It is the middle of summer, and the lectionary has landed the prophet Amos on our laps. The prophet’s uncompromising words probably feel as if they’re coming at us sideways, on a night we’d rather just have an edifying parable and some gentle music to go with the cold lemonade. “Then the Lord said to me, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that days… the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!’” Oh Amos… it is one thing to hear your words on a dreary March evening in Lent; it is quite another to be subjected to such words in July.
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But maybe that’s the point. Amos was writing in the 8th century BCE, a kind of summertime in the life of Israel. The united Israel of David and Solomon had been split in two, yet the Northern Kingdom into which Amos spoke his hard words was stable and prosperous. A good many people in the land would have assumed they had little reason to pay attention to this prophet; why are you talking judgement, when things are going so well? The passage, though, opens with Amos being shown “a basket of summer fruit,” which in the original Hebrew suggests fruit right on the edge of being over-ripe. Amos is convinced, in other words, that what looks like abundance and prosperity is actually a sign that things are beginning to go bad; to rot.
This is what he describes is actually going on: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?” When will the festival end, and when will the day of Sabbath rest be done, so we can get back to the business of making money? This making of money has become the driving force in a society that was to be driven by torah-shaped fairness and compassion. “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances…” Amos is unveiling corrupt practices here, in which the grain baskets are cut in size, the prices hiked, and the scales fixed. They are “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” Amos cries. What’s more, they’re “selling the sweepings of the wheat,” which is something never to be done. According to Leviticus, the “sweepings” or “gleanings” of any harvest are always to be left where they fall, to be gathered by the poor. This is a people that has forgotten the very things that were to define it.
And that’s the point. Unlike those who were content to bask in that climate of economic prosperity and political stability, Amos’s eyes are fixed on the people who have landed on the edge of things, and whose impoverishment is directly related to the wealth of the prosperous. Amos reads this as being evidence that things have gone rotten; as a demonstration that Israel is no longer a nation shaped by the torah and by covenant faithfulness. He’s not simply the ancient world’s version of a social justice crusader; not in a narrow sense. Amos reads these issues as proof of a deeper problem.
And so Amos continues, “The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” It doesn’t matter that your borders are secure and your markets thriving, there is a deep-seated disease in the land which will cause it to all come crashing down. “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land,” writes Amos, yet it is not going to be “a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” Well, you might think, at least it isn’t going to be a literal famine. Yet for Amos, the only thing that will give Israel a fighting chance is an immersion in its foundational texts and the hearing of God’s new song and new word. That’s the only thing that can help them to re-order their society, by which to reclaim their identity as God’s counter-cultural nation. Without that, they’re sunk. With that in view, what Amos writes next is haunting: “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
Though a very different sort of text, in some sense the gospel reading for today makes something of the same point about the need to attend first to the word. In this story, Jesus and his companions enter a village “where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’”
Its helpful to recall that this story follows right on the heels of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus had offered such a strong image of boundary-breaking selflessness and merciful kindness as lying at the heart of the law. You might think that given that, Martha is on the right track. What matters here is great hospitality and servanthood—setting out a good meal and making sure all the details are in place—not sitting all doe-eyed at the feet of the teacher.
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’” I had a parishioner in my former congregation whose blood would boil when she read this. If just sitting there is so great, who is going to get the coffee going, organize the pot-luck, make sure everything is ready for worship? You think all of this stuff just happens?
Well two things. First off, Martha probably did need to be challenged to slow down and stop getting so wound up, “worried and distracted by many things.” Some personalities need that challenge, otherwise they get terribly out of balance. Secondly, though, we need to set aside any picture of Mary as kind of sitting in a kind of rapt adoration, sighing piously at his every word. To sit at the feet of a teacher was the posture of the learner, just as Paul sat at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel. It was also a place in which only men sat, for only men were deemed capable—even worthy—of learning in that fashion, and in turn of taking their learnings and themselves becoming teachers. It is a shocking move for a woman to place herself in such a posture. It is even more shocking that Jesus not only allowed her to do this; he also powerfully validated her for doing so. Here David Jeffrey comments,
Here, as an epilogue to the main narrative thrust of this and the previous chapter, it seems that Luke intends us to perceive a complementarity: while active service of the Lord coupled with love of one’s neighbor is a hallmark of the disciple’s life, none can practice it rightly without sitting at the feet of the Lord.
None can practice discipleship rightly without attending to the word of the Lord, which takes us back to Amos. Whereas Martha’s issue seems to be that she’s too busily activist to pay attention to the word, for Amos the issue is that a failure to live the word was causing a whole nation to derail in corruption and merciless greed. Amos’s line about the poor being bought for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals does have some particular poignancy for our own time. I’d venture to guess that if we all took a look at our own shoes and sandals, most of us would find they were manufactured in factories in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, maybe Indonesia. The specter of unsafe, crowded sweatshops filled with workers barely earning subsistence wages hangs over so many of our purchases. Yes of course the situation for us is far more complex than it was for the Israel of Amos’s time. He was seeing rigged scales in the marketplace; we’re faced with a global market in which it is hard to begin to know how even our so-called “ethical purchases” were produced. A clothing factory in Bangladesh collapses, killing hundreds of workers, and we swear off buying t-shirts manufactured in that country… but what do we know about the conditions in neighboring Indonesia? A major running shoe company puts pressure on the Chinese government to increase the workers’ wages, which results in the contract producers simply moving its factories to another country. And though they might be low paying subsistence jobs, they are at least jobs aren’t they?
I don’t pretend to have the answers, and I think that to try to reduce it all to any kind of solution that could be offered in the closing minute of a sermon would be naïve. I do think, though, that to sit at the feet of Amos as he offers his tough truth-telling words is important. At the very least we know we’ve got a problem; at the very least we know that this simply isn’t the way it is supposed to be. At the very least, we need to know that a defeatist posture in which we just throw up our hands and say “what can I do about it anyway” is not going to cut it. Like Amos, we need to learn to pay attention not to what is happening at the centre—where things look stable and prosperous—but to the edges. Under God’s strange economy, that is so often where the real story is to be found.