FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings here.
Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos,
“Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!
There earn your bread by prophesying,
but never again prophesy in Bethel;
for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet,
nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;
I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me,
Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Today we reach back to the earliest days of prophesying in the classical sense, that is, a man called from his established way of living and filled with the Spirit of God to preach a return to the Covenant of Sinai. Father Lawrence Boadt (see home page) estimates that Amos of Tekoa undertook his preaching in roughly 760 B.C., which is over two centuries before Ezekiel, whose words were proclaimed last Sunday.
One of the more humorous points in Sunday’s text is Amos’ indignation at being called a prophet, for prophets were a common sight around holy places, men who danced and performed ritual prayers. The key point about prophesy before the “classical era” of prophets is the ritual predictability of temple prophets, “establishment characters” in the religion of the day. I strongly recommend that you look at the Book of Amos in its entirety to get a sense of how far the priestly cult and temple observance. In his opening salvo, Amos gives us a picture of city life around the temple filled with religious profanity, a corrupt judiciary, and a gross disregard of the poor. Little wonder his back goes up when Amaziah tells him to take his prophesying elsewhere.
Amos was not a metropolitan man. The text of this book tells us he was a sheepherder and a dresser of sycamores out in the country who was seized by the Spirit to excoriate the sinfulness of Israelite society; the city-country polarity runs throughout much of the Hebrew Scripture. Amos’ preaching crusade demonstrates polemic at its best. He begins by listing the sins of Israel’s neighbors and enemies, a ploy which wins him an eager hearing. Then, at the crest of his diatribe, Amos says, in effect, “let me tell you now about the worst nation on the earth—you!” He lays out an extraordinary catalogue of evildoing coupled with an assault on the blasé attitude of priests and people alike toward fidelity to God and the inevitable punishments down the road.
It is now that Amaziah seeks to quiet him and return him to the hinterlands, but Amos retorts that he himself did not seek this dangerous and distasteful ministry; rather, God had seized him from his flock and told him to prophesy in Bethel, the site of this reading. Implied here, of course, is the fact that God is very unhappy with what has been passing as religion, i.e., the house prophets and the priesthood itself. History does not tell us what became of Amos, and it is possible that he was killed or imprisoned.
Every commentary on Amos devotes great attention to his message, that Israel’s greatest sin is injustice to the poor and those who cannot buy influence. The Covenant and its attendant worship was intended to instill a pleasing brotherhood in the eyes of God. The absence of such a brotherhood was plain to Amos, as his sermons testify, but it was not plain to the residents of Bethel, busy with drinking and consorting with prostitutes. This theme of Amos would be picked up in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where, writing about the manner of Eucharistic celebration, Paul expresses anger at the segregation of rich and poor at home celebrations. To eat and drink of the Lord’s Supper with such insensitivity was the equivalent of “eating and drinking a judgment unto one’s self.”