Sunday, June 06, 2010

Complainin' Amos

This is a chapter that I threw out of my book:

What does God do when a king or a nation or a town does the opposite of their command from God? What if they oppress instead of assist the poor? What does God do, how does He right the wrong?

Well, in ancient times, God would first send out a prophet. He might send an Elijah, to pronounce punishment on a nation, or he might send an Elisha to reform the government. But usually God will first send a spokesperson, a warner, to clearly inform the people what would happen if they continue in the route of oppression. This is Amos.

Amos was a shepherd, who cared for his flock and plowed his fields. He wasn’t doing much one day when God spoke to him—‘Amos, you’re my prophet now, go out and tell the king what I said.” Amos was shocked, “I am no prophet! Do you see me flailing around like a prophet? Do you see me speaking to kings? Do you see me trying to grab the ear of the high and mighty? I’m a humble man, just a shepherd.” “Try again, Amos—I make prophets, and so that’s what you are.” Most prophets of ancient days weren’t of the John the Baptist model. Most of them didn’t hang out in nowheresville, prefering their mesquite raw, straight off the tree, and hold the meat, please. No, most prophets liked the high life, the rich clothes, the occasional orgy (when they aren’t fasting, of course), and getting the attentions of the nobility—especially the female nobility. Most ancient prophets followed the model of Rasputin rather than Gandhi. The occasional trance, a flood of flattering comments, a lucky break in a prediction and a number of sermons against the king’s enemies and a prophet can have room and board for life, as well as a significant advisory position.

This model of prophet—shockingly!—led to much abuse. I know it’s hard to believe, but many prophets of this type didn’t actually hear from God at all! Some of them might even be said to—and I say this in fullest confidence—be deceiving those they spoke to. This is why God had to pull his true prophets from different stock. He didn’t want his prophets to be concerned primarily with the desires of the high and mighty. Rather, he wanted his chosen spokespeople to say the hard truths, and to speak for the lowly and needy. Thus, God made unlikely choices for prophets—Jeremiah, the young; Michaiah, the irritating; Jonah, the xenophobe; Habakkuk, the questioner of God; and Amos, the lowly shepherd.

Well, Amos had heard prophets before, and he knew that they flattered the nation and preached against the kings enemies. But Amos had a judgment against Israel—a nation his own home (Judah) has had border disputes for decades. How would the king of Israel, Jeroboam II, ever listen to that? Let’s see, Amos thought. Ah, I know. God has plenty to say about the surrounding nations, why not start with them? So Amos stood before Jeroboam II and opened his mouth and spoke first about Damascus.

“Damascus,” he said, “used excessive violence in war, and so Yahweh, the God of Jerusalem will destroy him.” So far, so good. Even though Amos mentioned that Yahweh was of Jerusalem, not Carmel where Jeroboam worshipped Yahweh, at least Jeroboam was still listening. “Gaza,” he continued, “enslaved a whole people, and so Yahweh will destroy them and all of the Philistines.” The king is nodding now—that’s a good sign. Then Amos continued with condemning Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. All neighboring countries, all condemned to punishment. The king wasn’t displeased, but he didn’t hear anything really new. This was the kind of stuff he could hear from any of his local prophets. Now, thought Amos, we can reel him in. “As for Judah, they have ignored Yahweh’s laws and so they will be destroyed by fire.” King Jeroboam II was smiling now, for Amos, a prophet from Judah, was condemning his own nation. He liked this new prophet—Amos was saying what he wanted to hear. But there was a bit of confusion as well… What were these laws of Yahweh? He couldn’t remember any laws that God had laid down that Judah wasn’t obeying that the king’s own nation was.

Now it was time for the coup d’gras. “But Israel, you are also condemned. You say that you worship Yahweh, but you ignore the law of God daily. Look at what you are doing to the poor? The poor have debts and so you steal their livelihood to force them to repay! You sell those who owe you money into slavery because they weren’t able to repay you for a pair of shoes! You raise the rents of the poor, so that they would be bound to you eternally! And if someone needs shelter for a night, you drive them away! You immoral, godless people! When you were under the thumb of the Amorites, didn’t God deliver you? And when you were enslaved in Egypt, didn’t Yahweh redeem you? Then why are you acting like the power, the great, the mighty? You are but a nation of slaves, set free by God! You are but the poor, made wealthy by God! Show your gratitude by doing justice to the needy!”

