A Well-Spring Of Justice
It’s interesting how much we preach against the sins of which we are not guilty. We consider them BIG sins—adultery, murder, homosexuality. As long as the preacher preaches against sins of which I’m not guilty, I can sit comfortably in the pew and shout “Amen!”
But when the preacher starts in on MY sins, I get uncomfortable in a hurry. I squirm in my seat and wonder if everyone in the room is looking at me with a judgmental glare.
At my previous job, a congregant named Bo Wright would often come up to me after worship to say, “Preacher, now I have to polish my boots all over again.” He was intimating that the sermon had somehow “stepped on his toes.” He was guilty as charged.
This Sunday morning, we will take a broad view of the Old Testament book of Amos. Amos employs a popular preaching tool whereby he preaches about the sins of outsiders. He issues seven divine judgment oracles against city-states like Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, and Edom. Some of these people are enemies of Israel, so we can imagine the Israelites shouting “Amen” often as God pronounces judgment on the outsiders.
God begins each oracle by saying, “For three transgressions and for four, I will not revoke the punishment….” But it’s interesting—in each oracle, God only lists ONE sin. Not three. Not four. Not seven. Just one. That seems strange.
Since seven is a number of completion for the Hebrew people, perhaps they believe God’s judgment oracles have concluded with the final oracle against Judah. But Amos isn’t done preaching. In fact, he’s just getting started. What follows is an unexpected eighth judgment oracle. It is extensive. And it’s against Israel.
Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.”
Then Amos unleashes a laundry list of sins of which Israel is guilty. In a nutshell, they have oppressed the poor by selling them into slavery and taking them to court over nothing. They’ve taken the garments of the poor and failed to return them by nightfall as mandated by God in Exodus 22. Fathers and sons have sexually abused slave girls. They’ve levied excessive fines against the poor, committed idolatry, and trampled the poor into the dust.
When it comes to my treatment of the poor, I have a set of defense mechanisms. My most often used defense mechanism is to tell myself, “This poor person is just lazy! If they worked half as hard to find a job as they work to get a handout, they wouldn’t need a handout!”
But do we really believe that every poor person is poor because they’re too lazy to work? If we do, then maybe we need to get out of the church building and get to know some poor people. We need to come alongside them seeking to understand who they are and why they’re in the shape they’re in. We might be surprised.
Our love and service to others reflects our love for God. These two cannot be separated.
The message of Amos steps on my toes because, while I’m nowhere close to being rich, I am very comfortable. And I haven’t done a very good job of getting close to poor people, helping them in their situations, and pointing them toward Jesus Christ. Frankly, I’d rather just cut a check. Or pull a paper angel off the tree at Christmas and buy a toy for someone whose name I don’t even know. That’s a much neater way to help the poor.
But is it the Jesus way?
My tendency is to read Amos and say, “That’s Old Testament stuff. It’s not for me.” But the principles Amos preaches are also the principles Jesus preaches. Jesus had no problem hanging out with the poor, the sick, and the sinful. If my goal in this life is to be transformed into His image, then I need to be doing that, too.
Amos wants us to know that there is a direct correlation between our relationship with God and how we treat people. In other words, our love and service to others reflects our love for God. Those two cannot be separated. We cannot love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength if we have no regard for others—especially those who are poor, suffering, and downtrodden.
John writes, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
In a context of judgment, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
“I don’t recall that, Lord! When did all that happen?”
And Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it also to me” (Matt. 25:40).
How are we doing when it comes to serving “the least”? Just speaking for myself, I’m not doing well at all. I need to do a lot better. Because my love for others, including the poor, is a measuring stick for how much I love God.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).