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.
For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. (2:6)
The same repetition that characterized chapter one, "For three transgressions of [name of place]...and for four..." also carries into this second chapter except something unexpected happens. As the repetition in chapter one showed God's sovereignty over all nations with Amos naming a number of which had committed some serious violations against vulnerable groups of people, the use of this same literary repetition now includes the sins of Judah and Israel. Thus, the exceptionalism that typified Israel's relationship with God now no longer exists.
Israel has become just another nation in the sight of God. This is a fairly big step in Israel's relationship with God as Israel had been understood to have a unique relationship with God. The God of the Old Testament had been routinely identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, specifically using Israel's ancestors to convey God and Israel's distinctive relationship, Amos using the same repetition in naming the sins of Judah and Israel now discounts that distinction and shows Israel to be yet another, in a long, tragic line of corrupt and oppressive countries.
This is a dramatic fall from grace for Israel and Amos names the reason for it. They have ceased following the commands of God and they have stopped listening to their prophets. Even more, they told the prophets to not prophesy - to not tell them God's truth. Their refusal to heed God's commands or listen to God's prophets is manifest in their mistreatment of the poor and vulnerable. Read below how they have so dehumanized the poor:
- the affluent sell the poor for a cost of a pair of sandals,
- they trample on the head of the poor,
- they push the sick of their way,
- fathers and sons rape the same girl, and
- they use the garments given by the poor - which were supposed to be returned to the poor at night so that the poor might remain warm - for themselves.
The poor and vulnerable are dehumanized for the mere pleasure of the rich.
If ever a biblical passage could be applied to the United States today it is this one.
There are far too many self-proclaimed Christians who also readily proclaim American exceptionalism; the belief that the United States is God's new chosen nation to bring good news to the earth. Not only does this have no basis in Scripture, it defies the values that Amos calls for in Israel.
Using only this second chapter of Amos, we can see how Israel's distinctive relationship with God could have been maintained. They could have remained a distinctive people had they followed God's commands and listened to God's prophets. As we saw above, the uniqueness of being God's people is based on the treatment of the most vulnerable. Now read what Israel could have done to maintain their uniqueness:
- if the affluent had not sold the poor for silver or more sandals,
- if they had not trampled on the head of the poor,
- if they valued and recognized the contributions the poor made to the rest of society and thus, treated them with respect and dignity,
- if they had not pushed the sick out of their way,
- instead, if they had cared for the sick and gone out of their to bring healing to those afflicted,
- if women and young girls had been treated with value and great worth and had not been raped, and
- if the affluent had made certain that the poor did not lose the most basic valuables of life in order to pay back their debts.
Distinctive relationship with God is not based on quiet times (or the length of those quiet times to be sure), or the eloquence of one's prayers, or the amount of time spent serving institutional committees at church, or any of the things that we seem to value more and more in our local churches and certainly at the institutional level of the church. No! Distinction of our relationship with God is based entirely on how we treat the most vulnerable, at least according to Amos.
Even more, for those who dare to believe that the United States is God's new chosen people, let's look at what the United States is doing with each of Amos' charges:
- Selling the poor for a pair of sandals - income inequality between rich and poor in the United States continues to widen as it has for the last 30 years. In addition, donald trump and Speaker Paul Ryan's tax cut bill will help the top 5% keep more than $300,000 for themselves while the poorest Americans will see an equal amount of money (roughly 300,000) lost and many had their healthcare repealed due to the law.
- Push the sick out of the way - as just explained in the prior dot point, trump's Republican Party has considered it their highest goal to repeal President Obama's Affordable Care Act with absolutely nothing to replace it with. They did not have a better plan in mind. They just cannot stomach anyone having healthcare if it means that the health care industrial complex will no longer make zillions of dollars in profit.
- Fathers and sons rape the same girl - if there is one lesson we have learned this past year, it is that mistreatment of women will eventually come to light; unless you are donald trump. Almost daily, revelations of the mistreatment of women by Hollywood stars and people in important positions have come forth, long overdue. The only ones to escape these scandals has been people in the upper echelons of denominational churches (little has come to light and it is there to be certain) and donald trump. Though he has had close to 20 women accuse him of sexual assault, and though he has been shown to have had sex with multiple porn stars while married, and though he bragged about assaulting women on a bus to Billy Bush, the man has not had to pay any price for it. And evangelical voters love him. Sick, sick, sick.
- Further mistreatment of the poor - specifically this had to do with the repayment of loans so it is good to focus on one group particularly debt-ridden and that is students. In 2014, there was approximately $1.3 trillion of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. that affected 44 million borrowers who had an average outstanding loan balance of $37,172. What has Congress done to ameliorate student debt? Uber-millionaire, Republican funder, and Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has directed the DOE to limit state consumer protections against student loan servicers and for-profit colleges. Yep, she has made the problem worse.
And in all of this, the church continues to strive for civility than justice. By the standard Amos lays out for us the church is failing miserably. The church by and large has accepted the myth of American exceptionalism and ignored Amos' list of sins committed by Israel and now committed by the United States of America.
Just this week, the pastor of Jeff Sessions' church in Arlington, VA preached that while she disagrees with the policies of separating families, our political disagreements should be more civil. In other words, civility is more important than government-sanctioned child abuse. Let's just try to get along all the while donald trump's Republican Party violates and exploits the poor and most vulnerable every single day.
I have no intention to be civil while the oppressor has their boot on the necks of the oppressed.
The problem with the church today, as it was in Amos' time, is that we continue to ignore the most important of God's commands - to treat the poor and vulnerable with respect and dignity - and we continue to ignore the the words of the prophets.
And that is why we, like Israel, have lost our distinctive relationship with God. Let's forget making American great again. Let's just make the church faithful again.