A Sermon on Amos 5:10-15, 21-24

Amos 5:10-15, 21-24
“A River of Justice”
A sermon by
Shawn Bawulski

Amos 5:10-15, 21-24 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
    and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
    and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
    but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
    but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
    and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
    and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
    for it is an evil time.
14 Seek good and not evil,
    that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
    just as you have said.
15 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.

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Recently my wife and I have been reading with our girls about people like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks.  We explained the historical contexts for these figures—slavery, Jim Crow—, and after thinking about it all for a while, in full earnestness my daughter asks, “Daddy, is everything fair in America now?”

The prophet Amos would appreciate her concern for justice.  I know I do.  Amos tackles the injustices of his day, and there are clear parallels between his world and ours.

The book of Amos in the OT might be unfamiliar to us, but it has so much to say to our world today.  Amos was an ordinary shepherd and a businessman.  God told him to go to Israel and warn the people of their sinful injustice.  Israel had become a wealthy nation, strong in military power.  She was an economic powerhouse.  And yet the rich overclass didn’t help the poor and vulnerable.  In fact, they exploited and abused them.  The cries of the oppressed fell on deaf ears.  Everyone was very religious, but they had no concern for the poor and needy.  Amos has some very strong words for people who maintain a society that tramples on those whom God cares about passionately.

Today this text tells us that worshipping God requires seeking justice towards our neighbour.  They can’t be separated.

I have three points to discuss this morning.  The first is on God’s regard for the oppressed, the second is on what is required of those who worship God, and the third is on a specific justice issue of our day.

Point 1: the Lord is deeply moved when the weak, poor, helpless, and vulnerable are crushed by the powerful.

God’s commitment to the poor is clear in the Law of Moses.  A brief survey will help us.  In the Law, repaying debts must not prevent someone from making a living.[1]  The dignity of the poor must be respected.[2]  Poor labourers are to be paid immediately.[3]  The remaining crop of grain, olives and grapes after harvest shall be set aside for them.[4]  They were to share one-tenth of the harvest with the vulnerable in society—immigrants, orphans and widows.[5]  Those in need could receive a loan at no interest.[6]  To prevent a crippling burden on the poor, debts were to be cancelled every seventh year.[7]  These examples from the Law show that God cares deeply about the vulnerable and so he cares about structures and systems that have power over them.   

As I mentioned before, God tells Amos to speak some very harsh words to his people.  God is passionate about ‘the least of these’ in their midst.  And so they receive an ironic critique.

The irony is that Israel was formed as a people delivered from oppression and social injustice in Egypt, and yet they had become like their former oppressors.  The tyrannical oppression of Israel in Egypt moved God’s heart.  God plagued the Egyptians in their injustice, and moved a sea to deliver an oppressed people to himself.  He then gives this newly formed people the Law of Moses, which was the foundation for a freed people to live differently, where they are structured by right relationships.  The Law’s social blueprint contained concern for justice and care for the weak and vulnerable.  It established a social structure that expressed the character of God—gracious, with a desire to have people live in communion with one another.  Fast forward 700 or so years to Amos’ day—they ignored the Law, especially the parts about social justice, and so ironically God’s people became the target of the God who fights for the oppressed. 

Amos gives specific examples of their failures.  He decries how people would go to worship God wearing clothes of the poor.[8]  Clothes were given as collateral for a loan but the Law requires[9] that they be returned by sunset so the person doesn’t freeze.  Yet in Amos’ day the powerful would just keep them.  The rich were unfair to the poor, suing them in a dirty court system that was bribed and bent in favour of the wealthy and connected.[10]  The Law required sharing with the poor[11] but Amos says that the powerful crushed the weak into dust.[12]  Amos accuses the wealthy and powerful of leveraging violence to maintain their lifestyle.[13]  The well-fed ate and drank as they cheated the weak and crushed the needy.[14]  The tax system was structured to put cruel, heavy burdens on the poor.  Wealth was accumulated by a privileged few and it was selfishly withheld from those who were struggling to survive.[15]  Amos describes wealthy merchants who are just itching for the Sabbath rest to be over so they can get back to the market to deceive customers with their cheating scales and weights.[16]  Wealthy landlords charged high rents to the poor for use of farm land, trapping them in poverty.[17] 

In many different ways the people had ignored the heart of God, who gave them the Law.  They valued wealth and abundance over justice and compassion.  They bled the life out of the lower class, who felt like they couldn’t breathe. 

