Amos is very clear: worship divorced from justice and righteousness won’t save you. In fact, the opposite is true. Those who engage in worship but fail to practice justice and righteousness will ultimately find themselves homeless. Of course, we can’t forget that Amos is speaking to a specific group of people with this lament laden funeral dirge. His audience is the northern nation of Israel. These are God’s people, ones to whom God had previously promised that they would live in houses they did not build and drink water from cisterns that they did not hew (Deuteronomy 6:10-15).
That promise was offered as Israel emerged from slavery, from the house of oppression and injustice. Tied up with that promise was that Israel would live in their new land ever mindful of those who were the most vulnerable amongst them. Justice, the fair and equitable treatment of all within the community, was to be their standard. Righteousness, or the presence of relationships of mutuality and love, cannot be had without the presence of justice.
Even as the Pentateuch details how Israel is to worship in its cultic practices, it also gives significant time to how Israel should live with justice and righteousness and details the consequence of their faithfulness to God and to each other.
Amos as a whole, and chapter five in particular, flesh out in real time how Israel is now paying for its infidelity. The picture is not pleasant, and it is, it seems, inevitable. It should also fail to come as a surprise to Israel because along with the promise of a land of their own came warnings about what would happen if they failed to live with justice and righteousness. Yet, as we read the Old Testament, we will discover just how blinding being the beneficiaries of injustice and unrighteousness can be.
As we dive into the body of the text, Amos makes it quite clear that there are two possibilities for Israel. The first is death and destruction at the hand of God if they continue their current trajectory. The second is restored life as a result of doing justice. This is what Amos means by the phrase, “Seek the Lord and live” in verse 6 and by “Seek good and not evil” in verse 14. This is in sharp contrast to how Israel was used to seeking the Lord: by going to the Temple or other holy sites.
In verses 7-9, Amos describes why this judgment is coming. Israel has turned justice into “wormwood.” Wormwood is a plant that is well-known for its bitterness and has often been used as an image for bitterness and trouble. Israel, because of her oppressive and exploitive ways, has turned justice, something that should be sweet and life giving, into something bitter.
In God’s eyes, Israel has ceased to be a right and ordered society. The one who will bring the judgment is the very one who ordered the universe in the first place. The one who made the constellations brings rain upon the mountain and brings day from the dark night. The God of order now brings punishment on a people who have brought about disorder.
Verses 10-13 again stress Israel’s sins. The city gate was a place where the elders of the town mediated disputes. It has ceased, however, to be a place where justice could be found. Those who speak truth at the gate of the city are hated. Part of a right and ordered society is that justice could be found for all, especially the poor and powerless. Israel, however, has actively denied justice to those who need it most. What is worse, they have denied justice to the poor and powerless so that they could increase in wealth and power themselves. Consequently, they have built houses of stone, and they have planted vineyards (a crop of the wealthy because of the time investment needed). Because they have obtained these things in an unjust manner, they will no longer live in these houses they have built for themselves.
Once again, in verse 14, Israel is encouraged to seek the good and reject evil. Israel has claimed that God is with them, only because of their unjust ways, he has not been. However, God proclaims that if Israel rejects the evil and seeks the good, he will be with them. Seeking good here is establishing justice and righteousness in the gate so that there might be an honest and equitable court system where the exploited and wronged may seek relief.
This passage should give us pause. It forces us to ask ourselves a very crucial set of questions: Are we like Israel? Have we neglected justice and righteousness? Has our material comfort been purchased at the expense of the ability of others to live above poverty? Do we help perpetuate a justice system that is more accessible to the wealthy? Do we place more emphasis on our worship than we do living lives filled with justice and righteousness?
If we answer yes to any of the above questions, and I think as Americans we have to, then we are in danger of ending up like Israel. The good news is, even though we may live in a land where injustice seems to rule the day (maybe not for us directly but for many Americans), as the church we are called to work for justice and righteousness. Our worship will be pleasing to God when we are challenged to examine the ways in which our consumption of material goods affects the lives of others. Our worship will we be pleasing to God when we are sent out from our sanctuary to seek justice and to live in righteous and right relationship with our neighbor. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we have the ability to go forth like an ever-flowing stream of justice so that the landscape may be dramatically altered!