6 Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
8 they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.
Daaaaaaaamn. That is rough stuff.
This passage from Amos is part of a lesson from the daily office for the first Sunday of Advent. It’s tempting to think that those ancient people of Israel were clearly committing offenses we would never do. I would certainly like to draw the line at the second half of verse 7. Yikes. I could look up all sorts of scholarly things here about temple priestesses and competing religions here.
Unfortunately, I think most of the things Amos is saying about Israel here apply to our American economy, too. Even in that second half of verse 7, I think of the ads we see that rely on sexual images of the perfect woman designed to appeal to both young men and old men. It’s conceivable that some of these ads appeal to fathers and their sons at the same time. What does that say about those men? What does it say about the advertisers who don’t care about the moral bounds they’re violating?
The overall implication of these verses is not just decadence, but also injustice. The people this prophet condemns are focused on money above all else, including kindness, charity, justice, morality, or honoring the sacred. But God doesn’t just tell the people of Israel that they’re disgusting. He tells them they are profaning God’s name. God is not just angry. God is hurt. This is personal.
If God comes into the scenario described by Amos, the results will not be sweetness and light and a babe in a manger, or twinkly lights on a tree surrounded by presents. These verses justify God acting exactly like Jesus did in the temple when he beat the money changers out the door with a whip. And if we see ourselves reflected in Amos’s mirror, we are in big trouble.
One of the messages of Advent is to prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. This passage from Amos tells us what not to do:
- Sell righteous people out for money—such as those punished by unduly harsh sentences for single crimes or “three strikes,” and stuck in prison serving life sentences because they can’t afford the right lawyers or attract the right attention.
- Sell the needy for a pair of sandals—such as those who work in this country or other countries in sweatshops to manufacture fashionable shoes and clothing.
- Trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth—such as the native peoples of this country exiled to reservations, and then ignored when gas pipelines are laid that may affect the health of their water supply.
- Push the afflicted out the way—as schools do who see children with learning disabilities as expensive liabilities, pushing back against worried parents who can’t afford advocates or thousands in private testing and services, rather than giving them the evaluations and services they need for a Free Appropriate Public Education (the official term defined by Federal law—you can tell I’m particularly passionate about this one).
- Profane the name of the Lord by luring father and son with the same girl—as many advertising agencies still do, cheapening not only the women they picture, but the beauty of those who don’t meet those standards, as well as the lust of the men who see them.
- Drink wine bought with fines they imposed—as do some towns in America, whose police force is paid in part through traffic and other fines imposed on those arrested. Arrests disproportionately affect, and punish, people of color, many of whom cannot afford to pay them and then are further penalized.
So, what can we do?
These injustices are more than a single person can solve or even address. But I believe that when we let ourselves get quiet and listen for the word of God, as Amos did, we can take steps to spend our own dollars wisely (or not at all), and lobby our elected officials to legislate against some things we can no longer stand for. Why are so many of the crimes Amos described legal in our society? For example, why is it so difficult for one individual to find clothing and shoes not made in a sweatshop, or for one individual to afford ethically made clothes when the unethical ones are so much less expensive and easier to find? Why are so many people of color incarcerated for crimes their white peers are not punished for nearly as harshly? And who judges how severe those crimes actually are?
Jesus wasn’t preaching something new. He came to embody the same God already preached by Amos and many others. Amos’s words are not out of date. Let those with ears truly listen.