By Bill Mefford
Each week (hopefully), I will look at a chapter in a book of the Minor Prophets, moving through them chronologically. As it should be with the Prophets, I will reflect on what they are saying in their context and relate it to ours.
“Seek me and live.” (Amos 5:4)
In chapter four Amos showed himself to be quite abrasive to the wives of those who benefited from injustice, calling them “cows of Bashan.” Ouch. This was not a one-time outburst for Amos though. Amos continues that cheery attitude in this chapter as well.
God names very specifically what the people of Israel are doing that has caused so much anger and displeasure. In addition to trampling on the poor and building houses as symbols of their affluence, the people have “afflicted” the righteous, taken bribes for their own gain, and have pushed aside the needy in order to get them out of their view as they come into the city.
There is a lot here.
First, God identifies the needy and vulnerable as “righteous.” God does not do what the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States do, which is judge the needy based on their morality and then give to who is deemed “worthy” while denying the “unworthy” poor anything. All the while we hide our stinginess behind fake church concepts like “being good stewards.” The truth is, if God were like us none of us would be saved. God equates the needy and vulnerable - ALL the needy and vulnerable - as righteous, regardless of their personal morality.
Next, what is significant and quite timely for us is that the people of Israel are guilty for literally pushing the needy aside from the city gate. Why are the needy pushed aside? Because if we can remove the need from our eyesight, then we do not feel bad for ignoring their plight. We can literally have our cake, eat it all, and not share one damn piece.
We still do this. I grew up in the suburbs and was taught not to venture into some parts of the city. Fortunately for me, highways were constructed so that I would never have to even drive through those parts.. Entire cities have been structured by separating the wealthy from the poor and ensuring that the wealthy do not have to see the poor.
Case in point, I have walked through a poor neighborhood in Houston that was entirely Section 8 housing (privately owned housing for low-income tenants), but half of the neighborhood had the outside of their homes painted and fixed up (though nothing was done to fix the inside), while the other half - literally houses across the street from each other - were still run down inside and out. The reason? Because there were certain seats in the newly constructed Houston Astros stadium that could see part of the neighborhood when the stadium was open. So, because they did not want baseball fans to have to see poverty while they watched the Astros play, they painted and fixed up every house within view.
We go a long way to ensure we do not have to see the poor.
And all the while the people of Israel are pushing aside the needy and judging them not worthy, they are continuing to worship God, seeking God’s blessing, counting on their unique relationship with God to see them through. God is not having it.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
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.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps. (5:21-23)
When we push aside the needy and vulnerable from our sight, whether that is physically pushing them aside or accepting the structured segregation built by the larger society and sanctioned by our churches as legitimate, our worship is meaningless. Worse than meaningless, our worship actually makes God sick; God “takes no delight,” does not look upon nor listen to our worship when it is done while we mistreat and push aside the needy and vulnerable.
And God begins this chapter reminding all of us who God is. God goes to great lengths to describe who God is. Here is one section:
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name,
who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
so that destruction comes upon the fortress. (5:8-9)
God wants the people to know that God is powerful and more than able to do what God has promised. In other words, God is serious. The destruction promised the people for their mistreatment and intentional ignorance is real and is coming.
But yet, three separate times, throughout this chapter, God pleads for the people to come back to God. “Seek God and live” is the phrase used again and again and again. How do God’s people seek God so that they shall live? By acknowledging the poor and needy and vulnerable among us and by responding to them as God has responded to us. Our efforts to secure our lives, to safeguard what we own as ours while we cover it with respectable religiosity will end in our own ruin. Our life is found through sharing what God has so lavishly given us: our property, our materials, our love and our lives. This is what it means to live.