Amos: Still Life with...Judgment
You know, this whole prophet sermon series seemed like a good idea at the time. When Elijah and Elisha are healing people or raising the dead or feeding widows or taking on Ahab and Jezebel, that was OK. Things seem to have turned the corner here with Amos today. Suddenly this beautiful bowl of fruit somehow becomes a metaphor for utter destruction. And that destruction isn’t contained to just a select few; instead, the whole community is going to suffer.
Which is why it’s such a good thing that we have two texts to read every Sunday! I don’t know about you, but I think I need a running start at Amos. So let’s jump back to Luke for a minute.
Here we find this familiar story of the debate between Martha and Mary about who is doing the right thing. Jesus arrives at Martha’s home with the disciples. And from what we know about the culture at the time, what Martha does is what is to be expected of a female host. She gets back into the kitchen and begins fixing food and refreshment for all of her guests. But her sister Mary, rather than joining her in service, plants herself at Jesus’ feet, where she begins to soak it all in.
This story has become so familiar to some of us that we use it as a sort of personality type identifier. How many of you would identify yourselves as Marthas? How many of you constantly make yourself busy, and look to serve God by running around and making sure that everyone else is OK? And how many of you would identify yourselves as Marys? How many of you are content to sit in the presence of God and just soak in the wisdom and faith? How many of you raised your hands twice or not at all?
Personally, I tend to be more Martha than Mary; it’s even there in my name, “Martha – Me”. But no matter where you are on this sibling spectrum, it’s my hunch that a lot of us probably took Martha’s side in the argument. Of course Mary should be helping! It’s not fair that she gets to hang out with the disciples while Martha is busting her rear in the kitchen. In fact, if Martha weren’t doing what she’s doing, then she would be criticized for being a bad host.
But let’s take a closer look. Is there something going on that we first miss when we glance at the scene? Let’s start with the obvious: it’s Martha’s house, not Mary’s. So in that cultural context, it really is Martha’s duty (and not Mary’s) to provide for the guests. OK; not particularly earth-shattering, but helpful. But then we realize that Martha doesn’t take her complaint directly to Mary, but goes to Jesus instead. How does that work out for her? Have you ever gone to someone to complain about somebody else? And if that third party is particularly grounded, how does that work out for you? “Mom, Alecia took my crayons.” “Then go work it out with her.” I don’t think Jesus is likely to get triangled by gossip.
Then we notice that Martha is doing what is expected as far as being a woman in the time of Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, had planted herself as a disciple. In essence, she was not doing what a woman was supposed to do, but instead doing what a man would do. And rather than dismissing Martha’s complaint, instead, Jesus is subtly questioning the whole cultural paradigm here. He scandalously applauds the woman who sits at his feet, the one who has violated the cultural norms.
Finally, Jesus doesn’t say that Mary is right and Martha is wrong. It’s never that easy. Instead, he observes that Mary has chosen the better option. This isn’t an endorsement of contemplative life over the life of service. Jesus is simply saying that contemplation, too, has its place in the life blood of faith.
Or to put it another way: contemplation without service drifts toward narcissism. And service without contemplation becomes self-inflicted martyrdom.
Remember where this story comes, after all. Luke’s whole gospel is set in motion by Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she sings to God, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for the Lord has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry and brought down the powerful and sent the rich away.” Jesus picks up on this in his first public preaching in Nazareth in Luke’s account, reading from the scroll in Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives.” And this particular story follows right after Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, answering the lawyer's question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” It’s the epitome of the go and do lesson, not the go and sit lesson. Luke gospel’s is, first and foremost, testimony to a God who does stuff. It is witness to a God who upsets the way things are “supposed” to be.
Which is as good a place as any to get back to Amos. As much as we might not like to look at what Amos has to say to us today because it’s such a downer, the reality is that Amos is the very essence of the Hebrew prophet. The prophetic tradition of Christianity, the very strand of our teaching that is called “social justice”, is found right here in the poundings of the Old Testament prophets, It is a call that echoes through the gospels and even up through today. It is a call that says quite simply: “The life of faith cannot consist of pure ritual. It must be embodied, enfleshed, lived out in our very selves!”