This rampage became so heated, that a priest, standing by his king said, “Why don’t you go back to Judah and prophesy to them? We have plenty of prophets here. We don’t need to hear your diatribe!” Amos responded, “I am not a professional prophet, but a shepherd, called by God to come here and speak to Jeroboam. Because, you priest, are complaining about God’s messenger, simply because he isn’t saying what you like, then your wife will trade her sexual favors to strangers for food and your house will be divided and sold to immigrants!”

A prophets life isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to tell people with power and authority God’s true message that they’re messing up and will face judgment unless they change their ways. It’s not a popular message. But God has always found someone to say it. Most of the time, God was telling his people to live according to His law, that he gave to Moses. And very frequently, he was reminding them to do right by the poor. Isaiah told the people not to steal from the poor.33 Ezekiel told them not to take interest on loans to the poor. Jeremiah reminded them to defend the needy in the court.35 And all of them, at one point or another, commanded the people to assist the poor when they were in need—do acts of charity. To not give to the needy was a sin before God, disobedience to his law.

It is so easy to forget the poor. And it is easier to blame the poor for the tragedies they face. “If only they would work harder!” “They are trying to steal from us!” In the end, though, all oppression comes from two sources—“We are afraid of these lower class,” and “They would be better off if only they were like us.” A person doesn’t become financially secure by being smarter than others or by being more like the middle class. A person doesn’t become wealthy by doing good or by being wise. A person becomes financially secure because some Fate has granted them a huge amount of Fortune. You can look at it one of two ways—either you get lucky, or God grants you a huge favor.

God, of course, sees wealth as a loan, a favor. He picks certain poor and lowly and says, “Here’s someone I can make lucky” and he grants them wealth or power or fame. Or some combination thereof. And they are released from poverty, from debt, from a lower class lifestyle.

This doesn’t sound fair. And it isn’t. Why should God pick certain people for the “good life” and others are left behind? Many of the poor people I know and live with would say, “Why them? Why couldn’t it have been me?” And, from all I read in the Bible, I can say, “You are the lucky ones.” Because, no matter how much debt they have, they are free of the larger debt of God.
Personal wealth is a debt that is owed. Freedom is a debt that is owed. And God demands a repayment of the favor. His demands are not what some think. Some think that if we are wealthy, we owe the government, or maybe a tithe to a wealthy church. That if we are free, we owe it to veterans. That if we have power, we owe the people who have given us that power. But God demands something different. He says, “If you have wealth, you owe it to me to give it to the poor. Not to wealthy churches, or to a greedy government. Rather, you should use your wealth to help the poor. And if you have freedom, you have a debt to those who do not yet have freedom. Not to kill them, but to grant them life, to redeem them with your freedom. If you have power, you have a debt to assist the powerless—the elderly, the sick, the helpless, the outcast.

This is the message of the prophets—God set us free, and he wants us to grant freedom to others. God gave us power, so he wants us to assist the powerless. God gave us wealth, so he wants us to surrender that wealth to the poor. It doesn’t matter if the enslaved, the powerless or the poor are worthy according to our middle-class standards. That’s not our job, that’s God’s job. It is our task to pay the debt to God. And we pay it to God by giving to the needy.

It is a not well-known fact that for people who live on the street, socks are as good as gold. If you are walking around all day, trying to go to a meal or earn some money, it isn’t long until the wear of boots and the puddles one walks in wears a pair of socks out. On the street, if one’s socks have holes, then one’s feet will soon have holes. As a pastor to the homeless, it is one of my noble responsibilities to hand out socks. Because our resources are slim, I hand out one pair of socks per request, so I can hand out socks again next time.

But suppose, as sometimes happens, that I give to one of the folks on the street the responsibility to hand out socks to folks. I am handing to them the great wealth of socks to grant them to others. Some, whom I give this responsibility to, hand out two or three socks to certain people who really need it. I understand that compulsion. But suppose the person to whom I handed the bag of socks decided, in their anxiety, to keep all the socks for themselves. After all, eventually they would need them all, so why not keep them?

Because it is clear that the socks were not meant for one person—there are a hundred pairs of socks there! The socks were meant to be distributed, not horded by one. But once a person has a hold of a resource, no matter how enormous, they begin considering it their own. And once a possession is considered our own, we absorb it as a part of ourselves.

This is what happens to everyone who has wealth. It becomes a part of ourselves, inseparable from our own personal wants, needs and desires. Perhaps other people need that wealth, but an array of excuses come up in our minds in order that we might not separate from that which Another once gave us. The issue is not the need of others, or the worthiness of others, it is the fact that we do not want to separate our own from ourselves.

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