Amos says that God’s people will be judged for their lack of justice.  They will be kicked out of their land.  Their military will be defeated.  They will be socially and economically devastated.  The Israelites think that God’s love for them means that they can ignore God’s love for justice.  They think that they can tune out his concern for the weak and poor.  They were dead wrong about that.

So we see that the Lord is deeply moved when the weak, poor, helpless, and vulnerable are crushed by the powerful.  We see this in Israel’s history.  We also see this in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.  For example, In the gospels it says that Jesus, “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”[18] 

So as worshippers of the God of justice, what might this require of us?  That leads to my second point.

Point 2: To experience the presence of God, we must practice justice.

Worshipping God is not a formula to follow.  Amos tells us that sort of “magical” view of it is just noise.  Worshiping God is empty if it’s not done with a heart of love for God and for neighbour- and that means a commitment to act in righteousness.  If you really worship God, you must walk in his ways.  You must love whom he loves: the poor and weak.  You cannot rightly worship God and neglect justice.  The ethics of a worshipper really matter!  Religion without love for God is repugnant.  And if we really love God, we will also love the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.  God loves everyone, of course, but these are his first love, and they should be ours, too. 

If we are to love ‘the least of these’, we must address the powers that cause their oppression.  In other words, we must pursue justice.  Justice is the outworking of God’s character.  A famous theologian has said that ‘justice is what love looks like in public’.[19]  God’s people should reflect God’s character in all their relationships, with neighbours both near and far. 

Amos calls out Israel for thinking that because they were God’s people, they would be fine no matter what.  But being God’s people does not mean we’re automatically OK.  In fact, it is a great privilege that also carries a responsibility to treat the weak and vulnerable with justice and mercy.  And we cannot be complicit in systems that lack justice.  Rather, we must condemn and dismantle those structures.  God expects us to seek systems where everyone is able to thrive and flourish, and injustice is a threat to that.   A good society is one where justice rolls down!

Amos knew all about dry rivers that would only flow after the occasional rainfall.  We live in AZ—sound familiar?  Life in a dessert depends on water—without it, we can’t live.  In the same way, Amos says that justice should flow continually, like a year-round river, not like the undependable dry rivers that only have water when it rains.  Life in the community requires justice—without it, we can’t live together.  An unjust society will die.  It will rot from the inside out.  Injustice is a poison.  Genuine justice cultivates life, it seeks life for everyone. 

We who know the God of righteousness have a special responsibility to seek his justice.  And it is something to be done—it is not abstract or merely theoretical.  Justice is concrete.  Justice is embodied.  And we who are God’s people must embody his justice. 

Amos’ message is essentially about generosity.  Not merely giving money, but a spirit of generosity.  It is compassion, not blame, towards the oppressed.  It’s an openness to give away one’s privilege and advantage for the sake of the oppressed and disadvantaged.  The generosity of God towards us leads to our generosity towards others.  We will have a generous spirit that cares enough to discover the facts of a problem.  We genuinely listen to unheard voices.  We are willing to work towards a just solution.  We will avoid stereotypes.  We will not be dismissive.  We reflect God’s heart of love for the poor and oppressed.

We need to repent from selfishness.  From lack of concern, or from feigned but insincere concern.  We need to repent from using our affluence to insulate ourselves from their suffering. 

Jesus commands us to love our neighbours.[20]  Someone once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”  Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  This story is probably familiar to many of us.  But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us that this is just the start.  King says,

“On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[21]
We must ask, “why is this road creating so many victims?”, and “so what are we going to do about it?” If we are to worship God, we must seek justice. 

I’ll now turn to apply this call for justice to our context.

Point 3: Christians must seek racial justice.

The message of Amos has much to say to us today.  While there are many areas of injustice I might mention, I’d like to focus on one in particular—racial injustice.  Not only is this a timely topic, but it runs deep in American culture and history.  Racism is America’s original sin.

