Text in Context

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” 

Amos 7:10-13

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.  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.

Amos 8:11-12

[Amos 7:10-13 part of lectionary text for July 14; Amos 8:1-12 lectionary text for July 21, 2019] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos+8%3A1-12&version=NRSV

I try to read the coming-Sunday’s texts on Monday, to live with them through the week, to see how text and context read each other.  Sometimes the connecting line is subtle, so personal that I am not entirely sure whether I am connecting dots or marking them in myself.  All I can do in such a case is to re-commit myself, every week, to read the word and read my world, each in light of the other.  All I can do in such a case is pray that through practice and repetition and return, the discipline of reading and re-reading, I am not just reading the text but finding myself read, writing and re-writing my life over and over on the way limned by the Word.

That’s why I do this.

Then there are the weeks when I open my Bible to the text prescribed by the lectionary, and find the connecting line from word to world writ stark and bold.  When the vision is not just personal nor even particularly subtle, but writ in letters so large and ‘plain … that a runner may read it’ (Hab 2:2).  And because the lectionary is a contrivance — useful but not the word itself — sometimes the connection crosses the lines between lectionary divisions — just as the news is not over when we put our paper in the recycling but continues across days and weeks.

There is a nation, the text says.  A nation enjoying the security of its ‘restored’ borders (2 Kings 14:25) and a season of prosperity.  A nation of ‘great houses’ and ‘houses of ivory,’ a ‘winter house’ and a ‘summer house’ (Amos 2:15).  A nation whose residents have ‘built houses of hewn stone’ and ‘planted pleasant vineyards’ (5:11), whose fortunate ‘lounge on their couches’ and eat and drink like gourmands (6:4-6).  Who amass the latest in luxury items and experiences, who enjoy a rising real estate and stock portfolio.  A nation whose leaders claim fidelity to the ideal’s claim on their identity, with ‘festivals’ and ‘solemn assemblies’ (5:21), with concerts (5:23), and parades and fireworks.  There is a nation urged to rejoice in its own strength (6:13)

Yet a nation which will not hear the one who ‘reproves in the gate’ (5:10).  A leader who calls judgment conspiracy (7:10) and seeks to eject the one who sees affluence and power — ‘something good’ — and insists on writing them ‘bad.’ 

‘The land cannot bear all his words,’ the leader says (7:10).  Conspiracy, the leader charges (7:10).  ‘Go, flee away’ (7:12), the leader commands, go back to where you came from.   The leader does not engage with the substance of the proclamation (perhaps Amos’s charges are irrefutable — the poor are trampled (5:11), brought to ruin (8:4), sold for silver (8:6); righteous are afflicted, bribery is rife, the needy are pushed aside (5:12); religious festivals are mere pauses in practices of deceit (8:5)).  Instead, the leader asserts that the land, the city, the sanctuary are the king’s (7:13), as if possession entails exclusive right to speech.  As if any countervailing voice is an act of infidelity, even treason, to the nation’s ideals, rather than the plaint of the LORD God-self who charges the nation with having betrayed its own founding covenant, the writing by which it was formed (2:4).

There is a nation which ‘commanded the prophets saying ‘You shall not prophesy’’ (2:12).  

I do not know whether I would have recognized Amos as the LORD’s messenger.  Living as I do in a house (singular), able to lounge in bed or on the couch, aware that my fridge and cupboards are filled with food, my closet with clothes, my shelves with books, Amos’s word would have made me uncomfortable.  (Because it does.)  I might have disagreed with Amos’s assessment — he finds only falsehood, from sanctuary to market to the court in the gate, in a tone so strident that I suspect he exaggerates, ignores the small mercies that must also have existed.  (Amos prophesies imminent and ultimate disaster, yet the nation is stable for decades after his own.)  Even if I entirely agreed with Amos’s social diagnosis, I likely would have critiqued his prescribed remedy.  The rolling down of justice with an accompanying flood of righteousness (5:24) sounds not just threateningly transformative but so vague as to inhibit legislative implementation.  (It’s as impracticably vast as ‘Love God and love your neighbor.’)  (Oh.)

Yet I hope I would have listened.  I pray I would have tried to hear.  

Not just for the sake of remedying those particular injustices, averting that prophesied catastrophe (the land trembling and sinking under the waters, the earth darkened in broad daylight, the grief and mourning as ‘for an only son’ (8:8-10)), but for the sake of hearing itself.

For comes a time when nation will know famine (8:11-12).  Not a famine of food or drink but a famine of the word, a dearth of truth.  Comes a time when we realize not just our lack but our desperate need.  Comes a time when we will know ourselves starving and parched.  We run to and fro; we search and we seek.   Yet if we have refused to hear, we will not even know if we find.  If we have grown unwilling to listen to truth, unaccustomed to listening for truth, we grow unable to hear truth.  God may even speak, and we will not know.

I pray for the humility to listen.  I pray for the courage to speak.

That seeking with and through each other, we together find and hear the word of the LORD.