Most of Jesus’ parables (especially those in Matthew’s Gospel, including this week’s parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids) begin with the words “The Kingdom of God is like…”. That coming kingdom represents the glorious culmination of God’s eternal plan for humankind and all creation. The Old Testament provides us a similar but distinctly different and much darker term: The Day of the Lord. Amos was the first prophet to speak of it:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. –Amos 5:18-24 NRSV
The people in the divided kingdoms of Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south) maintained a highly favorable view of themselves in God’s created order. They were God’s preferred family, to put it in its simplest terms. Any view of history’s culmination would undoubtedly mean harsh judgment on all the nations of the world–except themselves! A good part of Amos’s prophetic mission was to disavow them of such thoughts.
It’s significant that Amos was plucked by God from his life south of Judah’s capital of Jerusalem as a shepherd and “dresser of sycamore trees.” The Israelite power structure scorned him, beginning with mention of his humble roots. They had no time or tolerance for this uneducated foreigner standing outside the sacred shrines of Bethel and Gilgal preaching about God’s justice and righteousness. Both the religious and military leaders ordered him to pack up and go home.
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 7:12-13
When Amos came from Judah to bring the “word of the Lord,” he found a proud and prosperous civilization. Farmers produced bumper crops in well-maintained rural areas, while elegant cities boasted exclusive neighborhoods filled with palaces not just for royalty (as was typical for the times) but the privileged and moneyed classes. All this was undergirded by a strong, standing army. Not coincidentally, the superpowers of the day were either weakened or occupied elsewhere, allowing Israel to act like a more important nation than its size would attest.
Chapter 6 in the book that bears Amos’s name lists a long string of “Woes.” The bottom line here was that there was massive disparity between the haves and the have-nots in Israelite society, with the former oppressing the poor and crushing the needy (see 4:1). But what piqued Amos’s curiosity and prophetic vigor the most was the way those privileged classes mobbed the cultic shrines, offering up animal and grain sacrifices along with tithes that eventually would fill the royal treasuries. Exhuberant instrumental and vocal music added to the sensory delight of the shrine experience. And that is where Amos aimed his prophetic message of judgment.
Keep in mind that the people weren’t “doing religion” wrong. Unlike in so many other eras of Hebrew/Israelite history, the people were not worshiping foreign idols or taking shortcuts to rituals. In fact, they were keeping a strict accounting for how their sacrificial form of cultic religion was supposed to be carried out. In that sense, they were quite good at “keeping the law.” What they were not doing, however, was honoring God’s great gifts of justice and righteousness as a central expression of their worship rituals. There was no recognition that God’s people have a moral responsibility to society as a whole and, especially, to those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum.
Come to Bethel–and transgress; to Gilgal–and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days, bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel! says the Lord God. I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me, says the Lord. –4:4-6
The words “justice” and “righteousness” are central to Amos’s message. They were not goals to be sought after but gifts granted by a loving Creator God. They’re closely related but there are significant differences. The Hebrew word mishpat is the judgment given by a judge and, as such, this word can mean justice, ordinance, norm, legal right, or law; it signifies a mode of action. The Hebrew word tsedakah may be rendered as “rightousness” and is a quality of a person or nation that goes beyond justice (which is exact or strict) and imples kindness, generosity, and benevolence. It is often associated with a burning compassion for the oppressed and commonly associated with the word hesed (divine mercy, loving-kindness, and steadfast love).
Basically, the Israelites were eager to practice an outward show of their religion, and no doubt it was impressive to see and hear and smell (the scent of those burning carcasses was intended to be pleasant to God, after all). But that’s where it stopped. While it made for a great show, there was no kindness, generosity, benevolence, or compassion.
It’s probably a very good thing for us Christians to have an appreciation of Amos’s “Day of the Lord” when we talk about the coming Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Furthermore, Amos’s injunction against worship prctices that lack compassion for others is critical for a full understanding of the gospel of Christ.
However, terms like “kingdom” and “reign” tend to form images in our minds of empires created by and for human beings. Christ’s kingdom/empire is nothing like those actually. We need a new vocabulary to begin to appreciate its meaning. Even “Christ’s peaceable era” doesn’t get us too much closer to God’s intention for creation, although it’s probably a good start. The more we try to describe or understand–or pick apart the parables and turn them into allegories (Who are the bridesmaids? What does the oil represent: works or grace or something else? Why does the bridegroom bar the door in the end?)–the more we can be led astray into unhelpful territory.
The fact is, we don’t know much about all this. But we do know we’re to be ready, to pay attention, to seek God’s culmination of human history. In short, to be wise. Undergirding it all are these basic concepts of justice and righteousness, of generosity and benevolence and compassion. It’s a simple matter to practice religion when it’s only about rituals–and there’s nothing inherently wrong with rituals, or course! Yet simple in this case is not best, and much more is required of faithful believers and disciples of Jesus Christ.
For the Christian, much centers on faith and faithfulness, of course. Drawing on the imagery of the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich, influential twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot concluded his poem “Little Gidding” (the final section of his famous work, Four Quartets) with these memorable lines:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters (one of them is on Amos) includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.