Our Old Testament reading today comes to us from the prophet Amos, chapter 7 beginning at verse 7. Amos was called by God to speak out about the destruction coming upon God’s people because they had willfully abandoned God’s commands, especially God’s directives to structure a just society that provides for all people so that no one is poor. Amos shares a vision of the destruction that is coming for this kingdom where elites are luxuriating in the wealth they extracted from vulnerable populations. After that, we hear a confrontation between Amaziah, the priest who is in the pocket of these wealth-hoarding elites, and Amos. Let’s listen in…
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophecy there; 13but never again prophecy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
16 ‘Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.”
17 Therefore, thus says the Lord:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.” ’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The first thing I want to say about this text is that it was pretty common in Old Testament writings for authors to imagine God punishing God’s people when they fail to obey divine commands. It’s easy to hear Amos’ vision this way. And it is worth considering that many Old Testament writers have lived through a lot of trauma. Maybe that trauma is part of what led them to picture God like this. And without taking away from their own voice, it is worth considering that texts like these may actually be less about God prescribing a punishment for disobedience, and more of the description from a traumatized people of the natural consequences of departing from God’s way of life. In today’s terms, God is not punishing us with wildfires, but the increased frequency and force of these fires is certainly connected to our continued extraction of fossil fuels that is leading to a climate crisis. God is not punishing us with mass shootings, but beloveds continue to be senselessly gunned down as they were just this past week in Ohio because law-makers keep taking money from the NRA instead of making laws to control guns. These devastations are never punishments from God. But there are consequences for human greed.
And as we hear in this conversation between Amaziah, who is basically head of Israel’s national cathedral, paid by the king and his wealthy elites, and Amos, Amaziah does not want Amos spouting off about these visions of coming destruction – descriptions of the natural consequences for the wealthy elites of a nation that oppresses some so that others can live in luxury. I appreciate how the Rev. Margaret Ernst, podcaster with SURJ Faith’s The Word Is Resistance, paraphrases what she imagines to be Amaziah’s inner thoughts about Amos:
“…what’s with this raggedy guy who says he’s a prophet causing such a stir and shouting about the status quo, saying that destruction is coming? Things look pretty good from [my] vantage point. What if what he says is true…? What if everything is about to change? What will [I] lose? Will [I] lose [my] summer house or the fellowship [I] got when [I] got promoted to one of the top positions at the Temple? What if people start paying attention, and they start questioning things, and challenging why there’s so much of a difference between the lives of [me] and [my] friends and the people at the bottom whose misery is intertwined with [my] luxury? Oh, no. We can’t have that happening here. Especially not *here* – not here in the capital near the center of everything, where people are doing very important things. So take your prophecy somewhere else [Amos]. Do not prophesy here.” (Rev. Margaret Ernst, “Do. Not. Prophesy. Here.” The Word Is Resistance podcast – Lectionary for July 14, 2019 – Amos 7:7-17. Podcast transcript.)
Amaziah is fearful of what he will lose if Amos keeps telling the truth about the oppression Amaziah and his friends keep benefitting from. And if we are honest, I think Amaziah shows up in both our communities today and in our own hearts when we learn the truth about injustice. The Amaziahs in our community are the ones who blame the poor for their poverty at public meetings in our county, because they are afraid of the radical changes that would be required if we admitted that the system is rigged against the poor. And before we get too comfortable pointing the finger at those Amaziahs, we must consider the Amaziahs within. We come face to face with the ways the prison industrial complex is not broken, but working as designed to hide the poor away from our communities, and the Amaziah within is still fearful when modern day prophets speak of dismantling that system to build something new. Amos is calling us back to God’s vision for a just society, and the Amaziahs in our community want to protect the status quo while the Amaziahs within get loud in our ears to tell us everything that would need to change to truly join God in re-ordering the world around justice.
So what do we do as God’s people, who see more clearly than ever the Amaziahs in the halls of power, as well as the Amaziahs clinging to the status quo in our own hearts? Thanks be to God, Amos reminds us in the vision shared at the beginning of this passage that the plumb line of God can bring us back to God’s way of life. The Hebrew word for ‘plumb line’ here is used several times in this passage and nowhere else in the Bible. Scholars aren’t sure how to translate it. It has been translated as ‘plumb line’, a constructive tool that ensures a wall is level and built to last. But it has also been translated as ‘pick ax’, which might match up with the sword imagery later in this chapter to describe the destruction of Jeroboam’s unjust kingdom. (Karla Suomala, Commentary on Amos 7:7-17 – July 14, 2013.) And maybe the good, hard news is that it is both plumb line and pick ax. Earlier in Amos chapter 5, Amos tells us the way to God’s new world: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live… Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:14-15 NRSV). Perhaps the mysterious tool God holds in her hand is a pick ax that, if we surrender to it, will destroy any vestiges of greed and oppression still clinging to our hearts and our communities while also acting as a plumb line, rooting us in ways of being that are set on level ground, building a world where everyone is free. Fossil fuel extraction, our reliance on police and prisons that punish, our fears about what life will look like for us in the new world will need to fall away with the force of a pick ax. And – healing ways of being with this planet, getting to the root causes to heal harm in our communities, and joining in solidarity with oppressed people will be our new foundation with the help of God’s plumb line. For the abolition of what is hurting God’s people is the breaking down, but it is also the building up. May the Amaziahs inside us give way to this word of liberation from Amos. And may that freeing word help us speak out in resistance to the Amaziahs in the halls of power today, refusing to be silent about the new world of God’s dreams. Amen.