How might a migrant worker convict luxurious homeowners about their oppressive lifestyles? What might a poor, rural believer say to wealthy, urban idolaters?
Amos was neither trained as a prophet nor assumed the career of a prophet. He was a shepherd near the Judean wilderness six miles SE of Bethlehem in the backwater village of Tekoa. He supplemented his income through cultivating sycamore-fig trees (probably as a kind of migrant worker since they did not grow in the area of Tekoa). He was, most likely, a poor man and certainly so by the standards of the ruling elite in Israel. Nevertheless, he was, for a brief time, Yahweh’s voice out of Zion (Jerusalem) to the northern kingdom of Israel.
He ventured into Israel sometime prior to the great earthquake that rocked Israel around 760 BCE. The destruction was so devastating that not only is there evidence of it in Hazor’s archeological record, but the earthquake became part of Palestine’s living memory . Zechariah 14:5 uses it as a metaphor for the Day of the Lord some 250 years after it happened. It was for ancient Palestinian Jews what the 1755 Lisbon earthquake was for Europe.
The 760s, however, were a time of prosperity and peace. Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE) ruled over the northern kingdom while Uzziah (783-742 BCE) reigned over Judah. Jeroboam II had the longest reign of any northern king and Uzziah had the second longest of any king of Judah. Together their reigns approximated the “golden age” of Solomon himself in terms of territory, building projects and economic trade. They lived in peace as Assyria had suppressed Syria (Aram) even as Assyria’s imperial designs were interrupted by internal troubles. Israel and Judah developed their economies and expanded their borders.
Peace and prosperity, however, did not form a just and faithful nation. On the contrary, wealth was increasingly located in the hands of the few and the elite. Instead of thanking Yahweh, they thanked other gods for their blessings. Whereas their blessings should have blessed all, the wealthy consumed their blessings rather than sharing them.
The shepherd Amos went from his rural environs near Tekoa to the heartland of Israel’s ruling elite in Bethel and Samaria. His message decries injustice, oppression and idolatry. He announces Israel’s future–one of both judgment and hope.
How do the poor speak a word from God to the rich? How does a lowly shepherd address the ruling elite about the plight of their nation? What might that address say for us?
That is why we read Amos. We stand with Amos as he speaks against injustice and idolatry. Yes, we want to stand with the prophet. But we will miss the message if we do not become Amos’ audience as well. We must hear Amos as those who live in luxury with more wealth than we need. We must see ourselves as Amos’ audience if we are to be convicted by his words. Otherwise we will simply make excuses and judge that his words do not apply–much like Israel itself responded to Amos.
The ancient words of Amos address us. We may not live in 760’s Palestine–and the cultural differences are enormous, but we–especially middle class to upper class Americans–share a similar social location that gave rise to the prophet’s mission.
Prosperity often creates spiritual apathy along with greed and covetousness (as we always want more). If nothing else, the words of Amos warn us that prosperity is only a blessing if it is acknowledged with gratitude and shared. Otherwise it becomes the root of greed, injustice and oppression.
How we hear Amos will probably say more about our own hearts than it does anything else.