Economic inequality has grown in the United States since the 1970s. It will be an issue in the next political cycle. How shall we deal with the word of a prophet from the working class who heaps condemnation on the affluent?
Amos shows no mercy as he castigates the wealthy in Israel and Judah, “those who are at ease in Zion” and “those who feel secure in Samaria” (the capitals of the two kingdoms). He piles condemnation on those who rest in expensive comfort, dine well, enjoy good entertainment and smell nice but who “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”
This latter phrase possibly uses the mistreatment of Joseph by his brothers as a metaphor for the powerful mistreating the weak in society. He has no tolerance for luxurious living that ignores the harm the affluent inflict on those less fortunate. He sees a consequential relationship between wealth and poverty. We would rather not.
He continues in the same vein in chapter 8 but carries the theme to culmination by foretelling God’s judgment in apocalyptic language. I don’t have the problem of the Sunday school teachers who will need to wrestle with how to make these two Sundays not sound like more of the same. My problem is how to find a word of the gospel in these dire words.
We face problems as we seek to apply the truth of this prophetic word. We may not sleep on “beds of ivory,” but I suspect the mattress I sleep on would fill the bill. I like a good meal and nice-smelling cologne. How do we who live in the affluence of our society take to heart the full force of Amos’ critique? How, in a world filled with need and seemingly insoluble problems, do we avoid compassion fatigue? Would Amos even consider these a problem?
I’ve heard the complaint that too often the church preaches against the perils of wealth but then when it needs finances for its institutions and programs it turns to the wealthy in hope of their generosity. This prophecy should not be turned into a censure of those who by ability and diligence are able to prosper in business or profession. I know of many faithful business people who have done well and given generously. The issue is not the capacity for gaining wealth but its use. Not acquisition but distribution.
But we cannot ignore Amos’ prediction of apocalyptic consequences on those who “trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land.”
Recently the media reported about Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments in Seattle, who cut his $1 million salary to $70,000 and guaranteed that all of his staffers would make at least $70,000 a year. Apparently he was motivated by a sense of justice similar to Amos’.
God, through Amos, condemns living in luxury while others suffer need. Our churches bear witness when corporately and individually we respond to those who suffer. Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service and Mennonite Economic Development Associates are some of the ways that we respond to Amos’ call.
The question is: How much is enough when the needs are endless? This is a question for the individual conscience in response to God. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Jesus did not ask Zacchaeus to give all, as he did the rich young ruler. But both had to give in major ways.
Our nation uses its military to maintain economic hegemony in the world. Amos warns God’s people to get free from involvement in economic oppression, or God will make things miserable, turning “your feasts into mourning and your songs into lamentation.”
A seminary professor said, “If you like Amos, you don’t understand him.” Maybe now some of us don’t like him very much.
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.