 2013: Proper 11, Year C

The Reading            Amos 8:1-12

Though his book is near the end of the Old Testament, the prophet Amos is an earlier figure—and, as we saw last week, uncomfortably forthright. In today’s reading, God puns on the Hebrew words for ‘summer fruit’ (qayits) and ‘end’ (qets) to announce that dishonest dealing and abuse of the poor will no longer be overlooked: misery and mourning are coming for all, and the Word of God will be nowhere to be found.

The Response            Psalm 52

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, but trusted in great wealth and relied upon wickedness.”

The Epistle            Colossians 1:15-28

Like the prophecy of Amos, Psalm 52 predicted disaster on account of wicked dealing, though the psalmist says that the good will be unscathed. Today’s reading from the book of Colossians describes Christ risen and reigning, first and firstborn: it is through Christ alone—not through the rules we obey nor those we enforce on others—that any of us humans can hope to be reconciled to the goodness of God.

The Gospel            Luke 10:38-42

“‘There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”

 

Further thoughts

“Busy” is an unusual word, and for more reasons than the peculiarity of its spelling. Unlike many other basic vocabulary items in English whose roots go back to Proto-Germanic or even Proto-Indo-European, busy is known only in English, Dutch and Low German. In late Old English the adjective bysig meant ‘occupied’ or ‘diligent’, and one’s bysignes was what kept one busy. By the late fourteenth century bisynesse could mean one’s occupation.

In the prophecy of Amos we see these senses applied: those whom the Lord excoriates have been diligent in taking opportunities to enrich themselves on the backs of the poor and needy, by selling short measure and defective goods at high prices. They are, to borrow Scrooge’s characterization of Marley in A Christmas Carol, “good men of business”. Scrooge intends it as a compliment—but Dickens, Amos, the psalmist, and we know better, or so I hope. As Marley retorts, “Mankind should be our business!”

Bysig has an earlier meaning, however: ‘anxious or concerned’. An Old English translation of Luke 10:41 reads Ðu eart carful ond bysig ymbe fela ðing ‘ you are care-filled and busy about many things’. Martha was not merely bustling about, in other words: she was frazzled, and possibly beginning to lose her grip. I don’t think Jesus intended to disparage her. This is, after all, the guy who made it his business to save a wedding by changing water into wine. I think he was inviting Martha for at least a little while to join her sister: his presence and Mary’s, and hers, and that of each of us, is much more important than whether the napkins are folded correctly or the butter is cut into tidy pats.

The reading from Colossians underlines this point: the business of Christ Jesus is to be God and man, first and firstborn from the dead, Creator and Wisdom and Brother whose sacrifice is what makes each of us justified before God; and our business is to follow Jesus as we can, spread the Word, and in our own ways be the Kingdom of God come near to a world that can’t stand the smell of itself otherwise.

For July 14, 2013: Proper 10, Year C

The Reading            Amos 7:7-17

With Israel’s occupiers busy elsewhere around 750 BC, the elites enjoy peace and prosperity while afflicting the poor. The unlikely prophet Amos, called from his herds and fruit trees to set things right, speaks of God’s plumb line: a heavy weight hanging from a string to show how far a wall is from being perfectly upright. Amaziah resists by misquoting Amos on purpose—but, like a wall, a nation that is not upright cannot be allowed to stand.

The Response            Psalm 82 Page 705, BCP

The Epistle            Colossians 1:1-14

We begin reading from the letter to the Colossians, which may or may not have been written by Paul. Colossae was a prosperous Roman city in what is now southwestern Turkey. The Christians there were mostly gentile, so disputes about doctrine tended not to center on Jewish practice. The writer’s delight in what the Colossians are doing well is evident.

The Gospel            Luke 10:25-37

“‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’”

 

Further thoughts

The “credibility gap” of the 1960s and 1970s was the perceived discrepancy between the messages issued by the Johnson government about the controversial war in Vietnam, and later about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate burglary and coverup, and the facts being uncovered in the media. Credibility gaps figure in several of today’s readings. Amaziah is a priest of Bethel and thus an anointed servant of the God of truth, but when Amos announces that Israel just doesn’t measure, up, Amaziah responds by misrepresenting the prophecy of Amos ’s to protect his lord King Jeroboam. The lawyer who attempts to snare Jesus does not resort to lying, at least—but his area of expertise would have been religious law, and his asking “Who is my neighbor?” smacks more than slightly of a later president’s widely parodied “It depends on what ‘is’ is.”

It is easy to condemn Amaziah and the lawyer, and two millennia of hindsight as to how the story comes out don’t make it any less tempting. The fact is that none of us measures up to God’s standards of goodness, neighborliness, and love—and even if we did, as the apostle Paul forcefully argues elsewhere, it wouldn’t justify us before God, because nothing can. As the letter to the Colossians tells it today, however, God loves us when we fail and he loves us when we try. Attempting to be good will not justify us—even the Samaritan reaching out beyond his own parochial interests to tend the wounds of the Jew was not justified by this—but making the attempt, when and as we can, bears blessed fruit not only for the world but for ourselves.

