Are Americans like the Israelites in Amos’ day? Are we wealthy? Are we a religious people? And yet are we oppressing others?
First, let’s consider our wealth. The Israelites in Amos day were riding a wave of wealth. When you compare Americans with so many places around the world, we are wealthy. For the most part we are better off than many.
Wealth in and of itself is not wrong, but wealth can quickly take us to a place of arrogant thinking, “I worked hard, I earned it, and it’s mine to spend.” In effect we don’t have to trust in the Lord, because most of us have so much money to care for us. And though we wouldn’t say this, that self-reliance can become our outlook, and worse we can view the poor as below us.
So we need to ask, in our wealth, do we oppress the poor? America is consistently ranked as one of the most generous countries in the world. But let this passage be a warning to us. Wealth has a strong tendency to cloud our vision, and thus we should remember what Micah said, and walk humbly with our God. In particular we Americans need to grapple with our history of racism, slavery and how that continues to this day.
Americans, we are wealthy, we are also religious. Consider all the churches in our country. Where I live in Lancaster County, we are one of the so-called Bible belts in the USA because there are not only tons of churches but loads of other religious organizations here.
But we need to examine our religiosity just like Amos was examining Israel. Is ours a religion of the heart, or is it just ritualistic? God told Israel he hated their worship services because though they looked good going to worship, deep down inside their hearts were filled with hypocrisy. It was as if all they thought God cared about was that the people practiced the rituals. For Israel this was Sabbath-keeping, primarily on Saturdays, going to temple or synagogue and attending a worship service, giving sacrifices. Is that what God really wants? No. Especially when you consider that the rest of the days of their lives were filled with selfishness, focusing on wealth, treating people with injustice.
For us Americans, it would be a pattern of living Monday through Saturday as angry, greedy, oppressive people. If that sounds extreme, or nothing like you, then it could be a pattern such that throughout Monday to Saturday we give little attention to our relationship with God. We could watch a lot of television, but spend little time in prayer. We might give a lot of time and money to hobbies and eating food, but little studying Scripture to know God better. We might have a lot of conversation about sports with the neighbors, but no mention of our relationship with God. Then we come to church on Sunday, maybe place money in the offering, and sing with a smile. Perhaps we even stay for Sunday School, maybe even mentioning a prayer request. We look like Christians on Sunday, but the rest of week we’re totally different.
God says he hates worship services like that. He would rather us live lives of mercy and justice the rest of the week, as we walk humbly with him.
Israel looked at their wealth and concluded that God had blessed them, that they were his chosen people, and all they needed to do was keep doing the religious rituals, and they would be wealthy, and could just keep living life, including oppressing the poor, and not have a heart for the Lord.
How do we avoid arrogance that comes from wealth? How do we avoid just religious ritual? How can we have a heart that is on fire for the Lord?
The Lord answers these vital questions in the central passage of the prophecy, Amos 5:1-17. He says that if we want a heart on fire for the Lord, we should start by repenting. Notice in verse 1 that this section is a lament. So often in Scripture, it is the people, especially in the psalms, who lament, asking God to rescue them. Here in Amos 5, however, it is God who laments about his people. A lament is a crying out, deeply emotional, expressing pain and longing for the situation to change. That’s what God is doing in this section. In this lament, God longs for his people to repent. How?
First of all notice the repetition of the phrase “seek the Lord and live” in verses 4, 6, and 14. When something is repeated three times, you know that is important. What does “seek” mean? “Looking deeply. To seek with care, to inquire about, to investigate.” This is not an apathetic seeking. My mom used to say that at times, “I looked with my eyes closed.” She would ask me to get something out of a closet, and I would open the closet, not quickly or easily see the item, and say, “I can’t find it.” My eyes were open, but she was right, I wasn’t seeking intently. What she wanted to find was there in the closet, of course, but it would take some effort to look for it. I might have to move some things around to uncover it. That’s what God is talking about, an intent seeking.
Second, this repentance is a seeking for what? The Lord. Think about what it means to seek the Lord. Do you come to worship on Sunday hoping to make up for being distant from God the rest of the week? Worship him with all your heart! Seek him and live. We need to be a people who seek God, and that means pursuing justice and righteousness, not religious ritual. Seek him together as a church family, and seek him individually. In the previous series on identity. We are children of God, made alive in Christ, and God’s Spirit lives in us. Seek the one in whose image you are made, who loves you and wants to be close to you. That means learning what God’s heart beats for.
What does God’s heart beat for? Amos tells us: true worshipers who lives are marked by mercy and justice. In Amos 5:1-17, for example, the prophet says in verse 7 that the people turned justice in bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground. Likewise in verse 10 he says that they hate the one who reproves in court and despise the one who tells the truth. That word “reproves” is the idea of an arbitrator, or one who upholds justice in a court. God says they hate that.
As he continues in verses 11 and 12, we read a phrase that brings us back to our current events topic this week’s series of posts seeks to address: “You deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” Does that apply to the issue of affordable housing? Is certainly does. In our next post, we’ll attempt to apply what we have learned about mercy and justice to the concern about affordable housing.