Lessons from the book of Amos
When I started my final pastorate in 1984 there were only nine church members. Most of them were not in employment. Even though I received no pay, it was still difficult to find enough money to run the church. At one deacons’ meeting someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we had a really rich person join our membership?’ I quickly jumped in and said, ‘No. If we had someone like that he would want to dictate how the church is run’.
Great riches can be a blessing to a church, if it is given freely and graciously; it can also be a nuisance. It is no surprise that Paul wrote ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim. 6:10). He went on to warn us that some people who are ‘eager for money, have wandered from the faith’. The writer of the Proverbs hits the right note when he prays, ‘give me neither poverty nor riches… Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you [God]… Or I may become poor and steal’ (Prov. 30:8-9). Those who have money can easily be lured into desiring more and more. If they are not careful they can turn into a present day Silas Marner and spend all of their spare time reckoning up their wealth. Jesus tells of the unmerciful servant who demanded that another servant pay him back what he owed him, even though his own much greater debt had been wiped out by his master (Matt. 18:21-35).
The minor prophets of the Old Testament had a great deal to say about the way that God’s people lived in his day. One of the reasons I have written simple commentaries on most of the minor prophets is because they are so up-to-date. Each of them deals with human nature and highlight dispositions like pride, selfishness and greed. These were the sins that were prevalent in the eighth century before Christ; they are all still around today.
When money becomes central
In Amos 2:6b-7 the prophet paints legal pictures to demonstrate the way some Israelites behaved. The scene is that of a poor man who had surrendered his cheap pair of sandals as surety for a small loan. By the time the money had to be repaid the borrower had insufficient funds to meet his obligation. However, instead of being lenient and giving him more time to pay, the wealthy lender regained his money by selling the poor man into slavery. That awful thing was done for a very paltry sum – the price of a pair of sandals. From the comment further on in the prophecy it is clear that this kind of thing was common practice. Amos again speaks of ‘buying the poor… for a pair of sandals’ (Amos 8:6).
The prophet uses this example to illustrate how God’s people can be tempted to behave when money becomes the centre of their lives. These Israelites forgot the gracious love their heavenly Father had shown them. They also ignored the teaching of Leviticus 25:35 which says, ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him’. They should have shown generosity towards those who were less fortunate than themselves but greed had captivated their souls. Money, power and a self-satisfied sense of grandeur had become more important to the ancient Israelites than their obligation to help a poor godly man.
How easy it is for us today to forget the mercy God has shown to us when we have dealings with those who have little of this world’s goods. We can easily assume an arrogant stance when we speak of those who do not have such a keen grasp of gospel truth as we have. So, let us learn lessons from Amos and ensure that we do not treat people who are ‘poor in spirit’ as of lesser value than our wealthy brothers and sisters (e.g. those who are rich in theological knowledge). Like the ancient Israelites we can easily forget those parts of the Bible that are uncomfortable. In the days of Amos the Israelites forgot that God had commanded that they should not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards their poor brothers (see Deut 15:7-11). We too, should be generous towards others and not stint in our monetary offerings for those who are less well off.
A lifetime of luxurious idleness
In Amos 4:1 the prophet then turns his attention specifically to women who are wealthy, but bored. Not very flatteringly the prophet compares them to the best breeds of well-fed and pampered cows. These feasted on the best pastures in the area of the land called Bashan. Instead of these Israelite women using their wealth for the good of the poor and needy they spent it selfishly on a lifetime of luxurious idleness.
We sometimes hear today of the scandalous life-style indulged in by some of the wives of wealthy husbands. When their husbands leave early in the morning they are left at home with nothing to do except make a cup of coffee for their cleaning lady. After a round of golf or game of bridge with those who are similarly ‘blessed’, they quickly become wearied by the dullness of their lives. They ignore the calls from the many voluntary organisations that could use their education, experience and skills; they are only interested in charity work if they, themselves, are in the limelight. Instead of helping those in need they despise them and find them an embarrassment.
Hopefully no reader of this magazine will behave like this. However clever or talented we are we have no reason to ‘look down’ upon those who are not similarly endowed. Ladies who have no work because they are retired, unemployed or unwell still have time when they could pray for others and/or do practical work.
Lives that are empty
However, Amos does not only direct his anger on the women. Well-heeled men fare no better in the prophet’s eyes. In Amos 6:1 the prophet sarcastically calls them ‘notable men of the foremost nation’ while, in fact, their lives are empty. They are described as ‘lying on beds inlaid with ivory’ and ‘lounging on their couches’ (v4). These men care nothing for the poor, who have to be satisfied with meagre meals. Their time is whiled away by waiting for meals which are of choice lambs and fattened calves. Like their wives, they are also bored so they seek relief by strumming on harps, imagining they are following in the footsteps of King David. They also drink themselves silly with wine, not from small glasses but from large bowls. To pass the time away they deluge themselves with the latest creams and lotion and imagine this will make them look more beautiful and acceptable to the ladies (Amos 6:4-6).
These men are too busy to soil their hands with work so they force the poor of the land to give them some of the grain they have worked hard to produce (Amos 5:11). They lie in luxury and dream of stone mansions and lush vineyards, which will also be made for them by the poor. As a reward for their service they will be trampled under the feet of the rich. Amos does not leave them to plan their future. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Dream of your strong houses and your valuable vineyards but you will not live in them nor benefit from their crops’ (see Amos 5:11). Later Jesus is to tell His parable where God says to the wealthy farmer, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ (Luke 12:20).
The Israelites trusted in Mount Samaria to protect them but it did not keep them safe from the onslaughts of the Assyrians (see Amos 6:1). The evangelical Christians of today must take care that they do not ‘rest upon their laurels’ and feel secure in their church structures and tradition because the ‘flaming arrows of the evil one’ are always ready to attack them (see Eph. 6:10-18).
Michael Bentley is a retired minister and author of several commentaries.