The first thing we must recognize is that racial injustice is part of the basic structure of American society, and it’s been true from the very beginning.  From African-Americans to Latinos to Indigenous peoples, people of color are oppressed, abused, and disadvantaged.  Our laws, institutions, customs, and culture systematically give unfair advantages to those of us who are white.  And while I hope most of us in this room are not consciously racist, the world around us today is deeply shaped by racial injustice.  I know that might seem like a strong claim, so let me provide just a few bits of evidence of support.

African-Americans are 13% of the population, but are 31% of those who are killed by police, and 39% of those who are killed by police even though they weren’t attacking.[22]  Our black brothers and sisters are suffering police brutality and killings at very high rates.  This is not OK.

A study in Arizona found state highway patrol are 3.5 times more likely to search a stopped Native American, and 2.5 times more likely to search a stopped African American or Latino, than a white person. And yet, whites who were searched were more likely than all other groups to be transporting drugs, guns, or other contraband.[23]   This is not OK.

Research shows that black and white people use marijuana at nearly identical rates.  The problem is that black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possessing the drug—and remember, they don’t use it any more frequently that white people do.[24]  This is not OK.

Let’s talk about the court system.  Black people are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white people.  Once convicted, black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes.[25]  This is not OK.

These injustices touch all areas of life, including education.  For example, university professors are more likely to respond to inquiries from a white male prospective grad student than a female or person of color.[26]  It’s easier to get into university if you’re white.  This is not OK.

Finally, I’ll mention employment. One study found that resumes with typically white sounding names like Greg or Emily were 50% more likely to get called for a job interview than those with a typically sounding black names like Jamal or Lakisha—even though all the other qualifications are the same.  I have been advantaged in life because my name is Shawn Bawulski and not DeShawn Jackson.  This is not OK.

Racial injustice runs throughout American life.  And it runs contrary to the Christian gospel.  As the people of God, we have great responsibility to act, to examine ourselves, and to work to bring change.  We must name these sinful structures, condemn them, and work towards justice.    

Now there are many concrete actions we can take—from criminal justice reform to better police training and accountability to housing laws and policies.  We need to seek those out and think through the details carefully.  But for this morning, I want to remind us about a spirit of generosity.  We need a spirit that’s willing to do the work of discovering the facts of racial injustice.  We must have the generosity to take a stance of compassion, not blame or dismissal.  We must have the generosity to drop any defensiveness and really listen to our black and brown brothers and sisters.  God requires of us the generosity to be willing to consider how we might be advantaged because of our race, and how we have a responsibility to fight racial injustice. 

To my white brothers and sisters in particular, we must have the generosity to ask ourselves hard questions like, “How have I benefited from an America that favors my whiteness?”  We also need to ask ourselves, “What is God asking me to do to bring racial justice, to make the river of justice roll?” 

Dr. Martin Luther King has a famous work titled, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.  I assign it to all my students.  In this letter, there’s one paragraph that is especially powerful.  King writes,

“…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

May this never be true of us, and where it is, may we repent.

Amos is right—worshipping God requires seeking justice towards our neighbour.  When my daughter asked me, “Daddy, is everything fair in America now?” I replied “No, sweetheart, it isn’t.  It’s still not fair for black and brown people.  It’s not fair for a lot of people.” 

We who worship Jesus can’t accept the status quo.  We must roll up our sleeves and do the difficult, demanding work of making justice roll like waters, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!

[1] (Deut 24:6, 12f, 17)
[2] (Deut 24:10f)
[3] (Deut 24:14)
[4] (Deut 24:19-22)
[5] (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)
[6] (Exodus 22:25)
[7] (Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11)
[8] Amos 2:8
[9] (see ex 22:26-27; Duet 24:12-13)
[10] Amos 5:12
[11] (Ex 22:21-23; Deut 16:11, 14)
[12] Amos 2:7
[13] Amos 3:9
[14] Amos 4:1
[15] Amos 5:10-12
[16] Amos 8:4-6
[17] Amos 5:11, 8:4
[18] Matt 9:36
[20] (Matt. 22:36-40)
[25] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/ and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/fourteen-examples-of-raci_b_658947.html
[26] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/24/study-finds-faculty-members-are-more-likely-respond-white-males-others