This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Religion without morality

Prophets are not popular. They don’t stroke our egos and bless the status quo. The Old Testament prophets we study this summer spoke tough words to God’s people and the surrounding nations. They talk about what God wants for God’s people in an immoral world, a world in which society and religious people get off track.


If we listen carefully, we may hear a word from God for our times. But it won’t be easy. Or comfortable.

Amos, the first of these prophets, bursts onto the scene in a time of political stability and economic prosperity. From Tekoa, a small town six miles south of Bethlehem, he is called to prophesy to the Northern Kingdom.

He humbly describes himself as “a herdsman and a grower of sycamore figs.” But, he says, “The Lord took me from following the flock and said, ‘Go prophesy to my people Israel.’ ”

A rustic, Amos had a keen mind. God chose to speak through him.

Amos begins with a series of poetic rants against six neighbor nations to Judah and Israel: “For three transgressions of [the nation], and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” In 2:4-8, he gets to Judah and Israel.

Judah’s sin: They had “rejected the law of the Lord and not kept his statutes.” Instead, they had “been led astray by the same lies (“gods” in the New International Version) that led their forebears astray.” God’s people had fallen into the trap of culture, letting inherited ways lead away from the moral foundations of the Torah.

Culture shapes and seduces us. It’s not easy to detect where we have erred. It takes a prophet.

Amos gets more explicit with regard to Israel’s sin. They “trample the dust on the heads of the poor into the ground”; “father and son share the same girl”; they worship with their ill-gotten gains. Disregard for the poor, sexual immorality and bogus piety were rampant. Lust overcame morality. Greed overcame compassion. Hypocrisy eased the conscience.

It’s easier to identify sexual sins than economic. Industrious thrift is a virtue, but exploitation lurks at the edges. Going through the motions of religion gives false security. It’s easy to rationalize the status quo. It takes a prophet to speak uncomfortable truth.

The Amos 5 texts come after a lament for Israel’s sin. Amos makes three points. He exhorts Israel:

  • “Do good, not evil, that you may live.”
  • Don’t hold false expectations of the “day of the Lord.” Amos’ hearers would have understood “day of the Lord” to mean the day when Yahweh would put Israel at the head of the nations, regardless of Israel’s faithfulness.
  • Realize that religious rituals are no substitute for right action. Religious activity is not a guarantee of pleasing God.

In the mouth of Martin Luther King Jr., Amos’ words — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream” — became a trumpet call for justice. It still calls to action.

How do these texts apply to the church today? Consider these questions:

  • How do inherited “lies” of traditional culture lead us astray from God’s moral principles? The Quaker writer Richard Foster has identified money, sex and power as key issues for disciples in our time. Amos thunders that God will judge immorality. Religious activity is no substitute for moral living. Jesus calls us to seek God’s righteousness and justice above all else.
  • What is the gospel? An escapist religion guaranteeing heaven after we die? Or the power of life transformation? There are hints of this contrast in an April 13 MWR article, “Chasm Between ‘Plain’ and ‘Liberal,’ ” by Theron F. Schlabach, about an Anabaptist Identity Conference meeting: “The hoped-for spirituality was not that of standard American evangelicalism. ‘Born again’ certainly meant accepting Jesus Christ, but in the forms of obedience, yielding . . . (Gelas­senheit) and Christ as mentor for this life.”

Amos declares that religion without morality betrays God. It is a false, human substitute for the real thing. Jesus stands in line with Amos.

John M. Miller, of Leola, Pa., served with his wife, Doris, as a missionary in Mexico and taught missions and social ethics in seminaries. He is a member of Stumptown Mennonite Church.

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