The time in which Amos is preaching is an era of unprecedented security and prosperity for the northern kingdom of Israel. Their territory has expanded to its farthest boundaries. And there is this pervading sense throughout the nation that this bounty and safety are rewards from God for the people’s faithful devotion to the sacrifices and their dedicated upkeep of the altars and shrines.
But Amos, the one who’s very name means “burden,” is weighed down by what is swept under the rug. His vision is troubled by what God sees beneath the surface. The poor are being abused. The merchants are honoring the Sabbath, but they really can’t wait until the sun goes down so that they can get back to the daily work of fleecing those who can least afford it. The fury of the God’s prophet is unleashed on those who would value a pair of shoes more than a human being who bears God’s own imprint. Amos’ judgment is a reminder not only of the call of faith to go and do, but also the attention that God gives to those on the margins, those whom it would be easy to ignore, because they have no place, no voice, no one to speak for them. It is into this vacuum that the prophet steps to say, “You have been warned.”
What is curious is that this prophetic call to righteousness seems to be a constant, no matter what circumstances in which the particular prophet lives. When the nation is thriving and the people feel secure, they ignore the poor because they feel they’ve earned that right. When the nation is threatened, either by foreign powers or natural disasters, and the people are terrified, they ignore the poor because they’re convinced there’s not enough to go around. And when the nation is utterly destroyed and taken into exile and the people feel abandoned by God, they ignore the poor because, really, what’s the point? The nation’s circumstances are secondary to the fact that the people habitually ignore the poor. And they do so at risk to their own well-being.
And this is where Amos gets downright haunting. There is this prophecy of famine; not one of literal hunger, where the storm clouds are shut up and rain ceases to fall, no. Instead, it seems there will continue to be plenty of bowls of summer fruit. But the people will suddenly recognize that the word of God is absent. Unlike the poor whom they have utterly ignored, the people will eat their fill. But they will remain utterly empty and desolate. “They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” God is gone. You’re on your own.
And perhaps it is here that we can join Mary and Martha in their debate about which sister is more righteous. Martha is making sure that everyone has enough to eat, that there is plenty to go around. We have no indication that she is ignoring the poor and needy; instead, we might even assume that she has been sure to see to their needs. But maybe the truth is that she herself is empty. As in the time of Amos, when greed and gain were so much the norm such that it took a wandering shepherd prophet to point out the hypocrisy, the broader culture at the time of Jesus has contributed to Martha’s spiritual hunger. As a woman, her place is in the kitchen, seeing to the needs of everyone else, well out of earshot of the words that would feed her soul. Mary, on the other hand, is being filled. Mary has, intentionally or not, pushed the envelope of acceptability. She has demanded her rightful place in the presence of Jesus; and Jesus has made it clear to all who listen that this woman deserves to be right where she is, up front and center.
Eventually, Mary will have to get up from the floor. And if she has really taken the words of Jesus to heart, she, too, will be compelled by this desire to feed the world with what it really hungers for. And that, ultimately, is the call that Christ offers us. It is one thing to make ourselves busy with the tasks of the world, like Martha. It is another thing to take in everything that the world has to offer, like Mary. And it is another thing altogether to see that the two are intimately connected. We go and sit so that we can go and do. Contemplation is nothing if it is not lived out. And we go and do fully aware that we must make time to go and sit at Jesus’ feet again and again and again. Service is nothing if it has no life blood to feed it. It is like cut flowers; they look pretty for a while, but cut off from their roots, they will wither and die.
So what about you? Where are you compelled in all of this? Are you a habitual Martha? Then Jesus is calling to you. What would it look like to walk out of the kitchen and sit on the floor for a while? What are you going to do when everyone complains that the guests are here and they are hungry? Can you recognize that you can’t feed anyone if you yourself haven’t been fed?
Or are you a Mary? Do you find yourself constantly soaking it in? Do you bathe in the beauty of the word of God? Perhaps you have taken in the better part; but be careful of your own spiritual gluttony. Then the prophet is calling to you. It’s time to push back from the table, to give your seat to another, to let others know that you have tasted and it is, indeed, good! Come, and eat your fill!
Let us all hear the word of the Lord: go and sit; go and do; go and love. Amen.