Amos 5:11-15; 84; 22:24
On the outside wall of a synagogue in St. Paul, facing the Mississippi River is a saying from the prophet Amos: “”Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Whoever chose these words to be put in that place had an instinct for what is central to the prophet’s preaching. Those who drive or walk along the Mississippi River can hardly miss the point: May justice and righteousness roll through the land like the mighty Mississippi!
Amos, the sheepherder from Tekoa was sent by the Lord to the cities of the northern part of Israel to declare that God had seen the conditions there and would not tolerate them any longer.
According to Amos, what did God see? This is what he saw: he saw the misery of the poor and the luxury of the rich. He saw a population of haves and a population of have-nots. God saw the suburbs of Samaria with their swimming pools and their wine-tasting parties, and he saw the homeless people in the streets and the children afraid to go to school because of the guns and the drugs, and he said:
“I will smite the winter house with the summer home; and the
houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an
end, says the Lord. . . Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
and bring the poor of the land to an end. . . [who] buy the poor for
silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. . . The Lord has sworn by
the pride of Jacob: ‘Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall
not the land tremble on this account. . . ?” (3:15; 8:4-6:7-8)
The prophet Amos is an uncomfortable person to have around. A church that is not experiencing Amos that way has probably become complacently works-righteous and needs to repent. It is Amos who brought the word of the Lord so often quoted and made even more famous by Martin Luther King Jr.
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn
assemblies [worship services]. Even though you offer me your burnt
offerings. . . I will not accept them. . . Take away from me the noise
of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let
justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing
This theme recurs throughout the prophetic books; it is prominent in Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Lord loves the poor. The Lord sees the suffering of the poor. The Lord wants justice for the poor. He is not pleased with the affluent, no matter how many prayers they say and no matter how many church services they attend.
I don’t need to spell it out, do I? Congress debates reforms and possible extinction of our welfare and health programs, Federal Medicare and Medicaid programs and other programs that involve the poor. I am in no position to say what sort of reforms we need in the sphere of health care and public assistance; the more I read about it, the more uncertain I become, and the more I realize how little I know. So please do not view this article as Democratic Party propaganda. For all I know, it may be better to turn these matters back to the states. This is not my area of expertise.
I think I do know something, however, about taking the temperature of American culture, and on that front, I think there is plenty for biblical people to be concerned about. There is a mean spirit abroad in the land. There is a spirit of me-first. There is spirit of untrammeled self-interest and hedonism. What I see in print and hear on tasteless television advertising is repeated messages, both liminal and subliminal, that say, “You are free to construct your own life as you please without reference to anybody else.”
Here we are, then, in a land where untrammeled self-indulgence is recommended on every hand. The “Me Decade” is supposed to be over, the greedy eighties are said to be at an end, but the gap between haves and have-nots in America, almost all observers agree, is growing greater all the time. And the Lord spoke through the prophet Amos and said:
“You have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in
them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink
their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how
great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and turn aside the needy in the gate. . . Seek good, and not evil, that
you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you. . .
Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice. . . (5:11-15).
Our congregation is located where it is not so easy to avoid the presence of the poor. We see them. I wonder if that is not part of our vocation, to see the poor, to be the Lord’s eyes – because the Lord sees the poor, and he loves the poor, and he sends his people to serve the poor. This is a message that pervades the Scriptures from end to end. There is something seriously out of balance in American Christianity. I am personally opposed to abortion, but there is nothing explicit in the Bible about abortion. There is nothing explicit in the Bible about prayer in the public schools; there is nothing explicit in the Bible about the American flag or the right to have a gun. There are, however, thousands of explicit words in the Bible about justice and compassion for the poor. There are thousands of words in the Bible about defending those who are defenseless.
There is a harsh spirit in America today, a self-centered and callous spirit that goes against the grain of the gospel.
Which of these two non-biblical folk sayings is the spirit of the Christian gospel: (1) God helps those who help themselves. (2) There but for the grace of God go I.
Can there be any question about which one is biblical and which one is not? “God helps those who help themselves,” the great American creed, is definitively contradicted by Paul’s explicit words: “While we were still helpless, Christ did for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). The entire story of Jesus of Nazareth – his welcoming of sinners and outcasts, his radical undermining of all class distinctions, his ongoing conflicts with the self-satisfied and self-righteous, and his stories about God’s love for the poor and needy – teach us to say, always in every circumstance, not “Thank God I am not as other men,” like the Pharisee in the parable, but “There but for the grace of God go I.”
In the final analysis we can never forget to repeat the story, to tell it to ourselves every day:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was
rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you
might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Here is the ultimate reason for caring for the poor: that Jesus himself became poor. And why did he do this? He became poor in order to make us rich. Here is the heartbeat of the gospel, the promise that Jesus makes to all who come to him. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:2). Flannery O’Conner put her finger on it when she wrote that “we are all The Poor.” That’s what it means to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
When are we the closest to God? When we see ourselves as we really are: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come. . .” The world of getting and spending does not understand this. The world of plastic surgery and high fashion, the world of mergers and acquisition, the world of clawing and stabbing does not understand this. But as Paul the apostle said to those worlds, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom. 1:16).
As for me, I know myself. I know that I am self-willed and materialistic and neglectful of others. I know that I need a Savior to turn me from my own concerns to those of his needy people. He loves me in spite of myself. He loves the poor especially, because they have no one to notice them, but what is even more remarkable, he loves the rich too, He loves us too much to leave us the way we are – selfish, turned inward, focused on our own wishes all the time. He is at work in the church, at work loosening our grip on our own possessions, softening our hard hearts, helping us and guiding us like a loving father to show us the joy of generosity, the joy of forgiveness, the joy of helping, the joy of empathy, the joy of forgetting one’s self, the joy of giving to others, and then the most wonderful thing of all, the joy of reaching out our hands like a child at Christmas and receiving from the depth of the Lord’s bounty “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” as Ephesians says – “the immeasurable riches of his grace which he lavished upon us” (Eph. 1:7; 2:7). God is at work. May we all enlist in His work as we find ourselves called, and may we continue in that calling with full and thankful hearts until the Day of the Lord.