|Amos the Herdsman – Amiens Cathedral
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15 and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
16 “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
17 Therefore thus says the Lord:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
The prophet Amos wasn’t what you would call a “court preacher.” He wasn’t employed by the monarchy or the religious establishment. In other words, he wasn’t a spiritual advisor to the king. As far as the monarchy and the religious leaders were concerned, he was a nuisance who brought to the land unwelcome messages. He made people feel uncomfortable. And Amos didn’t seem to care. Besides, he came to Israel from down south, from the rural community of Tekoa in Judah. According to Amos, God sent him to speak words of judgment against Jeroboam II and his regime that ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel, despite the fact that he came out of a vassal kingdom. Why bother with him. He was just a disgruntled neighbor, from a less powerful and important realm. When Amos came north, he encountered a nation that was its height. This was the reign of Jeroboam II (r. 786-746 BCE), one of the most powerful and successful monarchs in Israel’s history. So, why bother with this troublemaker?
Sometimes we preachers want to think of ourselves as the spiritual descendants of a prophet like Amos, but I doubt the moniker fits most of us. He was too much like the guy standing at the corner with the sandwich board declaring that the end is near at hand. No, there must be a better model for us than him. Yet, here we are, with Amos standing before us, bringing what he says is another message from God. He offers Jeroboam a word from God about a plumb line.
Plumb lines, which were strings with weights attached, that was used to make sure the walls of the building were built straight and true from top to bottom. If they weren’t, the typical two-story house of that region would collapse. You don’t want that. Jeroboam and his kingdom might seem to be prospering. The stock market might be on the upswing. Employment numbers are good. The military is strong. The nation’s enemies are being kept at bay. Yet, here’s the Word of the Lord—you’re not measuring up. If you don’t get your act together you will soon collapse. History is on the side of Amos. Jeroboam might die with Israel at its height, but a quarter century later the Assyrian’s would march in and lay waste to the nation. The people of Israel and Judah might be related. They were neighbors. But they were also rivals. One nation survived (at least for a time) and the other disappeared from the map.
Amos delivered his message to an unreceptive audience. The priest at Bethel, the capital of the northern kingdom, a man by the name of Amaziah, told Amos to go home. Go earn a living elsewhere. This was the king’s sanctuary. It was his temple. He set the rules. There is a principle that was widely used in the period after the Reformation as differing religious entities took root in Europe. The principle goes by the name of Erastianism. The idea is that the religion of the king is the religion of the people—consider that Henry VIII and his successors (to this day) declared themselves the Head of the Church. That’s what Amaziah was trying to communicate to Amos. Go home. Your message is a foreign one. It doesn’t fit with what the king has decreed. Besides, the king is successful. He’s rich. He’s powerful. As for Amaziah, he represented a religious elite that supported and sustained a system that oppressed the people. The word of God was that he would get his just desserts.
Amos is not your typical preacher. As I said, he’s a bit like that street preacher with his sandwich board. He’s parked outside the Temple, annoying everyone who comes into contact with him. When Amaziah tells to go home and prophesy elsewhere (earn your living somewhere else), Amos simply says: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” He told the priest that he was just a simple farmer, a layperson, who didn’t want to come north. It wasn’t his idea. No one was paying him for this. In fact, he had to leave behind his fields and flocks to make the journey. But when God said go, he went. He was standing there before the temple because God said: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Amaziah told Amos to go away, don’t prophesy here. But Amos persisted. He delivered the message God had given him for Israel and for Amaziah. What is the message? Your land will be taken. Your people will die by the sword or go into exile. Things might look good right now, but before you know it, things will turn bad. Why? Because you’re not following the ways of God. While the passage doesn’t spell things out, we will get there. It has something to do with justice.
Speaking truth to power isn’t easy. It can be dangerous. Think about St. Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador, who was murdered while saying the mass in his chapel because he dared to oppose the political leadership that was oppressing the people. Now, he was a religious leader and not a layperson. But others have taken up the mantle of speaking truth to power. Lay people can be the most effective voices for justice. That is true here. Amos draws attention to the injustices of the day, injustices that had caught the attention of God.
What are we called to do? Amos heard the call and heeded it, even though he didn’t have any prophetic credentials. He was a farmer, not a preacher or a theologian. It’s not that we preachers and theologians don’t have our place, but the voice of God can and does come through the voice of the people. As for the religious leaders, we out to be circumspect. When we become the mouthpieces of an oppressive regime or when we justify unjust acts—the detention of refugee children in overcrowded and filthy camps—what might God have to say? How do we measure up?
Picture Attribution: Amos the Herdsman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29259 [retrieved July 8, 2019].