As a sage once said, “Don’t give until it hurts. Give until it feels good. The cost is about the same.” That’s precisely how God’s economy works.

For June 16, 2013: Proper 6, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a

The first and second books of Kings tell the stories of the rulers of Israel and the prophets during their reigns. In today’s reading from the first book, notorious King Ahab pouts because he wants land he does not own; Jezebel, his even more notorious wife, arranges for the land’s owner to be executed under trumped-up charges. It falls to the prophet Elijah to confront Ahab about his wrongdoing.

 The Response            Psalm 5:1-8

The Epistle            Galatians 2:15-21

As the second chapter of the book of Galatians opens, Paul defends his call to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He makes a narrow point and a wider one. The first point, made in verses that we are not reading today, is that the circumcised and the uncircumcised are to share the good news together. This leads to his second point, which we read today: what justifies us with God is nothing whatever that we do.

The Gospel            Luke 7:36-8:3

“‘…her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.’”

 

 Further thoughts

Today’s readings present somewhat unappetizing views of righteousness. The psalmist tells us that God shuns the bloodthirsty and protects the righteous, but righteous Naboth is publicly humiliated and killed on trumped-up charges just so Ahab can take his land for a vegetable garden. Super-righteous Paul tells us just how far his super-righteouness goes in buying him justification with God: absolutely nowhere. Jesus’ host clearly believes he has done two extraordinarily generous and superior things in inviting this controversial itinerant preacher to dinner and in not making a public issue of Jesus’ gaucherie in allowing a “sinful woman” to touch him, and then Jesus sets him straight on, among other things, Simon’s unfortunate lapse from the standards for hospitality.

It is hard not to cheer when grasping Ahab and Jezebel finally reap what they have sown, and it may be even harder (because the consequences are less) not to feel satisfaction at Simon getting taken down a peg. This may not be altogether inappropriate: as we will see in the course of the summer’s lectionary readings, justice and equity are very much on the mind of God and so they ought to be on ours.

It is sobering, though, to realize just what Jesus has to say about that nameless woman: she loves extravagantly not because she is good or gifted but because she has been forgiven extravagantly.

What might the world look like if we forgave like that?

For July 15, 2012: Proper 10, Year B

The Reading            Amos 7:7-15

Around 750 BC, with Assyria and Egypt occupied elsewhere, Israel enjoys peace and prosperity—for the wealthy and powerful, and at the expense of the poor. God calls Amos out of Judah, the southern kingdom, to pronounce judgment. The plumb line that Amos sees in God’s hand is a string with a heavy weight at one end that shows whether or not a wall is perfectly upright. The wall that is not upright cannot be allowed to stand.

The Response            Psalm 24

The Epistle            Ephesians 1:3-14

Today we begin reading from the letter to the Ephesians. The church at Ephesus in modern Turkey, like the church at Corinth in Greece, was a mixed Jewish and Gentile community. In the opening verses of the letter to this church, a Jewish apostle—possibly Paul—writes poetically of God’s intention before the world ever existed to adopt in Jesus Christ not just the people of the covenant of Abraham but all of creation, including each one of us.

The Gospel            Mark 6:14-29

Further thoughts

Late last week the commission investigating the Penn State football program released the results of its investigation of the climate in which sexual abuse of young boys went unreported and unstopped for a period of fourteen years. The report is unsparing in assigning blame at the highest levels. Like today’s Old Testament reading and gospel lesson, it gives a terrifying picture of the urgency of doing the right thing sooner rather than later: the longer one holds off, the more horrifyingly pervasive the damage will be and the less likely it is to be remediable. These readings also point to the unanticipated costs of doing and saying the right thing: Amos is shamed and exiled and John the Baptizer loses his life.  We ourselves are likely to see ourselves in the roles of Amos or John here; as human beings, however, we are surely at just as great risk of being so caught up in our own prerogatives or even our own human-crafted “righteousness” as are Amaziah, Jeroboam, or Herod.

In between, though, and counterbalancing the horror of being human, is the vivid and poetic rhetoric of the letter to the Ephesians. In the original Greek, the passage is one very long sentence that blesses God for blessing, choosing, designing for love, adopting, redeeming, giving grace to, forgiving, gathering up, giving an inheritance to, and sealing with the Holy Spirit not just the physical descendants of Abraham but all peoples. In short, God is crazy in love with us and has no hesitation about showing it. To put it another way, it’s not just that our pictures are in God’s brag book: we ourselves are God’s brag book.

That is a very tall order to live up to. I for one can’t do it on my own. The key here is love: by me, of you, through God. If I can walk in love as Jesus shows me, and if I let your love help me back to my feet when I stumble, and if each of us loves everyone else in exactly that way, then our love through God helps you and me and him and her and them uncover the real “you” and the real “me” and the real “him” and “her” and “them” that make each of us, in God’s eyes, just exactly what God always wanted.


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