READ : Amos 7:14
You should know that the first thing God is looking for in every society is honesty and fair treatment of all; in other words, justice.
In our last program we looked at the virtue of prudence; today we consider justice. These two virtues are closely related. If prudence is the insight to see and discern the good, justice is the determination to practice and live it. Justice is public righteousness. It is goodness and truth expanded beyond the scale of the personal and individual to encompass all human society and every human institution. According to the wisdom of the ancients, no one could be considered a good person – a person of character – unless they were committed to justice.
The place to look in the Bible for an understanding of justice is the Old Testament prophets. Amos is a good example. Israel and Judah had many prophets and priests attached to various shrines and sanctuaries, as well as the temple and royal court in Jerusalem. These religious professionals could generally be counted on to uphold and defend the status quo which made it unlikely they would say or do anything to offend any powerful person. But Amos was just a peasant, a farmer. He was no professional preacher. He had never spoken to anyone in public until God called him to declare his Word. Then Amos became a prophet, a spokesman for God.
The Lord sent Amos to speak to the people of Israel during one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods in the kingdom’s history. The society to which the prophet brought his message of justice was at its very peak. Trade had rapidly developed during a generation of peace, producing a rich and powerful business class. Together with the property owners and the royal court, they made up an exclusive elite – a small group of wealthy, proud, luxury-loving people. But on the other side of this economic divide were all the little folks, the masses of the poor, the deprived classes. And while all these marginalized people were being mistreated, the rich were, to use a modern phrase, “amusing themselves to death.”
If Amos had condensed all his preaching into one “Spiritual State of the Kingdom” address, his main points would have run something like this:
1). His society was greedy and self-indulgent. The rich led lives of idleness, thinking only of how to satisfy their various appetites and pamper themselves with more luxuries. “Cows of Bashan,” Amos calls them in one memorable passage, “who lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock . . . who sing idle songs . . . who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils” (4:1; 6:4-6). Sounds a little like a modern health spa or holiday resort!
2). Amos’s society was corrupt. Sexual immorality was always a problem, especially in connection with the pagan shrines where prostitutes did a brisk business (cf. 2:7b-8). But Amos was also concerned about a different kind of corruption. He singles out for special condemnation the social and economic sins by which the rich and powerful preyed upon the weak and poor. The money that supported the extravagant life of the wealthy class had been taken from the common people through cruel or dishonest means. The poor were the victims of inhuman treatment. They were being systematically cheated, oppressed, and even sold into slavery, all to profit the few.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, the justice system had also become corrupted. When a poor man came to court to seek justice, he found the system was stacked against him. His cry for fair treatment went unheard as the rich elders of the community bought and sold verdicts among themselves (5:12).
3). To all of this, Amos added one more characteristic: his society was religious. It seems strange, but side by side with all this sin and injustice, the worship of God was very popular throughout the land. Worship services were crowded. Festivals were faithfully observed with lavish and beautiful arrangements – abundant offerings, well-trained orchestras, melodious choirs, correct liturgies. No expense was spared, no detail overlooked, to make the services exciting and theologically correct – even biblical!
So this is what the prophet Amos saw when he looked over the land of Israel – a pampered, callous upper class, living off the misery of the poor, and contemplating on their comfortable beds how to indulge their expensive tastes, while at the same time crowding into church week by week to praise God exuberantly in the belief that their prosperity and comfort must be a sign that God was pleased with them. But God was not pleased.
The Lord says, “I hate your holy feasts. . . . You bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings. But I will not accept them. Take the noise of your songs away! . . . I want you to treat others fairly. So let justice roll on just as a river does! Always do what is right. Let right living flow along like a stream that never runs dry!”
So what do we learn about justice from the prophet Amos?
For one thing, we learn that God holds each of us responsible for how we treat other people. One remarkable feature of the book of Amos that I haven’t mentioned yet is that it not only catalogues a long list of sins that are offensive to God, but that list includes the sins of Israel’s neighboring countries. No one is excluded from responsibility before God. God doesn’t excuse any society from the demands of living justly. Even people without the Bible still have a conscience that prompts them towards the will of God. So God holds everyone responsible for living according to the truth that they possess. It is especially significant that the foreign nations whom Amos mentions in his prophecy are judged by God, not for idolatry – though they were certainly guilty of that – but for the violation of basic human rights. You should know that the first thing God is looking for in every society is honesty and fair treatment of all; in other words, justice. When he does not find it, his anger is aroused.
Second, we learn from Amos that God is concerned about justice in every area of life. Most of us suffer from spiritual tunnel vision: we can focus very clearly on certain kinds of sins (usually the ones we are not guilty of) while conveniently ignoring others. For those of us who are evangelical Christians it’s fairly easy to get worked up over sins in our society that are generally thought of from the conservative point of view, things like pornography or abortion or drug abuse or crime. And those are very real problems indeed. They’re sins. But what about other sins, sins that are identified with the left? What about institutional and corporate sin? What about things like racism or greed, excessive consumption, environmental pollution, denial of basic human rights or mistreating people on the basis of class or religion? Are we seriously troubled by these evils? Are we doing anything about them?
And don’t forget the sins of omission. The God of justice is concerned about these too. The people of Israel were called to account for their lack of compassion toward those who were suffering, their failure to help those in need, as much as their active mistreatment of others. Do we as Christians wrestle with these kinds of sins? Do we regularly confess them and repent of them? Are we willing to change the way we are living in order to do more to meet the needs of others? Will we few – the world’s wealthy – and in the context of the world, almost all of us are wealthy – will we sacrifice some of our plenty in order to redress the unfair imbalance with the many who have so little? This isn’t a liberal issue or a conservative issue; it’s not about socialism versus capitalism. This is justice, a biblical issue.
And the message isn’t just for believers. The whole world needs to hear today what God says through his servant Amos: “Seek the Lord and live. . . . Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord will be with you. . . . Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:6,14,24, rsv). This is God’s word in particular to those who have money, power and influence. Every political or religious leader, every teacher, every business leader, every engaged citizen should know what God expects. You can learn all about society’s problems on the news broadcasts, but you’ll only hear the solution to these problems in this word of the Lord: “Let justice roll down like waters.”